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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: October 2012

The Unsung 47%

Reams of paper have been sacrificed at the altar of partisanship since Mitt Romney's infamous 47% comments burst onto the tense pre-election scene. So many in fact that I suspect that 47 is the most famous percentage today, easily bumping yesteryear's 1% of the Occupy Wall Street fame.

Romney labeled almost half of the population as government free loaders who exercise very little personal responsibility over their lives. Rather predictably, implications that much of Obama's constituency belongs in this category and lives off government largesse created a brisk firestorm in the political blogosphere. Some have shredded the allegations to pieces, some extolled them as self evident, and some defended them with elaborate statistics, whose bottom line correlated remarkably well with their position on the political spectrum. Opulent partisan cliches were flying left and right. No pun intended.

What puzzles me a bit though is that in the cacophony of reactions I never really found a piece of analysis which would state the obvious. There is another slice of the population that would be left stranded on an island of their own greed without the government support. These unsung moochers somehow fell through the cracks of Romney's presentation, although their dependence on public funds is just as notorious. Except they do not use it for subsistence, like those who found themselves on the wrong side of automation and globalization, but rather for protection and multiplication of their ill-gotten gains.

This group of non traditional cadgers is the Wall Street. It may sound mildly surprising until you start asking yourself some fairly simple questions: Where is their wealth coming from? Would they thrive or even survive on their own? Do they use public finances for their own benefit? And I am not just talking about the unprecedented bailout we gave them in their hour of need. Nor am I alluding to tons of toxic debt they managed to offload onto public balance sheets via the central bank or the government sponsored enterprises such as Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. This group is continuously being subsidized by our zero interest rate policy, whereby they get free money from the Fed and then use it to buy the Treasuries, pocketing the spread (basically risk free money at the expense of taxpayers). And fractional reserve banking, which they implemented to magnify their profits, is not without sin either. They essentially conjure up money that should belong to all of us, and then use it for their own benefit.

I would really love to see a parallel Universe where the Wall Street would be left on their own to swim through the rapids of the free market economy without a dime of our support. I think they would emerge from this thought experiment soaking and limp.

Perhaps Mitt Romney could organize a follow up lunch and slightly expand his definition of government moochers so that it also covered institutions that are regularly receiving taxpayer funded corporate welfare.

Church in Borgund

There are certain entities that act like beacons in our life. You can think of them as hypothetical sources of light that are clearly visible and do not move around too much. After all they provide us with a sense of orientation so they better be stable, otherwise we'd act like a bevy of spineless flip-flopping pushovers. They are to us what stars used to be to ancient sailors - except that they triangulate our inner space rather than the nightly sky above us.

For me one such entity is the Church in Borgund, an ancient stave church located in a small Norwegian town not very far from one of the arms of Sognefjord. I saw it first in a photography book when I was about 16 and still trying to make some sense of life in communist Czechoslovakia. In those days I spent number of hours listening to the music of the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, with the book opened in my lap, my eyes trained on the image of the church and my mind pondering the strange Orwellian reality into which I was born. The simple layout of the church, as well as its placement in the middle of nature sharply contrasted with the twisted and deeply corrupted world around me. In a way this church helped me survive those dark days and its image kept my spirits up while the Soviet Emperors (I mean Party Secretaries) ruled over my country. Part of its appeal also derived from the fact that it was built in Viking times - in an era sufficiently isolated from the craziness and confusion of the modern civilization.

Ever since those days the Church in Borgund was the closest I had to formal religion. The image of that church floated alonside me wherever I went. There is even a piece of Grieg's Piano Concerto that became so closely associated with it that whenever I want to see its shingled roof and four carved dragon heads all I have to do is hum or whistle that short melody.

No wonder when I eventually made it to Norway, I made a point of stopping by and paying my respect to that old structure built by rugged Nordmen many centuries ago. But that was not the last appearance of this church in my life. Recently, I visited South Dakota with two of my friends and during the preparations for this trip a little miracle happened. As I was googling around Rapid City for potential sightseeing locations, my eyes suddenly caught a glimpse of a familiar structure. At first I could not believe what I saw and thought it must have been a mistake. But when I realized that South Dakota had a large Norwegian population, I looked more closely and indeed, there was an exact replica of that church in Rapid City (google "Chapel in the Hills" for directions and more info).

On our way to Rapid City we nearly missed our connecting flight in Denver - after running across half the terminal we caught it literally by a few seconds. So as soon as we picked up our rental car and dropped our bags in the hotel, I dragged my friends to that familiar sight and bowed there to the memory of old Viking warriors whose protective hand has been hovering over me my whole life.

Needless to say that this episode only cemented the unique role of this Church in my spiritual space. It is the Pole Star on the night sky of my soul.


Ode to Routine

Having to move is a major galactic nuisance.

Sure, there are some perks associated with moving, mostly along the lines of unearthing tons of cool stuff from the long undisturbed layers of our personal biosphere - precious old photographs, misplaced official documents, arcane articles of clothing, lost cooking recipes etc - but these treasures are not worth the overall harrowing experience whose pain generating potential is second only to sumo wrestling with a saguaro cactus in the middle of a nasty hail storm.

My apartment complex is being spiffed up into a bloc of income sucking luxury abodes, so this deliberately avoided affliction finally caught up with me as well. It took me two whole days to haul my stuff five miles down the road and that was not all. The third day I still had to go back to my old place for the final clean up. Since I was wise enough to leave a towel there, and since cleaning turned out to be a surprisingly dirty business, I decided to take one last shower in the bathroom which served me well for over 9 years.

The rays of warm water were just what the doctor ordered. They felt like fingers of a gentle Thai masseuse. However, when I stepped out of the shower, a problem emerged: Where are my glasses? Under normal circumstances, I would have put my glasses either on the dresser or on top of my digital piano - but neither piece of furniture was present so there was no point looking there. To make matters worse, my back up glasses which I could possibly use to locate the primary glasses were in my new place as well. So here I was, a steaming (both literally and figuratively) lump of flesh with effective recognition radius of about 3 feet, trying to spot a tiny metal frame resting quietly somewhere in a psychedelic landscape of colorful but blurred blobs.

I started pacing impatiently to and fro, squinting around like a befuddled bat and carefully feeling every even remotely level surface with my fingers. Nothing. After this myopic search dragged on for about 5 minutes, I remembered that just before the shower I was looking out of the window. Indeed, there they were, shining innocently on the window sill.

This little ordeal taught me an important lesson though. Habits are kind of like personal assistants. They keep track of where things are so that we don't have to. Stereotypical routines are nature's ways of shielding us from boring and mundane details so we can focus on important stuff. It is at moments like these, when the old little drills break apart, that we are thrown into the boisterous ocean of possibilities and try to swim in it. If you saw the movie "Perfect Storm" you know that it is not always as much fun as cavorting on a beach in Hawaii.

It is said that when people age they become set in their ways. But those "set ways" can save you plenty of time when you are looking for something you cannot function without.


What do you get when you cross prairie, mountains and desert?

You get Badlands.

The spellbinding national park about 100 miles east of Rapid City in South Dakota. The giant clay workshop where Mother Earth discovered her artistic self. As you drive along the bizarrely shaped mounds planted randomly between tufts of dried grassland, you cannot help imagining the hand of an invisible sculptor at work here. And a painter as well. Just stop at the Yellow Mounds Overlook and you will be dazzled by layers of gold dust with reddish metallic overtones scattered all over the neighboring hills. This is the land where geography puts on the Halloween mask.

And there is no shortage of costumes to choose from. You can try a cloak of slowly undulating hills, rows of soft sedimentary rocks eroded to aesthetic perfection, long stretches of parched mountainous desert not unlike the one you can find in Oman or surreal bluffs sticking their tongues deep into the prairie. All concatenated into a seamless natural epic punctuated by dashes of sharp ravines.

Badlands are the place where Mother Earth broke out with goose bumps of excitement. And if you catch them under the setting Sun, your visual cortex may get some too.


Legally Bland

Rejoice! The United States of America are united again.

We may have had our differences about the nature of wealth redistribution in the past. We may have quarreled about the implementation of health care. We may have exchanged a few barbs here and there. But the first presidential debate blew the walls that separated us to smithereens and we all see eye to eye again. A conservative standing next to a liberal - America is one in its assessment: Barack Obama's performance was disastrous. Legally bland at best. A declawed tiger dozing off after having one too many water buffalos.

And it's not like Romney beat him to a pulp. In fact Obama could have easily derail many of his opponent's poorly worded diatribes, but for some reason he didn't. I don't know what his advisers were thinking, but I sure hope that his prep team will point out to him some obvious fault lines in Romney's offence. I could spot at least three.

1. (on economy) After several decades of unsustainable credit expansion, our economy has reached the turning point and the subsequent de-leveraging will take more than just a few years, so Romney's comments about the slow pace of recovery were uninformed at best. This was not your usual recession. Just look at the central bank's balance sheet (which massively increased since 2008, while during previous recessions it barely registered a blip). Obama should actually show that chart to the American public during the debates. That is what it took to avert systemic collapse. Even when viewed from afar, it is an eye opener.

2. (on national debt) Our path to unsustainable debt started with Romney's ideological predecessor, one George W Bush, who went to two wars while simultaneously cutting taxes (mostly for the wealthy). Surely Republicans must understand that if you want certain services (such as a bloated military adventure), you have to pay for them. And Obama should also mention that we are still bailing out our banks through the zero interest rate policy. That component of our deficit stems directly from the misguided attempts to create an "ownership society" - whatever that was supposed to mean.

3. (on employment) New jobs are produced when there is increased demand for goods, which can come only from a strong middle class. If there is no organic demand, then no matter how much you cut taxes for the CEOs, there simply won't be any need to expand production and create new jobs.

The President should make these three points clearly, without drowning them in technicalities, and forcefully, preferably looking at something else than his shoes. If he can't convey their gist to the undecided part of the electorate, I am afraid he'll be toast come early November.

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