Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Big Empty

I talked compulsively on my cell phone back home in Santa Barbara, since there were lots of great people to catch up with after 3 months in France. One of them is my friend (and excellent blogger) Raphaelle, my mirror-image refugee from her home-city Paris, now living in Venice CA and telling me how LA traffic is just fine if you know what you're doing - much better than in Paris. I could have missed my Air France flight from LAX to CDG if I'd let the 405 work its bottleneck magic - a 6 car wreck on perfect early autumn morning, both sunny and dry, backed us all up to Mulholland. But I fought the road and I won.

Thanks go out to the unknown black-haired brother and sister (as I think of them) in the black Chrysler wagon from Alhambra - the brother's head back looking at the sky, the sister driving like a bush pilot - whose passing and falling back in lane number 1 gave me the strength to stick with lane number 2.

F Scott Fitzgerald supposedly said, "In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning." I first read that when I was 16, born and raised on the west side of LA, and my first thought was no, the dark night is when you are trapped in a Southern Cal 3 o'clock in the afternoon. There are no clouds, and the sky is a giant pale blank like the roof of a fundraising tent the company forgot to take down. It tells you nothing will ever change. The dog barks at 3:05 pm just like he did the day before. Yesterday's skin-temperature breeze drifts in the window again. The sun is the bare overhead bulb that someone forgot to turn off. You are tempted to find some feature in the world by looking at the sun, and the simple fear of looking at it can make you blind.

State Hospital about forty years ago. I only remember her, and not the building, which is a Cal State campus today. I turned off After I dropped Avery off at LAX I drove back to Santa Barbara up the coast, and then left Hwy 1 at Las Posas because I like the last unbuilt crop fields in western Ventura county, fields that run up against the dry hills where I used to visit my great grandmother Mooney at CamarilloLas Posas to find it, wound up Old Hueneme Road and kept going away from Santa Barbara through the pass into the Santa Monica mountains and landed in the back forty of Thousand Oaks, where it runs out of asphalt next to the scrub and grassland, both of which look eternally on the brink of death.

3 o'clock in the afternoon looks like this:

Luckily there are the friends. Richard and Hilal put us up and we had a chance to hang out a little bit especially over breakfast. They gave me a birthday party the day after the actual day, Sept 26th, because I again spent it with my Academic Senate pals in Oakland, since the last week of September is the beginning of the fall quarter at UC.

A bunch of us saw Naomi Klein speak about her new book The Shock Doctrine at Victoria Hall. I liked her because she's putting up a good fight and because the film she did with her film- maker partner on Argentinian workers taking back factories closed by their owners - The Take - is one of the best globalization documentaries ever made.

The best point for folks to take away from this project is that "free markets arrive through force." Not all her links between markets, shock doctrines, and dictators are equally convincing, but she's completely right in making the general point that markets rest on state regulation, and when markets are used by elites to screw the middle- and working-classes, as in Argentina and the United States, they are so unpopular that marketeers turn to dictatorship or, in the US, to hard-core minority rule.

Klein's more serious limitation is that she didn't in the talk have a good new story to tell about non-market development. This is my obsession - showing that progress, prosperity, and development proceed faster when they are done by and for everybody. In contrast, Klein is still a Keynesian, wanting government easing of the fallout of globalization, and that 20th century kind of social democracy is of course a radical position in the US. It's not enough any more, but what the hell - Klein's off to a good start, and I hope a lot of people read the book.

Some fight, but most do not. In higher circles the death trip continued. One example is the confused strategy for maintaining that pillar of the good life for the vast majority - public higher ed. One of the things I do in Oakland, which hosts the Supreme Allied Command headquarters for the University of California, is sit on the Senate's Academic Council, which hears testimony from the University's senior managers once a month. This month I again asked the President and his 3 Executive Vice Presidents why we seemed to be going backwards again. Six months ago, my committee's "Futures Report" had been put before the Regents. It showed that the University has lost over a billion dollars in state funding compared to where we would have been if we'd kept even with state income growth since 2001. The report also showed that private fundraising, though deeply beloved by senior administrators everywhere - losers ask for state money, winners get it from the rich - could never fill the gap, and that the same inadequacy held for research funding, which went for specific scholarly work and not for overall education. We showed that the choice was between more state money and doubling and then tripling student fees.

But there I was end of September saying that though we all agreed on the numbers, but then the University destroyed public support for public funding every chance it got. The President's public statements on the budget repeatedly said that state funding is strong and pleasing to us. Every time a major private donation comes in, senior administrators praised our excellent public funding. Every time small, elite UC units like Boalt Hall law school asked for private money, they said public funds would never increase to adequate levels again. How the heck, I asked, can we ever possibly ask the state to restore the funds they took from us when we keep saying we have everything we need?

Each senior manager began his or her comments by saying "Chris, I completely agree with what you just said," and then explained that they would keep doing exactly what I was lamenting. I didn't know whether to laugh or shout, so I smiled benignly and thought my usefulness in this Senate mechanism was at an end. The decline continues, not because these aren't good and intelligent people - they are - but because they accept as given the rules that ruin us. Good and intelligent professional people don't revolt against the rules.

What is the rule that we must now break? The rule is reject taxes, beg for charity. In the world of low-tax and low-service conservatism, huge, intentional wealth concentration has meant that for the wealthy most taxation is voluntary, and they tax themselves entirely at their own discretion (and at far lower rates) via self-aggrandizing philanthropy with the money that should have gone to public services in the first place. Universities, hospitals, schools, music, art and sports programs, libraries, health clinics, nursing homes, disability services, housing authorities, all must complete their budgets by begging the wealthy hat in hand. Getting the money up front, via taxes, as a public right, as a return to the public for its service in supporting the endeavors that made the wealthy wealthy - that is what breaking the rule should restore.

It's time to find another strategy, outside the Big Empty.


SurferGirl said...

Thanks for the praise... ;) And happy belated birthday!!
Here's the trick: never take the 405... Try to find an alternative route, always. I hate the 405 with a passion...
May I dare say that I do believe in taxes myself? Which I realize makes me a rare oddity here... But the news flash is that US middle class pays roughly as much taxes as its French counterpart, only it's used for pointless stuff, like, say, the costliest useless war ever...

jkl said...

I'm commenting from New Jersey where there seems to be road construction everywhere and always, in at least some parts of state at any given time. Which means that roads are smooth, cars don't fall apart. Playgrounds are well kept and up-to-date. I forgot what decent public services look like. People in NJ always complain about state taxes (income and property, mostly), but my parents are appalled at the state of California freeways.

Guy Rittger said...

Your vision of "3 o'clock in the afternoon" is essentially the subtext of every one of David Lynch's films, which I'm sure you know already.

Though I think it was Freud who first pointed out that things which terrify us most - those unheimlich things - are the "stuff" of everyday life at their most banal.

And speaking of banality, if Hannah Arendt's oft-quoted characterization of fascism ever required additional concrete historical validation, we have been living in the utter depths of banality for the past 7 years.