Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Bonus

In 1924, Congress authorized a bonus of up to $500 for American veterans of World War I, with additional sums up to a total of $625 depending on how long they served overseas.  This was a lot of money at the time and was meant to compensate those soldiers for lost wages during their service.

The money would not be paid out until 1945, which wasn’t too much of a problem for most of the veterans at the time.  The 1920s were a decade of superficial but real prosperity – a decade not unlike our own, with wide and worsening inequalities of wealth and deteriorating conditions for the poor, but with a small but steady growth of the middle class and a general sense that even if you weren’t currently part of it this prosperity might eventually trickle down to you.  In many ways this sense of optimism was an illusion – vast sectors of the economy were left out of this prosperity, including agriculture, textiles and coal mining – but sometimes illusions are enough.

And then in 1929 the bottom fell out of the economy with the onset of the Great Depression.

The banking system collapsed.  The GDP fell by nearly half, from $103 billion in 1929 to $58 billion in 1932.  Private investment dropped by 88% over that time frame.  Construction dropped by 78%.  Corporate profits fell by 90%.  Exports and imports fell by nearly 70%.  Farm income – already precariously low – dropped by 60% between 1929 and 1932.  At one point in 1932 one quarter of all the land in Mississippi was up for foreclosure sale.

Unemployment, meanwhile, skyrocketed.  Unemployment stood at 3.2% in 1929 – a deceptively low figure given the extreme volatility of the job market in the laissez-faire 1920s when job security was pretty much nonexistent for most people, but manageably small nonetheless.  By 1932 it was 20%.  By 1933 it was 25%.  And those numbers are almost certainly low, given the crude statistics of the day.  In the cities it was higher – closer to 50% in industrial centers such as Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.  Nearly 80% in Toledo.  Unemployment would average 20% for the rest of the 1930s and never dropped below 15% during the entire decade.

Herbert Hoover had no idea how to handle this.

Hoover was not a hard-hearted man, despite his later reputation.  His nickname, in fact, was The Great Humanitarian – something he earned by being instrumental in the relief efforts that kept much of Europe from starving in the immediate aftermath of WWI. 

But he was a prisoner of his ideology and he firmly believed that the responsibility for recovering from the Great Depression, as it was being called by then, lay entirely in the hands of individuals, private charities, corporations, and local governments, and should be implemented according to supply-side economics – wealth transferred to the rich in the hopes that enough of it would trickle down to everyone else to solve the problem.  This is a favorite tactic of the right wing even today, and immensely popular among those who are already rich and powerful, for obvious reasons.

The problem, though, is that supply side economics doesn’t work in a demand side economy.  Never has.  Never will.  It’s not complicated, people.  It’s just math.  Politicians may lie but the numbers don’t, and you can crunch the numbers any way you want but you’ll never get to a place where they tell you anything else unless you lie, which gets us back to the beginning of this sentence fairly quickly. 

The US shifted over from a producer (supply side) economy to a consumer (demand side) economy in the 1920s and has never shifted back and the things you do to fix a producer economy are exactly the things that will intensify a crisis in a consumer economy, which made Hoover’s efforts to respond to the Depression ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.  Individuals, private charities, corporations, and local governments were completely overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis and could provide little help.  And things got worse.

Americans literally starved in the streets even as unsellable crops were plowed under.

When Hoover proved willing to bail out big business and the rich in the name of supply side economics but remained adamant in refusing to help the vast majority of Americans directly, the Depression became personal.  It became the Hoover Depression.  Tar-paper shacks occupied by the homeless unemployed became Hoovervilles.  Old newspapers used to keep warm became Hoover blankets.  Jackrabbits became Hoover hogs.  The mood got ugly.

And into this came the Bonus Army.

In May 1932 some 400 World War I veterans under the leadership of Walter Waters gathered in Portland Oregon and began the long journey to Washington DC.  Their goal, in the middle of the worst economic collapse in the American history, was to convince the government to pay out the bonuses now, when they needed them, rather than wait until 1945 when they might well be dead.

As Harry Hopkins, one of the leaders of the later New Deal, put it, “People don’t eat in the long run.  They eat every day.”

Waters and his supporters rode out on a freight train that had been loaned to them by supportive railroad leaders, and when the train stopped in Iowa they got out and continued on their journey, hitchhiking and walking.  By June 1 when they reached the capital there were about 1500 men in the Bonus Army (or Bonus Expeditionary Force, a play on the American Expeditionary Force that had gone overseas to fight WWI) as it was now called.  They set up a number of camps – a few in abandoned buildings within the city itself, and the largest on some swampy private land outside of the city known as Anacostia Flats.  The camps were well regulated, as you would imagine camps run by military veterans would be, and the veterans worked with the sympathetic head of the Washington DC police – a WWI veteran named Pelham Glassford – to maintain order.  Waters and the Bonus Army staged daily demonstrations and peaceful marches in front of the Capitol, but Hoover never bothered to talk with them.  Meanwhile more veterans and their families continued to pour into the city, until eventually there were nearly 20,000 people in the various camps.


In mid-June the House of Representatives voted to pay them their bonus, but Hoover promised to veto the bill if it came to him and the Senate rejected it.  Defeated, many of the Bonus Army members left the capital, but thousands stayed.  It was the Depression.  Many had lost their homes.  They had nowhere else to go.

Things came to a head in July.  Secretary of War Patrick Hurley ordered the police to clear the city of the Bonus Army – in part because they were a continuing embarrassment and in part because the buildings they occupied were scheduled to be demolished to make way for new government offices.  The confrontation turned violent despite the previous good relations between the Bonus Army and the local police, and in the melee that followed two veterans were killed.

At that point the President called out the Army and ordered it into action against American citizens on American soil.

To deal with the civilians in his midst, General Douglas MacArthur assembled a force of over a thousand infantry backed by a detachment of mounted cavalry and six tanks and, with his subordinates – Major Dwight D. Eisenhower and Major George S. Patton – and marched on the camps in the city itself.  Using tear gas and bayonets, MacArthur’s forces cleared the buildings.  At this point Hoover ordered the mission halted.

MacArthur, however – in what would become a signature characteristic of his military career – decided to exceed his authority.

Despite being twice ordered by Hoover not to cross the bridge into Anacostia Flats, MacArthur sent his forces to clear the camp there by force.  In the ensuing panic over a hundred veterans were injured and an infant was killed.  MacArthur then ordered the encampment burned.  All of this was captured in photographs and newsreel film and shown to a horrified American public.



Rather than condemn MacArthur for his insubordination, Hoover mounted a vigorous defense of his actions.  It did him no good.  The spectacle of American military forces firing on civilians – veterans and their families, no less – effectively destroyed Hoover in the public eye.

“I voted for Herbert Hoover in 1928,” said one woman.  “God forgive me and keep me alive at least till the polls open next November!”  On a campaign stop in Detroit later in 1932, Hoover was greeted with shouts of “Down with Hoover!  Slayer of veterans!”

He was destroyed in the 1932 election, and his party lost control of every branch of the government for the next decade.

We are rapidly reaching our Bonus Army moment here in 2020.  The current president is threatening to use military force against civilians, most of whom are peacefully protesting as is their right under the First Amendment.  The protests have been infiltrated by right-wing extremists bent on causing havoc, and he’s playing right into their hands.  He’s declared that antifascists are the enemy (which raises an interesting question as to what he considers himself and his supporters to be) and he is demanding blood.

It didn’t end well last time.

It won’t end well this time.

Unless you’ve studied the Depression in some detail you probably don’t realize how close to revolution this country came during that time.  That’s what happens when you take people with legitimate grievances and treat them like enemies.  We’ve reached the point where there are CIA agents openly describing der Sturmtrumper’s attempt to crush these protests as evidence of a failed state ready to collapse.  They’ve seen it happen elsewhere.  It can happen here.  It is happening here.

Franklin Roosevelt learned his lesson from the Bonus Army.  He didn’t want to pay them their bonus any more than Hoover did, but when a smaller second round of Bonus Army marchers showed up a couple of years later he didn’t send out the army.  He sent out his wife to talk to them, and he sent out food.  There was no violence, and Congress eventually passed a bonus payout over his veto and he was smart enough to accept it and let the matter drop.

If we’re lucky we’ll get to a new administration that will learn the lessons of the past sometime soon, one that will work to restore the damage done to the American republic over the last three years.

If we’re not, well, hang onto your hats folks.  We could end up miles from here.

Monday, June 1, 2020

As If On Cue

It can happen here.

It is happening here.

Just today, as if on cue, in response to the protests that have erupted across the nation – protests against the slaughter of the innocent, protests that have been hijacked by violent right-wing extremists for their own malicious ends – der Sturmtrumper threatened to use military force against civilians within the borders of the United States.

He doesn’t have that power – not unless he is asked by the governor of whatever state in which he plans to use armed force – but that has never stopped a Fascist before.  He will claim that power and he will use it.

This is textbook dictatorship.

First you create a situation so dire that people get angry.  Then you inflame that and make it worse.  Then you call out the army and declare yourself God Emperor of Shitsylvania, savior of all that is true and holy.  At first people see it as calming.  Then it descends into brutality and subjection, and good luck with getting rid of that.  Ask half the nations of Latin America how that worked out for them and whether they think we should start down that path too.

It can happen here.

It is happening here.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone.  Der Sturmtrumper and his minions have been baying for this since 2016 and they understand that this is their last chance.  They cannot win in November.  They cannot maintain their grip on power in a free and open republic.  They cannot rule a democracy.

“When Fascism comes to America,” said Sinclair Lewis, “it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”  It’s almost as if Lewis had been watching today’s news reports, as der Sturmtrumper stood in front a church, waving a Bible, wearing his flag pin, calling for the end of the republic.

The bunker-dwelling coward in the Oval Office makes his demands, and the dregs of American society respond with arson, gunfire, and death.

My fellow Americans, we either stand in defense of the republic, the Constitution, and the freedoms we’re promised (and which, as Americans, we need to work to make real for all of us), or it all goes away sooner than you'd think possible.

It can happen here.

It is happening here.

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Bunker Stage

We have reached the bunker stage of the petit-Fascist regime in Washington.

Beset by crises that were obvious before they happened but which they were unwilling to prevent, incapable of resolving, and unable to hide, der Sturmtrumper and his enablers are hunkering down, issuing wild threats, and preparing to bring the whole thing down on everyone’s heads rather than behave as responsible adults.

Honestly, all that’s missing is Eva Braun.

Over a hundred thousand Americans are now dead from a pandemic that everyone saw coming months before der Sturmtrumper bothered to acknowledge how serious it was.  The last study I read on it noted that perhaps a third to a half of those Americans would be alive today if the US had not screwed up its response to the coronavirus as badly as it has.  

And make no mistake, this screw up was an intentional sabotage job by der Sturmtrumper and his enablers.  US intelligence was screaming at him in January to take action.  He was briefed multiple times on what precisely was going to happen.  And not only did he let it happen, he has encouraged it to happen.  His administration has no plan whatsoever for dealing with this pandemic, even now.  All he has done is work to destroy the plans that governors across party lines have put in place, undermine global efforts to find a cure or a vaccine, and generally display the GOP Death Cult out in the open where it can no longer be denied by anyone not already a member.

But events are closing in.  By November we’re going to look back on a hundred thousand dead as the good old days when things weren’t as catastrophically bad as they got.  Trump is doomed and he knows it.

And he’s retreated to his bunker.

The systemic racism that he has openly encouraged in this country – never forget that Trump was endorsed by every major neo-Nazi and white supremacist group in the United States in 2016 – burst out in full rancid glory this past week with yet another murder of a black man by a white cop.  It has sparked protests across the nation and outrage across the world, and der Sturmtrumper’s only response has been to threaten people. 

The official Twitter account of the President of the United States was flagged for inciting violence.  Think about that.  Think about how vile and irresponsible this current president had to be for that to happen.

All lives cannot matter until black lives matter.  It’s just math, people.

A real leader would have gotten out in front of this and taken the moral stand.  That leader would have condemned the murder, comforted a grieving nation, and sought to find solutions to the long-standing and deeply rooted problems this has – once again – highlighted. 

We don’t have a real leader.

We have a president who is mentally deteriorating, completely out of his depth, viciously depraved, and supported by far too many people who see nothing wrong with any of this.

We have hit the bunker stage, and where it goes from here is anyone’s guess.

It is the nature of authoritarian regimes to fall, eventually.  The only question is when it will happen and how much damage they will inflict on the way down.  When might be as early as this year, if we’re lucky.  It might be a very long time if we're not.

The damage?  We’ll see.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Notes from Lockdown

1. So I finally got my taxes done, after all that.  Everything got extended to July here in the Plague Year, but I know that July will be here sooner than I think and it’s just nice to have it off my plate.  Every year I have the same three reactions to this achievement, though: 

        a) I made how much money?  Really?  That much?  I have had this reaction when I worked a summer part-time at a 7/11, and I have this reaction when I’ve been working 150% of a professional academic job.  I suspect I’d have that same reaction if I were a millionaire.  It never seems like I’ve made that much money no matter how much money I’ve made.  Where did it go?  Oh, right.  Food.  Shelter.  Books.  You know, necessities.

        b) I owe how much in taxes?  Other than the 7/11 years when my income was below the threshold for paying taxes, I am always somewhat aghast at how much I have to pay.  This is especially true lately, since our income is variable and dependent on supplemental appointments (“You have an extra class that you need taught?  Sure!”).  We can never get the withholdings right and we always end up owing a sum of money that makes me wince when I write the check.

        c) I’m actually okay with that, though, or I am usually.  Taxes are the price one pays for civilization.  It’s how we fund everything from infrastructure to education to public safety to keeping people from starving in the streets, and I know that there are a whole pile of right-wing lunatics who regard taxation as theft but those people are catastrophically stupid and their opinion can be safely disregarded as the babbling nonsense it is.  I can’t say I’m happy about any of my tax dollars going to support der Sturmtrumper’s blistering incompetence and burgeoning tyranny, but I’m still holding out some sliver of hope that he and his enablers will be left on the dung heap of failed ideas soon.  We shall see.

2. Speaking of which, in the wake of President Snowflake’s toddler-level meltdown over being fact-checked by a private company, can we all just forgo the pretense and face the fact that the current administration is desperately trying to turn the United States into a dictatorship and the Republican Party is thrilled about it?  They have no respect for the Constitution, no respect for the rule of law, and no interest in anything other than their own power.  They don’t seem to understand that the First Amendment does not apply to private companies, but they sure do understand that their precious little feelings got hurt and they’re happy to destroy the internet and the nation in order to protect their ability to lie in public.  The Republican Party has been the single biggest threat to the survival of the American republic for a quarter century now, it has accelerated that threat markedly over the last three years, and it is long past time we treated it accordingly.

3. Honestly, if we have elections at all in November it will be surprising.  As the conservative columnist David Frum noted back in 2018, when discussing Trump’s GOP, “When highly committed parties strongly believe things that they cannot achieve democratically, they don’t give up on their beliefs – they give up on democracy.”  Watch your back, my fellow Americans, and prepare for what may come.

4. “Do you understand NOW!!??!?? Or is it still blurred to you??”  (LeBron James).  Folks, when an unarmed black man is suffocated by the police on a public street while white terrorists with assault rifles are allowed to take over state capitols without consequence, you can’t pretend it’s not about racism.  You either get angry and become part of the solution, or you remain part of the problem.  It’s that simple.

5. In less dire news, we went from late March to early July in the space of about 72 hours here in Baja Canada, and I for one have had enough hot summer weather to last me the rest of the year. 

6. I have had my first Lockdown Haircut, and it seemed to turn out pretty well.  Fortunately my goals were pretty simple:  get rid of the High Sparrow look, and if I need to use a comb any time in the next fortnight it’s too long.  I found a nice little hair trimmer at a reasonable cost at my local supermarket a couple of weeks ago, set it to a fairly short cut, and spent about a quarter hour outside with it buzzing merrily away.  Kim cleaned up some of the bits that needed cleaning up, and now there will be fewer people randomly handing me spare change on the street corners and warning me about the evils of demon rum.

7. I don’t even drink that much.  Not even after reading the national news (see point 2).  I might be better off if I did, to be honest, but there you go.

8. I’m trying to make more use of our Netflix subscription these days, which is tricky for someone who finds watching almost any scripted television show or movie generally uncomfortable no matter how objectively good it is.  We have a lot of separate accounts on our Netflix and rather than try to figure out how to make a new one I’ve taken over Fran’s old account, now that she is back in Belgium.  Mostly I’ve been watching stand-up comedy specials.  Do you have any idea how finely Netflix parses that category?  There are approximately a thousand little clumps of comedy on Netflix, all neatly labeled and completely unreachable without the proper search keyword.  I found a section labeled British Standup and have been slowly working my way through it.  Some of it is funny and some of it not, as you would expect, and I have fun with the language differences between British English and American English (fellow Americans: do not, under any circumstances, refer to that little bag that you clip around your waist as a “fanny pack” while in the UK.  It will not end well).  I also found John Mulaney and Jim Gaffigan, on the recommendation of friends and family – they were fun.  Ally Wong was unwatchably dull.  And so on.  But these are times that require comedy, so we press on.

9. One of my favorite sub-subgenres of social media post these days goes under the general heading of “humans are space orcs.”  The basic gist of it is the idea that while most science fiction First Contact stories start from the idea that aliens are the big, scary monsters, what if it’s the other way around?  What if it’s the aliens who find humans frightening?  And if you think about it, it’s not that farfetched of a question.


“You don’t know you’re from a Death World until you leave it.”  (unknown)

10. I’m finally done with last semester, but surprisingly this does not mean that I’m any less busy.  My first summer school class has already started, my summer appointment as an advisor is well into its new rounds of meetings and record-keeping, and I still have to prep my next summer school class, which starts in three weeks and has to be delivered in a format that we have never attempted in the 22 years that the three of us who teach it have been offering the class.  I may have a third class, depending on enrollment, and there’s a fourth one hanging out there that I could have taken if I thought it wouldn’t kill me.  And apparently there will be AP grading as well, timed impeccably to coincide with the first week of my team-taught class – the week where I’m the one doing most of the lecturing.  So it’s going to be an interesting time.  I’m grateful to be employed, but definitely tired.

Monday, May 25, 2020

A Pandemic Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. 

For those of you who are reading this elsewhere, Memorial Day is part of that broad subset of public holidays set aside to honor those who served in the nation’s armed forces.  Most countries have such holidays, and why wouldn't they?  It’s a group that deserves to be honored.  The US actually has two such holidays that most people know about, each with a slightly different emphasis, as well as several smaller ones (“Armed Forces Day,” anyone?).  But the two big ones are Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

Veterans Day comes in November, and itself has two related but not altogether compatible emphases.  It’s in November because it started out as Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I, which officially ended at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – a fine bit of poetry that no doubt cost some poor soldier his life while the seconds ticked down.  The war ended with an Armistice, which was grimly appropriate for a muddled and seemingly pointless meat-grinder of a war.  The holiday became Veterans Day after World War II, an altogether more clear-cut and triumphant conflict from the American perspective.  Veterans Day honors those who go to war.  Armistice Day, however, honors those who return, an altogether quieter and more reflective holiday and one we should bring back.

Memorial Day honors those who go to war and don’t return – those who have sacrificed their lives to defend the rights, liberties and freedoms of the United States.  Yes, I know those rights, liberties and freedoms are qualified and circumscribed – much of American history can be read as a long and often backsliding effort to broaden their reach to excluded groups, and it is clear that this effort still has a long way to go – but the point remains.  Those rights, liberties and freedoms are ideals worth sacrificing for and those who do so deserve to be honored.

Which is why this Memorial Day is so disheartening.

Too many Americans today have lost sight of what rights, liberties and freedoms are.  They have reached the irresponsible and frankly juvenile conclusion that rights, liberties and freedoms mean they can do whatever they want, whenever they want to, regardless of the consequences to anyone else.

This is a toddler’s view of those things, and to be honest it’s embarrassing.  We should be better than that.

We are in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century and too many low-information people are out there screaming about their rights and their liberties and their freedoms as if they were absolutes that could never be infringed by any public safety measure – a doctrine alien to the Constitution and the law.  They insist that the mild inconvenience of wearing a mask or not having a pool party is somehow a grave threat to their freedom.

Here’s a hint.  It’s not.  And those who say otherwise are trivializing the sacrifices made by better people on their behalf.

The lockdowns and the quarantines are well within the scope of the Constitution and the law.  The Founding Fathers themselves put them in place during the yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s, after all, and they knew the Constitution far better than the average American today.  Wearing a mask is a temporary inconvenience, not an assault on liberty. 

This is, in fact, settled law. 

As explained by Supreme Court Justice John Harlan in Jacobson v Massachusetts (1905), “[T]he liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis organized society could not exist with safety to its members. … [I]n every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.” 

Too many people in this country need to grow up and get over themselves.

On this Memorial Day, remember those who sacrificed for your rights, your liberties, and your freedoms, and honor their example, not with petulant displays of arrogance and disregard for your fellow Americans, but with respect for the nation as a whole.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Let Them Eat Memes


Trying to keep sane in a mad world, one meme at a time.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

A Different Time

In another timeline we would have been heading to Europe today.

When Lauren was selected for her study abroad program part of the deal was that parents were seriously discouraged from visiting during the year.  And as an educator, I understand that.  You don’t want to be a distraction or delay them getting over the homesickness that comes with the territory.  Plus any teacher will tell you that the biggest obstacles to education are meddlesome parents, followed by shortsighted and often hostile legislators, generally insufficient resources, and – for secondary or university students – the incessant background hum of student hormones.  But as a parent, it’s hard to let your child go four thousand miles away and not visit at least once.

We figured we’d aim for the end of the school year, long after the homesickness had worn off and the holidays had passed.  That way she would be well embedded in her new culture and could show us around as the visitors we would be rather than as reminders of home.

We had started the process back in December, actually.  You have to get permission from the program and from the host family, and then you have to take care of all the usual things that come with traveling – plane tickets, visas if necessary, and so on.  It got complicated when Lauren switched host families after the New Year, but her new family graciously said we could visit.  We never did get an answer from the program before the bottom fell out of the world, though, so that was as far as we got.

On the plus side, we didn’t have to worry about fighting the airlines for refunds, I suppose.

It’s a small loss in the scheme of things, at least for us.  Europe will still be there when all this passes, and with any luck so will we.  It’s a larger loss for Lauren, who might have had to put up with squiring her parents around for a weekend before we moved on to see the other things in that country (you don’t want to wear out your welcome, after all) but that would have been a small price to pay for a study abroad experience that wasn’t supposed to end until June. 

She might go back sometime to visit – her host family has said she’d be welcome, and if we can figure out a way to make it work we’ll be happy to do it – but it won’t be the school year with her exchange buddies that she was forced to leave.

Things change. 

We mourn what might have been.  We plan for what we want to come.

We’ll be back.