“How Jerry Brown Scared California Straight” – One of Ours

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Photograph by Mark Peckmezian for Bloomberg Businessweek

How Jerry Brown Scared California Straight

By  on April 25, 2013

Jerry Brown is a happy man who rarely smiles. That’s because underneath all that energy and California optimism, there’s an old, practical Buddhist. This is all that can be done. We can tax the rich a tiny bit, if we do it right now and we show lots of ads of happy kids getting schoolbooks. We can build high-speed rail, if we slash aid to the poor. Brown dreams like Governor Moonbeam and governs like Babbitt. He lacks the charm and salesmanship of a politician. Or, as Warren Beatty, his friend since 1970, sums up: “I think what you’re saying is he’s not full of s- – -.”

A lot of people are saying that, now that he’s done what was long assumed impossible: balance the California budget. This is California, the Greece of America, the liberal state that wants to spend on everything and the libertarian state that won’t pay for anything. Californians are so committed to their faulty economic theory that they built laws to enshrine it: The legislature has to pass tax hikes by a two-thirds vote, and citizens can put new laws on the ballot as propositions. When Brown took office two years ago, the state had a $27 billion deficit. Standard & Poor’s (MHP) rated California’s credit the worst of the 50 states, and 24/7 Wall St. ranked it as the worst-run state in its 2011 and 2012 surveys.

This year, California will have an $850 million budget surplus in the coming fiscal year. Unemployment, which peaked at 12.4 percent just before Brown took office, is 9.4 percent. S&P has upgraded its outlook on the state. Confidence remains fragile, according to a survey of 1,142 large and small business leaders conducted by the California Business Roundtable: More than six out of 10 say it’s still harder to do business in California than in other states. But 24 percent of businesses say they plan to add jobs this year, compared with 16 percent that intend to cut them.

There are two versions to the story of how Brown, 75, did this. The first is about an old man, defeated and discarded, having long ago lost a run for the U.S. Senate and three for the White House, a man so far from power that the 1995 David Caruso movie Jade has a California governor telling an assistant district attorney to drop a case “unless you want as much of a future in this state as Jerry Brown,” to which the guy answers, “Who’s Jerry Brown?” But this old man humbles himself and works his way back, first as mayor of Oakland (Oakland!) and then as attorney general to Arnold Schwarzenegger (Arnold Schwarzenegger!). He stops dating starlets and marries a brilliant businesswoman who becomes his partner in governance. Using the wisdom he’s gained from his struggles, he reclaims the very office his dad occupied and makes his memory proud.

That’s not the way Brown tells it. “What’s the time? Everything is, ‘What time of day is it?’” he says, summing it all up in his own Buddhist koan. Voters, he says, finally felt so much pain from cuts to schools and libraries and basic services that they were willing to pay for them. Or, more accurately, the disproportionately left-leaning voters who went to the polls in November 2012 were willing to tax the rich to pay for them. Point is: He didn’t skate to the front of the net. He was Gretzky behind the goal, waiting for the play to develop. “You got to go with the grain, you got to go with the narrative, the storyline,” he says. “The storyline is written by history, not your own ‘I want.’”

Brown believes California has been led for too long by “I want.” His office at the Capitol is empty except for two photographs, some books, a couch, a coffee table, and a thick wooden table with a monastic bench. Many of his staff offices are empty, too, since he has barely any staff; the governor doesn’t employ a chief of staff or speechwriter.

This is a man who remembers World War II ration cards with fondness. “This idea you can have ice cream every night? Ice cream was for your birthday,” he says about his childhood. “It wasn’t an austere world. In fact, it was a normal world. It’s only austere juxtaposing the indulgence, the overconsumption, the profligacy—people don’t like those words because part of our economic growth is buying all this stuff.” Brown, who took a vow of poverty and chastity and lived in near-total silence while studying for the priesthood in the late 1950s, cites the Jesuit philosophy of tantum quantum: take what you need.

The real story of how Brown killed California’s deficit, awakened its economy, and provided hope that the U.S.’s biggest state can be great again is complicated and far from over. But it does illustrate that unsentimental, grown-up leadership can solve an economy’s most intractable problems. Which is also why what Brown has achieved in California isn’t likely to happen anywhere else.

In his fifth decade of public life, Brown is a political orphan. He’s a former chairman of the Democratic Party who now refers to “the Democrats” in the third person. He briefly quit the party to run as an independent for mayor of Oakland in 1998 and quotes Nietzsche about how a thinking man cannot be a party man. Above the couch in his office is a large framed photo of his great-grandfather, August Schuckman, who came to California in the 1850s and whose Colusa, Calif., property Brown inherited; a rock from Colusa is the only thing on his office coffee table. “When he came out here, you got your hands in the dirt, you got some people to work with you,” he says. “Here we’re trying to use government to do those things, and it doesn’t feel quite the same way. Welfare creates dependency and builds the power of the state. If everything is state-centric, it doesn’t fit with the idea that we can do more on our own.” Reviving California’s economy has required him to embrace big business: “People who do things tend to have a lot of money at the end of the day. It’s not the granola crowd who are going to move mountains.”

For more than three decades, California’s politicians failed to reconcile runaway public spending with the citizenry’s aversion to taxes. The antitax insanity began in 1978, when Brown was also governor. Howard Jarvis, a retired Los Angeles industrialist, got signatures for an initiative that would reduce property taxes to 1 percent, prevent raising the value of a house for tax purposes until resale, and require a two-thirds majority in both legislative houses to raise taxes. Brown was against it. The Republican party was against it. “They put Jarvis on Channel 7. It was a segment like ‘Bum of the Night.’ They put them up and knocked them out,” remembers Brown. “But no matter how sophisticated they were—professors, businessmen, and politicians—that Jarvis was a folk hero and he wasn’t worrying about the details.” Proposition 13 won easily.

During his first stint as governor, Brown tried to cut the state’s budget to fit the new constraints. He cut so much that in Brown’s reelection bid, Jarvis made a TV ad supporting him. But California public schools, which had been among the nation’s best, sank below those of most Southern states. And debt took off: It’s now twice as large as the next-highest state, New York. A few years ago, the budget-making system was so dysfunctional that the state had to issue IOUs for a few months. Shortly after Brown was elected as governor in 2010, Stockton and San Bernardino declared bankruptcy and Moody’s warned that 30 more California municipalities were teetering.

At first, Brown’s 21st century governorship offered little change. He wasted his first year trying to persuade four Republican senators to allow a ballot proposition asking voters to decide on a tax hike. “I tried. Almost on bended knee. In my personal loft sitting with four Republicans, pouring good wine. Going to their house. It was almost like Camus’s theater of the absurd: The human heart yearns for meaning, and the universe is silent. Well, I yearned for a vote on my tax initiative, but the Republicans were silent,” he says. “I said to this one lady, ‘Why don’t you vote to put this tax on the ballot and you can be the leader of the opposition and you and I can go around debating, and you are kind of an obscure assemblywoman and you’ll become quite famous?’ ” It’s not quite the script to the movie Lincoln, but it’s the same basic idea. Unlike Lincoln, though, Brown failed. And the public, whom he had promised a balanced budget, blamed him.

Brown needed money. He couldn’t borrow much more due to the Standard & Poor’s credit rating. Worse, the Supreme Court decided in May 2011 that California’s overcrowded prisons provided such bad health care that it was cruel and unusual punishment. Unable to spend to improve care, Brown used the ruling as an excuse to save cash. He pushed “realignment,” in which non-violent criminals who would have served time in prison were moved to local jails, which has reduced the inmate population by 29,700. An additional 64,000 have been realigned straight to probation. Republicans freaked out. Brown saved $1.5 billion.

Then he did some real cutting. “We cut child care—I’m sorry to say—old age pensions, the disabled, the elderly, and the blind. You can’t get any more sympathetic than that,” he says. The only cuts left to make, Brown claimed, were to public schools and, most significantly, the state’s universities and community colleges, which Californians—especially California’s many immigrants—consider a key part of the American meritocratic system.

The only way to save them was a tax increase. To get it, Brown used what he had learned from Howard Jarvis. In the Great Recession, the fervor isn’t antitax, but anti-rich. If President Barack Obama could have put the Buffett Rule to a public ballot, he probably would have gotten it approved. So Brown just wrote a proposition and gathered enough signatures from the public to get it on the ballot.

In June 2011 he tried to call a special election to ask voters to decide on a tax hike, but failed to gather support in time. He was lucky it didn’t work out: The special election would have had low turnout, which favors Republicans. By waiting for last November, Brown got the advantage of a new law that allowed online registration, which created 1 million young, liberal voters, who turned out in huge numbers. He also got lucky that a group of Orange County Republicans put an anti-union proposition on the November ballot, mobilizing union voters.

Brown had originally proposed a car tax, a 1 percent hike in the sales tax, and removing the tax credit for having children. In the end, Proposition 30 raised taxes only on incomes higher than $250,000 a year, after deductions, and increased the sales tax by 0.25 percentage point. “It’s more like a tip,” Brown says. “When you take polls, the only people you can tax are the very wealthy. Liberals say, ‘Tax the oil companies.’ You can’t tax them. They’ll spend $50 million to stop it. Look what happened when they tried to pass those soda taxes.”

Photograph by Mark Peckmezian

To get tax-hating Californians to vote to raise their own taxes, Brown became Governor Gloom. If the tax-cutters’ theory was to cut taxes so much we’d have to shrink government, he was going to shrink government so much that people would raise taxes. In addition to schools and community colleges, he would cut medical programs, aid to the disabled, and child health care. “Our breakthrough came because of the breakdown,” he says. “There were more layoffs, more pink slips, more agitation. Cutting was very conducive to the success of Prop 30.” In short: Jerry Brown scared the crap out of people.

It worked. The proposition passed by more than 10 percent. After taxes went up, so did approval ratings for Brown and the state legislature: Brown to 57 percent, the legislature to 36. Even the opposition is digging him. “When Governor Brown released his proposal for this year’s state budget, I couldn’t believe my ears,” says Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway. “It truly sounded as though the governor channeled his inner Republican.” He’s also won over much of the business community, though he raised their personal taxes. “He comes at things differently than Arnold Schwarzenegger,” says Allan Zaremberg, chief executive officer of the California Chamber of Commerce, who worked with Brown on his first, abandoned tax hike. “You better be damn well prepared when you talk to him.” Zaremberg is pleased with Brown’s work to lower health-care costs to businesses and reform the state’s environmental quality act, which he says can be burdensome.

“He’s analytical, and it’s important to have that kind of maturity when we have a term-limited legislature—nearly half of the assembly is completely new to state government this year,” says Zaremberg. “He’s a stabilizing force.”

Brown lacks the chummy charisma of a normal politician, but he has something better: mystery. You can see how his bachelor life included relationships with Linda Ronstadt, Barbra Streisand, Natalie Wood, Stevie Nicks, Liv Ullmann, and Arianna Huffington. He’s intimidating and unwilling to suffer anyone who isn’t into suffering. He’s also eager to engage: This is not a man who is going to stop a good conversation because of his schedule.

Even more compelling, Brown has a natural curiosity. When he quotes the Yeats poem Byzantium and I say it describes an opium dream, he tells me I was mistakenly thinking of Shelley’s Ozymandias, then quotes that, too. I tell him how academic that is. “It’s not academic! Yeats was not in the academy, as far as I know,” he says. Which is so academic.

Brown tells me about his 2005 wedding to his girlfriend of 15 years, Anne Gust, and how he was married in the same church as his parents, and how the aunt who was the witness at his baptism was the witness for his marriage. I remark at how romantic that is, just as his wife walks through the door.

“It was sort of romantic,” she says. The governor, whose hawklike face rarely changes, turns red. “You’re blushing,” she says. “Golly, that’s cute.”

Along with smiling more, Gust, 55, is even more practical than her husband. A corporate lawyer and former chief administrative officer for Gap who now has the title of “special adviser” to the governor, she’s not only his de facto chief of staff but the one who makes Brown buy new clothes when they get holes in them. She’s got him working out every day: a three-mile run, weights, or pull-ups and chin-ups. At one point, Brown pulls out softcover books with horribly designed covers, many of which he’s rereading. One of them is Compulsory Mis-education, and the Community of Scholars by Paul Goodman. “He also wrote a book called Growing Up Absurd,” says Brown. “He’s an anarchist.” Gust laughs.

“Why do you laugh at that?” Brown asks, earnestly.

She shakes her head. “That’s not …”

Brown finishes the thought. “Because we’re not in that business,” he says.

The business of politics, he argues, is about storytelling. “We have 2,000 bills. Little bill bits. You can’t run a world on bill bits. That’s not what moves people. There has to be drama. Protagonist and antagonist. We’re on the stage of history here.”

So now he’s trying to tell a simple story about California’s future. When he was a kid, all the movies and TV shows about the future were utopian: flying cars, jet packs, robots, food pills, moon colonies. Now they’re all dystopian. So the action movie plot Brown’s selling is one in which California escapes disaster. Where seas rise and earthquakes rumble, but the state’s water supply is protected through a $14 billion project that will build two 40-mile tunnels running beneath the Sacramento River. Where highway traffic and airport security lines are circumvented via a high-speed railroad spanning the state.

Still, how do you persuade people to pay, right now, for a $68 billion train when, right now, you’re cutting benefits to the elderly? “As I get older, I realize I’m going to want to sit down and not drive,” Brown says. Then he gets going: “This is freedom! The freedom of movement. It’s a good. It’s dreary to think it’s all taxes and government. The joy, the aliveness, the poetry of life, that’s what I want to bring.”

Despite the balanced budget, California is still mired in debt. A study by the Pew Center on the States estimates that California’s pension funds have more than $100 billion in unfunded liabilities; state and local governments are short an additional $77 billion to cover retiree health benefits, according to Bloomberg News. Brown says he will use the new taxes and cuts to pay the debt down to $4.3 billion by 2017, but there are skeptics. “I thought that Brown might actually reform government instead of just raise taxes to pay for it,” says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “Instead, California is careening toward Detroit status. They’re screwing everybody instead of fixing government.”

Brown knows he has to reform the pension system and that it’s going to be the biggest fight of his governorship: It’s good to have a supermajority in the legislature, except when you want to do something your own party loathes. One reason he has a shot at succeeding is that he’s old. If he serves a second term as governor (really, a fourth), he’ll be 80, and, though he’s healthy now, he’s had prostate and skin cancer. He says his spiritual journeys have made him immune to the public’s love. “My soul is elsewhere,” he says. “I’m not beguiled by the fleshpots of Egypt here.”

Warren Beatty, whom Brown named to the California Hall of Fame (“Just another example of his brilliance,” Beatty says), is impressed by Brown’s pragmatism. “Since he has been chief executive of the largest state in the country twice, he has achieved a level of wisdom about the realities of the various conflicting forces that very few people have been able to achieve,” he says.

Being realistic means working with the opportunities available, which is why Brown doubts his map to balancing the budget will work for others. “D.C. is in a real pickle,” he says. “It’s not governable until there’s some breakthrough, and that will probably require more breakdown.”

So that’s his theory: cut, cut, cut until the people can’t take it anymore. Then inspire them with stories of what government can do. He’s getting worked up about the possibilities, already having talked for nearly two hours more than the 30 minutes he scheduled for this meeting. His aides try to interrupt several times because he’s flying to China the next day for a trade mission, but he stops in the office hallway of the now-empty Capitol building to talk some more about the power of government. He sounds more like the liberal side of California than the libertarian. “I’m aware of the Roman Empire. It’s hard to have a rally after 80 BC because you can’t walk the streets. It’s bad news.” As he’s pulled away by his staff, he yells something positive about California—“The sun is still rising in the West”—and quotes Antonio Gramsci: “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” Brown is a politician long past being afraid of quoting a Marxist.

Louise Erdrich

Louise is a very powerful woman, speaker and individual. In twenty minutes she is able to frame a profile of the Native American expereince.

Czeslaw Milosz – Biography – The Wilno Poet Under California Skies

Czeslaw Milosz – The Wilno Poet Under California Skies

November 2012

It is not an anomaly to be transformed by the breadth and scope of the Northern California landscape.

To stand on a mountain and look over the rocky shore and the expanse of the blue Pacific is a powerful sensation. While one’s awe eventually is brought back to even keel, the sensation, the experience, can often be everlasting. This experience seems to rearrange the human chemistry and cells on some fundamental basis and this transformation is brought into the forefront of thinking at first and then takes its place as a strong component of ones makeup.  Much of the shock to the system is embedded in the conflict of civilization with nature. In the heartland, in the city, one moves in time within the structures of civilization: families, neighbors, churches, manufacturing plants, office buildings, schools, trains, cars, and airplanes. Our language and human behaviors connect this all as a whole and we live here amidst this structure, this edifice, what it teaches us. It is this structure, this edifice that is challenged by the western landscape — when viewed in solitude all of the structure is removed and the expanse and grandeur of nature is brought to the forefront: mountains, valleys, forests, rivers, sky, clouds, wind and wildlife.

This experience was central to Czeslaw Milosz. He accepted a position of professor with the University of California, Berkeley in 1960. Milosz was living in Paris at the time, and was in exile from his beloved Poland homeland.  While living in California for forty years, Milosz remained a Polish patriot throughout, though he spent critical formative years under the rule of the western Pacific land and sky.

Fundamental to the Milosz makeup was his poetry, language and participation in the mighty European struggle of his time. He lived through WWI as a boy and as a man lived through the devastation and brutality of the German Nazi invasion and both Russian invasions of Poland – one in 1939 (eastern Poland) and the second after the German departure and failed Polish uprising of 1944. These invasions tested the limits of human endurance  — the Nazis decimated the country and in particular Warsaw, such that few of the inhabitants and buildings were left standing upon the Nazi departure — the image of a smoldering city with the stench of flesh all around provides the foreground. This a city with a population just over one million people. With barely days in-between, the Red Army was waiting at the Vistula River and then proceeded to take the country under its dominance. Stalin at this point had experience with brutalizing his own people, and the Poles in eastern Poland, and soon unleashed his skills on the western Polish people. Between 1939 and 1945, six million Polish people were murdered, one half were Jews – 90% of the deaths were unrelated to military conflict. The chaos also included massive deportations (German and Russian), separating the country into districts, select strategies to kidnap children for exportation (German), and executions of the educated (German and Russian). No one can establish the psychic damage to survivors that this kind of sustained experience caused.

Milosz mainly wrote poetry through the war years and then began his seminal study in the causes and effects of the forced acceptance of Russian communism and its dialectical materialism. Thus a next phase of humiliation and degradation. His book, “The Captive Mind,” was written in the early fifties in Paris and it established Milosz as a psychologist of the mental apparatus that is used to subjugate an unwilling population of nationalists and communists of another stripe to Russian communism. Milosz uses character and biographical sketches to demonstrate the methods and rules of the Russian Way. His method of showing history and movements through peoples’ lives was powerfully creative and poetic in its nature – and in his signature tough style it also tells the history and the intellectual motivations and nuances of the times. Russia was to dominate and rule central and eastern Europe for thirty years after WWII until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990.

What we can establish is that Milosz moved on in a creative way and worked to enrich his experience of the world and his poetry. Writing the preface to “The Captive Mind” he saw his task as: “…to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, to tell the truth as he sees it, and so to keep watch and ward in the interest of society as a whole.” He won the Nobel prize for literature in 1980 for these efforts to tell this incredibly complex tale both in prose and poetry, always blending the highly rational with the mystical and poetic. The Nobel committee found for Milosz: “who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts.”

Milosz continued to write and read mostly in Polish even while teaching in Berkeley. He never lost his self identification as a Pole or Lithuanian and as a Catholic. While he was educated in the Greek and Roman classics and in European thought and languages through the mediaeval and later periods, he did spend time absorbing American literature from Whitman to Jeffers. He developed a close connection with Jeffers and while they never met, Milosz visited the Tor House a few years after Jeffers death. Milosz understood Jeffers and described how he could build Jeffers case internally since he felt a kinship to Jeffers thought when he was a young man, but had outgrown the sense that nature rules the world and adopted the concept that civilization was preeminent. Mind you, this appears to be a choice of paths rather than some clear perception of ultimate reality.

As a thinker, Milosz’ training in the study of law provided a very unique blend of highly rational thought blended with his mystical instincts. He had a very strong connection to Blake, Swedenborg and to Simone Weil (he translated her poetry and prose in 1958 from French to Polish) each of whom were on his lips late in life and continued to animate his thinking as a poet. He wrote an incisive piece on Weil’s thinking and consciousness in “The Emperor of Earth” where he says that she not only saw the failure of dialectal materialism, but understood the nature of humanness to say that “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” He also discusses her view that civilization that was built over the years to protect humans from natures ravages have ironically become more savage than nature.

“Milosz’ mental images rarely left Dante on the sidelines – Dante’s structure for the religio-poetica world gave a home to many of Milosz’s words and ideas. Giving a balance to this view is the prodigious reading that Milosz did of Polish and Lithuanian writing in a broad sense of poets, historians and dramatists, novelists. Some of these individual writers are: Iwaszkiewicz, Witkiewicz, Kazimierz Wierzynski, Jerzy Giedroyc and Galczynski. Milosz had personal or literary relationships with many of these writers and he writes about his emotional events with some interest in his book “A Year of the Hunter.” Importantly Milosz spend many years in government and diplomatic service that aided his ability to perform and witness the formal dealings of the political world and its its practical consequences.

Milosz taught Dostoyevsky (he has a Lithuanian heritage) as part of the Slavic Languages curriculum at Berkley. He did not approve of novelists on the whole, as he says they can say whatever they like (misrepresent facts) to tell a story — he was more disciplined and wedded to the world of reality than that. He wrote two novels himself. Having said that he was very moved as a young man by Thomas Mann and personally identified with several of the characters in “The Magic Mountain.”

Milosz believes that we cannot see ultimate reality that it hides in the shadows and in dimensions that humans are not equipped to see. Jeffers accepted his senses and the strong inclination that humans are part of the web of the world and do not have a rightful ruling position, especially when they go about disrespecting nature by destroying its creatures and its land. Jeffers was an agnostic whereas Milosz believed in his God, otherwise there was a poetic connection as different as their lives and views were.

I pray to my bedside god.

For He must have billions of ears.

And one ear He keeps always open to me.

2002 (tr: Anthony Miłosz)

In his later years Milosz gathered the eastern views of Buddhism and Zen to enrich his world of gods and church and men.

Milosz considered Paris the capital of the world and lived there for ten years after WWII and before he went back to the United States to live in Berkeley. There were intervening years directly after the war when Milosz lived in New York and later Washington, DC for five years. At the time he made some initial judgements about American capitalism and was not convinced that the American way is any improvement on socialism. He saw the ruthlessness of pure capitalism and it repulsed him. These early thoughts on America were recast in his later years, but he saw his job in Berkeley as a stabilizing force in his life.

Milosz thought of himself as a poet and patriot, rather than identifying with any political party or movement. This is not to say that Milosz is not political, he is highly political and enlists his many talents in analyzing the methods and madnesses of the political world, but Milosz is no ideologue. He sees his role as one of explicating the world of actions, thoughts and feelings in his way and this is grounded in the central drive of a sense of place. While he looks, reads, and thinks, Wilno is there in all of its imaginations.

From “Visions of San Francisco Bay”:

To Robinson Jeffers

If you have not read the Slavic poets
so much the better. There’s nothing there
for a Scotch-Irish wanderer to seek. They lived in a childhood
prolonged from age to age. For them, the sun
was a farmer’s ruddy face, the moon peeped through a cloud
and the Milky Way gladdened them like a birch-lined road.
They longed for the Kingdom which is always near,
always right at hand. Then, under apple trees
angels in homespun linen will come parting the boughs
and at the white kolkhoz tablecloth
cordiality and affection will feast (falling to the ground at times).
 
And you are from surf-rattled skerries. From the heaths
where burying a warrior they broke his bones
so he could not haunt the living. From the sea night
which your forefathers pulled over themselves, without a word.
Above your head no face, neither the sun’s nor the moon’s,
only the throbbing of galaxies, the immutable
violence of new beginnings, of new destruction.
 
All your life listening to the ocean. Black dinosaurs
wade where a purple zone of phosphorescent weeds
rises and falls on the waves as in a dream. And Agamemnon
sails the boiling deep to the steps of the palace
to have his blood gush onto marble. Till mankind passes
and the pure and stony earth is pounded by the ocean.
 
Thin-lipped, blue-eyed, without grace or hope,
before God the Terrible, body of the world.
Prayers are not heard. Basalt and granite.
Above them, a bird of prey. The only beauty.
 
What have I to do with you? From footpaths in the orchards,
from an untaught choir and shimmers of a monstrance,
from flower beds of rue, hills by the rivers, books
in which a zealous Lithuanian announced brotherhood, I come.
Oh, consolations of mortals, futile creeds.
 
And yet you did not know what I know. The earth teaches
More than does the nakedness of elements. No one with impunity
gives to himself the eyes of a god. So brave, in a void,
you offered sacrifices to demons: there were Wotan and Thor,
the screech of Erinyes in the air, the terror of dogs
when Hekate with her retinue of the dead draws near.
 
Better to carve suns and moons on the joints of crosses
as was done in my district. To birches and firs
give feminine names. To implore protection
against the mute and treacherous might
than to proclaim, as you did, an inhuman thing.

References:

Books

Legends of Modernity – Czeslaw Milosz – Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York) – 1996

Emperor of the Earth – Czeslaw Milosz – UNiversity of California Press (Berkeley and Los Angeles) – 1981

The Captive Mind – Czeslaw Milosz – Vintage International (New York) – 1990

To Begin Where I Am – Czeslaw Milosz – Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York)  – 2001

A Year of The Hunter – Czeslaw Milosz – Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York) – 1994

Articles

Poets Sing the Praises of Robinson Jeffers – Los Angeles Times – January 14, 1987 Reader’s Almanac: The Official Blog of the Library of America – Jane Hirshfield on Czeslaw Milosz, (California) Poet – October 12, 2012

Czeslaw Milosz, The Art of Poetry No. 70 – The Paris Review – Winter 1994

The Nobel Prize in Literature – Lecture & Interview – http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1980/milosz-interview.html#

The Witness of Czeslaw Milosz – Jeremy Driscoll – First Things – November 2004

UC Berkeley News – Press Release – Marie Felde – August 14, 2004

Czeslaw Milosz – Poetry Foundation –  http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/czeslaw-milosz

2nd Czeslaw Milosz Festival – http://www.milosz365.eu

Seamus Heaney on Czesław Miłosz’s Centenary – The Guardian – April 2011

Nature and the Symbolic Order: The Dialogue Between Czeslaw Milosz and Robinson Jeffers – Alan Soldofsky – Robinson Jeffers, Fordham Univ Press – 1995

Polish Web Site: http://www.milosz.pl

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Hunter Thompson – Writing & Transparency

This is Hunter Thompson reporting on many things from Key West, Fl as he pens an article for the Rolling Stone in 1976. Reading Thompson reminds me of his colorful journalism that borders on genius. He took Tom Wolfe’s devices and made them his own – he is certainly unique and how he manages to do as much booze and drugs and still writes with precision and insight is beyond me. What is amazing is that his exaggerations nearly always have a large element of truth and fact – he was one journalist that would put out there what he saw and thought and had little regard for consequence. He was refreshing and radical and real all at the same time. He had the wonderful ability to make quick judgements (normaly after much backgrounding in life and literature), was a hugh learner and had the gift of articulation and so many levels. You don’t have to like the man to learn form him. 

This piece from the article illustrates just how very strange the world was as I was growing up and learning the ropes. Romney is an angel compared to Nixon:

 

Jimmy Carter and the Great Leap of Faith – Hunter Thompson

June 3, 1976

 

A lot of people will tell you that horses get spooked because they’re just naturally nervous and jittery,

but that ain’t right. What you have to remember is that a horse sees things maybe six or seven times bigger than we do.

— BILLY HERMAN, a harness-racing trainer at Pompano Park in Miami

 

…”The power of the presidency is so vast that it is probably a good thing, in retrospect, that only a very few people in this country understood the gravity of Richard Nixon’s mental condition during his last year in the White House. There were moments in that year when even his closest friends and advisers were convinced that the president of the United States was so crazy with rage and booze and suicidal despair that he was only two martinis away from losing his grip entirely and suddenly locking himself in his office long enough to make that single telephone call that would have launched enough missiles and bombers to blow the whole world off its axis or at least kill 100 million people.

The sudden, hellish reality of a nuclear war with either Russia or China or both was probably the only thing that could have salvaged Nixon’s presidency after the Supreme Court ruled that he had to yield up the incriminating tapes that he knew would finish him off. Would the action-starved generals at the Strategic Air Command Headquarters have ignored an emergency order from their Commander-in-chief? And how long would it have taken Pat Buchanan or General Haig to realize that ‘The Boss” had finally flipped? Nixon spent so much time alone that nobody else in the White House would have given his absence a second thought until he failed to show up for dinner, and by that time he could have made enough phone calls to start wars all over the world.

A four-star general commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps with three wars and 35 years of fanatical devotion to duty, honor and country in his system would hack off his own feet and eat them rather than refuse to obey a direct order from the president of the United States — even if he thought the president was crazy.

The key to all military thinking is a concept that nobody who ever wore a uniform with even one stripe on it will ever forget: “You don’t salute the man, you salute the uniform.” Once you’ve learned that, you’re a soldier — and soldiers don’t disobey orders from people they have to salute. If Nixon’s tortured mind had bent far enough to let him think he could save himself by ordering a full-bore Marine/Airborne invasion in Cuba, he would not have given the Boom-Boom order to some closet-pacifist general who might be inclined to delay the invasion long enough to call Henry Kissinger for official reassurance that the president was not insane.

No West Pointer with four stars on his hat would take that kind of risk anyway. By the time word got back to the White House, or to Kissinger, that Nixon had given the order to invade Cuba, the whole Caribbean would be a sea of fire; Fidel Castro would be in a submarine on his way to Russia, and the sky above the Atlantic would be streaked from one horizon to the other with the vapor trails of a hundred panic-launched missiles.

Right. But it was mainly a matter of luck that Nixon’s mental disintegration was so obvious and so crippling that by the time he came face to face with his final option, he was no longer able to even recognize it. When the going got tough, the politician who worshiped toughness above all else turned into a whimpering, gin-soaked vegetable. . . But it is still worth wondering how long it would have taken Haig and Kissinger to convince all those SAC generals out in Omaha to disregard a Doomsday phone call from the president of the United States because a handful of civilians in the White House said he was crazy.

Ah. . . but we are wandering off into wild speculation again, so let’s chop it off right here. We were talking about the vast powers of the presidency and all the treacherous currents surrounding it. . . Not to mention all the riptides, ambushes, Judas goats, fools and ruthless, dehumanized thugs that will sooner or later have to be dealt with by any presidential candidate who still feels strong on his feet when he comes to that magic moment for the leap from Stage Two to Stage Three.

But there will be plenty of time for that later on. And plenty of other journalists to write out it. . . But not me. The most active and interesting phase of a presidential campaign is Stage One, which is as totally different from the Sturm und Drang of Stage Three as a guerrilla-style war among six or eight Gypsy nations is totally different from the bloody, hunkered down trench warfare that paralyzed and destroyed half of Europe during World War I.”

 

The Self-Destruction of the 1 Percent

The Sunday Review

Gianni Dagli Orti/Art Resource

A painting of 17th-century Venice, with a view of the banks of the Grand Canal and the Doge’s Palace, by Leandro Bassano.

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By CHRYSTIA FREELAND
Published: October 13, 2012

IN the early 14th century, Venice was one of the richest cities in Europe. At the heart of its economy was the colleganza, a basic form of joint-stock company created to finance a single trade expedition. The brilliance of the colleganza was that it opened the economy to new entrants, allowing risk-taking entrepreneurs to share in the financial upside with the established businessmen who financed their merchant voyages.

Venice’s elites were the chief beneficiaries. Like all open economies, theirs was turbulent. Today, we think of social mobility as a good thing. But if you are on top, mobility also means competition. In 1315, when the Venetian city-state was at the height of its economic powers, the upper class acted to lock in its privileges, putting a formal stop to social mobility with the publication of the Libro d’Oro, or Book of Gold, an official register of the nobility. If you weren’t on it, you couldn’t join the ruling oligarchy.

The political shift, which had begun nearly two decades earlier, was so striking a change that the Venetians gave it a name: La Serrata, or the closure. It wasn’t long before the political Serrata became an economic one, too. Under the control of the oligarchs, Venice gradually cut off commercial opportunities for new entrants. Eventually, the colleganza was banned. The reigning elites were acting in their immediate self-interest, but in the longer term, La Serrata was the beginning of the end for them, and for Venetian prosperity more generally. By 1500, Venice’s population was smaller than it had been in 1330. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as the rest of Europe grew, the city continued to shrink.

The story of Venice’s rise and fall is told by the scholars Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, in their book “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,” as an illustration of their thesis that what separates successful states from failed ones is whether their governing institutions are inclusive or extractive. Extractive states are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society. Inclusive states give everyone access to economic opportunity; often, greater inclusiveness creates more prosperity, which creates an incentive for ever greater inclusiveness.

The history of the United States can be read as one such virtuous circle. But as the story of Venice shows, virtuous circles can be broken. Elites that have prospered from inclusive systems can be tempted to pull up the ladder they climbed to the top. Eventually, their societies become extractive and their economies languish.

That was the future predicted by Karl Marx, who wrote that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. And it is the danger America faces today, as the 1 percent pulls away from everyone else and pursues an economic, political and social agenda that will increase that gap even further — ultimately destroying the open system that made America rich and allowed its 1 percent to thrive in the first place.

You can see America’s creeping Serrata in the growing social and, especially, educational chasm between those at the top and everyone else. At the bottom and in the middle, American society is fraying, and the children of these struggling families are lagging the rest of the world at school.

Economists point out that the woes of the middle class are in large part a consequence of globalization and technological change. Culture may also play a role. In his recent book on the white working class, the libertarian writer Charles Murray blames the hollowed-out middle for straying from the traditional family values and old-fashioned work ethic that he says prevail among the rich (whom he castigates, but only for allowing cultural relativism to prevail).

There is some truth in both arguments. But the 1 percent cannot evade its share of responsibility for the growing gulf in American society. Economic forces may be behind the rising inequality, but as Peter R. Orszag, President Obama’s former budget chief, told me, public policy has exacerbated rather than mitigated these trends.

Even as the winner-take-all economy has enriched those at the very top, their tax burden has lightened. Tolerance for high executive compensation has increased, even as the legal powers of unions have been weakened and an intellectual case against them has been relentlessly advanced by plutocrat-financed think tanks. In the 1950s, the marginal income tax rate for those at the top of the distribution soared above 90 percent, a figure that today makes even Democrats flinch. Meanwhile, of the 400 richest taxpayers in 2009, 6 paid no federal income tax at all, and 27 paid 10 percent or less. None paid more than 35 percent.

Historically, the United States has enjoyed higher social mobility than Europe, and both left and right have identified this economic openness as an essential source of the nation’s economic vigor. But several recent studies have shown that in America today it is harder to escape the social class of your birth than it is in Europe. The Canadian economist Miles Corak has found that as income inequality increases, social mobility falls — a phenomenonAlan B. Krueger, the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, has called the Great Gatsby Curve.

Educational attainment, which created the American middle class, is no longer rising. The super-elite lavishes unlimited resources on its children, while public schools are starved of funding. This is the new Serrata. An elite education is increasingly available only to those already at the top. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama enrolled their daughters in an exclusive private school; I’ve done the same with mine.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year, I interviewed Ruth Simmons, then the president of Brown. She was the first African-American to lead an Ivy League university and has served on the board of Goldman Sachs. Dr. Simmons, a Harvard-trained literature scholar, worked hard to make Brown more accessible to poor students, but when I asked whether it was time to abolish legacy admissions, the Ivy League’s own Book of Gold, she shrugged me off with a laugh: “No, I have a granddaughter. It’s not time yet.”

America’s Serrata also takes a more explicit form: the tilting of the economic rules in favor of those at the top. The crony capitalism of today’s oligarchs is far subtler than Venice’s. It works in two main ways.

The first is to channel the state’s scarce resources in their own direction. This is the absurdity of Mitt Romney’s comment about the “47 percent” who are “dependent upon government.” The reality is that it is those at the top, particularly the tippy-top, of the economic pyramid who have been most effective at capturing government support — and at getting others to pay for it.

Exhibit A is the bipartisan, $700 billion rescue of Wall Street in 2008. Exhibit B is the crony recovery. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty found that 93 percent of the income gains from the 2009-10 recovery went to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. The top 0.01 percent captured 37 percent of these additional earnings, gaining an average of $4.2 million per household.

The second manifestation of crony capitalism is more direct: the tax perks, trade protections and government subsidies that companies and sectors secure for themselves. Corporate pork is a truly bipartisan dish: green energy companies and the health insurers have been winners in this administration, as oil and steel companies were under George W. Bush’s.

The impulse of the powerful to make themselves even more so should come as no surprise. Competition and a level playing field are good for us collectively, but they are a hardship for individual businesses. Warren E. Buffett knows this. “A truly great business must have an enduring ‘moat’ that protects excellent returns on invested capital,” he explained in his 2007 annual letter to investors. “Though capitalism’s ‘creative destruction’ is highly beneficial for society, it precludes investment certainty.” Microsoft attempted to dig its own moat by simply shutting out its competitors, until it was stopped by the courts. Even Apple, a huge beneficiary of the open-platform economy, couldn’t resist trying to impose its own inferior map app on buyers of the iPhone 5.

Businessmen like to style themselves as the defenders of the free market economy, but as Luigi Zingales, an economist at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, argued, “Most lobbying is pro-business, in the sense that it promotes the interests of existing businesses, not pro-market in the sense of fostering truly free and open competition.”

IN the early 19th century, the United States was one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet. “We have no paupers,” Thomas Jefferson boasted in an 1814 letter. “The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich, who can live without labor, either manual or professional, being few, and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring class possess property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are enabled to exact from the rich and the competent such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately and raise their families.”

For Jefferson, this equality was at the heart of American exceptionalism: “Can any condition of society be more desirable than this?”

That all changed with industrialization. As Franklin D. Roosevelt argued in a 1932 address to the Commonwealth Club, the industrial revolution was accomplished thanks to “a group of financial titans, whose methods were not scrutinized with too much care, and who were honored in proportion as they produced the results, irrespective of the means they used.” America may have needed its robber barons; Roosevelt said the United States was right to accept “the bitter with the sweet.”

But as these titans amassed wealth and power, and as America ran out of free land on its frontier, the country faced the threat of a Serrata. As Roosevelt put it, “equality of opportunity as we have known it no longer exists.” Instead, “we are steering a steady course toward economic oligarchy, if we are not there already.”

It is no accident that in America today the gap between the very rich and everyone else is wider than at any time since the Gilded Age. Now, as then, the titans are seeking an even greater political voice to match their economic power. Now, as then, the inevitable danger is that they will confuse their own self-interest with the common good. The irony of the political rise of the plutocrats is that, like Venice’s oligarchs, they threaten the system that created them.

The editor of Thomson Reuters Digital and the author of “Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else,” from which this essay is adapted.