Saturday, November 12, 2016

Books 77 and 78: The past isn't any better than the present.

I didn't set out to read nostalgic books on the same week that the US elected a man who almost certainly will go down in history as our worst president ever, but I'm kind of glad it worked out that way because all this week I couldn't really bear to do anything that might bring me in contact with the real world.

When I was 10 years old, I got my first Hardy Boys books, and they included The House On The Cliff. I remember exactly where the books were in my room: just after my sister was born, I ended up sharing a room with my younger brother, and to make room for his stuff my books went onto the upper shelf in our closet. The hardcover Hardy Boys books were on right, next to the hardcover Doc Savage books.

1978 was the year Roman Polanski fled prosecution for raping a young girl at a Hollywood party. That year President Jimmy Carter -- a man who was frequently ridiculed in our house when I was growing up -- postponed US production of the neutron bomb, a bomb that killed people while preserving infrastructure. 1978 was also the year the US Supreme Court ruled that a judge could not be sued for having allowed a 15-year-old to be involuntarily sterilized by her mother; the judge granted the mother's petition without a hearing and without appointing a lawyer to represent the girl's interests. That year San Francisco passed a landmark gay rights law; St. Paul repealed its.

The Hardy Boys are frozen in time: in the story of some kids helping break up a smuggling ring, farmers serve pie and ham sandwiches to kids who stop in after rescuing a man who was drowning; the boys ride motorcycles and attend high school. Their father, internationally renowned detective Fenton Hardy, never shoots first 'unless he has to.' The smuggler, when he is caught, breaks down and confesses that he had a bad upbringing, and that when he gets out of prison he will use the house on the cliff, which he has inherited, as a boys' home.

In less than 2 years after I first read The House On The Cliff, Ronald Reagan became president. I don't remember much about Jimmy Carter's presidency; I grew up in the Reagan years. I was 11 when he was elected and 19 when his second term ended. Reagan, who many people now believe was suffering from dementia in his second term, was a year younger, when elected, than Donald Trump is now.

Reagan is remembered for lots of things now, but perhaps none more than Reaganomics. Reaganomics didn't lower taxes on the whole: taxes as a percentage of gross domestic product were 18.2% at the end of Reagan's terms; they'd been 18.1% at the start of his presidency. They did lower taxes on the rich, though.

Reagan's policies froze minimum wage at $3.35 per hour, cut public housing and rent subsidies by 50%, and cut spending on Medicaid, food stamps, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Social Security Disability payments.

The Hardy Boys' lives seemed pretty secure: their friends have boats, they have motorcycles, their mom doesn't have to work, they live near the sea. But there's still crime: there are still smugglers who filch drugs and sneak them into New York, and burglars.

Crime doesn't go away, it seems. In the 30th century, when the Legion Of Super-Heroes takes place, crime has become both an interstellar and a local thing: criminals steal diamonds or try to build armies of robots or take over factory planets in schemes of dubious merit. I started reading comics in the 1980s, much to the dismay of my mom, who found much to be dismayed by wherever she looked. Legion comics were among my favorites: not as dark as Marvel's X-Men but still sort of seeming like they were true-to-life: the Legionnaires (who were 'teens' much like John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John were 'teens' in 1978 when Grease was released as a movie) had parents and lives and took vacations but also saved the world.

Among other terrorist attacks, in the 1980s, Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Scotland, and the Marine barracks in Lebanon were blown up. Iran and Iraq were at war, as were the UK and Argentina, Israel and Lebanon, the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, and let's not forget we invaded Grenada that year. We won, largely because us invading Grenada is like Ohio State playing UW-Whitewater.

A year ago, Breitbart gave 20 reasons why Trump should become president. They included his business acumen, that he 'speaks for us little people', has a 'stellar' family and that he 'is a man of sound morals.'

We know none of those things are true, of course, but truth takes a back seat in politics.

In Legion Of Superheroes, the Legion has a rule: no two members can duplicate each other's powers. This is to promote 'diversity,' I think they said. They also reject members whose powers are hard to control or demonstrate significant weakness, like Night Girl, who is superstrong but only in shadow -- so a bright light can take her out! they say.  The rule is honored more in the breach, I think: Ultra Boy and Mon El, for example, each have superstrength and invulnerability, although Ultra Boy can only use one power at a time. If he's superfast, he's not invulnerable, and that gets them into trouble time and again. Timber Wolf and Karate Kid are each martial arts experts, but Timber Wolf, like my own personal favorite, Wildfire, has a temper problem, which frequently gets them into trouble. If you were a rejected legionnaire, you might wonder about how hard-and-fast those rules really are applied.

Just like you might wonder about whether things are really so great in the 30th century. Despite the fact that there is a "United Planets," there is also a planet where people were enslaved for 7 years by a warlike race, and the Legion only happened to foil that plot by luck. The Legion, we're told, is color-blind -- they even have a blue girl! -- but there's an island called Marzal, on Earth, where the black "race" lives and wants no contact with the rest of Earth.

Donald Trump is going to "bring manufacturing jobs back," and stop illegal immigration, plus stop Muslims from coming here.  The current unemployment rate is 4.9%. While it's not commonly discussed, the federal government in fact tries to keep unemployment at about that rate. The Federal Reserve's statutory mandate is to try to keep inflation at an annual level of 2%, and unemployment between 4 and 5%.   Bringing jobs back to the United States will mean lower unemployment, one assumes, because there aren't going to be immigrants taking those jobs. Lower unemployment almost always means higher inflation. Donald Trump's two stated goals directly conflict with longstanding US economic policy.

Whether we have lost jobs, and how many, and when, is open to debate. CNN reported in March that 5,000,000 factory jobs had been lost since 2000.  The story noted that mechanization and automation of jobs was responsible for cutting down on manufacturing jobs, as well as foreign workers. A year earlier, though, CNS News claimed we'd lost 7,231,000 manufacturing jobs since 1979. 

Like job 'creation' job 'loss' takes on many forms. In our office, two lawyers left in the past 18 months to go to other jobs. We didn't replace those lawyers. That seems to count as two job losses, but in one case, the lawyer joined another firm, apparently not replacing anyone there, so that was one job created. Net job loss 1?

Trump is going to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a 'marketplace' alternative. Obamacare in fact is based on a marketplace: you have to buy insurance from insurance companies, who offer it as group rates or on exchanges.

Trump is, as all Republicans are, going to cut taxes. Or not. Trump promised repeatedly during the campaign to cut taxes on small businesses, promises his advisors said weren't actually promises. Either way, Trump's plan looks like it will add trillions to the deficit, forcing more government borrowing and more money to go to US debt service.

In 1988, the total amount the US government spent just paying interest on the national debt was:


In 2016, that amount had more than doubled to:


The payments have not gone up at a steady rate; sometimes they went down. They peaked at $363,000,000,000 in 1998, then dropped before going up to $451,000,000,000 in 2008, then $454,000,000,000 in 2011. Which means they've gone down nearly 10% since 2011.

I don't remember the 1980s as a particularly good, or bad, time. I remember them as a time that I was mostly preoccupied with the things teens are occupied with: trying to figure out life, trying to date people and fit in, that kind of stuff. I didn't  solve mysteries or fight supervillains; I just read about them as an escape from what I imagined were troubles that nobody could understand and nobody could solve. I didn't pay much attention to politics or government in general until the Iran-Contra hearings, when Ollie North 'heroically' sold arms to Iran to fund the Nicaraguan contras.

The problems the Hardy Boys faced, the villains the Legion faced, the problems my teenage self faced: they were all, really, fictional, transient. They were problems that would go away when you flipped the page, when you turned 16, or 17, or 18. Once high school ends, nobody needs to worry about being popular in high school anymore. As you get near the end of a book, you know that even a weakened Fenton Hardy isn't going to let a smuggler shoot his sons, that Superboy and Star Boy are going to find a way to stop the Fearsome Five.

It's once you close the book, once you graduate, that you realize what problems really are. Over the next four years, people who are scared of the future and fetishize the past are going to try to re-create what they imagined were good times, by selectively choosing what information to pay attention to and what problems to focus on.

But the past wasn't as good as you think it was. The Hardy Boys and the Legion were simplistic notions of the past and the future, versions of reality that are every bit as out-of-touch with the real real world as the minds of those who imagine you can build a wall around America to keep us from getting hurt, who imagine that factory jobs will suddenly exist and there will be people to fill them, who imagine that you can cut taxes and increase spending without hurting someone -- and who will ignore that the someones who get hurt are those who need help the most and take the least.

Consider this:  If you get Social Security Disability Income, which is the primary income Mr F and Mr Bunches will have after they are 18 -- income which they will have to use to support themselves in some way after Sweetie and I are dead -- you get an average of $1,166 per month. Mr F, when he is 18, will not be able to work, not unless a miracle happens and turns his life around. He will have income, assuming that we don't cut it more to bring those factory jobs back, the way Reaganomics did, of about $14,000 per year.

People making six figures save, on average, $5,000 per year on their taxes by taking the mortgage interest deduction. If you earn more than $100,000 per year, and own a home, we reduce your taxes by $5,000 per year simply because you're you.

Cutting taxes to help the rich began in the 1980s. Cutting benefits to hurt the poor began then, too. There have always been wars in the mideast and terrorists looking to kill us. There have always been job losses and changes in society that hurt some and help some. There have always been economic shifts: farms to cities, cities to suburbs, agrarian to industrial, industrial to informational, that have raised some up and hurt others.

Nothing Donald Trump does will change that for the better. But that's not the goal of Trumpists. Their goal isn't to make the world a better place. Their goal is to make the world better for them. Life is a zero sum game for Republicans: if you are up, they are down, and if you are down, they believe they are up, even if they aren't really.

In the 1970s and 1980s, I worried about my comic book collection and whether girls liked me and if the car would be available for dates. I can be excused for ignoring some of the things going on in society, because I was a kid.

In 2016, I worry whether my sons will live on the streets after I die, whether police will shoot my grandson when they pull him over for speeding, whether the few protections that are left in the world to keep people (in America, at least) from starving in the streets or dying in shelters because hospitals won't take them, will be stripped away.

I don't miss the ignorance of the world I had when I was a kid. It's ignorance that got us here. I can hide my head in the sand for a week or two, re-reading old books, but all it does is emphasize that things have been going wrong for a long time now, and we aren't getting any better or smarter.


Andrew Leon said...

Yeah, that is a thing: People just keep being people. People today act in exactly the same ways as people did 100 years ago, 200 years ago, 500 years ago, and on and on. We like to think of ourselves, as a race, as smarter, but, as a race, we are just as stupid as we've always been.

I had a couple dozen Hardy Boys books. I never succeeded in my goal of having the whole series. Which, I know now, is much more complicated than I thought it was then.

Briane Pagel said...

I only thought of the books because I'd gone to the used book store with the boys and happened to see a whole set of the blue hardcovers, the ones I had. I don't think I had the whole set either, but I had a lot of them.