Friday, October 31, 2008

McCain? Obama? Bueller? Bueller?

Ben Stein first became mainstream due to his cameo in...anyone?...anyone?...Ferris Bueller's Day off. Before his career in show business, however, he was a successful economist, attorney, and early on wrote speeches writer for Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He's bright, well-educated, influential, funny and memorable. And he's rich.

Whenever I see him, though, I can only think of his old game show, Win Ben Stein's Money. It was a light-hearted quiz show aired on Comedy Central from 1997 until 2002. Stein turned his monotone delivery and robotic brain into a surprisingly adept comedic delivery.

I guess a business suit and a comedy routine impresses the hell out of me, because I've always liked this guy. Perhaps that's a bit of a commentary on the influence of popular culture on a person...more likely though it's a comment on my maturity. But the point is that now he shows up on all the cable news networks and makes a case for conservative values. I haven't agreed with most of the things I've heard him say, but I still like the guy and respect his opinion.

But last night he was on Larry King Live, and he finally lost me. Here's the transcript:

STEIN: There are a lot of flaws in Senator McCain's life. There have been a lot of flaws in his campaign, but this is a guy who gave his youth, his strength, his health for us when I was living it up on the campus of Yale and smoking dope. He was getting tortured and beat up and having his arms broken for the people of the United States of America. I will never turn my back on him.

KING: That's not a reason to vote for him.

STEIN: Yes, it is a reason to vote for him.

KING: It is?

STEIN: It is, because I think he's a person of magnificent character.

KING: So if I found someone more injured --

STEIN: No, if you found another presidential candidate who was even more of a war hero then I would be very, very impressed. He's been a maverick all his life. He's the most heated man in the Senate because he crosses party lines and he's not a reliable party hack. I will never turn my back on him.

So let me get this straight...having been tortured while in the service of ones country automatically qualifies the individual for president. And if I should dare to “turn my back on him” then presumably I am unpatriotic. By that logic it would seem the prisoners of Abu Ghraib would be qualified to become John's chief advisors.

I don't know what makes a war hero. Certainly respect goes out to anyone who suffers the kind of abuse McCain did. But how does that make him more qualified for office? Must we give such a man whatever he dreams because failing to do so would be somehow inhumane? The moral of this story is completely ridiculous, and it is the first half the entire McCain campaign. The entire campaign is as follows: WAR HERO. MAVERICK. WAR HERO. UH...MAVERICK!

And that's all you get. War hero? Irrelevant. And maverick? Let's see...

A Maverick is “One who creates or uses unconventional and/or controversial ideas or practices.”1 That's pretty broad. And it's neither a good nor a bad thing. Eating soup with a fork would make you a maverick. For that matter, telling the truth in a political campaign would also make you a maverick. But none of that matters in this example because McCain isn't one. Granted, he's had plenty of unconventional ideas, but doesn't USE any of them. He made being unpopular an art, with both parties. But to become a Republican president you have to get the support of the GOP. So whatever unconventional tendencies he may have had were gone by the time he started his campaign in 2006. (Watch this video for some fun examples.)

So I'm sorry Ben Stein, but this is not about electing someone who uses controversial practices. No one of that type is even on the ticket. So why don't we choose someone who is willing to use proven, functional methods in stead? Furthermore, it is not about honoring John McCain, for crying out loud. That's what his however many medals of honor were for. (Obama would do better by the veterans, too, mind you.)

Immediately following Stein's statement, Arianna Huffington said:

HUFFINGTON: You know, this is actually a very interesting point because Ben is talking about voting on a candidate's story. And last night during the half hour infomercial, Obama is asking for the American people's vote based on reviving the American dream and this is really the distinction and that's what I think is going to determine what happens on Tuesday.

So this election is about honoring ourselves. It's about restoring our global reputation. It's about releasing the middle class from the financial strangle-hold created by the Bush tax cuts and the war in Iraq. I guess you could even say it's about winning Ben Stein's money. Let's all play along.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Conversation with my Iraqi Schoolmates

A Triptych from Sweden
Part Three. A Conversation with my Iraqi Schoolmates.

In part two of "A Triptych from Sweden" I wrote about the oddities of earnings in Sweden. A person can work full-time for months and still stay on welfare, earning the bare minimum to survive, while the employer is given time to evaluate the worker. That's if you're lucky enough to find a job. Even low-skill work is mostly taken by older citizens.

In part three we look abroad and find a country where work is plentiful, wages are fair, and payment is prompt. Go south and east of Stockholm until you arrive just a few hours short of the Red Sea. You're now welcome to work and live in Baghdad, Iraq.

Sweden has offered amnesty to the world's refugees ever since the Nazis trooped through and decided to leave it alone. People from Bosnia, Somalia, Lebanon, and many other oppressed regions have found Sweden to be a generous and hospitable respite from war and genocide.

In a school dedicated to teaching Swedish to adults who have recently moved here, one can meet many of these people. Currently at least half of the student body is from Iraq. They are doctors, nurses, engineers, psychologists, laborers and artisans of every stripe. They come here when the stress of life under siege becomes too much to handle. They leave their careers, communities, and often their families in order to find peace. Several have told me how they would like to live in the US. Others prefer Europe. But many wait to go back to their homeland. They are hopeful that democracy will eventually calm things down there.

But they're worried. It's understood that every politician is under greater influence from foreign interests than from his own voters. The various allegiances of the Council of Representatives of Iraq are held by Iran, Kuwait, Russia, USA and any other government with an emissary and a briefcase. Right now there is no one in the government who is speaking for the people who actually reside in the country.

And don't be fooled by the news. The People of Iraq are not at war with each other. Every day we here about the violent, irrepressible urges of the Iraqi tribes. It's not true. Sunni marries Shiite. Shiite rooms with Kurd. Jew and Christian share business contacts. The community here is as diverse as any Western country. It is only the political parties who are in conflict with each other. So when the media tells you that generations of suspicion and animosity is the root cause for violence in the region, don't you believe it. It's a convenient and misleading wisdom aimed at keeping our forces there indefinitely. If we think of the citizenry as being tolerant and open-minded then we run the risk of losing our nerve to continue trying to save them from themselves. And if we lose our nerve, then we lose our "credibility." Without that then we can no longer bully any other country with whom we share any commercial interest. At least not as easily.

As it stands, the members of the Iraqi government want what most of the world's elected official want. Power. Control. Money. And they're not getting much of any. Could it be they're just waiting for the best deal? So far the American offer has been paltry, but with forces on the ground we do get to maintain a place at the bargaining table. Seated nearby one finds politicians being paid by Russia, Iran, and Syria. It's a bit like a custody battle over a talented young child whose parents are egotistical, greedy, stubborn, and armed.

I told my friends that I thought the war was wrong from the beginning. I didn't believe the lies from the Bush and Blair administrations. I was certain that the attack would be disastrous. (I did want to maintain my own credibility with them, after all.) But I asked them, given what we know now, was I wrong? Sure things are awful at the moment, but was it better with Saddam? Isn't there at least more of a chance for the future today? Their answer was no. It was better before. And hearing that was like taking a kick in the gut.

I want to be optimistic about this offensive. And let's be clear, it is offensive. But almost as reprehensible as Bush Inc. going into this war has been the media's handling of it. Even if you could find someone with the balls to question the attack back in the first 3 years of it, there was never any follow through.

For years after the initial assault, conservatives won every argument with, "So you think it would be better if Saddam was still in power?" It was a threat with a question mark at the end. Sort of like, "You wanna piece of me?" And of course the mature, responsible answer is always, "No." The question itself implied vast repercussions to anyone who dared answer in the affirmative. So no one did. No one even asks the question about Saddam any more. The answer was so consistent, defensive, and soft, that now it's politically correct to say, "I am against this war, but believe we should stay in Iraq for their own good."

Well we might want to rethink that opinion. And if you feel powerless over the media in the US, just think how the Iraqi people feel. I explained to my school friends how our mainstream news gives us unclear explanations about what is happening. It tells us that the people of Iraq are the ones who are killing each other. It tells us that we're doing what must be done. It tells us how Iraqi's politicians are doing their best to get a handle over this angry population.

But no explanations were necessary. It turns out that they see the same news. They know better than we do what we're being told. It bothers them, too.

"Practice Work"

A Triptych from Sweden
Part Two. "Practice Work"

Everyone in Sweden gets paid once per month, all on the same day. Those who work and those on welfare all get their salary just in time to pay rent. Every bank in the country uses direct deposit exclusively. In fact, my bank charged me 120 Kronor when I deposited my "stimulus package" from the US Treasury Department. It's quite a hassle for them dealing with checks apparently, because they have to mail it to Stockholm. 20USD for the stamp, perhaps?

But I'm getting side-tracked. I was saying that everyone gets paid the same day, no matter who you work for. But having an employer doesn't guarantee that the company is obliged to make the payment. It's a Swedish tradition to allow businesses a probationary period for up to 6 months wherein the country will continue paying the employee. It's basically an internship, except that it doesn't matter how skilled the employee is. You could have years of experience in the field and begin contributing to the success of the company from your first day. You are still earning the same amount you made while unemployed. As it happens, that's quite a bit less than what a landscaper makes.

Let's say that you do get a paying job, though. And let's say that you start, oh, toward the end of the month. You will have to wait until the next pay period before you see anything. That means that you may end up working for a company for almost 6 weeks before you see anything in the bank. And what if the company turns out to have been failing and can't afford its payroll? Well, you're out of luck. Back to the welfare office you go.

Not all is lost, though. If you missed a rent payment in there don't worry about it. They can't kick you out for up to three months. So that's in your favor. Of course there's a down-side to the three month clause. Say, for instance, you'd like to move. You're going to have to give your leasing agency three months notice, no matter what. You're welcome to move before your time is up, of course, but you have to continue paying until the three months is up. They don't have long or short term leases here. Just an unending three month extension added on every time you pay your rent.

I know it's not a big deal. Just plan ahead, right? It's like any other bureaucratic process. And all things considered it's probably a better deal than what you get in The States. But this is supposed to be an article where I complain. So let's just remember the point. "Practice Work" and unfair pay sucks. Capitalism isn't perfect, but socialism isn't either.

One thing for certain, though, Sweden isn't about to declare war on a defenseless nation in order to stretch its hegemony. For this and other marketing opportunities, move on to article 3.

The Cost of Groceries

A Triptych from Sweden
Part One. The Cost of Groceries.

Living abroad has proven to be as exciting as continental drift. Things are quiet and stationary for a long time. One doesn't really notice the movement. Then a fault line slips.

Over the last month I've felt 3 distinct quakes in perspective. Once I sat down to write about them, suddenly a number of tremors sprang to mind as well. I hadn't noticed anything interesting to write about living in Sweden since I had first arrived. Suddenly I feel like I'm ready to give a lecture on Pangaea.

Originally I thought I would write one article about 3 different topics. But that turned out to be too long, so I'm splitting it up into separate parts. The tremors, however curious, will not make it into these writings. For example, I won't be discussing how some Swedish couples never get around to mentioning their political party to one another. Nor will I go into the excruciating stupidity of coffee shops not opening until 9 am at the earliest. I will also forgo, for the time-being, how the Swedish can give even the British a run for their money when it comes to fear of embarrassment.

What I will address in three parts is the cost of groceries, the concept of "Practice Work", and that which inspired this article in the first place: A conversation with my Iraqi schoolmates. The sections may seem unrelated at first blush. But they tie together nicely in my mind. I'll show you how.

The least of it first. Vivian and I went to our neighborhood grocer a few nights ago. It was 6 pm, but dark already. And we're still 2 months until solstice. Anyway, I'm not very good at predicting the cost of food here. But it's something I try to do. I'm a bit of a miser. I worried over the cost of eating in the States as well. Any time I spent more than 15 dollars at the store I felt like I was donating a kidney. But I had no idea how good I had it. The prices here can make one consider if anatomical trade wouldn't be the cheaper option. Play along with this handy list and tell me what you think. We picked up an iceberg lettuce (romaine or spinach is out of the question), a few tomatoes, 2 carrots, a cucumber, bananas, apples, juice concentrate, a quart of milk, yogurt, two boxes of cereal, sandwich meat, 2 bottles of soda, a small packet of cookies, two chocolates, some cheese, and a pack of pre-ground(!) coffee.. The cost was about 600 Swedish Kronor (SEK).

Ok. What'd you come up with? I figure that in the states, depending on the store, this could cost from 40 to 50 bucks. But once you convert 600SEK to the dollar, the price of this trip was 75USD. What's more, that's AFTER the recent fall on the Krona. Until this week it would have been equal to 100USD. Seriously.

But cost of living being what it is, this all balances out a little when one considers that even lawn maintenance workers start at 20USD per hour. For the effort of raking leaves, pulling weeds, and planting flowers a citizen can earn what I made as a business manager in the States. But in the states that meant I could have a car, gym membership, books and movies, travel, and go out to eat whenever I felt like it. These landscapers are paid well, comparatively, but in practice labor is labor, whether you live here or in the US. It's not big deal, though. I wouldn't mind digging ditches if I could find the work. But even those jobs are held by people ten to twenty years older than I am. It's career work here. That leaves nothing but restaurant work for young people.

But the upside is that if you work at a restaurant then chances are you'll actually get paid for it. Read on to part two.