The commercialization of Halloween has helped further the infantilization of American culture

The day after seeing the first TV commercial for the December holiday gift potlatch seems like an appropriate time to consider the point at which the celebration of Halloween transformed from a secular celebration of a religious holiday to a major factor in the infantilization of American culture.

Infantilization occurs when adults continue to act like children in their adult years, e.g., living at home after college (although many must), vacationing at Disney facilities, collecting My Little Ponies or Legos, indulging in superhero culture, participating in adult sleepovers at museums, engaging in cosplay or spending a good deal of time playing video games. The list of movies glorifying adults who remain children grows so quickly that I have tired of trying to keep up, and so supply a slightly old set of examples: The “Bad Mothers” series, “Tammy,” “Harold & Kumar” movies, “Old School,” “Big,” “Grandma’s Boy,” the “Ted” flicks, “The Wedding Crashers,” “Billy Madison,” ”Step Brothers,” “You, Me and Dupree,” “Dodgeball,” “The 40-year-old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” all three “Hangovers,” the “Jackass” movies, “Bridesmaids,” “Hall Pass” and “Identity Thief.”

My central assertion over what has become ten pieces on the infantilization of American  culture has been that retailers and advertisers embrace and encourage adults to keep their childish habits and ways of thinking because it’s easier to convince children to buy something, easier to manipulate their emotions and dissemble their still forming critical faculties.

Celebrating Halloween is different from attending a “My Little Pony” convention because it has a long history dating to the ancient Celts. Christianity rolled pagan customs into a three-day celebration of saints. When I lived in Germany in 1976, no one celebrated Halloween, but churches were opened and stores closed for the next day, All Saints Day. In England, by contrast, children have been trick-or-treating since the 16th century. Moreover in much of the civilized world, rich folk have dressed up for costume balls and parties since at least the Romans, if not before. Like all holidays that predate the establishment of the world’s major religions, Halloween is at essence a way of marking time, which means both counting years and separating the parts of the year—and the day—into parts and defining appropriate human behavior for marking those parts.

As it has done to all modern celebration, commercialization has slowly corrupted the holiday of Halloween. In every decade since World War II, fewer costumes are home-made and more are store-bought than in the prior decade. Virtually all treats are now prepackaged candy: a handful of highly-publicized cases of adulterating food aided by urban-legend type rumors of others in the 1980’s pretty much put the kibosh on distributing home-made cookies or brownies. Giving even a small amount of something healthy like raisins or nuts is way too expensive for most families. Decorations have gotten completely out of hand. Once people put a pumpkin or two in their window or on their porch. As children in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, my brother and I used to add a few cut-outs of ghosts, sometimes bought and sometimes created from construction paper. We would add twists of orange and black crepe to the living room when we threw a party. Decorations have become more and more elaborate with each passing decade and today symbolize an apotheosis of conspicuous consumption: elaborate and very expensive displays of three-dimensional witches, ghosts, goblins, gremlins, goons and monsters. Thorsten Veblen, author of The Theory of the Leisure Class, would marvel at how Halloween now turns the exterior of the house into yet another opportunity for the bourgeoisie to demonstrate that they have enough money to waste large sums of it on trifling showiness. People now also routinely send Halloween cards. With the increase in the intensity of Halloween celebration has come, of course, a growing tsunami of TV and Internet ads and entertainment programming starting around October 1st each year. In total, Americans spent $8.4 billion to celebrate Halloween last year, or $82.93 for each individual making a Halloween purchase.

But while we can regret this commercialization of Halloween, there is no infantilization in these developments, just the same good old-fashion American commercialization that has corrupted Christmas, Hanukkah and Easter, while creating new opportunities to commemorate by spending such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Many adults, however, are celebrating Halloween as if they were still children, all involving costumes. When you get dressed up in a costume to stay at home and distribute treats, you have been infantilized. When you insist on donning a costume to accompany your children on their trick-or-treating journey, you have been infantilized. When you wear a costume to the office during office hours, even if it is to attend a Halloween party that takes place at the lunch hour, yes, you’ve been infantilized. In all these situations, you are extending the habits and thought processes of childhood into adulthood. These practices are of course new reasons to buy stuff for the holiday, and so have been encouraged by commercials and entertainment, e.g., situation comedies and family dramas.

Moreover, Halloween was a holiday for children for many years. Now it is a holiday for children and adults. Commercialization and infantilization have worked together to transform Halloween from a special occasion for the community to give its children sweets from the harvest bounty to another excuse for Americans to spend to show they’re human and to pretend, for one evening, to be children again.

When I wrote at the beginning of this piece that I saw my first holiday gift TV commercial yesterday, it was a mild distortion. The commercial alluded only obliquely to Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but instead pushed the idea of getting Black Friday prices before Black Friday, which has all but official recognition as a major American holiday, one dedicated to the greatest of all American past times—shopping for goods and services that express emotion and define relationships. The only benefit from this overlapping of the Halloween and the Christmas season is that it provides further protection from commercialization to Thanksgiving.

I want to close this piece with a base commercial announcement of my own: My latest book of poetry, a flipbook titled Cubist States of Mind/Not the Cruelest Month is available from the publisher, Poet’s Haven Press or Amazon. Cubist States of Mind uses language equivalents of Cubist painting techniques to depict mental states, such as anger, desire, jealousy, boredom, hunger and wonder. Not the Cruelest Month is a cycle of vignettes of New York City the April after Superstorm Sandy hit that explores the relationship between reality, perception and language. That’s a lot of thought-provoking poetry, and at $6 it’ll make a great stocking stuffer or small gift.

Now that I have ended my shameless shill, I leave it to my readers to determine whether I have subverted commercial culture or been co-opted by it.

Cutting taxes on rich will be as destructive as closing down trolley lines in cities to favor of cars was in 20th century

Slashing taxes on the wealthy and cutting services to children, the poor and the aged.

Cutting back on immigration and deporting the 800,000 dreamers.

Shaping government policy to promote fossil fuels, while ignoring the role government can play in addressing global warming

Ending our commitments to treaties forged from a policy of cooperation with other nations throughout the world.

Let’s forget about the human tragedies that these Trump-GOP policies will produce. If carried through, any of these four actions will be enough to sink the American economy.

But don’t think that it’s the first time that the leaders of our country have instituted policies that were doomed.

We’ve done it before.

And usually, the reason for the disaster has been that the government policy was concocted to help one industry or small group of people and founded on the faulty ideas and reasoning that industry/group developed to justify their greed.

20th century American history records at least three instances of our government working hand-in-glove with well-heeled special interest groups against the best interests of the American people:

  1. Truman’s decision to develop nuclear energy instead of solar energy.

As if dropping atom bombs on two large cities wasn’t enough, Harry Truman also got the federal government behind development of nuclear energy as a means to generate electricity and squelched the solar option. In the early fifties, experts placed two white papers on his desk—one to develop nuclear, the other to develop solar. Truman went with nuclear, because it did what the large utility companies and major manufacturers wanted: centralized power facilities transmitting electricity along a grid and then metered and sold. Solar by contrast, would have developed decentralized industries and enabled many consumers to lower their use of all other metered energy, such as heating oil and natural gas. Non-metered electricity and heat? Better for the long-term economy, public safety and the economy, but a no-no to the big guys.

  1. Destruction of inner city mass transit and the development of auto-dependent suburbs

Lots of things contributed to the development of our car-dependent existence and its discontents, e.g., pollution, traffic jams, social isolation and segregation. Government housing and transportation policies, the rapid decline in cost of both cars and homes, the creation of suburban plans that tended to isolate people, media exaggeration of urban problems, the machinations of local real estate industries everywhere and racism all played a role. But there can be no doubt that the long prevailing mass transit policies—the destruction of dedicated trolley lines in cities in favor of the automobile and busses and the related development of suburbs with no mass transit to urban and job centers—were negative policies that played major roles in creating all the dystopic aspects of suburban life. As Kenneth T. Jackson so ably detailed 30 years ago in Crabgrass Frontier, before World War I we had more trolley lines in inner cities than all of Europe combined. Governments saw trolley lines as private businesses which they taxed and regulated to keep fares below costs. The same governments invested huge sums in highways. Moreover, the federal government sat still for 30 years and let General Motors buy up hundreds of trolley lines all over the country and either shut them down or convert them to buses, freeing the roads for cars and more cars. Meanwhile, unlike the first wave of suburban growth, new suburbs were developed that did not have ready access to rail mass transit helped by governmental policies. As a nation, we turned our back on dedicated mass transit for the benefit of the automobile industry and certain developers.

  1. The imperialist post-World War American foreign policy

After World War II, the United States acted as if a country that wasn’t completely anti-communist was a threat that gave us the right us to interfere in its politics. We were quite willing to do business with dictators, but not with democratically elected governments that leaned left. People of good will can dispute the merits and necessity of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, but how did we improve our national security by helping totalitarians overthrow the democratically elected governments of Iran and Chile? How did we improve national security by taking sides with anti-democracy forces in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Angola? How could Democrats and Republicans so ubiquitously share the mass delusion called the domino theory and therefore subscribe to the Viet Nam war, a war that Lyndon Johnson knew was unwinnable even as he kept escalating it? The Iraq War merely extends the lunacy of post-war U.S. foreign policy. One consistent element in all of the individual bellicosities the American Imperium has committed has been the massive economic benefit it provides to large defense contractors and to other large industries, often involved in natural resource extraction.

Yes, our leaders have had a curious habit of hurting the country to favor a few wealthy industries or families. It goes back to the beginnings of the nation—subverting democracy to favor slave-holding agricultural interests through the institution of the Senate, the Electoral College and the counting of slaves as three-fifths of a person for census purposes.

These collective inanities of the 20th century have turned us into a society divided by money, race and geography with a crumbling infrastructure, poor health and severe environmental and climate challenges. But behind each mass delusion are good intentions: securing our supply of energy in a post-oil world, making it easier for people to move around the world, defending our national security. In theory it’s not a bad thing if industries and individuals benefit by fulfilling national policy. In a market-based economy, even one with lots of regulations, a wide social safety net, and government involvement and even ownership of industry, individual companies, industries and families will always benefit from government policies. There’s nothing wrong with that outcome, as long as the benefit to the industries and individuals maximizes the benefit to society and everyone else. All too often in the United States, however, industries and individuals highjack policy and shape it so they will benefit, even if it means hurting others.

Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains fills in blanks in Jane Mayer’s Dark Money narrative

According to the standard leftwing narrative about the current dominance of Republicans on both the state and national levels is that the economic rightwing has contrived a deal with racists and social conservatives (among which groups there is some but not complete overlap) by which the ultra-wealthy have manipulated poor and middle class whites to vote against their own economic interests while seeking to disenfranchise large groups of left-looking voters. It’s a storyline which I think pretty accurately describes American politics over the past three decades.

Duke University history professor Nancy MacLean, however, makes a strong case in Democracy in Chains, that the techniques for gaining absolute power and the ultimate objective of the Koch, Mercer, Anschutz, Bradley, DeVos, Prince and other ultra-rich, ultra-right families derive from the original racist reaction to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which outlawed segregation of the races in public schools.

According to MacLean, the key figure in transforming the reactions of segregationists to the working game plan of the 21st Republican Party was James McGill Buchanan, who stands out among Nobel Prize winners for Economics for his focus on theory and disuse of empirical evidence. His great contribution was to bring economic ideas into the realm of politics, primarily through what is called the “public choice theory,” primarily the idea that individuals always behave in politics in their own best interests. While at the University of Virginia, Buchanan put together the plan in Virginia to resist segregation by ending public schools and giving parents vouchers for private schools. Later he founded the Center for the Study of Public Choice, into which the Koch brothers poured millions of dollars. Once Buchanan transferred the program to George Mason University, the focus shifted from educating thinkers to dispute the constitutional thought that led to Brown v. Board to training operatives for the far-flung network of think tanks and lobbying groups funded by the Kochs and their pals. This network, which includes the Cato Institute, the Mt. Pelerin Society, the Heritage Foundation, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth and Reason Foundation, among others, spews out deceptive information and ideas on a variety of matters such as healthcare policy, gun rights, climate change, school policy and public sector employment. You see their bogus work all the time as opinion or expert pieces in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Atlantic and elsewhere.

Underlying the convoluted gobbledygook of public choice theory is the basic belief that the majority should never constrain the minority. Public choice theory “elevates property rights as to paralyze the use of government for democratically determined goals,” as MacLean puts it. At the same time, public choice theory insists on the primacy of individual players, believing that collections of individuals, such as unions and other special interest groups, too often get their priorities approved by government, a terrible situation for Buchanan, Koch and others if it leads to any constraint on property. Buchanan and his ilk (disciples all of Hayek and Milton Friedman) want the government to operate like an absolute free market—each entity representing only itself, even if a small number of ultra-wealthy entities can therefore control everything.

Constraint of the majority was the original Southerners’ idea during the debate on the Constitution to prevent the growing, non-slave-owning North from gaining too much power through the federal government, leading to the Electoral College, Senate and the counting of slaves as three-fifths of a person for census purposes. Later it became the basis for all segregationist arguments, and still later the rationale for the opposition to environmental regulations, higher taxes on the wealthy, LGBTQ rights and a variety of other policies approved by a majority of Americans. In its extreme, as presented by Buchanan (and co-author Gordon Tullock) in The Calculus of Consent, it means that only those who agree to being taxed for public schools or building a road should pay and only programs with unanimous consent of all governed can be implemented by the government.

MacLean reports that after losing the battle against integration, Buchanan and some associates used what she calls Leninist ideas to put together a stealth plan to inject public choice theory into the mainstream of American political thinking and to turn the United States into the type of oligarchy that existed in Virginia and other southern states in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The plan seems to follow the lead of corporate mobilization called for in Lewis Powell’s famous 1971 memo in which the future Supreme Court Justice calls for corporate American take a more aggressive role in shaping America’s social and political ideas. It’s not mentioned by MacLean, but the process that Buchanan outlined and the Kochs and their pals funded seems right out of socialist G. William Domhoff’s public policy model. In simplified terms: rich folk put together foundations and think tanks, which propose ideas that rich folk find politicians to endorse; once elected, the politicians form commissions and committees on which sit the rich folks’ experts to promulgate the policies and laws that the rich folk wanted in the first place. like the plot of Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, required reading for anyone interested in learning why our democracy has been commandeered for the benefit of a few ultra-wealthy and very selfish families.

Right-wingers have panned MacLean’s book, asserting that she made a selective use of Buchanan’s work, citing what damned him as an anti-democratic racist and ignoring other evidence that suggests otherwise. But as with the more than 150-year-old defense of the racist and strategically mediocre Robert E. Lee, the defense is based on snippets in an ocean of information. Democracy in Chains joins Dark Money, Domhoff’s Who Rules America Now and The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy and C. Wright Mill’s The Power Elite as essential reading to understand how rich folk manage to always get their way in the United States, even if their way hurts just about everyone else.

Let’s use the Weinstein moment to fight for laws that end wage gap & support health of women & families

If a woman would gladly watch a high-powered Hollywood executive play with himself, give him a massage or do whatever else Harvey Weinstein fantasized about, that would be between them—two consulting adults.

But Harvey Weinstein was not interested in consensual sex, and I doubt he was interested in sex at all. For him, it was all about power over women. He must be one sick pup—just as sick as Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby and Donald Trump. Very insecure men who seem to feel threatened by all women and take every opportunity to use sex as a weapon to assert a superiority in power.

That these men are still allowed to play key management roles in large organizations in the 21st century seems as impossibly fantastic as the idea that enough Americans would vote for an inexperienced, ignorant and unbalanced failed businessman to enable him to win the Electoral College vote. The outing of these famous super-predators, the defeat of an eminently qualified woman in the Electoral College by one of them, and the widespread reports of badly-behaving men and rampant male chauvinism at many young technology companies all remind us that a virulent strain of misogyny still exists in the United States.

But also existing are the laws, and in most places, the corporate policies and procedures to shut down sexual harassment of women. What doesn’t exist all too often is the will. It doesn’t help that, like child molesters, the super-predator has a sixth sense about which potential victims are more vulnerable—the new, the naïve, the ignorant, those with emotional problems. The fact that there are often ready-made victims for sexual harassers makes it even more incumbent on organizations to clearly communicate that harassment of all types is illegal and will not be tolerated, no matter how rich, famous or connected the harasser is.

But in the hubbub about Weinstein’s disgusting behavior and the entertainment industry that enabled it for decades, let’s not forget that women face not just sexual harassment, but economic discrimination in the workplace. Women still make less than men for doing the same job, plus workplace rules often create a “Jim Crow” kind of situation, without the lynching and jailing—a set of laws that tend to favor men over women. For example, employers still are not required to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant women who want or have to continue working and there are no national scheduling standards that balance employers’ desire for scheduling flexibility with the need of women (and some men) to be able to plan family necessities.

The issue of employment equality and workplace sexual harassment are related. We won’t solve one until we solve the other. Lower salaries and de facto discriminatory policies and procedures tell men that organizations don’t consider women to be their equal, a subtle but clear signal that women can be treated as objects, insulted or pressed for sexual favors. The lesser, more vulnerable human is always fair game.

My wife alerted me to a great organization, the National Partnership for Women and Families, which lobbies for new laws that expand opportunities for women and improve the well-being and economic security of families. In a March 2017 fact sheet, the National Partnership detailed five proposed laws that would help women achieve equality in the workplace (and I quote):

  • The Paycheck Fairness Act would strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and help eliminate the discriminatory pay practices that plague employed women.
  • The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would prevent employers from forcing pregnant women out of the workplace and help ensure that employers provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant women who want to continue working.
  • The Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act would create a national paid leave insurance program to support workers and businesses when a new child arrives or a serious personal or family medical need arises.
  • The Healthy Families Act would allow workers to earn seven paid sick days to use to recover from illness, access preventive care or care for a sick family member.
  • The Schedules That Work Act would establish national fair scheduling standards that would help provide economic security for working families and enable workers to meet their responsibilities at home and on the job.

I urge readers to contact their Senators and Congressional Representatives and urge them to support these bills. Also get on the National Partnership website and educate yourself about all the issues affecting women in the workplace. You might even want to contribute.

Trump may be living in the past with his ideas and policies, but they are 100% 21st century GOP

It seems as if the pace of Trump Administration abominations is accelerating. Every day Trump’s soldiers issue another decree that hurts the economy, harms our future potential, endangers our population or curtails the civil rights of a group or all of us. Meanwhile, Trumpty-Dumpty sets verbal dumpster fires all over the place as a distraction: Most recently he has picked fights with the Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, a distinguished if unchangeably rightwing Senator, his own Secretary of State, the trigger-happy dictator of North Korea and the National Football League.

These reality TV shenanigans claim most of the news, while Trump’s troops continue to reset the long-term course of U.S. policy in civil rights, the environment, foreign policy and energy policy. Just take a look at what has happened in the past week or so; I put the harm each action does in italics:

  • Announcing that he will likely decertify the Iran nuclear agreement. Decreases our safety, isolates us from our allies and reverses path to a real peace with Iran
  • Setting terms for putting DACA into law that are harsh, including building a wall and severely limiting immigration. Takes a winning idea and turns it into a lose-lose situation: Deporting 800,000 productive members of society will send us into recession; not getting the additional immigrants we need to fill future U.S. jobs will stunt economic prosperity
  • Letting employers refuse to cover birth control for their female employees on religious grounds. Raises medical costs and abortions, as less access to birth control always leads to more pregnancies (expensive) and abortions (inexpensive, safe but frowned upon by Trumpites)
  • Ending the exemption to the Jones Act, so that only U.S. ships can dock in Puerto Rico once again, driving up the cost of food and other supplies precipitously. A cruel policy in light of the hurricane damage suffered by the island
  • Announcing a tax reform plan that raises taxes slightly on many in the middle class while giving the wealthy and ultra-wealthy an enormous tax break. Will lead to another asset bubble followed by a crash and will increase inequality of wealth and income in the country
  • Telling companies that they can discriminate in employment matters against the transgendered. Do I really have to write why this decision is wrong?
  • Repealing the Clean Power Plan. Doesn’t help anyone since coal is a dead industry but sets back efforts to combat human-induced global warming
  • Making deep cuts to the programs that enroll people for healthcare coverage on the individual health exchanges. Will increase both premiums for the insured and overall medical costs, as fewer people covered leads to higher premiums and more expensive emergency room visits and critical treatments since the uninsured put off seeking medical attention.

It’s a breathtaking display of ignorance and obstinacy. In every area, Trump prefers to believe long disproven myths and his own self-serving ideas than to follow science, empirical observation and the recommendations of experts. In every case, the basis for his views are observations that apply to past decades, myths that have long been proven false or the imaginary creations of the Internet rumor mill. People used to believe that the crime rate was higher among immigrants, but now we know it’s much lower. Same thing with the job-creating impact of lowering taxes on the wealthy. Economic research has proven it doesn’t happen. Extending an unharmonious relationship with Iran only makes sense to someone whose pride is still wounded by the 1979 hostage crisis, which is a far less crime against the amour-propre of a country than overthrowing its democratically elected leader, which is what we did to Iran.

With Trumpian ignorance comes a full dose of venomous small mindedness. He never forgives or forgets a slight or a grudge. Take Trump’s feud with the NFL because its players demonstrated respect for the American way by kneeling during the singing of the national anthem to protest police violence against people of color. While it continues his subtle campaign to demonize people of color, it also enables him to stick it to an old adversary, the NFL. Some history: the U.S. Football League was minting small money as a way to see football during the NFL off season until Trump bought a franchise (probably with OPM) and bullied the other owners into competing directly against the NFL. The USFL soon went bust, losing millions of dollars for all its investors. It’s the perfect Trump move—he comes into something successful and botches it up. Kind of like the casino business and the White House. In any case, his NFL feud plays to his core of racists and jingoists, while allowing him to exact some sick revenge on someone who vanquished him decades ago.

Thus in every way, Donald Trump lives in a past comprised of misbegotten ideas, obsolete notions and old grudges.

But he nonetheless represents the party that he leads. Virtually all of the current GOP subscribes to his full range of crackpot ideas, from lowering taxes on the wealthy to building a wall to supporting the religious imperatives of rightwing Christians to hating Iran to turning back the clock on environmental, labor and safety regulations.

The 21st century GOP pursues the selfish economic interests of the ultra- wealthy by pandering in word and deed to the social imperatives of rightwing Christianity and white racists. Virtually all of the GOP platform is based on the same old ideas and disproven myths that animate the Trump program. It takes ignorance to believe much of their economic nonsense, which explains why the wealthy sought allies among the most uneducated and intellectually vulnerable part of the populations—those with irrational beliefs.

These views do not represent the opinions of a majority of Americans, or even a majority of the approximately 50% who choose to vote, much less in off years. But a constitutional bias in favor of rural states and rural areas within states, gerrymandering by the Republicans, a wave of voter suppression laws and a mass media prone to tolerating Republican lies have enabled the minority that do hold these views to predominate.

Yes, the irrational, voluble, mentally unstable, ignorant and self-centered Trump scares me. But the rest of the Republican Party scares me just as much.

NYC can become an urban paradise if it raises taxes for mass transit & affordable housing

New York City exemplifies the maxim of the great chess theorist Aron Nimzovich that every strength is also a weakness.

In New York’s case, the great strength is the mass transit network, the centerpiece of which is the subway system. Those lucky enough to live near one can pretty much get by without a car in the Big Apple. Moreover, for everyone—residents, commuters and tourists, it provides an inexpensive and theoretically hassle-free way to get to work and to the abundance of museums, performing arts facilities, parks, beaches, wildlife preserves, libraries, universities, research centers, historic buildings, restaurants and interesting neighborhoods within the city limits of what has become the unofficial capital of the 21st century. Augmented by city buses and a regional bus and rail system, the subway makes the joys and wonders of New York City reachable within an hour or less for more than 25 million people—and the 60 million tourists who visit each year.

But years of neglect and the burgeoning population of both the city and the region have led to a precipitous increase in service outages, accidents and overly crowded cars and platforms. During certain times of day, riding the subway can be a nightmare. And the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) can’t respond by adding more trains because the ancient switching system can’t handle the additional load. Plus, many neighborhoods not served by the subway desperately need stations and tracks, especially in Queens and Brooklyn.

Both progressive New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and centrist accommodationist Governor Andrew Cuomo have proposed ideas for financing the multi-billion dollar, multi-year investment that must be made to replace the switching system, build new stations and renovate existing lines and stations.

Cuomo wants to institute peak congestion pricing, which means that the people who drive into the city during rush hours will be assessed a tax and the funds will go to updating the subway system. The inherent problem with this tax is that it will make it more expensive for the middle class and poor to use the roads, which will send many to mass transit alternatives, further crowding the subway, bus and other rail systems. Of course, the additional funds will enable the subway to handle the additional riders, at least in theory. Additionally, the regressive nature of the tax is offset by the fact that reduced traffic is also good for the environment. Cuomo isn’t proposing it, but a graduated tax on peak users based on their income would address the fairness issue, while raising additional funds.

De Blasio is much less willing to compromise with big money interests than Cuomo and so has proposed a tax on the wealthy earmarked for mass transit, just as a tax on high incomes is funding the city-wide public pre-school program that de Blasio has initiated.

The New York Times is pushing a third alternative, which is to reinstitute a .45% tax on the income of the 800,000 suburbanites who descend on New York City—primarily Manhattan—every work day. There is a certain attractiveness about financing transportation improvements on the people who extract their living from the city but don’t live there.

Tax peak congestion drivers? Tax rich people? Tax suburbanites? What to do? What to do?

How about all three? That way MTA can speed up improvements—do more, more quickly. And I would add a special federal gas tax, with proceeds dedicated to mass transit in the United States, starting with building another tunnel underneath the Hudson River for Amtrak and New Jersey transit trains, something that would already be near completion if it weren’t for the veto by one of our epoch’s most obnoxious supporters of the ultra-wealthy and crony capitalism, Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

And while we’re at it, let’s use taxation to solve the other major problem facing New York City–affordable housing. There are many reasons why housing is so expensive in New York City, including the fact that so many people, especially young people, want to live there. But one major factor driving up rents, especially in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, are the large number of people who own apartments but only stay in them for a few days, weeks or months a year. For example, only about 40-50% of the tenants in my apartment building live there full time. The others use it when they’re in New York, sometimes every weekend, sometimes every few months. In some buildings (not mine), owners rent out their apartments to tourists all or most of the time, often in violation of city and state laws. But whether you keep your apartment empty or rent it out to vacationers, the result is the same: another property is off the market, driving up the rents and prices on all other city real estate. I propose a special tax on properties whose owners don’t live full-time in their New York City apartments, with all proceeds used to make housing more affordable elsewhere in the city. The funds could be used to build city-financed housing for the poor and middle class or for rent subsidies for people making less than a certain amount of money. One positive effect of this new tax would be to discourage some part of the population owning but not living to give up their New York apartments, further driving down rents and prices.

Then there’s the taxes we need to raise to make the entire New York City area more able to withstand the more extreme storms that global warming has started to bring us. But imagine of we were able to make all the improvements New York needs. It would become an urban paradise.

New York is in many ways a microcosm of the United States, except it is much further ahead in supplying affordable and reliable mass transit. Every metropolitan area needs to improve its mass transit, and most have to move from buses to rails. Most regions of the country are facing crumbling roads, bridges and sewer systems. Everywhere, but particularly on the coasts and along rivers, communities have to modify infrastructure and housing to address climate change. And we haven’t even gotten to the pressing need to find more funds for traditional public schools and public colleges.

We have reached a major fork in the road as a nation: Will we slip into widespread societal breakdown?


Will we raise taxes, particular on the wealthy who have enjoyed 30+ years in which continual lowering of their taxes was financed by scrimping on our investments in the future and assuming massive debt?

We know how to solve most of our problems. The plans are out there in detail in government studies, academic papers and engineering plans. We just don’t have the money to pay for it because the ultra-wealthy, whose outsized bank accounts finance politicians and drive our political decisions, decided 40 years ago to withdraw from real civic involvement and selfishly accumulate wealth through lower taxes on their income and assets.

Walking away from Iran treaty is enormous foreign policy mistake. It only helps Saudis & Benjamin Netanyahu

The sheer stupidity of “decertifying” the nuclear—or should I say “antinuclear”—treaty between the United States, five other nations and Iran beggars the imagination. That an ignorant bully with no experience and a history of failure should propose such an idea is not noteworthy, not if the ignorant bully is Donald Trump. That supposedly patriotic, educated and experienced cabinet officers and advisors are unable to squelch this move in any way possible makes me shudder for the future of this country—and the entire human population.

The decision is bad in every way. It destabilizes the entire world every time another nation gets nuclear weapons, because the entire world would suffer from any nuclear war. The more nations have weapons, the more likely one is going to slip into the hands of a nutcase who might push the big red button. Of course, that seems to have already happened.

The decision also sets back the peace process between Iran and the West, specifically the United States. Why would we want to be enemies with a country with such an educated population and unrivalled natural resources among mid-sized countries and whose thousands of years of history has been one of the major influencers of the European culture upon which America is built? Let’s also remember that Iran wields a lot of influence with insurgent movements around the world. Coming to a lasting, all-inclusive peace with Iran would ease tensions throughout the Muslim world.

Think, too, of the lost opportunity to reduce the need for armed forces. A rapprochement with Iran would enable us to dedicate money a large portion of the billions of dollars now spent on armed forces and counter-terrorism to fixing our infrastructure of mass transit, sewers, roads and bridges and investing in alternative energy.

The key moment in the history of American-Persian relations is a stupid mistake that the United States made in 1953. We were allies and big supporters of Iran in 1953 when the CIA engineered an overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was a secularist who wanted Iran to follow the model of American and European societies. Of course, he did nationalize oil industries, which was the secret reason the United States installed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Shah of Iran. Yes, that’s right. Shah! King. Royalty. A dictator who rules by divine right. The system we fought a revolution to change. The United States of America overthrew a democracy to install a dictator not to protect our oil supply, but to protect the interests of certain oil companies. We continued to support the Shah of Iran as opposition to his rule grew and grew through the years until his overthrow in 1979 by ultra-right religious fanatics in what was a relatively bloodless revolution. It was in the immediate aftermath of the revolution that Iranian students took 52 Americans hostages and held them for 444 days.

The hostage crisis wounded America’s pride, leading to the current situation—decades of enmity between the two countries, during which we have embraced Saudi Arabia, a kingdom that oppresses its people and is the home to most of the 9/11 hijackers and the mastermind behind 9/11 and Al Qaeda. We’ve essentially taken sides in a regional religious dispute and selected a side less in tune with our values, all because the other side slapped us around a little after we had helped bludgeon it for 26 years.

The absurdity of not taking a road to pace with Iran will come into stark view if we consider that we have now had an adversarial relationship with it for 38 years, which is 10 years longer than Germany was our enemy in the middle of the 20th century. We essentially forgave Germany for all the death and misery it caused and immediate embraced it after WW II. Of course we beat their asses and they were Christians. When we deal with Iran across the peace negotiating table, we have to treat them as equals.

Usually when an Administration does something that hurts most people, the answer as to why can be found by following the money: who benefits. In this case, it’s primarily the Saudi Arabians and whichever governments, insurgent movements, terrorist groups and oil companies it is supporting. Also benefitting is the government of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Note I write the Israeli government, not the Israel people, who stand to benefit more than anyone else from peace with Iran. But Bibby needs another external enemy. We know Trump is buddy-buddy with both the Saudis and Bibby. It wouldn’t be the first time that crony capitalism has led America to make a bad foreign policy decision.

But in the case of Trump, I have to wonder. Media reports suggest that virtually all White House advisors are telling Trump not to do it and that he is digging in his heels. Why? Is he that much in the pockets of the Saudis?

Or could it be that Trump’s main motivation is to destroy everything done by that black man out of a sense of revenge for being the butt of a few jokes? For a while, I’ve heard and scoffed at the utterly Shakespearean theory that Trump’s hatred of Obama overwhelms all other thoughts and emotions when it comes to government. Trump as Iago or Lady Macbeth. An interesting and theatrical idea, but how could it be? Destabilize global politics? Throw 800,000 people with jobs or going to college out of the country? Walk away from our first real shot at addressing human-caused global warming? All because you dislike some uppity guy because he doesn’t know his place (although I imagine that instead of “black man” and “uppity guy,” Trump uses a different word when thinking about President Obama). Impossible, I thought. But maybe not.

Not that it will help, but we should all be jamming the phone lines and Internet bandwidth with pleas to Trump not to walk away from the Iranian deal and demands to our Senators and Congressional representatives that they announce they will support impeachments proceedings if Trump goes ahead with his plan to “decertify.”

Hugh Hefner was a sexist pig—intellectual, liberal, stylish, all true. But nonetheless—a pig!!!

As part of his glorification and ascent to the Valhalla of dead celebrities, Hugh Hefner has received far too much credit for the positive impact he had on American society and far too little condemnation for the negative.

True, he advocated for abortion and took other liberal and progressive stands, typically from the standpoint of libertarianism, which is not such a good political ideology in many areas. He did popularize a number of important non-mainstream ideas in philosophy, psychology, politics and cultural studies. He did help to loosen up the entertainment mores of the strait-laced post-war mass culture.

And yes, Hefner did popularize important ideas about sexual freedom. But his version of sexual freedom posed the existence of woman as solely for the convenience of men, for their sexual pleasure and as a signifier of male social and financial success. He twisted the sexual revolution into a new version of the same old female subservience to male domination. Feminism would have proceeded without him—birth control pills and college-educated Baby Boom women were going to make sure of that. Hefner wasn’t needed to support the causes for which he is now getting praise.

The basic message of the sexual revolution that Hefner helped to promote was fine: it’s okay for two or more consenting adults to have sex, and anything goes, as long as everyone is fine with it. I might add that there’s no need ever to feel guilty about what you do or did in bed, or with whom you did it. People change, grow, mature, slow down, and so do their sexual needs, desires and feelings. It’s all okay, as long as nobody is hurt. Of course, in Hefner’s version, the man dominated, and coercion and transgression were often subtexts to the action.

There are five ways in which Hefner’s Playboy philosophy and empire of magazines, videos and clubs harmed American society:

  1. The infantilization of men

The playboy remains a feckless boy, immature, irresponsible, narcissistic, as younger men often are. The focus of remaining a child for the playboy is not having any responsibility in relationships with women. Playboy thus marks one of the earliest instances of the mass media attempting to keep adults acting—and thinking—like children.

2. An unattainable and false ideal of sexuality

Playboy photographers and designers used airbrushes, filters and lights to erase the flaws that particularize a woman’s beauty, homogenizing her real flesh into a rarely attainable ideal. Elective plastic surgery and cosmetics further sculpted the reality off Playboy models and bunnies. In Playboy’s universe, all women had large breasts, unreal proportions, flawless skin, no body fat, high cheek bones and eternal youthfulness. Hefner took an extremely narrow band on the very broad spectrum of female beauty—a far narrower band than in Hollywood movies or television—and promoted that as the only ideal of beauty for the successful, accomplished, “cool” man. Heterosexual men who bought into the Playboy ideal had to feel at least some dissatisfaction with their regular sexual partner(s). Of course, dissatisfaction is what advertisers want consumers to feel, because in America, satisfying a need—real or fabricated—involves buying something. Which brings us to…

  1. The commodification of sex

Hefner’s enterprises turned sex and sexual experience into commodities that you buy into a number of ways. First and foremost, Playboy made women into both commodities and a reason to purchase other commodities. The playboy doesn’t pay for sex (although the later, cruder laddie boy will), but he does shell out a lot of money wining, dining, transporting and gifting her as a precondition of sex. But beyond the transactional element implicit in the playboy’s relationship with any woman is the position women hold in his universe, the entirety of which is overrun by gadgets, gee-gaws, fads and new services. The woman is another commodity that can be replaced, not a person demanding interaction.

  1. The objectification of women

Perhaps because I’m male, I don’t see anything wrong with thinking about individuals of the sex one desires as sex objects, as long as you treat them as a full human being with equal rights: keep that secret lust to yourself and work as hard and as smart as you can for your female boss. In the Playboy world, however, everything a woman does is an extension or manifestation of her sexuality. For example, whenever referencing a centerfold’s achievements, profession or hobbies, Playboy invariably added a double entendre with a sexual connotation, a sly joke that reminded everyone that her Fulbright grant, award-winning work as a photographer or interest in African art were less than icing on the cake, perhaps akin to the little diamond-studded pin she wears on the dress you take off her—or command her to take off—when you’re getting ready to help her fulfill her true purpose in life, to be a man’s sexual toy.

  1. The domination of men

In Hefner’s world, men dominate women. Women may have access to birth control, abortions and professions, but in Hefner’s fantasyland they still lack control over their lives. Men still set the mores and decide what to value. They still control the relationship.

That’s a lot of harm that Playboy and Hefner have inflicted on American for more than sixty years.

On a personal level, I never had much use for Playboy. I never sought it out, and when I occasionally happened to see a pile of old issues, e.g., while waiting for a friend to get ready, I would flip through the pages for the cartoons and read the page of jokes always on the last page of the centerfold section. Child of the 60’s, the photos never stimulated me: I have always preferred women who don’t look like Barbie dolls and my idea of beauty in a woman encompasses a very wide range of sizes, shapes and colors.

As far as the articles go, by the time I saw Playboy for the first time, I was already a cover-to-cover reader of The New York Review of Books, Nation, Dissent, Harpers and Ramparts. I was not impressed by the “great” articles, as I read so much thought-provocative material in these respected publications of the intelligentsia. Furthermore, I recognized the difference between true intellectualism and an intellectual patina gilding old-fashioned sexism.

Maybe I hang around with the right crowd, but every woman I have ever admired, liked, loved or desired (except for those I’ve just seen passing in the street whose thoughts I can’t read) wouldn’t be caught dead in the Playboy world; even the most tolerant of them would think less of me if she thought I was a regular reader.

That’s okay. I would think less of me, too.