Occupy This

16 10 2011

To steal from Network, Americans are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

The #Occupy movement, which began as #OccupyWallStreet, a protest against bankers, bailouts and corporate greed.

In my tiny mind, Americans have every right to be angry. They might be angry enough to consign Barack Obama to a one-term presidency – unthinkable a few years ago. The left is angry, the right is angry and the Tea Party is the small government, small tax version of the pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Christian base for this decade

A few fast facts on why I think Americans are mad:

The economy: No wonder President Obama is playing golf with President Clinton. The baseline in American politics is the economy, stupid. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics‘ latest release (7 October), seasonally adjusted unemployment in September 2011 was 9.1 per cent. That’s a 0.5 per cent improvement on September 2010. Breaking that down:

  • 14 million Americans are registered unemployed
  • Of that number, the long-term unemployed (people out of work for more than 27 weeks) make up more than 44 per cent, or 6.2 million)
  • 24 per cent of teenagers (16-19 year olds) are unemployed
  • 16 per cent of blacks are unemployed (c.f. with 8 per cent unemployment among whites; 11.3 per cent for Hispanics and 7.8 per cent for Asians)
  • The annual 2010 unemployment rate of ‘Gulf War II’ veterans (i.e. military personnel who have served post September 2001) is 11.5 per cent
Delving slightly deeper, while the labor force and employment figures lifted, the civilian labor force participation rate (64.2 per cent) and employment:population ratio (58.3 per cent) remain fairly static. Disturbingly, 9.3 million Americans are classed as involuntary part-time workers (i.e. their hours have been cut or they’re unable to find full-time work). In August 2011, the number was 8.8 million – an additional 444,000 people in one month. Those ‘marginally attached to the workforce’ – some 2.5 million Americans who have sought work in the last year, but not in the last four weeks, are not counted as unemployed. There are 1 million ‘discouraged’ American workers. These are the defeated and demoralised. They believe they cannot get a job, so they’ve given up. Average hourly earnings? $23.12. Average weekly earnings? $793.02.
‘Failed’ stimulus: President Obama signed The Recovery Act on 7 February 2009. The total package of $787 billion was increased to $840 billion in 2011. I bracketed ‘failed’ because it’s open to interpretation. There is certainly a perception that while some of the leading indicators have resulted in an improvement in certain sectors of the economy and regions, in my view, this is counterbalanced by one of the saddest statistics I think I’ve ever come across: $8 billion additional spend on food stamps to feed 38 million hungry Americans. (Reuters)
Dysfunctional government: the White House is caught in a pincer movement. President Obama has come out swinging at Congress recently, most notably on his jobs bill. He’s moving to Candidate Obama, criss-crossing the country selling a Bill which has no chance of passing. These people who were willing to play brinkmanship with the country’s credit card. It is pathetic.
The cost of foreign policy: President Obama got Osama bin Laden. Terrific. It doesn’t change the economic and human costs of the country’s operations in Pakistan and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the key findings of a recent report from the Eisenhower Research Project based at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies:
  • The U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan will cost between $3.2 and $4 trillion, including medical care and disability for current and future war veterans. This figure does not include substantial probable future interest on war-related debt.
  • More than 31,000 people in uniform and military contractors have died, including the Iraqi and Afghan security forces and other military forces allied with the United States.
  • By a very conservative estimate, 137,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by all parties to these conflicts.
  • The wars have created more than 7.8 million refugees among Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis.
  • Pentagon bills account for half of the budgetary costs incurred and are a fraction of the full economic cost of the wars.
  • Because the war has been financed almost entirely by borrowing, $185 billion in interest has already been paid on war spending, and another $1 trillion could accrue in interest alone through 2020.
  • Federal obligations to care for past and future veterans of these wars will likely total between $600-$950 billion. This number is not included in most analyses of the costs of war and will not peak until mid-century.
That’s just war. Don’t start me on the President’s broken promise to close Guantánamo Bay; conduct of extra-judicial killings and the disconnect between endorsement of the Arab Spring where it’s easy (Libya, for example) and wilful disregard for others (such as the Shi`a of  Bahrain).
The 99 per cent: Campaign finance reform; the disparity between tax breaks for the super-wealthy and the middle-class; corporate bailouts; out-of-control student debt it’s the beginning of a national conversation Americans haven’t engaged in for a long time.
So … it was with a general sense of irritation that I heard about the #OccupyPickAnAustralianCity protests that took place yesterday, for one reason: the great Australian propensity for whingeing. If whingeing was an Olympic sport, it would be, ‘GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!’ for Australia. I whinge, I hear others whinge and I read about people whingeing on a daily basis. It’s healthy to vent, to verbalise frustrations, irritations and feelings that systems, services and other people are failing us; but when you conflate whingeing into the #Occupy movement, you cheapen it. Yes, I am fully aware that Australia was only one of 78 countries to hold protests yesterday. I would also contend that people in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece have legitimate fears and grievances against prevailing economic conditions and systemic corruption. Australia? Not so much. While many on the ‘left’ view Tony Abbott as the Nabob of No, the Occupiers of Australia are playing his game of fear and loathing:
The economy: 5.2 per cent unemployment in September 2011. As the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Measures of Australia’s Progress 2011 report shows, pretty much everything (barring productivity) has improved since 2000. Including unemployment. The bad news? That increase applies to threatened animal species due to climate change. The average weekly income per full-time employed adult is $1,305. The average hourly income is between $29.70 and$33.10 (the disparity? Female wages c.f. men) (Source: ABS)
‘Failed’ stimulus: I’m leaving this one to George Megalogenis
Dysfunctional government: I am not a cheerleader for the current Government, but I am thankful that there are some quality people in our Parliament. Not naming names, but as close to the bone it has come on major issues – especially in the last few weeks – it is functional. I may not like the politics, the policies, the poor communication and quality of political discourse, but it continues to roll on.
The cost of foreign policy: Defence estimates an approximate $6 billion spend in Afghanistan to 2014. Iraq Mk II, approximately $2.3 billion. To me, the irreparable damage is in civilian deaths, leaving Australian citizens in Gitmo, irregular migration flows (UN-speak for refugees), international reputation and pathetic policy reactions to the problems we helped cause. That said, I don’t think we’ve been breaking arms embargoes, killing people willy-nilly or uneven in our condemnation for despots the world over.
The 99 per cent: according to a new release into household wealth from the ABS, the top 20 per cent of Australian households have seen their average net wealth increase by 15 per cent to $2.2 million since 2005/06, accounting for approximately 60 per cent of total household wealth. The bottom 20 per cent’s average net wealth grew by only 4 per cent. They account for approximately 1 per cent of total household wealth. That leaves almost 30 per cent of Australian households with an average net wealth of $720,000, up 14 per cent since 2005/06 – almost on par with the richest in the land and 10 per cent ahead of the poor. I contend that there is no ’99 per cent’ in Australia. Of course there is disparity in wealth; but the two major assets of Australian households (property – $520-540,000; superannuation – $60-154,000) put ‘average’ Australia within striking distance of the top 20 per cent. This is not the case in the US. It never has been and never will be.
I hope this stirs some pots & kettles. It stirred mine.

The Gitmo Archipelago, or how I learned to stop worrying and fell out of love with Barack Obama (Part I)

9 11 2010

“I’m sorry, Kimberley, but I’m an American. I don’t vote for the President of the world. I vote for the President of the United States of America. I’m from Chicago. Barack Obama is NOT what he represents himself to be. You don’t get in, or out of Chicago politics, as squeaky clean as people think this guy is. I’m for freedom, not socialism. I don’t want to be told what doctor I can see, or have my taxes support people who want to have five kids on welfare and never work. You bet I’ll vote for Sarah Palin if she runs in 2012.”

I’m sitting next to ‘Tom’, a businessman from Illinois, at a great restaurant in the West Village, New York City. It’s my last night here, and the antipathy towards President Obama is troubling me. I understand part of his argument: the US economy is up shit creek, and for many people, the paddle is out of reach. Every second ad on cable TV is for bankruptcy specialists. What I do not understand is why President Obama is not kicking against the pricks. I know you can’t blame the other side for everything, but President Bush rode his horse out of town with nary a bad word said against his economic record; the obsession with tax cuts while running a parallel, war-fuelled deficit defies belief; but he did it. It is four months before the midterm elections. Unemployment is running at almost 11 per cent. I walk around the financial district & it is though nothing, bar September 11, has hit the place. The investment houses, bailed out by the taxpayer, have returned to profitability. I feel sick that Australians, in general, do not understand how a combination of sound regulation of the financial industry and measured (though highly criticised) stimulus spending saved our country from this pain, and I am staying in one of the best neighbourhoods in New York. Poverty is not immediately evident, but former Mayor Rudy Giuliani did a good job of sweeping out the homeless. I may not agree with Tom, but he is considered, measured and engaged in the political process, and we agree to disagree, which is my default position on almost everything.

“Tom, I’m sorry – You’re the only superpower left. With that position comes responsibility. I’m not asking you to vote for Barack Obama because he’s a Democrat. Give me an intelligent, moderate Republican and go for your lives – but Sarah Palin? Sarah Palin negotiating Middle East peace talks? My country is at war because our then-government followed you. Socialised medicine? How many daughters did you say you have, Tom? Two? What are your daughters going to do if, god forbid, you’re in an accident and can’t work for six months. What if they have a genetic test, and they find out that they have the ‘breast cancer gene’? Will they be covered under your insurance? Will it be considered a pre-existing condition? What use is it to have the greatest pharmaceutical companies in the world if you cannot afford to buy medicine? How is access to a doctor ‘socialism’?”

We buy each other a drink. It’s hot, and a hot New York is not where Tom wants to be. He blames Barack Obama for almost everything, from the state of the economy to single mothers with five kids sucking the marrow out of his tax dollar to healthcare reform. If he thought big government controlled the weather, he would blame the President for that as well. 

The next day, I leave the Village for Penn Station and the Acela Express to Washington, D.C. – meeting my best friend from high school, who I haven’t seen for 15 years. She married an American she met in Sydney, and become a citizen in time to vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential election. I page her, she pages me, and I am mortified when a ‘red cap’ (Amtrak porter) grabs my bags as we squeal and hug. “I’ve got these, Ma’am. Don’t worry, you’re with me now,” he says, but it’s a struggle. I’m used to it – my rule is that if I can’t carry it all, I can’t buy anymore. The red cap won’t hear of it, and my friend keeps walking and talking. I tip him $10 as we board the train, mostly from sheer embarrassment. My friend berates me as she juggles a handbag, laptop, iPhone & squeals at her business partner in an accent that is neither that of her birth, or home. She lectures me on tipping etiquette. I hold firm with my own tipping regime. I tipped $1 in Williamsburg on Sunday for $2 beers! How is that fair to a guy in his 50s hauling 30 kilos of shoes, handbags and cosmetics while we squawk like battery hens? Well, in this economy, she says, people are lucky to be working. I voted for Obama and now, I don’t know. We don’t see him enough. I mean, what’s he doing? You’re in politics, surely you think it’s not good that we don’t see him? I look at the gadgets and listen to the conversations about crazy clients she’s firing. Yes. In this economy. Maybe the President is working, I muse aloud; he was dealt a pretty crap hand. That said, if I was his comms director, I would have him do more Presidential press conferences – he’s done fewer than Dubya. That part I do understand. As a candidate, Barack Obama travelled overseas and was feted in the capitals of Europe. My friend voted for hope, audacity and change; for a candidate whose oratory captivated the world.  Now my friend has a President, and rarely hears his voice. He’s not a candidate; he’s not leader of a movement – he’s the POTUS. You need to kick arse when circumstances warrant it. People and pundits talk about consensus politics, reaching bipartisan solutions to national problems. It’s bullshit. Politics is adversarial. In a few short months, the Democrat majority in Congress is going to be put to the test and NO ONE does nasty adversarial politics better than the Republican Party. The GOP in full flight is a sight to behold. President Obama is being hit from the left and the right, and he’s doing a pretty good, Ali-style ‘ rope-a-dope’, taking a metaphysical pounding from George Foreman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, round after round. President Obama is well into round two. He and the Democrat machine need to start bloodying the nose of the right. It’s July, 2010 and New York City feels as steamy as 1974 Zaire.

To be continued …

It’s a helluva town …

29 09 2010

New York, New York

It’s a helluva town.

The Bronx is up but The Battery’s down

New York, New York

It’s a helluva town.

‘On the Town’

Music: Leonard Bernstein Lyrics: Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Arriving at JFK. The flight was late, so our luggage is late, and I’m running late to meet Andy, my mysterious contact for the ‘Sex and The City Location’ apartment I had booked for the next 10 days. I didn’t want to leave him hanging around on a stoop, or worse, have him give up on me, so I called and we agreed to meet an hour later than planned.

“Where you goin’, honey?” the taxi dispatcher asked, with a tone that suggested more, that she dealt with wide-eyed travellers every day, that she understood when I stammered ‘West Village’, that she too, felt weary. She was probably bored rigid of asking the same question hundreds of times a day, but her voice was like a security blanket. “It’s a flat fare to Manhattan, honey, so you ain’t gonna get ripped off. What’s the street address?” Prince Street, near 7th Avenue, number 28. More detail than she needed. She scribbled something on a card and I was dismissed from her world as easily as I had slipped into it.

I thought I was tired, but the drive through Queens sparked me up. There’s a place called Jamaica, there’s the sign to the Mets home ground … to Flushing Meadows … ok sports fans, we’re off to the races. I got my camera out and did something I had never done travelling from an airport before: I started taking pictures. They were bad pix; jumpy, interrupted by SUVs, but I just didn’t care. Or stop. Until I saw the signs. Brooklyn, Manhattan. And then the island, trapped in a summer heat still visible at 7pm.

There is little topography in downtown Manhattan. From the Expressway, the entire island is vertical, but once you’re on the grid itself, it looks like variations on inner-city, Anywhere. Except it’s not. You’re on East 34th street, headed for Sixth Avenue, because you can’t get to Prince Street from Seventh, you’re going the wrong way, and you’ve got some luggage there with you, lady, and I ain’t gonna just drop you somewhere you don’t know where you’re going, it could be a long walk, and this heat, with that luggage. Then I realise: I have no cash. New York taxis don’t take credit cards; they don’t have TIME to take cards. Taking cards requires some sort of parking, or holding up a lane of traffic, and neither is an option.

The driver finds me a bank, but there is no ATM. There’s just this heat, this hot, hot, heat, a different heat than I knew, like the city itself was on heat, primed and ready to mate. I wanted her, I wanted New York, but I couldn’t even get money. The stench of befuddlement must have been stronger than that of the two alleycats, Manhattan and me, because passing New Yorkers (New Yorkers! This was real, I was here! I couldn’t figure out how to find money!) these people of this city stopped and helped me. You have to go inside. They showed me how to do it. The same as some banks do in Sydney. It’s safer. Stops ATMs being ripped out of walls. Oh god, the cringe. I played stupid. It comes naturally. The cab waited. Oh Bank of America, how I loved thee, as money poured out and into my wallet. “Huzzah! I have conquered your banking system. It’s the same. I’m just a bit …”

“It’s ok,” the driver said, “how about that heat?”

These streets will make you feel brand new …

2 09 2010

I love New York. It is the back story to The Referral.

Sydney. Late June 2010. Ever the impulsive one, I decided to take an overseas holiday. Escape the winter that was not discontented, but worse. I was disconsolate. I knew I didn’t want to be in Sydney, I knew that, but that was all I knew. Every part of me was screaming, ‘get your damn passport’, but where to go? My last trip had been to Switzerland (part uni internship, part pursuit of another unsuitable, unattainable man) – and the one before that, India. So, back to flashpacking? Cambodia? Vietnam? Laos? I’d never even been to Thailand.

I workshopped it with the office. Morocco was a good attempt, but I only had two weeks, and I had always wanted to go to Morocco as part of a bigger North African trip.

I asked my friends. “Let’s go to New Caledonia!” Genevieve said.

I thought about it. I’d never really spent two weeks on a do-bugger-all holiday. I’d always ‘travelled’, mostly because I had grown up on the beach amd because I had a high opinion of myself, that I was somehow better for not finding South Pacific idylls an enticing holiday option. I didn’t really like how that thought made me feel about myself. I cut my internal poppy down to size and mulled over the Nouvelle Caledonie idea, as if saying it in French made it more ‘me’. It caught on. I could practice my French. I could go on holiday with a friend for once in my life. This might actually be fun. Yes, New Caledonia it would be. 

“Oh, you really want to go to New Caledonia? I thought you wouldn’t do it, so I booked two weeks in Hawaii instead.”

Oh. Oh FUCK! I had allowed almost two weeks to go by … and I hadn’t organised a thing.

Then, two words kept coming up in the many conversations I had during the day:

New York.

“Kimberley, Kimberley, you will LOVE New York, I guarantee it.”

“You’ve never been to America? You simply MUST. GO. TO. NEW YORK.”

“I used to live in the East Village, make sure you buy lots of Ralph Lauren towels, they last forever.”

“You must go. There are lots of people I can hook you up with.”

That’s when I started to think about it as a serious option. I could go to New York. I could be a marvellous creature among marvellous New Yorkers. Expat Australians. Artists. Oh my god: I could be in the village with Randy Jones – the cowboy from THE Village People – true, Randy and I had already met but that weekend deserves, and will get, a post all of its own.

I could go to New York … maybe a quick day in Boston … and I could go to Washington. Recreate scenes from The West Wing. Talk Beltway politics with my best friend from high school. Listen to Lincoln. Oh god. I could see The One That Got Away. Maybe even meet The One He Went Away With. No, it was always only ever in my head. Still, dinner wouldn’t be out of the question, non?

I could be the person I knew I could be; the person I like, the smart, independent, engaged one who comes out to play when I am somewhere else.

In a few weeks, I could be in New York.

Yes. OK. Done. I’m sold. Onto the web. Get a travel permit. Book a ticket. Find somewhere to stay. It took quite a while as I buggered about with which gorgeous apartment I should make home. Finally found it. A fourth floor walk up in the West Village (secured three days before I flew out). Subscribe to websites called “Urban Daddy” and “Not for Tourists” that would put me so in the minute the New Yorkers I was being ‘referred’ to would LOOK. IN. AWE.

Yes. I was The Referral.

It started with Patrick. My darling boy, the Cary Grant to my Kate Hepburn. As soon as I pressed the go button on the whole New York vacay, Patrick sprang into action.

“Ramplin,” he said, “leave it to me. I will sort it all out for you. I will put you in touch with Matthew. We met Randy through Matthew. Yes, yes, it will be fine. You’ll love him. I’ll call him tonight – but firstly, you must come to see Trevor Ashley with me at the Opera House. I don’t care about your ‘I’m tired’ and your ‘I have a sore throat’ and your ‘I’m Acting CoS’. We’re going out.”

And we did. And a gay old time was had by one and all. Probably  bit too good. Wine gave way to beer, beer to champagne, champagne to martinis. Venue after venue. Met the most adorable people. Paul and Richard, both especially delicious. The delightful Jayne Ambrose, agent of said Mr Ashley and former wife of the late, great Don Lane. Jayne was very matter of fact about it when I asked whether New York was a good destination for a single woman in her late thirties:

“I married an American. That’s how much I loved New York. Of course you’ll meet men. American men love women. Even the gay men. You’ll meet a man. But you’ll fall in love with New York.”

Jayne, I really must see you again. You were right. Because that night Patrick called Matthew. Well, he dialled the number outside The Civic and we screeched at the poor man like the messy listen-to-mes we both are and, thus I was entrusted to Matthew’s care.

When we met, over dinner at Momofuku in the East Village, with his mother, cousins, and step-father from North Dakota or some such place, Matthew retold the tale of the conversation. Which was essentially as I have told it, with the addition of Patrick failing to hang up, me screaming at Patrick that I didn’t need looking after, and that now, because we were so stupid and screechy Matthew would hate me, and Matthew being able to recite our conversation quite unnervingly:

“Two double gin and tonics and an apple martini, and by the way, make it good, because she’s going to New York.

“I’ve just referred her to my friend.”