Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving in Ukraine

The magic Turkey Day has come and gone here, and I missed out on the turkey, mashed potatoes, and the gravy. And my mom's great dinner rolls. Instead, I got treated to a night of teaching business English and then some homemade sausage pizza with Hankey Bannister whiskey & cola. Not too bad, all things considered. At least I didn't have to cook my own meal :)

Thanksgiving is a bittersweet holiday for me--great to see all my family, but also the site of many of the worst fights I have had with other family members. Of course, I miss them all, and Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that can't be too screwed up by excessive commercialization. Sure, you've got your turduckens and football, but that's really a sideshow. I have plenty to be thankful for--great parents, great children, and a great girlfriend. And I'm very lucky to be experiencing a foreign culture at the ground level.

But I'm anxious to get home for a while, and that will happen in a few weeks. I'm sure it will be strange after nearly a year here. What will it feel like to go into a restaurant and know exactly what I'm doing and what I'm ordering? What will it feel like to get behind the wheel of my car again? Or just to walk down the street and be able to read the signs and understand the people around me?

So, I'm also thankful for the chance to come back to the states for a while. I miss my kids. I miss my parents. I even miss my brother a little bit...and I also miss good pizza, enchiladas, and a great steak. I miss Culver's cheeseburgers. I miss being able to go into Kohl's and pick up a few pairs of Levi's (on sale, of course), and to know what I'm doing most of the time. Here's to strange, good times....

Monday, November 8, 2010

Enough politics...tune in to Marc Moran

I have found recently that I am looking for interesting, comedic podcasts to combat the general depression I usually feel, and to bring the English language more regularly to me. I sit with my girlfriend and her daughter every evening and watch Ukrainian TV, but I understand about 15% of it. And to listen to podcasts helps me connect to my own culture.

And the best are these: This American Life, a great news program about offbeat and interesting human stories; WTF with Marc Moran, a comic with heart who interviews other comedians and sheds some light on life; and Planet Money, another NPR show (along with TAL) that is the most interesting discussion of economics online today.

I would welcome anyone to tune into any of them. Great, thoughtful, stuff.

And I ought to give appropriate thanks to my girlfriend, Olya, who makes my life easier every day.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Electoral Fairness

Well, the election is over, Republicans took over control of the House while Democrats barely held onto the Senate. It's no big surprise -- incumbents rarely do well in periods of economic distress, and America is still in some serious economic distress. But I had to laugh a little when the US issued a statement condemning Ukraine's elections as not meeting "standards for openness and fairness." Why? Certainly, there were voting irregularities, intimidation, and fraud in the actual election in Ukraine. No one here expects less. 

But, what is "fairness" in elections? Is it candidates running advertisements that are either blatantly untrue and inflammatory? Is it telling voters that a candidate didn't support a program (like the stimulus plan) when he did (like Charlie Crist did in the Florida gubernatorial race)? Is it Rick Scott, in the same race, claiming that the stimulus didn't create a single job, even though one of his OWN companies issued a press release praising the 1,300 jobs it created through a stimulus grant? Or claiming that Dem. Rep. Ed Perlmutter somehow voted for a law giving federal funding to pay for rapists' Viagra, even though the health care reform specifically refuses such funding? IF we lived in an informed society, then people would be smart enough to check out the facts. But facts are much more difficult to ferret out than the lies that get spewed during every election cycle. So who wins in this very American scenario? The people who create the most outrageous lies. And why? Because people are stupid enough to believe them. 

I'm not arguing that there shouldn't be freedom of expression. But the American media does such a poor job in general of confronting people with actual facts that today's political debate is completely shaped by the intentional distortions of various interest groups -- both liberal and conservative -- that takes some effort to dispel. And Americans these days -- maybe ever -- aren't much for effort. 

Which brings me back to the central question: Were the US midterm elections fair? In some ways, probably -- there seems little evidence of intentional intimidation or ballot fraud. But in a society unwilling or unable to think critically about the garbage spewed by politicians and their lobbies, it only takes the most crass and manipulative individuals to create the outcomes it wants. And the only good solution is knowledge, something Americans increasingly shun in favor of comfortable, reaffirming emotions. But there are places to find facts, like politifact: and even places like snopes:

Yes, I'm sad that Americans voted out of office a great senator like my own Russ Feingold to tea party activist and millionaire businessman Ron Johnson. It appalls me that a guy like Johnson does not have the self-reflection to understand how the social programs and tax structure that enabled his success (he was a child of the 70s, when college was still affordable to average people) are central to the success of people like him in the future. He becomes the 71st millionaire senator in the Senate. And he talks like he represents the "working people," 98% of whom are poorer than him and now, thanks to so many years of tax cutting and elimination of public support of things like education, will have an even harder time rising to success. 

It is a sad day for America, but one they could have avoided if they had taken their responsibility as citizens seriously and dug hard for the truth. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Election Daze

Today my fellow Americans will go to the polls in midterm elections. Just two days ago, Ukrainians also voted in their midterm elections, and early results suggest that the ruling party of President Yankovich handily consolidated its power. But, nearly every person I know in Ukraine will tell you that he's an idiot, a puppet to Moscow, and so far has been a terrible president. So why did his group win?

Here, it comes down to simple power. People here don't believe for a second that the government actually represents the people or that the promises politicians make have any meaning. Those who vote for the party in power seek to improve their personal relative position of power. That's it. And it doesn't work very well for the country, as anyone who has spent time in Ukraine can attest.

But is America any different? Yes, in very important but sad ways. It appears that conservatives are likely to gain significant numbers of seats in the house and senate today, but not because those voting are looking to curry favor with the authorities. Rather, they seem to believe the bullshit flowing out of the conservative crowd -- tea partiers in particular -- that somehow American government is out of control and we have only to reign in the wasteful spending to make government smaller, better, and more favorable to individual liberty. Any Ukrainian would laugh at this naivety.

Let's look at some hard facts. The federal budget for 2010 will spend about $3.7 billion. They will take in about $2.2 billion in taxes, leaving a gap of $1.5 billion to create a balanced budget. Is this irresponsible? I think that's not an easy question -- we have an historic recession and are fighting two wars overseas -- but conservatives have seized on eliminating the deficit as a key goal of responsible government. So let's look at how they want to do it.

Nobody will touch government payments to senior citizens in the form of social security or Medicare. This is $1.2 trillion a year right now. Neither will they compromise our "national security" but cutting defense spending, which is another $895 billion. And here's where the reality of governance gets difficult, something most politicians don't want to talk about until AFTER the election. Throw in the small amount of spending on police services, and you end up with $2.34 trillion in federal spending on the things that conservatives see as sacred cows.

So to balance the budget, we have to eliminate EVERYTHING else -- welfare programs for the poor, all funding for education, all funding for the government itself (yes, that means our president on down must work for free, without offices or staff or money to pay for photocopies and mailing). We can't repair our roads, or regulate any businesses, or pay the interest on the debt that has been accumulated during the long Iraq and Afghanistan wars. We can't fund any research outside of defense. We can't regulate pollution. We can't do a lot of things. And we still would need to cut $176 billion from those sacred cows just to make for a balanced budget.

Now, this approach is overly generous to conservatives, because they also want to reduce taxes as well, making the $2.2 billion in federal revenue even smaller.

But such realities of government don't concern the people these days. They want simple answers because the economy sucks and too many don't have jobs or don't make what they used to. Unfortunately, though, simple answers are not available in complex times. When America is most in need of pragmatists, people willing to do the hard work of democracy (i.e. compromise, balance priorities, and work together), we are going to elect a bunch of sound-bite-spewing ideologues who will only hasten America's ongoing decline.

At least Ukrainians know what's up with their politicians. Will Americans ever learn?