• Seeing the Promised Land: Springsteen on Broadway, a Review

    December 18, 2018 // 10 Comments »

    Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show finished its 236 performance run in New York, and arrived on Netflix December 16.

    It is extraordinary. It is an autopsy of us, a public service, a political rally, a tally of what we need to do next as a nation. A man confesses his sins, asks for our forgiveness, tells us about an America we still might be able to become, and opens his heart about what it means to be closer to the end than the beginning.

    I saw the show live, an early winner of the ticket lottery. The Netflix version of the same show (and album, DVD, etc.) is a simple recording of what we all saw in the theater. No backstage footage, no interviews, no B-roll of Bruce grimly driving around his hometown. Someone was smart enough to focus the cameras and get out of the way. Over the year and a half run, Bruce moved a few things around a bit ,a nd added two songs, Long Time Coming and Ghost of Tom Joad. Otherwise, the show stayed pretty much the same.

    Politics is missing from the show and politics is present in nearly every line. While there are references to “the current state of affairs” and admonishments against giving in to those who probe at our differences for their own benefit, you don’t hear the name Trump, same as you didn’t hear Reagan, or Bush, or much of Obama during Bruce’s long career. Instead, you hear about the people those presidents left behind, those once the American Dream and now just what happened to it.

    Bruce signals early it is time to make amends, via spoken passages pulled from his autobiography interlaced with his music. I’d heard something like this before – at AA meetings where people working through their 12 Step Programs admitted what they’d done, the people they’d hurt, and sought redemption. Bruce stood up and apologized for allowing Born in the USA to become an anthem. Bruce is pissed off now singing, no, shouting the lyrics. He seeks amends by telling us it should have always been sung as a protest song, that it always was to him, but he let it slip away.

    So he took the song back, hitting the line “son, you don’t understand” hard, maybe directed at himself in 1984 trying to ride the tiger of fame, maybe at himself as a young man dodging the draft and later, politicized by Ron Kovic, wondering when he visited the Vietnam Memorial who was sent in his place.

    Springsteen’s politics are bigger than one passing president, same as his vision for us. He professes we need a conscience, not a party affiliation, to make America great. So the words of a nation turning its back in the 1980s on those who built it double for the words of a nation turning its back on some of its most vulnerable citizens in 2018.

    The lack of empathy which caused us to abandon factory workers in the Midwest isn’t all that different from the lack of empathy that causes us to abandon people in need today. Some manipulative politicians tell us it is all different, that we don’t need to care about old white laborers, same as others tell us we don’t need to care about poor immigrants of color. There are no deplorables here, just Haves and Have Nots, and some who Took It All. Springsteen channels, mimics, and echoes the poets who came before him and understood it, too: Whitman, Guthrie, Steinbeck, Agee, Debs, Dylan, alongside a little Holden Caulfield and Joe Dirt.

    Land of Hope and Dreams captures all this, with its signature line about a train called America carrying saints, sinners, whores, and gamblers borrowed from Woody Guthrie who borrowed it from John Steinbeck. We can be better, even if we never were better before. America’s greatness isn’t about romanticizing a past that never existed; we always pushed back against immigrants, always sent men and women to die for the wrong reasons abroad. This used to be a country that talked about dreams with a straight face; it was never supposed to be a finite place. And so Bruce amends a key line from Promised Land to warn, changing “I believe in a promised land” from his records to “I believe there is a promised land.” The danger is always in thinking we cannot be better.

    Promised Land thus is an unexpected highlight of the show, framed around a retelling of Bruce’s first trip across the great western deserts. Springsteen makes no secret the promise he saw in America then remains unfulfilled, and the answer is us. He finished the song aside the mic, singing and playing without amplification. It was as if he was singing to each of us as individuals, and it was meant to be so.

    Yet for its intimacy, much of what happens doesn’t seem like it was for us at all. We didn’t show up to see him as much as he seemed to need us to show up so he’d have someone to talk with. Bruce’s adult life has been all about crippling bouts of depression relieved only by maniacal touring. You could imagine if it was somehow possible, he would have liked to deliver this show to each of us individually, maybe in the kitchen, with little more than the light off the stove to give some space between us. Gathering everyone into a theater was a necessary but unwanted logistical thing.

    A lot of this hummed around the edges of Bruce’s performances for years; he was already working out his emotions over his unloving father on stage as a kind of rap meditation when I first saw him perform in 1978. But tonight when he imitated his father telling him to go away as a young Bruce was sent to fetch him from some bar – “don’t bother me here, don’t bother me here” – that was an eight-year-old on stage mimicking an adult. If it was Bruce acting for us, the pain was as involuntarily present as the sweat on his forehead.

    The evening was as necessary as a last hospital visit with an old friend. Bruce wanted to know – he asked – if he’d done OK by us, had he been a “good companion.” We’d made him very rich, allowing him as he joked to never have to hold a job in his life. Twice he accused himself of being a fraud, saying he’d never been inside a factory in his life. But it’s time now to take that long walk. We’re tired, we’re old, we’re at the point where there is more to look back on than to look forward to. So did he do OK by us? Was it… enough?

    Yeah, Bruce, it was. The show finished where things started really, with Born to Run. Everyone in the audience heard it a first time a different time since it came out in 1975, but now, 43 years passed, we had grown old together. Every one of us, and by God that had to include Bruce, heard a hundred versions of that song in that moment. We heard it on 8-track, bootleg cassette, LP, CD, MP-3, DVD, YouTube, and Netflix and had to face, together, the warm embrace and cold slap of never being 16 years old again.

    Age is omnipresent – maybe we ain’t that young anymore – right down to the construction of the song list; it’s telling a 69-year-old Springsteen chose about a third of the set from his youthful period forty years earlier. As he said on stage, there’s less blank paper left for us to write on. Maybe as a person, maybe as a nation. Maybe they are the same thing if we think on it right.

    Unlike a typical Springsteen concert, where anything less than three hours is a short cut, the Broadway show is short, tight, maybe even a bit rushed. Not like Bruce was trying to cram in everyone’s favorite songs and still get home for the news, but that he had a lot to say and knew he didn’t have a lot of time to say it. The end is coming even though we don’t know exactly when, so you listen up now.

    The weight of it all – the love lost, the hate and pain collected, a nation wavering on itself and its promise – feels heavier than it used to when there was more time. Now, Bruce seemed to say, I’m going to get these things together for you and hand them over during these hours. After that, they’ll be yours to take care of. In a way, they always were.

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    Job Totals Trail Pre-Recession Levels in 10 U.S. States

    April 7, 2016 // 5 Comments »

    depression-photo-jobless-library-of-congress


    Every candidate shouts about job creation, and some talk about the recovery from the last recession. Every month the Department of Labor releases new statistics about how many jobs have been created, improvements in the unemployment rate, and on and on.


    There are parts of the society and the country where some of that is even partly true. But for about 20% of our states, it is not even partly close. An awful lot of the good news is just a numbers game.

    Data compiled by the Associated Press shows ten U.S. states still have not regained all the jobs they lost in the Great Recession, even after six and a half years of “recovery,” while many more have seen only modest gains.

    The figures are one more sign of the economic inequality, the one field America remains the undisputed global leader. The on-the-ground reality of negative job growth is why many Americans feel the economy has passed them by, and fuels support for angry candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.



    Who Lost

    Wyoming has three percent fewer jobs it did when the recession began. Alabama’s job total post-recession is -2.7 percent, followed by New Mexico at -2.6. New Jersey (Chris Christie!) has one percent fewer jobs than it did at the end of 2007, and Missouri is just below its pre-recession level. The other five losers are Mississippi, Nevada, Maine, Connecticut, and West Virginia.

    Among the other states, several show only small gains past pre-recession job totals. Illinois, statewide with a population of over 12 million, has only 8,600 more jobs than it did in December 2007. Arizona’s job count is up just 9,200 with a population of six million (not counting illegal aliens.) And Ohio (Kasich!!!) has added just 58,100 jobs with its population of almost 12 million. Those gains are more or less (it’s less) statistically insignificant.

    Who Won

    The states that saw the highest rates of job growth tell the story of the last few years. Some of the biggest gainers include:

    Washington DC is a big, big winner, with significant growth from America’s largest employer, the federal government, all fueled significantly by the very profitable War of Terror.

    The oil and gas drilling boom lifted North Dakota’s job count by more than 20 percent, though falling energy prices have caused significant layoffs in the past year. Need to check back with North Dakota in a year or two.

    Texas has also benefited from the energy boom, as well as greater high-tech hiring in cities like Austin.

    Utah and Colorado have also benefited from fast-growing information technology companies. Colorado especially has a large aerospace (read: defense) industry, so good for them.




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    Do the Math: American Economy and Society

    February 16, 2016 // 34 Comments »




    When most people talk about economics there are lots of statistics, as if economics is about math. Economics is really about people. It shows who we are as a nation and tells us what we will become. In 21st century America, our hope now is that we’ll someday better people than we have become. But do the math; it’ll be a hard road.

    In its most individual definition, jobs and work earn people money. They can feed themselves and their families, live inside and all the rest.

    But at a more societal level, a broader, more fundamental level, work is more. Work can define a person, work can give purpose, make someone feel useful, engage the resources of a society, create goals. You could almost call it a soul, knowing that work saved more lives than any preacher.

    The absence of work does just the opposite. People may be saved from starving by public assistance or charity (a vital part of society, caring for one another), but without purpose, they become cynical. They turn to drugs, legal like alcohol or illegal like meth, to replace the purpose and to fill the time. Without work, people give up. Rock bottom is a poor foundation for a nation to build on.


    So here’s what is happening in our America. See if you can figure out where this all leads to.


    Manufacturing was until the late 1970s the source of unprecedented wealth, spread proportionally across the economic spectrum in America. There were super rich people, and there were poor people, but there was also a thriving middle class that accounted for a huge section of our society. Without those jobs, economic apartheid, the one percent and the 99 percent, are inevitable.

    As just one example, since the 2009 taxpayer-paid bailout, General Motors has cut high-paid workers for cheaper labor, hiring. The automaker hired around 18,000 hourly production workers, allowing the company to remove skilled trade jobs. The Center for Automotive Research says General Motors Company saves approximately $57,000 a year per worker when it replaces a skilled $32 per hour union worker with a $15 per hour less-skilled, temp or non-unionized employee. These were once the “good jobs” that sustained a growing economy. They are gone. They have been replaced with…

    Service jobs. Service jobs do not create anything. They simply move some money from one hand to another, with a larger company taking a cut and sending the cash off to another city, another state, or another country. In 2014 America, manufacturing employs 1/10 of Americans. Services accounts for nearly 90%. America’s largest single employer in 1960 was General Motors. In 2014, it is Walmart. The “occupations” that account for the most jobs now are retail salespersons, cashiers, and restaurant workers. Those jobs pay minimum wage or less (for restaurant workers who can get tips), rarely offer any benefits and are rarely full-time.

    Working for subsistence wages, supplemented with public benefits, does not create value for humans. It is a modern-day form of feudalism, or perhaps more similar to raising livestock than growing a society.

    My book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percentconfronts these issues head on. The book is fiction, in that it wraps the economics and societal changes of the last fifty years into the story of one family. The book is all true in that what happens to that family, and in particular the main everyman character Earl, happened to millions of American families that believed the myths of growth, hard work and a sustainable middle class even as the super wealthy were pulling the money right out of their hands in front of their eyes. Ignore the rising waters, until you feel them up to your Katrina-like lips.

    Choosing to not believe something doesn’t make it go away.

    My book is set in Ohio, but the stories in it can be taking place today anywhere in the United States outside a few pockets of affluence centered on a few major cities, or a handful of growth industries such as government and defense.

    If you want to know where the 99 percent came from, this is part of the answer. Think of it as a good story, with a conscience.




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    What the Pope Almost Said

    September 28, 2015 // 1 Comment »




    In my last book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent two characters are talking, Earl, the main guy, and his friend, Preacher Casey.

    What Casey said is pretty close to a lot of the things the Pope tried to say while he was in the U.S. last week, so I thought it might be worth reading here while the American media focuses ever-so-briefly on the plight of our poor, and the economy that made them that way.



    We understood that getting along meant you could only be so selfish, that only watching out for yourself just would not work in a place where we had to live together. Sermon on the Mount said all that Casey told me, but we did it on our own in a practical way. I guess you can make a life outta not getting along if you only read one book, hating on certain people because one page of the Bible says to, while ignoring the rest of what it says, which is pretty goddamn clear about love.

    Casey was still laughing on the bus when I remembered telling him that.

    Casey and me ended up talking a lot as we became friends. Casey read a lot of books. He seemed to understand things that had happened around me and my life in a way that made it clear that Reeve was not an island like we thought it was. In fact, what had happened to us here had happened to a lot of places. A “hollowing out,” Casey said, in a kind of sermon of his own:

    “Earl, money isn’t spread around like it used to be. After the war, until about the time you were in junior high school, incomes rose at the same level for everyone. But then things changed—you saw it, your mom and dad for sure. The top one percent of Americans watched their income grow dozens of times more than the rest of us, until that same small group of people held forty percent of all the
    wealth in the U.S.”

    “Look at Detroit,” Casey went on, “my old hometown. The U.S. emerged from the Second World War with Heaven’s only functioning army, with more than half of the industrial capacity in the world and as banker and creditor to allies and enemies. That was the highest hill our country climbed, and Detroit sat at the summit. Detroit was looking into a future where the rising prosperity was going to fuel a demand for cars unlike any consumer demand in human history. There was so much money and growth and potential that everyone ate well.

    “When it rains like that, people can’t help but get wet. My own father started as a toolmaker’s apprentice right after high school and ended up making $35 an hour, with a pension, health care, employee discounts on the cars he helped build and a union picnic every Fourth of July.”

    “Detroit rode that all up until about 1973, when everything went over the hill, not just in Detroit, but most everywhere — wages fell, benefits fell, production fell, population fell, home values fell. You can buy a house in Detroit for $6,000 today. Greatest generation and all, no, they were the greatest exception. It all happened quickly, in only the course of a few decades, two or three generations. My dad got out okay, but my older brother didn’t. He told me he felt thrown away, that he never thought this was so fragile. I hate to say it so crudely — God forgive me — but America lost its balls.”

    “C’mon Casey,” I said, “that’s what business does, even I know that. It’s their job to make as much money as they can for them, not for us. A dog can’t help being a dog, so you don’t kick at him for peeing on a tree, right?”

    “Earl, I’m not talking about anything radical here. I’m talking about a little bit of a balance. Those fights between your mom and dad over money you told me about, they were real. They were talking to each other about what was happening in America, all around them, without even knowing it. A very few people were choosing for them. Business became all appetite.

    Now we are reaching for a zero-sum point where wealthy people believe that to gain anything requires them to take it from someone else. Wal-Mart already makes billions, but it fights even tiny increases to the minimum wage. If McDonald’s doubled its employees’ salaries to $14.50 an hour, a Big Mac would cost only 68 cents more.

    “Actually, even all this talk about minimum wage is missing a big point: more Americans work for sub-minimum than for minimum wage. People who might get tips only have to be paid $2.13 an hour in some places. And that $2.13 has not changed by law in twenty-two years due to lobbying by the restaurant business. Owners are doing okay, as restaurant prices have gone up in the last twenty-two years. Just like in Roman times, the lion’s share beats the Christians’ share any day.”

    “This is where my religious and political views meet up, Earl. Most wealthy folks say they’re religious people, but when the churches are rich and the regular people poor, you gotta wonder who is serving who. Most of those wealthy ignore one of the highest ideals from the Sermon — caring. Those words aren’t just some more poetry of hopefulness that passes for Christianity. He said quite clearly, ‘they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, they should be satisfied.’ But it ain’t just about handing over a few crumbs, saying it’s better than no bread at all.

    “Getting into Heaven isn’t about earning merit badges, here’s one for those canned goods you didn’t want anyway at Christmas or another for tossing change into a cup. It’s about how you live a life in total, what you do 99 percent of the time, what you make of the world you live in. It isn’t religion that’s wrong, same as it isn’t business that’s wrong. It’s greed and selfishness that’s wrong, no matter what channel you’re watching.”

    I always thought the Bible was like the dictionary, all the words was inside and you could scramble them around to mean anything you like, but Casey made sense.

    “Look Earl, even though the original Owner was barefooted, what happens upstairs in my church is that as soon as some expensive shoes hit that floor it seems like the place loses its purpose. Me, I preached for the Lord a long time, but some days I think God’s the laziest man on earth. What I want is to be able to look out over my congregation and say to them forget most of what I’ve said but go out and be kind to each other, help each other and walk humbly when you have something others still need. When they hear someone cry in America because they’re hungry, I want that to be louder in their ears than any sermon.”

    “So okay, Preacher, when’s it going to get better? When are we going to be able to live like our grandparents did?”

    “Earl, nostalgia isn’t history. This is a story about change, and it’s important for you to know how that happened. Here we are forty years on still talking about recovery like it was as real as an election year promise. Prosperity is not something that will follow if we simply wait long enough. Like my friend says, cut through all the lies and there it is, right in front of you: America used to be a developing nation, in the best sense of that word.

    “Almost in spite of themselves, the robber barons built prosperity through jobs. We had to get past the horrors of enslaving other human beings, past making children work in factories, past killing men in mines and machines. There were dark times, criminal times, but people had a sense of ‘we’ll get past this.’ Then we crossed a line. Manufacturing in America became expensive. Businesses sought lower costs and higher profits. String
    that out as far as it goes and it means paying workers as close to zero—or zero if you somehow could like with slavery — and pulling in as much profit — as close to one hundred percent — as you somehow could. The question seemed to have become, ‘How many miles can you drive on a gallon of our blood?’

    “We watched a reversal of two hundred years. American workers never earned as much again as they did in 1973. It was soon after that someone laid off a steelworker who became Patient Zero of the new economy.”

    “The numbers are too consistent, the lines too straight. This was no accident, no invisible hand. Earl, we changed from a place that made things —radiators, cash registers, gaskets, ball bearings, TVs — into a place that just makes deals. Making things creates jobs, and jobs create prosperity. Making deals just creates wealth for the dealers. It’s math. The money that went up had to come from somewhere. That was right out of your father’s pocket.

    “The deal makers don’t care because they don’t live here, hell, they don’t live anywhere. We live here.”




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    Who is Tom Joad?

    June 28, 2014 // 3 Comments »




    Who is Tom Joad? Peter Van Buren, author of Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, explains the origins of his character, tracing a line from John Steinbeck, through Woody Guthrie, to Bruce Springsteen, Tom Morello, Elvis Costello, and Mumford and Sons.








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    Ghosts of Tom Joad for Those with Short Attention Spans

    May 11, 2014 // 11 Comments »

    Life is distracting, for sure. Social media alone creates new pressures to “keep up,” and the always-on nature of the web and smart phones pulls. To get someone’s attention, stuff needs to be short. Punchy.

    — Bullet points.

    — But not too many.


    Just Ten

    So forget the reviews and long descriptions. Here’s Ghosts of Tom Joad in ten bullet points:

    1) It’s all about this guy named Earl, who lives in Ohio. He and his family stand in for the rest of us, being thumped around by the changing American economy over the last 50 years. They’re symbolically the 99 percent.

    2) If you’re under 35 years old, you’re likely screwed. You’ll never have job security, good benefits or a pension. You can start saving now, but it’ll never be enough. At night the ice weasels will come for your soul.

    3) The book has two (!) sexytime scenes. One is romantic and the other not so much. They symbolize the decline-of-society thing, get it, warm, sweet sex replaced by what we’ll call here commercial sex. Both are long enough you can find them while flipping through the book so you can buy it just for that. Neither are in the online Amazon sample part.

    4) Some parts of the book are funny, in an ironic humor sort of way. There are some actual jokes, like “A guy walks into a bar…” old-timely jokes. They are spoken by old people characters.

    5) Tom Joad was the main character from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. You read it in high school, maybe saw the movie. Some re-read it as Cliff Notes in college to get enough sources and cites into that required essay.

    6) If you get bored reading Ghosts, there are “Hidden Mickeys” or “Easter Eggs” that reference Grapes of Wrath.

    7) The people my fictional character Earl meets in the book are the ghosts. But it’s a double-meaning thingie! You’ll see!

    8 ) There is a surprise ending. But you won’t get it unless you read the whole book ahead of it. I’m sorry you’ll be stuck doing that.

    9) I won’t tell you what the surprise ending is.

    10) The Kindle version is like $7 bucks. Please buy it.




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    Ghosts of Tom Joad Now Available for Preorder on Amazon

    November 29, 2013 // 9 Comments »

    Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent
    I’m quite happy to announce that my new book Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent is now available on Amazon for preorder. Click on the book cover to the right, or Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent to secure your copy.

    As a special thank you to blog readers, if you send me an email at info (at) ghostsoftomjoad.com saying you preordered the book, I will forward to you a bonus essay explaining the origins of the book, some background on the main characters (no spoilers!), other books on similar themes I found informative in my writing and links to additional resources on line. Think of this as a kind of bonus extra, like with Blue-Ray DVDs.

    And after you’ve read the book when it is released next year, I will also be happy to schedule a complimentary Skype session with your book club, and/or with your local library or school, for a discussion. Other ideas are also welcome.

    Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent is a good story, but with a conscience. Thank you for preordering it.





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    US to Focus $358 Million on Infrastructure: Not in US

    September 6, 2012 // 5 Comments »



    The US is gearing up to drop $300 million of our taxpayer dollars on rebuilding infrastructure, in Palestine.

    Here is what the US plans for the Palestinians. Can anyone find a town in America which would not benefit from $300 million worth of work in:

    • Transportation networks such as primary and secondary roads, bridges and/or other transportation infrastructure;

    • Water systems including the supply, storage, treatment, transmission and/or distribution of water;

    • Sanitation infrastructure including solid waste management and disposal, wastewater treatment and reuse, pollution control, and/or ecological sanitation;

    • Vertical infrastructure including schools, clinics, health facilities, public buildings, government buildings and facilities, sports facilities, warehouses, food storage facilities, youth and sports centers, and/or other vertical infrastructure designed to benefit the public interest;

    • Electrical Power sector infrastructure to include alternative, sustainable and/or traditional forms of power generation (such as wind turbines, photovoltaic, solar thermal, geothermal, and/or fossil-fuel-fired thermal power plants), and/or electricity transmission and distribution systems;


    In addition, the State Department/US AID will lay down a sweet $58 million to promote tourism and other private sector job-creation in Palestine.

    Stunned that no one wants to use your tax money to rebuild your infrastructure? Unhappy that no one is dropping $58 million on your community to create private sector jobs? Want to know why?



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