The Story of Thanksgiving (updated)

“It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it”.

– Mark Twain, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson

MaxSpeak Summary: Among Puritan Christian fundamentalists, the Pilgrims were treacherous, murderous swine. The Pilgrims made a treaty with the indigenous people around Plymouth, until they had enough forces to wipe them out. This they later did with smallpox and guns, unless they were able to sell them into slavery, all for the greater glory of God.

Wait a minute. That wasn’t quite right. Let’s try it again. Here’s how it goes.

The Puritans in England were subjected to religious persecution, lo unto death. They were not allowed to say ‘Merry Christmas.’ They needed borders, because without borders you don’t have a country. But in order to have borders, you need some land to put the borders around. The Puritans tried to settle in the Netherlands, but the people there were crooked; they refused to exercise eminent domain, provide tax subsidies, or hand over land for free. The New World beckoned. It was a land without a people, first-class hotels, or golf courses, and they were a people without a land.

Upon settling around Plymouth, the first Puritans (Pilgrims) began to get along with the Wampanoag Nation. The Wampanoug were lovely people subject to aggression by immigrants from other Native American groups, who sent murderers and rapists and bad hombres instead of their best. Sad! The Wampanoag provided thousands, no millions of jobs for the Puritans; their alliance became an outpost of peace and freedom in the New World.

As more Puritans arrived, they required more lebensraum. The Wampanoag, like other indigenous peoples, lacked a modern system of property rights. They did not see fit to build fences, put up street signs, or trade in mortgage-backed securities. The Puritans remedied these defects of indigenous civilization. It just happened that the Puritans ended up owning all the property, and Native Americans themselves became classified as property.

Taking umbrage at this advance of Judeo-Christian civilization, the indigenous people were reduced to terrorism. Some were sufficiently maniacal as to sacrifice their own lives in order to murder innocent settlers. There was a virtual cult of death. Underlying this irrationality was a primitive religious belief system that celebrated exterminating one’s enemies, as well as the consumption of locoweed and psychedelic mushrooms. Nobody knew how bad they could get. In short, the natives hated America.

As a matter of self-defense, the Puritans were compelled to rise to the challenge of this war of civilizations; they had to get tough, by exterminating both the terrorists, their families, and the societies that nurtured them. There was no middle ground, believe me; you were with them or against them. Those Native Americans that were willing to live in peace were provided with alternative living arrangements under the protection of the new government. Sadly, they proved unequal to the rigors of modern society and eventually disappeared.

Today we celebrate Thanksgiving as a tribute to their memory, and to the invaluable assistance they unselfishly provided to the Christian conquest of America.

Now please pass the gravy, and have a Happy Thanksgiving, from all the MaxSpeak mispochah.


The Job Guarantee Is Not a Human Capital Program

Now that debates are raging over Bernie Sanders’ proposal for a job guarantee, also known as an “employer of last resort” or ‘ELR’ policy, one bit of skepticism founded on apparent empirical evidence needs to be addressed. The evidence in question is presented in a paper by David Card, Jochen Kluve, and Andrea Weber, all eminent economists (‘CKW’). Card in particular is an honored leader in the profession. His study is cited in criticisms of the idea by Dylan Matthews in Vox, Noah Smith on Bloomberg.Com, and Annie Lowrey in The Atlantic, among others. I explain in this note that the merits of the paper notwithstanding, its results have no relevance to the merits of a job guarantee. To impute such relevance is a category error.

In a nutshell, the framework of CKW is human capital. It treats public employment, to the extent it treats it at all (fewer than 10% of the studies examined pertain to public employment, and none of them are randomized controlled trials), as a temporary intervention aimed at making a worker more qualified for subsequent, permanent employment in the private sector. In this respect, it locates the cause of a worker’s spotty employment record and prospects as resulting from his or her lack of human capital, one aspect of which is work experience. To his credit, Matthews discusses the JG in just these terms, as an effort to employ people with “work barriers.” This is the wrong question.

The broader survey in the paper covers a wide variety of “active labor market programs,” or ALMPs. The value of the interventions depends on the individual’s subsequent employment experience. The extent of labor market slack such workers confront is included as a factor that is indeed found to have noticeable impacts, but the fundamental reality of a labor-surplus economy is glossed over.

We could note that workers who tend suffer employment discrimination or who are bedeviled by occupational segregation (women confined to “women’s work”) will not necessarily benefit from ALMP interventions. Their weak labor market attachment is not their fault. The word “race” does not appear in CKW.

A job guarantee would be evaluated very differently. Experiments are conceivable. A JG program would fail to the extent 1) nobody applied for jobs; 2) those who entered the program would voluntarily exit, then go to seed or become otherwise unfit for private employment; 3) it produced no public output of value.

In the first instance, a JG program open to all comers cannot fail. If you show up willing to work, you will have work and income. If your job tenure is ended (with ample notice and portable benefits), it would only be because private sector job openings were abundant. We could imagine termination could be conditional on successful placement in a private sector job–placement, not simply referral. In the event of unsuccessful placement, the door would remain open for a returning worker.

In short, an ELR regime is quite distinct from temporary public employment in a labor-surplus economy, one where the surplus is fomented as a perverse public policy for the sake of controlling inflation and maintaining labor discipline.

Human capital policies are not necessarily without value. In this regard, the paper is carefully done and has useful pointers to relatively fruitful approaches. But ALMPs remain a horse of a different color from an ELR regime.


A Note on Work and Dignity

“The only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited.” – Joan Robinson

One of the purported benefits of a job guarantee is said to be the dignity it confers on otherwise unemployed people. Matt Bruenig is at pains to explode this idea. His argument is tendentious. However, I would frame the benefit slightly differently, besides the obvious one, that a job guarantee provides a guaranteed income in a socially approved way.

Work in and of itself, under capitalism or any other real-world economic system thus far in history, can be personally rewarding or sheer hell. Of that there can be no doubt. Nevertheless, there is work to be done. People need goods and services. No small share of useful goods and services is most efficiently provided by the public sector.

I would stay the dignity potential of work stems in the first instance from its communal implications. We look with favor upon those who contribute to the general welfare. This does not have any negative connotations for the young, the disabled, those charged with work in the home, or the retired. It is commonly understood that many of those not employed have good reasons. The young are being prepared for work, or at the very least, allowed some fun time until the daily grind begins. The elderly have already done their bit. The disabled may be prevented from work, through no fault of their own. Work in the home, by which I mean caregiving, contributes to the general welfare no less than does work under formal employment.

The act of contributing to the good of the collective confers respect and thus dignity, and why shouldn’t it? Any other view would stink of ingratitude. Not only do you add to the national product, your financial independence relieves me of the burden of supporting you. This would follow even if a technologically advanced society was able to provide all the necessities of life, free of charge.

Of course, there will always be prejudices against those in certain types of jobs, because there are always assholes. If they didn’t look down on ditch diggers, they would find somebody else who didn’t deserve their opprobrium. People in low-wage/low-skill jobs are looked down upon out of intra-class bigotry, regardless of whether they work in the public sector. This will probably be with us for some time.

The right counterfactual is someone not working on public support, or someone not working at all but otherwise able to work. In either of the latter cases, they are likely to receive less respect than someone working in a low-status public job. On balance those who are able to work and do so enjoy superior social status than those who do not. In this sense a job guarantee offers a public option for dignity that the private sector might otherwise deny.

Moreover, the output under a job guarantee could confer greater dignity than in private employment. Maybe you work in a factory making widgets, but maybe I have no use for widgets. Alternatively, under a job guarantee regime, you could be employed providing public goods that are positively valued by the community at large.

That work affords dignity does not imply that more work brings more of it. Obviously, such dignity depends on the conditions of work, the nature of the labor process. Jobs – real jobs – in the public sector have historically offered superior labor standards, compared to the private sector. This competitive edge naturally puts upward pressure on standards maintained by private sector employers. The weekly hours of any worker is an aspect of labor standards, one of the most important ones, and the case for contracting hours of work for all remains salient.







Left-Wing TwitterGasms: If you don’t stop, you’ll go blind

Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has been growing by leaps and bounds. Of course, that is from a microscopic base, relative to national politics ‘in the large.’ And it is still small in that sense, but the volume and energy of activism is moving in the right direction. At the same time, our small size commends the exploitation of alliances with those who are not on the same page as DSA on every issue.

More recruits means more political naifs. That’s who I want to talk about. They are full of moral conviction, and I’m not questioning their intentions. Their understanding of politics seems to consist of having a set of positions, perhaps backed up by extensive study or perhaps picked up casually. So neither am I questioning their intellectual faculties.

Given this set of views, their idea of politics seems to consist of berating anyone with contrary views. Sometimes the attack is justified on the grounds of some kind of moral deficiency on the part of the object of the attack. Sometimes there is an assumption that the target is motivated by corruption – an anti-social financial interest. Without doubt, this is often the case. People who depart from the consensus views of DSA may indeed not have the best of intentions.

But there are also people who are potential allies, if not on every item in the DSA platform. This is where logic seems to depart quite a few people. People who disagree may have open minds and be susceptible to persuasion. Politics is about 1) getting people to like you enough to be willing to listen to what you have to say; 2) using techniques of persuasion that include but are not limited to moral appeals; 3) accepting if only for the time being the achievement of partial agreements with some people that provide a basis for practical collaboration.

I can tell you from old experience that brow-beating and the exploitation of social sanctions works, but only in the short term. As Joan Robinson wrote,

“He who’s convinced against his will/
Is of the same opinion still.”

Then there are those whose own views are founded on deep intellectual work. They may not be persuadable, but they may still be allies on certain issues. It would be politically idiotic to shun them and reject their practical assistance, even if limited.

This brings me to the Liz Bruenig Twittergasm. Twitter exacerbates the worst aspects of “call-out” politics. Quite a few people have so little political sense that they think insulting others constitutes a constructive contribution to progressive politics. Just search for “Liz Bruenig” on Twitter (she has shut down her own account). It can certainly be emotionally satisfying, but the political impact is more negative than positive.

Please don’t bother regaling me with the moral case for reproductive rights. I’m as pro-choice as anyone. At the same time, there is a substantial body of political opinion that seeks to meld a pro-life perspective with the remainder of progressive views. For shorthand, we could call them Catholics. Yes I know there are pro-choice Catholics. I’m not talking about them.

The desire to preclude any working relationship with progressive, pro-life Catholics is not smart. That doesn’t mean tempering DSA’s commitment to choice. It means taking advantage of alliances where they are available.

Nobody is going to change the philosophy of LB or, say, “the nuns on the bus,” or Pope Francis. They have thought about the moral implications of their stance at least as much as you have. It remains the case that for the U.S., especially for a small socialist formation like DSA, a good working relationship with progressive Catholics should be a strategic objective.

It’s funny that this shunning campaign has sometimes been a stance of the leftier left. We could note that there is no precedent for any successful revolution rejecting alliances. There is a precedent for entryists using such divisive appeals to siphon off supporters to their own sectarian outfits.

In the past I haven’t always held my tongue on Twitter when it comes to the Bernie v. Hillary wars. But these days when I see something vicious from either side, a little light goes on over my head and I practice restraint.

The inescapable fact is that both sides need each other. Trumpists deserve every sort of excoriation that the mind can devise, but the rules for dialog between the left and the moderates within the Democratic Party need to be different. Some on each side seek to purge the other side, but this can only benefit the Right.

There are entryists within DSA who uphold certain left stances for the sake of driving the organization into the swamp of third party or no-party politics. Many years ago, I could have been one of these people, so I understand the mindset. I also know where it leads – to a big fat nowhere.

For DSA to keep growing, it needs to be inviting, not exclusionary, like some high school clique. Moral condemnation should be reserved for the Right, constructive and even bracing criticism for moderates.



Fuck this guy. Really.

Who? That would be Eduard Limonov, co-founder of Russia’s “National Bolshevik” Party. He is the subject of a fawning biography by the prolific French writer Emmanuel Carrére. “National Bolshevism” is an abortive fusion of communism and fascism that is really just fascism with some communist symbols. Carrére’s book convinces me that this movement is central to an understanding of evolving European fascism. The similarities to Donald Trump’s following are more limited, but the fact remains that they are allied on different levels.

What’s hard to understand is Carrére’s affection for his subject, whom he at one point calls his hero. Limonov to my way of thinking is little more than a flaming asshole. Intelligent but intellectually perverse, and proud of it. Carrére is a prolific author whose mother is an eminent scholar of Russia. The family’s roots are White Russian, but the appeal is still elusive. Much of the book attempts to elaborate on it. It’s as much about Carrére as Limonov.

Limonov was born into a poor family, his father a low-ranked member of the Soviet political police. He goes through stages: a Russian bohemian poet lacking any notoriety, then a degenerate hustler in New York City. He makes it big as a writer with his autobiographical novel, “It’s Me, Eddie,” which I’ve not read. He acquires celebrity in France, then goes to Russia where he falls in with the opposition to Gorbachev, and then Yeltsin, in the company of a mixed gaggle of neo-Nazis and Stalinist nostalgics, if that isn’t the height of idiocy. He makes a side trip to commune with Serbian war criminals during the break-up of Yugoslavia. He writes many more books and in his old age strikes a kind of peace with the regime against which he postures.

The attention this story deserves is in the way it reveals the sort of personality that leads a person to fascism, as well as the kind of political stagnation in which it may thrive. It’s a Russian version of Scarface focused on politics rather than crime. Missing from the book is any clue as to the role of the U.S. and NATO in the catastrophic economic deterioration of Russia, under the watch of the Clinton Administration. Yet another angle from which to consider the role of the Clintons themselves in their own recent defeat.

I’ve described the international fascist front as affiliated with the Putin regime, as well as with the U.S. alt-right. One might wonder how to reconcile that with the national bolsheviks’ erstwhile opposition to their rulers. The answer is pretty simple. The homegrown Russian fascists are stooges for Putin, not unlike historic links between the U.S. ultra-right and law enforcement (sic). Their allies in Europe and the U.S. never criticize Putin, quite the contrary, and direct their energies at U.S. interests, including the European Union and NATO.

Carrére notes similarities between Limonov and Putin himself. At one point, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the current Russian autocrat was reduced to driving a cab. Putin and Limonov had similar, humble origins. The difference is that Putin realized his megalomaniacal dreams, and Limonov did not. For all the comfort he derives from his literary elder statesman status in Russia, in light of his fantasies of leading the masses, Limonov ends up a loser.

Hillary Unbowed

(My most recent failure in online publishing. Wherein I tried to be fair and civil, to no avail.)

Hillary Clinton is not apologizing and not going away. And why should she? She got damn close to being president of the United States, closer than most aspirants for high office ever will. Twice! In What Happened? she offers a combination of autobiography, campaign history, and political analysis. I learned a few things, and you will too. I also got some confirmation and elaboration of what I’ve thought is fundamentally problematic in her politics, from a progressive standpoint. In the interests of disclosure, I should say I was a Bernie Sanders supporter from the start to the bitter end, though I have never had any role in his campaign or affiliated organizations.

Clinton continues her 2016 political campaign, both primary and general election, in her book. She pledges to stay in the game to the point of encouraging selected organizing projects and speaking out against the depredations of the Trump Administration. Given the political zeal on display in the book and in related television appearances, I’d say there are reasons to be skeptical of her abstaining from another try for the White House.

Her commitment to activism has been clear since 1992. It’s reflected in the workings of her family’s prodigious fund-raising and institution-building. I don’t believe such an intelligent person devotes herself to exhausting work building a fortune that neither she, her children, nor their children could ever spend away without some higher purpose.

In the case of the Clintons, the motive is not simply to accumulate wealth. It is political – to win friends and influence people. To perpetually expand their political machine and pursue their own version of the great society.

This machine, especially for its most financially-blessed members, is not, contrary to some naïve popular commentary from both left and right, founded on vulgar transactions. That’s not how the super-rich operate, except perhaps denizens of the New York real estate world. There are relationships, not horse-trades. People evolve to a congruence of world views and, since they are intelligent, know how to help each other – to work together — without any need for secret conspiracies.

This was the flaw in how many interpreted Bernie Sanders’ harping on Clinton’s speeches in front of bankers, and the truth of Clinton’s protestations over unsubstantiated imputations of corruption. The speeches were not a setting for the exchange of favors. They were a bonding exercise. Financial deregulation, for instance, was pursued because it was the right thing to do. Everybody said so!

The principal evidence for her ongoing political preoccupations is embodied in the language of the book itself. This is typified by an excerpt from her undelivered draft victory address, which sounds for all the world like the rest of the book:

This summer, a writer asked me: If I could go back in time and tell anyone in history about this milestone, who would it be? And the answer is easy: my mother Dorothy. . . .

The onslaught of Mom, the flag, and apple pie is unrelenting. Every chapter is introduced with a homily of some sort. Kahlil Gibran makes an appearance. Maya Angelou’s “And still I rise.” The Pope. This is how some people really talk, but it was also her style of campaign rhetoric, and as such it raises questions. The electorate is not a giant chapter of the League of Women Voters. (How much better off we would be if it were.)

For those who are given pause by my distrust of her treacly rhetoric, you might consider the stark difference in voice that is apparent in her interview with Chris Hayes on MSNBC. Here you can see a different Hillary: tough, analytical, and unsentimental. No sugarplums and puppie dogs.

Although the book is frank in many respects, but I saw no remark that would pose a problem in a future political campaign, not least after the nation has been subjected to the Trump Regime.

In the acknowledgments, we learn that Clinton had the assistance of speech writers and researchers in writing the book. The machine is still cranking. The Obamas are up to the same business. We’ll be living with Clintons and Obamas for decades to come. Bernie’s revolution has its work cut out for it.

While the Clintons pass the torch to their daughter and to the Obamas, what are we in for? My misgivings are twofold, one in the realm of political economy and the other in political practice.

Let’s start with the politics, since political constraints tend to shape ambitions for policy. The basic Clinton method is to start with a data-based picture of what is acceptable to public opinion but fail to consider its direction and its raw intensity. The picture is static and desensitized. Clinton has empathy for her supporters, but is repulsed by her deplorable opponents. Hence her fear and aversion to “populism” and why she could be caught flat-footed by Bernie’s revolution and Trump’s demagogy.

In its own way, this arguably excessive pragmatism is a photographic negative of the Bush II Administration’s infamous devotion to creating their own reality, in the process trampling the hapless “reality-based community.” Whatever you think about the Republican rejection of empiricism, it does make for some aggressive risk-taking that seems to have stood them in good stead, at least by their lights.

The instinctive caution typified by both Clinton and Obama also limits the scale of contemplated initiatives. Clinton is skeptical of ideas that make a political splash, though she does recognize how powerful such proposals, practicality aside, are for Sanders and Trump. She still falls back on the responsible crafting of tractable “solutions.”

Clinton’s view is that it is better to know many things and avoid risky commitments to any one big thing. The weakness of this approach can be illustrated by the paramount issue of national employment.

The intellectual problem goes back to Bill Clinton’s administration. The early years of that tenure were marked by what was then called “the jobless recovery.” Democrats’ political weakness in 1994 was compounded by Bill Clinton’s unpopular commitments to deficit reduction and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). After two years of Clintonism, the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1952.

The economy turned around after 1994, resulting in a period of outstanding employment and income growth. The Clintons’ error was attributing it to their politically-disastrous deficit reduction. A case against their economic triumphalism was offered by no less than two Clinton economists, Alan Blinder and Janet Yellen, in The Fabulous Decade: Macroeconomic Lessons from the 1990s. The more likely suspect for the recovery was the low interest rate policy of the Federal Reserve. Democratic elites take it as an article of faith that critical commentary on the Fed is out of bounds.

These two mistakes remained at the heart of Democrats’ difficulties in stimulating the economy in the Obama years. The first is the notion that lower deficits are good for jobs, the second is that policies of the Federal Reserve are beyond the purview of elected officials.

The Obama Administration prevented a financial meltdown in 2009 but soft-peddled the subsequent weakness of the labor market. Yes there was substantial job growth, but little wage growth. Much wealth had been destroyed in the collapse. Employment, best evaluated by the employment-population ratio (not the official unemployment rate), never returned to pre-recession heights. Yes, the Republican Congress would have blocked any subsequent proposals to raise employment, but Obama failed to present the case with any vigor. In short, working people had many regrets and little reason to expect much in the way of change from Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Two reasons an economist can doubt her commitment to jobs was her lingering aversion to deficit spending and her indifference to Fed policy. On top of that, unwillingness to raise tax revenue, except on the super-rich, is confirmed explicitly in her account, when she describes rejecting an environmental dividend scheme because it would have meant raising taxes on upper income persons.

If you’re squirrelly about deficit spending and taxation, and you have nothing to say about the Fed, you’re not going to convince this economist that you are serious about jobs. For the average voter untutored in economic theory, the likelihood is that her failure to signal any significant change from the Obama Administration took much of the air out of her economic message. On top of that, she suffered by contrast to Sanders-the-socialist and Trump-the-builder (sic), whose full-throated dedications to big infrastructure sounded more credible.

It could not have helped that Clinton’s tepid defense of “free trade” policy, in which both her husband and President Obama were heavily invested, wilted before the thundering denunciations from Sanders and Trump. (The word NAFTA does not appear in the book.)

Clinton gives every indication that her campaign was aware of shortcomings in her economic story. She gives a nod to former Clinton pollster’s Stan Greenberg’s analysis, who charges that she “went silent” on the economy. Clinton cites some riffs from a speech to show that she didn’t. That sort of unserious rebuttal only works on Twitter or on a speaker’s platform.

Even so, the Clintons had every right to expect to win. Her account of the campaign is of one on cruise control until rocked by external events. The interventions of FBI Director James Comey, Russian cyber-warfare, and perverse coverage by the mainstream media are well-described. The reader can have little doubt that these shocks to our political system tilted the result.

The fact remains, however, that Hillary Clinton lost the election because she didn’t get enough votes. Cruise control was inadequate. Without some bad choices before and during 2016, she might have won anyway. She takes full responsibility for the loss, but she is not expansive about what she might have done differently.

She owns up to the “optics” of lucrative speeches to bankers. As I indicated, there was more to this than a bad look. She also suggests that she is not a very good politician. Still, I don’t think that Clinton had to be someone else to win.

She speculates about the appeal of “big and bold” proposals in the manner of Sanders but falls back on the responsibility to craft “solutions.” Solutions are kind of my stock-in-trade as a policy person, but they bore the average person, and not without reason. They are usually small-scale and technical.

The refusal to “go big” is one aspect of Clinton’s political malpractice. To be sure, she is a brilliant attorney and policy wonk in her own right, but wonks are no match for demagogues.

At one point, she says it’s hard to run against a demagogue. All I can say is, if you don’t know how to deal with demagogues, you shouldn’t be in politics. She could win debates but still lose the greater argument. She campaigned alternately in prose and sentimentality, but it was no match for Trump’s barbaric yawp.

The Clintons are staying in politics, and their constricted view of progressive reform, shared by the Obamas, continues to bedevil us. The weakness of her economic message was a feature, not a bug. Going forward, what Bill Clinton bemoaned as his administration’s devotion to balanced budgets and free trade – amounting to “Eisenhower Republicans” – is the cross Democrats will continue to bear.

That’s what’s happening.



Hurricane Maria update, 9/30

A friend writes . . .     

Almost four years ago, I first set foot here, in the storm-battered airport from which many are leaving, maybe forever. It was love at first sight. Not of the island. Not of the beaches, although both are beautiful. It was love for Puerto Ricans. With that spirit of life. With that warmth. Of elevator greetings and “Buen

Almost four years ago, I first set foot here, in the storm-battered airport from which many are leaving, maybe forever. It was love at first sight. Not of the island. Not of the beaches, although both are beautiful. It was love for Puerto Ricans. With that spirit of life. With that warmth. Of elevator greetings and “Buen

Almost four years ago, I first set foot here, in the storm-battered airport from which many are leaving, maybe forever. It was love at first sight. Not of the island. Not of the beaches, although both are beautiful. It was love for Puerto Ricans. With that spirit of life. With that warmth. Of elevator greetings and “Buen

Almost four years ago, I first set foot here, in the storm-battered airport from which many are leaving, maybe forever. It was love at first sight. Not of the island. Not of the beaches, although both are beautiful. It was love for Puerto Ricans. With that spirit of life. With that warmth. Of elevator greetings and “Buen

Almost four years ago, I first set foot here, in the storm-battered airport from which many are leaving, maybe forever. It was love at first sight. Not of the island. Not of the beaches, although both are beautiful. It was love for Puerto Ricans. With that spirit of life. With that warmth. Of elevator greetings and “Buen provecho” to strangers. Of living, in many cases, a tough life, as a result of the crisis, but living!

I would continue to return here for work, sadness filling my heart each time I presented a boarding pass at SJU, headed back home. Two years later, the “one day” that I had said I would move to Puerto Rico came, and again I arrived, with two suitcases, and no return ticket, as this was finally my home.

Since then, I have spent the last two years getting to know my new home. From Cabo Rojo to Fajardo, from Aguadilla to Yabucoa. I lived in Gurabo. I lived in Puerta de Tierra, and now, Miramar. I went to Guavate for lechon. And found frituras, and mangos and the best piñas un the world on the side of roads. I went to the placita, and decided that I desperately needed some salsa lessons.

And then, I watched Maria beat up my beautiful island, and tear down its trees, and destroy the electrical grid. But that hijo de p*** madre Hurricane, will not break us. Look at the picture. The building fell, but the streamers are still there. She made life hard, but she didn’t take down our spirit.

Most of our lives these days are spent waiting in lines for basic necessities. Most of us have finally heard from loved ones throughout the island, but some still wait, and worry. We pray for their families safety. And most of us are not doing anything illegal. We’re not hurting our neighbors for a bit of gasoline. We’re not freaking out.

Maybe it’s because Puerto Ricans have always known the secret to life.
That it could be hard, but it is meant to be enjoyed. To be shared. To be celebrated. That it’s not what you have in your life, but who you have in your life.

That’s what I learned from my upbringing in Greece. And maybe that’s why, from the first time I came here, after more than thirty years up north, Puerto Ricans felt like family. That if you have a little, you share. That everyone around us is our brother and sister. Nuestros padres, y nuestros hijos.

And if you don’t believe me that Puerto Ricans know how to celebrate even a difficult life, you had nothing more to do than to be anywhere that sold cold beer yesterday, when Ley Seca was lifted. The electricity will return. New leaves and new trees will grow. And this Isla del Encanto will continue to be one of the most special places on this planet. Because of its people.

Wepaaaa, mi gente. Let’s show the world how we do it here in Puerto Rico!

Maria update, Friday 9/29

A friend writes . . .

Well, once again, the pump for the water is not working properly, which means that even the few hours of water we had are gone. After an uplifting day yesterday, where xxxxx got some hopeful news about his flight today, and I got to see yyyyy and the kids, the reality is again seeping in.

I know I am a peevish prick, but when I see one of the calmest people I have ever met display signs of angst and aggravation, I know it’s not just me who is bothered by the situation.

The shelves in the supermarkets near me are starting to look bleak. Nothing fresh. The convenience store near me is getting some things, most importantly BEER! Alcohol sales have resumed. So once xxxxx found out that his flight was cancelled, 😩😩😩, we went to the store to get cold beer 🍻.

Now, in the second hour of our gas line, we are passing the time as best as we can. My best hope estimate for electricity, given how central my location in San Juan is, is at least another month…

I have no idea how long before this becomes a chore. I don’t own a car, so the rental is a luxury. It has allowed us to explore the damage, to check in on loved ones (Not my BFF), buy food, and try to get information about xxxx’s flight.

Returning to my pedestrian/cycling life means one less line, but also will create some limitations. Still, I really hope that soon, things start getting better. In the meantime…

Maria Update 9/26

It was the heat that woke me up. As I expect it will be the heat that keeps me awake until the power returns. Exhaustion, a good meal, a bit of wine and a shower right before bed at least allowed me a solid four hours last night. Coffee on the camping stove, a cigarette by the window, a charged phone to occupy my time. It should have been a good morning.

And then it wasn’t. Checking the information on some Facebook sites on what is open, banks, ice plants, gas stations, Supermarkets, I came across several articles and personal posts talking about, and sharing pictures of, the destruction in Puerto Rico. The pictures of the broken homes, didn’t do it, as luckily they are fewer than we first feared. The pictures of lines for everything didn’t do it.

No, it was a post from a man, living in states, thanking us on the site for the support he received after posting earlier that his father had passed, and how he could not get to Puerto Rico to see him before he died, or to bury him now that he had.

And then the pictures of leafless, broken trees revealing behind them buildings, or even entire communities previously shielded from view by a curtain of green, so beautiful and verdant that for me, the beach loving city boy, was the definitive trait of this beautiful speck of land in the middle of the ocean that became my home from the moment I set foot on it four years ago.

This morning, while enjoying the quiet before the lifting of the curfew, was the first time I actually cried. I came close once before. “Puerto Rico is no longer green,” is how I said it to a neighbor waiting in line with me at the supermarket the other day. And watching his eyes water almost did it, but a hand on the shoulder, and a bad joke about trimming bushes, spared both of us.

Today, I hope to go help a friend clean out their home, deluged not by the storm, but by a release of water from a dam that caused flooding in places spared by the hurricane. I need the distraction, and to see him and his family in person. To do something that feels like it helps the process of rebuilding, of healing.

Many of you have asked how you can help. Put pressure on the powers that be to act and to act quickly. While it lost its green heart, Puerto Rico has not lost its soul. People still smile, and share, and end every recounting of their personal losses with Gracias a Dios (thank God) in realization of the value of what they didn’t lose, of how much worse it could have been.

But, the lines, the deprivation of things we all normally take for granted like running water, or the ability to talk to loved ones, to get in the car and check on your elderly parents, or being able to just walk into a supermarket without having to wait, will take their toll.

We still share, but how long before we have to stop helping those without cash get something to eat, because our own supplies are running low? How long before the lines become unruly? We, and those in surrounding islands devastated by Irma or Maria, need help.

While nature dealt us a severe blow to our island, our society, our spirit, remains wonderful, life loving, warm. I hope that the actions, or inactions, of men don’t damage that. Because the trees will grow back.

Maria update. Wednesday 9/27

A friend from PR writes . . .

I have a favor to ask. Please don’t ask me to confirm or comment on news about Puerto Rico these days. Especially from the people at Univision.

We all know that news focuses on the sensational, but the descriptions of Destruction and violence, while accurate for their specific instances, should not be taken as an indication of what’s happening widely.

There have been robberies. There have been people who died. There have been homes that were actually destroyed. But this is not what has happened to all of us.

We’re not, yet, murdering each other for a loaf of bread or tank of gas. There’s still a lot of laughter in lines, and there are still people helping each other left and right, from family, to neighbors, and even strangers.

The guy offering to let xxx and I use the shower when we didn’t have water. The people buying two dozen eggs and giving one to their neighbor, who wanted three for her family. The people walking through the lines giving everyone updates on when the gas might start flowing. The civilians directing traffic in the first couple of days after the storm. The people who post pictures and names of strangers on Facebook so that those people’s families can know that their loved ones are well.

And the laughter. It continues to echo throughout our endless lines. With people running out of cash, there are now huge lines at the few banks that are open to get money. You then take that money and go wait in line for gas, or food, or , God help you, if you need to buy ice or water.

As we were sitting downstairs last night, sharing stories and food with a young couple from my building, who had been heating food by candlelight-and yes I did mean heating not eating, the woman described this as an exercise in patience.

Moving here helped me find that patient, calm kid I once was again. But I’m really starting to lose my patience with sensationalist stories that put this, my adopted homeland, in a negative light.

The situation is bad. Our electrical infrastructure is destroyed. It will take a lot of time, money, and help, for Puerto Rico to return to what it was a week ago. Getting basic necessities takes effort these days.

Our sense of community continues to be strong. And I have to tell you, no other place I’ve ever been defines community as an entire country as much as Puerto Rico does.

There is a pride in being Puerto Rican, that you hear in half of the songs, in conversations all of the time, that you see everywhere you go.

So, while life here is anything but a party these days, please do not let the news tell you that our society has disintegrated in the chaos.
If anything, most of us are behaving as our better angels.