Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why I'm For Obama, Part 1: Economics

Yes, I support Barack Obama's re-election.  I'm doing so for quite a number of reasons.  Basically, I believe Obama has been an effective president who has done a good job in a really rotten set of circumstances.  This is particularly true given that his rotten set of circumstances were largely created by the Republican party, and the Republicans have continued to fiercely block almost all his efforts to fix them.  Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan's approach, in my view, takes George Bush's failures and puts them on steroids.  I believe having Romney as President would result in severe damage the country.

Those are broad statements.  One blog post cannot do justice to them, so I'm going to break down the subjects into several blog posts and focus on one element at a time.  Since most people consider the economy to be the #1 issue in the country today, I'll start with that one.

First and foremost, it seems necessary to remind people that Barack Obama didn't run our economy into the ground.  It was primarily the economic policies of George Bush and the Republican party over a long period of time that did.  They took the position that unfettered private enterprise is the solution to our nation's ills, and that any interference by a government, be it by taxation or regulation, is by definition a bad thing.  In practice during Bush's tenure, this meant lax or nonexistent oversight over the financial markets (among others), with a particularly hands-off attitude for Wall Street's complex financial packages as well as mortgage lending practices nationwide.  The government's failure to monitor those two areas in particular contributed to the economic crash of 2008.  This crash, I have to note, began late in President Bush's term, about seven months or so before Obama was inaugurated.

But it wasn't just Wall Street and the mortgage market that brought down the American economy.  For several decades, we have been dismantling our manufacturing base, using more automation to replace manpower, and shipping jobs of all sorts overseas.  The middle class has seen its real income gradually drop since the 80's.  In hindsight, the recession of the early 2000's should have been a wake-up call.  That one, you may remember, was a cyclical recession (a normal and periodic downturn of the economy), but gave us a very slow "jobless" recovery.  In previous cyclical recessions, the economy quickly bounced back as people were re-hired for their previous jobs.  That time, though, they weren't.  Jobs had been permanently eliminated, or shifted overseas, or employers were using temp workers.  The only ones doing well were those few who were higher on the economic ladder.

I saw this disparity first-hand.  A friend who was an officer in a local bank's wealth-management unit saw that his wealthy clients were doing extremely well.  As an artist, however, I saw that most people were stressed out, unable (or unwilling) to spend money on luxuries like art.  North Carolina lost about 40% of its manufacturing jobs during that decade, many small farms here in the mountains ceased operations (many being turned into gated communities for million-dollar homes), and way too many people with comfortable incomes were laid off and forced into lower-paying jobs.  All of this was part of a long-term trend of growing economic disparity which has disproportionately favored the wealthy.  Even The Economist, that bastion of conservative economic thought from Britain, is concerned about economic disparity and focused a recent edition on the problem, its roots, and potential corrections.

The recession of 2008 was, of course, much worse.  This time it wasn't a cyclical recession, it was brought on by severe structural failures.  These failures could have been prevented had the federal government wanted to exercise its oversight and regulatory responsibilities.  Under President Bush, it didn't.

Republicans have long downplayed the problems with economic disparity in which the wealthy gain an increasing share of the nation's wealth while the middle and lower incomes lose.  They have championed the belief that wealthy people create jobs, therefore we should give the wealthy more tax breaks.  (Remember George H.W. Bush's impassioned plea to lower the capital gains tax?)  Republicans call it "supply-side economics", but it's more accurately called "trickle-down economics", and it just doesn't work.

Our economy is largely based on consumerism.  That means it needs a lot of consumers.  The more consumers you have with more money to spend, the better your economy.  But in trickle-down economics, the money doesn't go to a lot of consumers, it goes to a few wealthy people.  The wealthy few don't put this money back into circulation.  Mitt Romney, for example, put his money into accounts in the Caymans and Switzerland, into financing corporate raids, and investing in stocks and bonds, and very little of it trickled down to others.

If you need more proof that trickle-down economics doesn't work, consider that we now have the greatest economic disparity in our country since the period of the robber barons over a century ago.  If trickle-down economics really worked, we wouldn't be having these tough times right now.

Now consider the track records of our two presidential candidates.  Mitt Romney has a history as a corporate raider, a Gordon Gekko figure.  Romney was adamantly opposed to the government assistance that was necessary for GM and Chrysler to get the financing needed to survive reorganization.   He was perfectly willing to let Chrysler and GM go completely out of business and take three million jobs with them.  But Obama wasn't.  He went ahead with the financial assistance plan (actually begun under the Bush administration) which gave the two corporations the resources needed to make it through bankruptcy proceedings and come out the other side.  Just within the past few days, Chrysler reported a profit of $383M for the recent quarter and GM reported a profit of $1.83B.  That wouldn't have happened under a Romney administration.

Romney has been attacking Obama on the jobs front, saying that there are fewer jobs now than when he assumed office.  This attack fails to recognize that a near-depression was underway when Obama took office and that jobs were already in free fall.  Obama's policies stopped the job losses and private sector jobs have actually been growing now for three years.

Furthermore, consider that Romney promises to slash government spending.  That means that he is going to slash government jobs as well, a fact that he never mentions.  These job losses will drive up the unemployment rate, another fact he doesn't mention.  But in fact, he would only be doing what Obama has already done.  There are about 1 million fewer federal workers now than there were four years ago.  Had the Obama administration not cut those jobs, the unemployment rate would be just over 7%, not bad for a post-recession period.  So Romney is attacking Obama for reducing the federal workforce and driving up unemployment, something Romney himself promises to do.  This, to me, is dishonest.

So the choice comes down to this: do you want Gordon Gekko as your President?  Or do you want a pragmatic leader who is willing to take risks to save jobs and grow the economy?  The choice is pretty clear to me.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

"Faces of Afghanistan" Exhibit at UNC Asheville

The exhibition of my drawings and pastels from Afghanistan is now open at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, in the S. Tucker Cooke Gallery in Owen Hall.  For the past three weeks, I've been busting my tail to get everything ready.  I ordered the frames and glass from the Framer's Chop Shop, then matted and framed all 47 works.  While that was going on, John Le from WLOS-TV came out and did the news clip that I linked to in my last post.  UNCA turned their publicity team loose and their press release was picked up by several papers in North and South Carolina.  I did an interview with the Asheville Citizen-Times as well; their article turned out really nice.  (In the hard-copy edition, the article was right underneath a child porn arrest and right before the obituaries.  Nothing like keeping everything in perspective.)  Meanwhile, Janis took over the management of the opening reception: she decided what to do for drinks, munchies, decorations, and so on.

On Thursday, everything kicked into high gear.  I went in and hung the show.  One of the student assistants, Amber, helped considerably with the layout and hanging details.  Photographers from two newspapers (Mountain XPress and Citizen-Times) arrived at the same time to shoot images to accompany articles ... aaawwwwkward ... On Friday, Robert Tynes (one of the painting instructors) and I arranged the lighting, then I set up the reception tables and slapped the labels next to the artworks.  Janis and I came in about an hour before opening time - she set out the food and drinks while I made last-minute adjustments.  We opened the doors about 15 minutes before the official time because, well, people were there.

After all that work, the reception was actually fun.  Lots of old friends showed up: artists, fellow students from UNCA, a friend that I've known for 40 years, writers, teachers, and neighbors.  Current UNCA students, collectors, and random walk-ins off the street came as well.  During an opening reception, the exhibiting artists spend all their time talking to people, and I certainly did that.  There were even a few sales.  And, in the mix, I was offered another show in February.  All in all, a success.

So what do I think and feel about this?  Well, anytime an artist can get work up on somebody else's wall, it's a good thing.  This is a great gallery and I'm very proud and happy to exhibit here.  And I'm quite proud of the way the show looks.  The framing turned out very well (thanks to Janis, who chose the frame styles and mat colors).  I always have a lot of anxious questions before a show: will there be enough works to fill the walls, how will they look, what will people think, and so on.  But all turned out well.  So I'm a happy camper.

Now I'm trying to catch up on all the gazillion and one things that didn't get done over the past couple of weeks.  This blog post, for example.  I need to get to work on employment prospects.  I have a new iPhone and I can barely make and receive phone calls on, so I need to learn its capabilities.  Both cars need washing and waxing before winter sets in.  I'm going to put together a show proposal and see about getting "Faces" exhibited in a few more places.  I want to set up a studio again.  We've got a wedding to go to soon.  My dogs are sitting here looking at me, telling me it's time to get off the computer and play with them.

So: it's been nice talking with you, but the dogs are calling!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

On Being A Media Whore

"Media whore" is what we labelled a buddy of mine in Afghanistan who inadvertently wound up as the focus of a news video clip.  He'd taken the reporters out to the field so they could film a segment on Afghan agriculture; instead, the report showed a lot of him and very little agriculture.  So, naturally, we accused him of pandering to the media in order to get his face on TV.  That was completely wrong, of course, which made harassing him with it so much fun.

In the past week, I've had two video segments about me posted onto YouTube.  In both cases, I am not entirely innocent - I had to do some coordination with the news teams to get the clips done.  So, yes, I'm a media whore!

The first segment was shot in Kabul by the Embassy's public affairs section.  I wrote about it in an earlier blog post.  This report (done by an American reporter and an Afghan videographer) was a human-interest story done to show an Embassy official (me) doing things not normally expected of a government official.  We did it in a small park over in the ISAF compound, across from GEN Allen's headquarters.  The reporter's questions are not heard; rather, you just see me drawing and hear me talking about the whole process.  It was a fun project and you can see the video here:

The Embassy offered the video to my local TV station, WLOS.  They loved it, but decided to send a reporter out to shoot their own segment.  So yesterday, the reporter, John Le, and cameraman Todd, came out to my house.  I am matting and framing the artworks for the show, and they wanted to get some images of the process.  So I matted and framed, and they shot video and asked questions, and then put together a news clip that ran last night.  It turned out pretty well.  Here's the link to the YouTube clip:

I normally do not like being the focus of attention and having cameras and microphones in my face.  I'm more of a behind-the-scenes guy.  But these two clips were fun to do.  Both the Embassy and the WLOS teams were very professional and enjoyable to work with.  I would do it again, just not anytime soon.  Being a media whore is not my cup of tea!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Art Show Preps

So how much "time off" did I get after coming home?  Not even a day.  Right off the bat, I was back in the groove: walking the dogs, mowing the lawn, and making the run to the post office, dump, and grocery store.  Which was pretty cool.  I'm not one to sit around expecting to be pampered, and Janis is not one to let me get away with it.  "Would you like a grilled ham and cheese sandwich?  You would?  Well, get up and make it, then!"  That's how things roll around our house.

I have a big project underway.  The University of North Carolina at Asheville is going to exhibit a selection of my drawings and pastels from Afghanistan.  The opening will be on Friday, Oct 26, with a reception from 6 - 8 pm.  That's only three weeks from the time I got home until the time the show opens.  There's a lot to do: select which drawings to show, order the mats and frames, cut the mats and frame the works, coordinate with the school's public affairs, arrange for posters, coordinate the reception, prepare the space, hang the show ... you get the picture.

The first task was to decide which artworks to include.  I wound up with a stack of 47 drawings and pastels.  All are Afghan figures, the vast majority of which are portrait sketches.  For this exhibit, I am not including the sketches of Americans or landscape images with MRAPs or other such drawings.  All the drawings are pretty small, with none larger than about 10"x12" unframed.  The gallery is pretty good-sized, so it needs a lot of works to fill it up.  Once the pieces were selected, the next step was to figure out the frames.  We're using some pretty nice frames - with so many artworks, the temptation is to go cheapo, but we decided to do them up properly.  We had a local frame shop (Frugal Framer) build the frames and cut the glass, and I picked them up today.  They look great.  Tomorrow, I'll start to cut the mats and put everything together.

A few days ago, I met with the art department staff at UNC Asheville to get some information, swap ideas, and get the ball rolling.  Today, I met with the public affairs guy at the school.  He's going to write up an article for publication.  I've sent out notifications electronically already and have more to go.  Next week, Janis and I will work on the stuff for the reception.  I'll hang the show on Thursday and set up the reception on Friday.

In the meantime, I re-photographed all the drawings from Afghanistan.  All of them, including the ones not included in this particular exhibit.  All the photos that I shot previously were quick point & shoots, with very imperfect lighting, exposure, and so on.  This time I took my time and photographed them as carefully as possible.  A number of people have talked to me about putting these drawings together in a book, and that is something I'll look into once the reception is behind me.  Oh, and I need to revamp my web site.  Again.

So that's what I've been doing for the past week.  Got lots more to do over the next week and a half.  But dang, it's good to be home!

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Mission Complete

My Afghanistan deployment is now over.  I'm back at home with Janis and the dogs, getting settled into  normal life again, and letting my body clock get readjusted.

I spent a week in Kabul to out-process.  I'd been told that it took three or four days to do the scavenger hunt of finding offices and getting things checked off.  The Embassy works 5-day weeks (unlike the field), so add in a couple of non-working weekend days, plus an extra day or so to account for weather delays or unexpected events.  So I arranged for a week.  As it turned out, there were no delays and for field people like me, most of the items on the scavenger-hunt checklist were not applicable.  In about two hours on the first day, I'd done 90% of what needed to be done.  It felt great to turn in my body armor, satellite phone, a BlackBerry that never worked properly, and a few other items.  That left six days to do ... well, a lot of nothing.  I set up some meetings to fill people in on Kandahar issues, more to have something semi-productive to do than anything else.  Otherwise, I hit the gym, visited with friends, and caught up on some reading.

Our Public Affairs people got wind of the fact that I'm an artist and have been drawing Afghans during my deployment.  Sensing a potential PR good-news human-interest story, they arranged to do a video interview with me.  This turned out to be a lot of fun.  We talked on-camera about who I was, what I'd been doing, the drawings, the Afghan reaction to them, and so on.  Then we corralled a young female British soldier nearby into sitting for me while I sketched her.  It was a bit unnerving to have the unblinking all-seeing eye of the video camera looking over my shoulder while I drew.  Knowing how often drawings are complete failures, I was nervous, but we got lucky and it turned out pretty well.  I gave the young lady the drawing when done and she seemed pretty pleased with it.  The next day, I saw a rough early cut of a portion of the interview.  They're still working on it and it will be posted on YouTube when done.  I will post the link here when it's available.

Kabul weather was unbelievably perfect during my week there.  It was cool in the mornings and evenings, meaning long-sleeve or even light jacket temperatures, and perfectly warm (mid-70's) during the day.  But not all was perfect.  About the midpoint of my stay, I ate something that just did not want to go away.  It sat in my stomach for at least three or four days, even into the trip home.  I finally had to go visit the doc, since I did not want to spend 24 hours trapped in airports and airplanes while feeling queasy.  They gave me some antacids and that helped.  Turned out that quite a few people at the Embassy suffered the same thing.  The DFACs strike again!

Finally, though, everything was done.  I'd turned in everything that needed to be turned in, spoken to all who needed to be spoken to, and it was time to go.  A driver took us from the Embassy to the Kabul airport.  This trip was a bit tense as there was a bombing targeted at an Embassy vehicle on that route a couple of weeks earlier, but this trip went off without a hitch.  Getting through the check-in and screening process was the usual pain.  We loaded up into a Safi Airlines Airbus that clunked and banged during taxiing like an ancient Chevy panel truck.  Not very confidence-inspiring.  The flight to Dubai was uneventful, though.  After more screening at the Dubai airport, I found my gate and met up with a couple of my co-workers from Kandahar who were going out on leave.

At midnight, we left Dubai for the 14-hour flight to Dulles.  I normally can't sleep worth squat on planes and this trip was no different.  Nothing like dozing off and on in 10 or 15-minute stretches, waking up with a terrible crick in your neck, looking at your watch, and realizing you've still got eight hours of this to go.  Ugh.

Dulles immigration wasn't as bad as it normally is.  We were maybe the first flight of the day to hit the passport control section, so we were processed pretty quickly.  United misplaced my checked bag, but found it after about 15 minutes, and I cleared customs and re-checked it for home.  Then I cleaned up as best I could, changed shirts, and headed downtown to the State Department.  As always, I am SO GLAD that I don't live in DC anymore and don't have to put up with that traffic every day.  Unbelievable.

Checkout from the State Department went well and quickly.  In less than 3 hours, I'd filled out forms, completed a required stress interview with a shrink, collected a variety of helpful information sheets that will never be read, turned in my badge and CAC card, and out the door.  No longer a State Department guy.  Unemployed.  Digging it.

I had some free time, so I did one of my favorite things: went to the National Gallery of Art to get inspired.  And walked into a showing of George Bellows' paintings.  You know Bellows' work if you don't know the name: he did the paintings of the turn-of-the-century boxers pounding the crap out of each other.  I was completely blown away, much more than I would have expected.  I've seen his work in ones and twos before, but seeing so many all together, and how they related, how how superbly painted they were, just knocked me out.  He is not an Impressionist, but he has their loose brushwork that suggests far more than it defines, while making you believe you're seeing more than is really there. Fabulous work.  If you're in DC, go see this show.  I would have bought the catalog, but it weighed a ton and I was already carrying a full backpack, so decided against it.  I'll probably order it, though, so the postal system will get to carry it rather than me.

And then it was time to head back out to Dulles.  The trip out there was uneventful.  Check-in was a pain (always at Dulles) but not as bad as it has been.  United loaded us into a tiny little jet for the trip to Charlotte.  I had a window seat and spent the whole time looking out the window at MY COUNTRY. It was green, with farms and towns and roads busy with trucks and cars.  The blue sky merged with haze on the distant horizon and then merged into the blue-green of the hills and rivers.  Marvelous!

As always, my flight arrived at one end of the Charlotte airport, while my next flight departed at the far other end.  But it was cool to stroll through the busy terminal and people-watch normal Americans in their natural environment.  No body armor, no M4's, no checkpoints with bored Afghan soldiers.  Nope, just regular old Americans, young and old, dressed-up and sloppy, talking on cell phones, checking departure schedules, or wandering around aimlessly.  It felt great to be one of them again.

And finally, the short hop to Asheville.  I sat next to a very interesting lady and we had a great discussion about my job, her job, art, Asheville, travel, and a host of other things.  Then we landed.  I gathered up my backpack and headed out the door.  As usual, Janis was waiting over in the check-in area with Soozzee and Indy.  These two dogs have done this so many times, they knew what to expect.  They spotted me and came running.  Followed by Janis.