IPS Blog

This Week in OtherWords: After the Superstorm

As authorities in the Northeast order new evacuations and the airlines cancel hundreds of flights in anticipation of another fierce storm, OtherWords is taking stock of the many ways in which Sandy may prove a teachable moment.

Daphne Wysham and John Talberth show how this latest bout of extreme weather exposes the shortcomings of relying on GDP to measure economic progress. William A. Collins, one of the 8.5 million people who lost power last week, asks whether Mother Nature was disciplining Wall Street for its dirty-energy finance. Michael Brune, who grew up in one of New Jersey’s hardest-hit towns, calls for bigger investments in clean energy. Ryan Alexander calls for a more responsible approach to the nation’s flood insurance system. And Khalil Bendib’s cartoon can accompany any of these commentaries.

Be sure to visit the OtherWords blog, where many of our writers are parsing the elections. And please subscribe to our weekly newsletter if you haven’t signed up yet.

  1. How Sandy Reveals the GDP’s Twisted Logic / John Talberth and Daphne Wysham
    Extreme weather doesn’t boost the economy.
  2. Hurricane Sandy’s Wakeup Call / Michael Brune
    Sandy is only the latest and most devastating incident in a pattern of extreme weather that’s become impossible to ignore.
  3. Social Security: It Ain’t Broke / Elizabeth Rose
    It’s a basic part of what makes America run, like our national highway system.
  4. Rebuilding Resilience / Ryan Alexander
    We have to stop subsidizing people to live in harm’s way.
  5. The Invisible Hand Won’t Stop Inequality in Its Tracks / Sam Pizzigati
    We’ll have more economic and climate disasters on Sandy’s scale unless our political systems intervene.
  6. Why the Chicken Crossed the Road / Jim Hightower
    Factory farms are animal concentration camps.
  7. Shivering in the Land of Climate Denial / William A. Collins
    If Wall Street doesn’t get Mother Nature’s hint, it will become the entire world’s tragedy.
  8. Sandy Trumps Romney’s Climate Joke / Khalil Bendib Cartoon
  9. Sandy Trumps Romney's Climate Joke, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

    Sandy Trumps Romney’s Climate Joke, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Inequality-Fighting Lawmakers Win Big

Members of Congress who earned good marks in an Institute for Policy Studies “report card” on inequality fared well on Election Day.

Inequality Report CardWe awarded “A+” grades to the 12 House members who did the most to narrow America’s economic divide over the past two years. Eleven of these lawmakers won:
Robert Brady (D-PA), Yvette Clarke (D-NY), Steve Cohen (D-TN), John Conyers (D-MI), Marcia Fudge (D-OH), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Hank Johnson (D-GA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jim McDermott (D-WA), and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL).

Only one of these A+ lawmakers, Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) lost his seat to a Democratic challenger — making him a notable casualty to California’s top-two primary system.

Three of the five senators who nailed top marks for their legislative actions to reduce inequality in America were up for re-election. They all won: Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

Republicans identified as the most “99% friendly” within their party also did well. The IPS report card rated three senators and nine House members at a “C” level for doing the most to reduce extreme inequality over the past two years. All seven of the House members on this list who ran for re-election won. None of the three most “99% friendly” Senators was up for re-election this year.

Our report card gave failing grades to 59 lawmakers who consistently favor the interests of the wealthy instead of looking out for the needs of everyone. Of the 45 who were up for re-election, two lost. One was Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-NY), who was the lead sponsor of a bill to repeal a provision in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law that requires corporations to disclose the ratio between what they pay their CEO and their workers.

This new metric could encourage a narrowing of the staggering inequality gaps within companies. In the midst of Hayworth’s two-year crusade against that provision, the SEC has failed to implement it.

The other House member who received an “F” grade and lost her seat was tea party-backed Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, another New York Republican.

The IPS report card also identified the 17 Democrats who have done the least to fight extreme inequality and rated no better than a “C: Of the eight House Democrats on this list who were up for re-election, two lost (Representatives Ben Chandler of Kentucky, and Larry Kissell of North Carolina). Mike McIntyre, another North Carolina House Dem, appeared to be headed for a recount.

Sarah Anderson is a co-author of this Institute’s first annual inequality report card, released in September. It rates lawmakers on the basis of their voting records and co-sponsorships of 40 different legislative actions over the last two years. The bills considered range from legislation to establish a “Buffett Rule” minimum tax rate that all wealthy Americans must pay to a measure that would raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation.

The Nail-Biter that Wasn’t

Obama wins

It was the nail-biter that wasn’t
…not even close.
By just after 11,
the GOP gave up the ghost.

Turns out voters are smart —
they knew just what to do.
They knew who was for many
and who was for few.

The tea party is over,
the real work is at hand.
And we all gotta push
whoever’s in command.

You can get high,
you can marry your mate,
you can get an education,
we can overcome hate.

But the job’s just beginning
to transform how we live.
What we do to the planet,
what we take, what we give.

Don’t make a grand bargain,
that slashes and burns
a safety net that we need,
so our kids eat, thrive and learn.

Tax Wall Street, cut waste,
end wars, tax the rich.
Turn green with great haste,
Frankenstorms are a bitch.

The people have spoken,
we’ve chosen our path.
Now get to work Mr. President,
look at the math.

America’s not broke,
the resources are there.
We’ve gotta be bold,
and create for all a fair share.

Among other things, Karen Dolan is the Institute for Policy Studies’ deadline poet. IPS-dc.org

A Better Way to Run Elections

Once upon a time there were at least nine Republicans running for president. It turns out that almost every Republican in the country thought that Tim Pawlenty would be a pretty good president. Indeed, he was everyone’s second choice.

But everyone had one other person they thought would be even better, so they voted for that person. The result was that all the other candidates split the vote, each getting about 13 percent, and poor Pawlenty got almost nothing. So he dropped out. One by one, so did the other candidates, leaving us with Mitt Romney.

About 13 percent of the Republicans had Romney as their first choice, so they are happy. But the other 87 percent of Republicans, who had someone else as their first choice, had Pawlenty as their second choice. He might have won in a landslide if he hadn’t dropped out.

bjmccray/Flickr

bjmccray/Flickr

OK, so I made all this up — or did I? The fact is, no one knows who was the second choice of the voters, because no one asked. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We could ask, and if we did, we might find ourselves with very different candidates on the Democratic and Republican tickets.

The point is, our vote-for-one electoral system isn’t designed to choose the best or the most popular candidate. It’s designed to reward the candidate who can survive the longest, even if he or she is not the favorite of the electorate. Remember, until the competition dropped out, there were no primaries in which Romney won the majority of the votes. More people were against him than for him.

The same thing happened in Egypt. With multiple candidates running, the top two vote getters turned out to be the most extreme candidates. Most of the people chose someone in the middle, but not the same someone, so in the second round, the majority had to choose between two candidates, neither of whom they wanted.

There are easy ways around this. One is, instead of voting for one candidate, you rank them. Here’s my first choice, here’s my second, and so on. You can stop whenever you like, no need to rank them all. When counting, simply give points for each level of vote. If there are nine candidates, a first-place vote is worth nine points, second is worth eight, and so on. Anyone unranked on your ballot gets no points.

A second approach would be to allow negative votes: My vote goes for Smith, but I definitely do not want Jones. Smith gets +1, Jones gets -1 vote. Anyone voting for and extreme left candidate will probably vote against an extreme right candidate, with the result that they would cancel each other out, leaving the middle standing.

Another effect of this system would be to reduce the effect of outside money in local races. After all, when an extreme Republican is running against an extreme Democrat, outside groups care who wins and pour money into the race. If the candidates were moderate, the outside groups might care less and allow the locals to decide.

If Egypt used one of these methods, the candidates from the middle would have received more points than the candidates from the fringes. Runoff elections might happen anyway, but this time between the two candidates with the most overall points, not the most first place votes. The people would be more likely to get the leader they want.

Back home, the major political parties might actually nominate better candidates.

This would be good news for politicians like Tim Pawlenty.

So what’s stopping us from doing this? As far as I can tell, nothing. Each state’s Secretary of State gets to decide how their primary will be run. All they have to do is choose one of these systems.

David Reingold is a retired chemistry professor at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. He now lives in Portland, Oregon.

Election Night Party with IPS

Live at IPS

Join the Election Night Party with the Institute for Policy Studies to hear from our team of experts for thought and analysis that you won’t hear in the mainstream media. IPS invites you to tune into the livestream of our Election Night Party, 8 PM to 11 PM ET.

CLICK HERE TO TUNE INTO THE LIVESTREAM.

We’ll feature a discussion with IPS drug policy expert Sanho Tree on the marijuana legalizations initiatives and how legalization will impact the drug war and our drug policy toward Latin America. You’ll hear a rundown with IPS inequality and economy guru Sarah Anderson on the “inequality vote,” the pro-99-percent candidates versus those whose Congressional actions favor the rich. We’ll have a frank and informative talk with IPS organizer Netfa Freeman on the private polling service that is used by most major broadcast news stations to forecast election winners, and how electronic voting machines may affect democracy.

And we’ll have discussion on much, much more. We’ll talk about Proposition 37, the California ballot initiative that would require the labeling of genetically engineered food. We’ll break down how marriage equality initiatives are faring four states. We’ll review the presidential candidates’ foreign policy positions. And there will be more.

You won’t hear our experts repeat the same old phrases or analysis that you get on network news. The Institute for Policy Studies is a Washington-DC-based think tank speaking truth to power for 50 years. Tonight, we’ll be speaking the truth on livestream.

Join us for our Election Night Party, 8 PM to 11 PM ET, on our UStream Channel: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/live-at-ips

Once More Into the Breach for the “Savior of Pakistan”

AQ KhanThere’s only person who’s less worthy of being referred to by cool initials than A.Q. Khan. That’s Khalid Sheik Mohammed: KSM sounds way too familiar, creepy, even in its coziness.

Before interviewing him for a September 5 piece at Foreign Policy, Simon Henderson reminds us that

Abdul Qadeer Khan is the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program — and, according to Washington officialdom, the architect of the greatest violation to the nuclear non-proliferation regime that the world has ever seen. Starting in the 1980s and continuing for roughly two decades, the nuclear scientist oversaw the transfer of crucial nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

Why interview him now? It seems

… the controversial nuclear scientist is entering Pakistan’s political arena. He recently announced the formation of the Movement for the Protection of Pakistan … which he conceives as an organization that will back worthy candidates in the country’s upcoming national assembly elections.

And why launch the party now? AQ Khan responds:

At the moment Pakistan is in an extremely precarious and dangerous condition – no law and order, widespread load shedding [planned rolling blackouts -- RW], a high crime rate. … In short, it has gone to the dogs thanks to our most incompetent and corrupt rulers and their Western patrons. … I can’t simply sit back and see it destroyed. I feel that I must do something to try to save the situation,

In fairness, Khan claims to partly motivated by preventing the spread of anti-Islamist extremism. Khan said he is concerned about “target killing on religious, sectarian or provincial bases” (the plural of basis, that is). He adds:

I have noticed that Western countries are nervous about my Movement, possibly suspecting that I might be a fundamentalist or a jihadi. They forget that I studied in Europe, lived there for 15 years, have a foreign wife, have two daughters who studied in the UK and have two granddaughters studying abroad, one in the UK and one in the USA. … I seek … sanctity of our sovereignty, non-participation in mercenary activities or allowing our country to be used for terrorism, either from within or from outside.

To the West, Pakistan presents national-security concerns that can be distilled thusly: that it will use nuclear weapons on India, that it’s a breeding ground of extremist Islamists, and that said extremists might seize the nuclear weapons. Asked about their safety, Khan — never less than quoteworthy — replies:

Pakistan’s nuclear assets are as safe as President Obama’s black box. Nobody can even steal a screw from them. … The world should worry about their own problems, not about ours.

That last statement does not bode well for his grasp on reality. Nor does this.

Nobody in Pakistan doubts my integrity, honesty, sincerity or patriotism. … Pakistani historians will remember me by the nickname they have given me: “Mohsin-e-Pakistan” (Saviour of Pakistan).

His remarks can even be construed as delusional. He claims it’s not national office he seeks.

I am just a guide — some sort of Lee Kwan [sic] Yew, the former PM of Singapore, Mahathir [of Malaysia] or, hopefully, Mandela.

Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is known as the “founding father” of modern Singapore; Mahathir bin Mohamad was the prime minister under whom Malaysia experienced modernization and growth. Meanwhile the narcissism of comparing oneself to Nelson Mandela speaks for itself.

Investing in Voting Machines

Less than two weeks after Halloween, many Americans may wind up casting their ballots on haunted voting machines.

When they enter voting booths, millions of citizens in Texas, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Washington, Colorado, and Virginia, along with a few counties in the pivotal state of Ohio, will make their choices on eSlate and ePollbook machines made by an Austin-based company called Hart InterCivic.

Last year, an $8.5 billion investment fund known as HIG Capital acquired a “strategic” stake in Hart, which gave it at least three of the five board seats for the nation’s No. 3 voting machine company.

And why does the HIG connection matter? HIG’s directors are among the Romney campaign’s top supporters. HIG cofounder Anthony Tamer and eight of its managing directors once worked for Bain & Co., the private equity firm that Mitt led during his corporate plundering career.

But the enigma within these machines goes even deeper than these cozy partisan ties suggest. Yet another private equity outfit called Solomere has a small stake in HIG. And Solomere was formed by Tagg Romney, and financed by Mama Ann Romney and Uncle Scott Romney, with Papa Mitt himself chipping in $10 million and personally pitching Solomere to other rich investors.

Like father, like son — Tagg cloaks the fund’s operations within a dark maze of offshore tax shelters. And, now, the son has slipped out of Solomere to be a top campaign manager for his father. This slippery guy gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “playing Tagg.”

One wonders if Tagg’s campaign duties include “monitoring” voting machines. Can the Romneys even spell “conflict of interest”?

What are we to make of a multimillionaire presidential candidate with shady financial and crony ties to the machines that can decide the outcome? I ask you: Of all the things the Romneys and their buddies could invest in — why voting machines?


Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer, and public speaker. He’s also editor of the populist newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown and he writes a short weekly column distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)

Is Obama Taking Climate Voters for Granted?

Obama Climate Courtship - Is he taking climate voters for granted? - Photo by Newscom

My relationship with President Obama has been getting a bit strained lately. I really like Obama, and I know he likes me, too. But I feel like he’s taking me for granted… as a climate voter.

I know it sounds like something out of an afterschool special, but back in 2008 it looked like we were headed somewhere significant. Obama the presidential candidate said he cared about the environment. He wooed me with his talk about rebuilding the U.S. economy with a combination of renewable energy and clean manufacturing, and vowed to be a global leader in the international fight to halt climate change. He won me over as a green voter and a progressive. Obama was my guy.

But ever since Super Tuesday, when Republicans cast their ballots for Governor Mitt Romney as presidential favorite, Obama’s been acting funny. The more Romney veered from his climate protecting past — and the more supporters cheered when he did — the further Obama distanced himself from me and my friends.

By the time debate season rolled around six months later he was pretending he didn’t even know me. And I didn’t feel like I knew him either.

Obama and Romney were almost indistinguishable on climate and energy policy, practically going to the mat to prove who loved dirty coal more than the other guy. Romney’s energy platform rested on expanding extreme energy like deepwater oil drilling, toxic natural gas fracking, and tar sands production. Obama said he wanted to do all that, too, and throw in some wind and solar. It was the first time since the 1980s that neither the right or left candidate talked about climate change.

Where was my guy?

Some of my friends said I shouldn’t be so hard on him. They hinted that it might even be my fault that Obama’s been acting like he doesn’t know me. He told us when he won the election four years ago that he wanted to fight for clean energy and community resilience, but that we needed to make him do it.

Many of us tried. We rallied our friends and families — and members of congress — behind a comprehensive climate bill, shut down dirty power plants in major cities like his home town of Chicago, and got arrested outside his front door demanding that he reject permits for the Keystone XL pipeline to pump in tar sand oil from Canada. Environmentalists and climate change activists waited patiently during health care reform, the financial crisis, bank bailouts, immigration discussions, and fights over taxes. And we’re still waiting.

I admit, we weren’t perfect. We didn’t build enough public pressure to keep king coal and big oil from turning the American Clean Energy and Security Act into Swiss cheese, for example, but Obama didn’t exactly walk boldly into the political space that we did make for him either.

And now he wants my vote again.

Call me a sucker, but I know Obama really cares about me. I’m convinced he believes the science of climate change, knows that we have to reduce America’s greenhouse gas pollution (just look at the new vehicle standards and coal power plant rules put in place during his first term) and wants to do right by people in the United States who care about climate. I also know that he’s trying to play to the middle of the road in a country where a third of the population still doubts the existence of global warming.

So the choice seems to be between Governor Romney, who’s promising to lead the nation as a climate denier, and President Obama, who’s been doing his best impression of one.

I may be a glutton for punishment, but I will cast my vote for Obama tomorrow because from inside the beltway the political optics signal a concrete difference for the state of the environment if we have a second Obama administration or four years of Romney.

Still, I’m not going to let Obama hold my hand in public until he starts acting like the man who courted the climate community before the last election.

The Surrealism of the Everyday in Serbia

The author interviews Aleksandar Zograf, who first gained notoriety for his political cartoons during the NATO bombing of Serbia.

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

ZografPancevo is a small Serbian city located just northeast of Belgrade. It has some lovely Habsburg architecture. There’s a thriving arts scene and a growing Chinese community. But this city of about 73,000 people is perhaps best known for the damage it sustained during the NATO bombing in 1999, when an industrial park containing an oil refinery, a petrochemical plant, and a fertilizer factory was hit.

The most vivid reporting from Pancevo during the NATO bombing came from a cartoonist publishing under the pen name of Aleksandar Zograf. His weekly dispatches, Regards from Serbia, appeared in various magazines and websites, and were translated into several languages. A collection of these columns, plus the emails that he wrote during this period and some work from both before and after the bombings, is available from Top Shelf Productions.

In a drawing style reminiscent of R. Crumb, Zograf produces frequently acerbic cartoons, for instance one that depicts the residents of Pancevo welcoming the “smart bombs” and “cute little cluster bombs” of NATO. He catalogues the victims of the Yugoslav wars and the NATO attacks. He chronicles life under sanctions. He struggles to put pen to paper. “Invisible NATO bombers, hundreds of thousands of refugees, crazy dictators, army moves, explosions, propaganda lies,” he writes in one panel. “Hey! Somebody wake me up! I just want to sit and draw my pathetic little cartoons!!”

In late September, I took a bus from Belgrade to Pancevo to meet Aleksandar Zograf, who turns out to be Sasa Rakezic, a thoughtful man who was born in 1963, the same year I was. He rode his bike to the bus station to meet me, then pushed it along as he took me on a tour of Pancevo. He showed me the cultural center, and we talked about one of his recent fascinations: Neolithic life at the confluence of Pancevo’s rivers, the Danube and the Tamis. Eventually we sat down at a café to talk about life during wartime, the challenges of lucid dreaming, and the surrealism of the everyday. During our conversation, I realized that Rakezic was very much an archaeologist by inclination. He likes to dig into history, into the substratum of human experience, into what lies beneath consciousness.

The collapse of Yugoslavia and the wars that engulfed the region had a profound effect on the cartoonist and his art. “Before, I was just another guy in a small town in a small country who was not asking himself very important questions,” he told me. “After that I began to question everything. A time of crisis can be horrible, it can bring doom to a person’s physical existence. He could kill himself or be killed or kill someone else. He could become depressed. But in a crisis, you begin to question things you take for granted. But in a psychological sense, it’s good to go through the crisis. You learn something about yourself.”

The Interview

Do you remember when the Berlin Wall fell and how you felt about it? Your book begins with 1993-94. There’s nothing before that. Were you doing comic strips at that time?

At that time, I was not really doing comics of the same type that I did later. I was still at that point experimenting with comics. I was also a writer, and I was writing about mostly rock music and art and also a little bit about comics and literature. It was at that point that I started experimenting with publishing comics.

It was different here in Yugoslavia — at that point, Yugoslavia still existed – since we had a different history compared to the rest of Eastern Europe. We were a mixture of a socialist bloc country and a more Western country. We were somehow on the brink of the two worlds. So, for us, it was not so dramatic, the end of the Berlin Wall. It was happening elsewhere.

Most people here, if you ask them about normal life in the time of socialism, they would say it was more comfortable than now. I have this feeling that 80 percent of the people, particularly if they are old enough to remember these times, would say that their life was easier then. It was not the same as it was in other Eastern European countries. But still, I would say that we expected that things would change in many ways. We were not sure if it was going to be for the better or the worse.

And how did you feel personally about life in Yugoslavia?

Generally I would say that I had a happy life in those days. For example, life was cheap and you could live with a small amount of money, which is good for artists. The level of stress was somehow much less. But on the other hand, some of the opportunities that you have now were not present at that time. For me, I wish that I had used this time better than I did. I was not very clever when I was younger. I couldn’t imagine what was going to happen.

There was this famous musician from Belgrade, who said — not about these times, but about the wars in former Yugoslavia — that “we’ll spend the rest of our lives trying to understand what happened during the wars of the 1990s.” This is also true about this socialist period. We will spend ages thinking about what happened and what was good and what was bad. It was far from a black-and-white picture, especially for the artists. Artists are never satisfied with the general atmosphere of the system in which they live. They always feel a little to the side of society, rejected in some way. They would have to struggle in any form of society anyway. They also learn not to be excited by the system they live in. I could imagine that someone with a steady career and a job in a society that would enable him to live comfortably will be excited about the system that allows him to live like that. But for the artist, he knows that he will have to struggle in this system as he would struggle in any other one.

I’m against this idea that the time before the fall of the Berlin Wall, especially in former Yugoslavia, was exclusively bad. Every time that you live in, you have an opportunity to live the best way that you can. There is no perfect society.

I was just now reading an anthropological study about cannibalism. It’s horrible. I had to read only a small portion of the book at a time because it is so difficult to take. A lot of different cultures practiced cannibalism throughout human history. For us, in this age, it’s something horrifying, and I was horrified to read about it. But generations were born within this different social and cultural framework, within these societies that are called “primitive” and where such practices were part of the belief system and sometimes simply because they were using humans as food. It was very widespread until the 19th century, which was just yesterday. Within these cultures, they also produced great stories, great traditional dances, great thoughts.

It’s not that I would enjoy being a cannibal. But I should understand that this was part of the human experience, and there were people who were born and died with this mind frame. Someone living in a different society in the future would probably say that Western European people who lived in the European Union in 2012 were primitive idiots, just as we think about cannibals today. It’s all relative.

The fall of the Berlin Wall itself, do you remember thinking that this was great for the Germans and then you went about your own life? Or did you say, that will have implications for life here in Yugoslavia?

I didn’t really realize that it would have any impact on our life. I didn’t realize that it would have such an impact on Yugoslavia. It was just like a foreign affair. It was maybe silly of me. That’s why I say, sometimes when you live so much in one society, in one society’s mind frame, you just don’t see what’s going on. Someone from outside can see things more easily.

I’ll give you an example. I have a friend who did an interview with the British music deejay John Peel, a very interesting personality, a very clever man. This was in 1991 just shortly after the first incidents in Croatia with the Serbian minority there opposing the Croatian government, which would eventually lead to the war in ex-Yugoslavia. When the interview was over, my friend was asked by John Peel, of all people, “Okay, can I ask you one question?”

My friend said, “Yeah sure.”

John Peel said, “What is going on in your country? It seems like there’s going to be a war over there. ”

And my friend said, “War? No, no. They quarrel all the time over some stupid thing. But in the end they eventually end up in a bar getting drunk. It will be like an affair that lasts a few days and everything will be fine after that.”

My friend never mentioned this in the article he wrote for a paper here. I remember this incident years after the interview because I was just like my friend. I thought everything would stop after a few days. So, I was thinking how was it possible that a disk jockey understood what was going to happen in Yugoslavia? But we the people living here couldn’t understand.

I want to talk about your work. What struck me the most about Regards from Serbia is the reluctance. So much of your work is about your dream life. At several points, you say that you started observing the life around you, that there were interesting things if you just paid attention to them. But you often were running away from this. At some points you were just drawing things in your head – demons, and so on. Can you talk about this dream life and this reluctance?

It’s connected to my own personal quest. In the late 1980s or early 1990s, just a little before the crisis started, and just when the crisis started, I stated to explore these inner realities. I was very interested in presenting different material from the dream states in comics. Comics are a very good way of presenting your dreams. You can use pictures and words to explain these different experiences. I was also interested in different dream states. I started to practice lucid dreaming. I was successful to a certain extent. I was able to wake up in my dreams and explore the reality of the dream.

It was a very overwhelming thing to experience. Suddenly I was becoming aware of another state of being. There is wakened reality, there are dreams, and there is the state of lucid dreaming. I managed to look at my hands in my dreams and become lucid while I was dreaming. I was able to go very deep into all these things. It was very exciting, as if I were conquering a distant country or another realm. I was trying to capture a lot of information coming from inside, from these very deep inner realities, and turn it into artistic material.

But it stopped when the crisis emerged in ex-Yugoslavia. You have to use a lot of your energy connected to your awakened reality to achieve the state of lucid dreaming. Since I was a very poor artist who didn’t have any savings when the crisis started, it was very difficult for me. I started to struggle with everyday reality. I realized that what was happening around me were these tragic things – the splitting up of the country called Yugoslavia. Like many other people I had to struggle just to be alive in this situation. There was not enough food, for instance. I had to go from this inner reality to an outside reality that was very dramatic and sometimes even more surrealistic than what I would find inside.

Can you give an example of something that was more surrealistic outside than inside?

Everything was more surrealistic. In 1993, when I started to make comics about what was going on around me, we went into a period of hyperinflation that was very much like what happened in Germany or Hungary after the first World War. You go to buy bread. In the morning, the price was 10 dinars. At noon it was 100 dinars. In the evening it was 1000 dinars. It was a completely crazy situation just to buy regular things. I remember thinking that it had been like this forever, ever since I was born.

I was very curious about these quests that I was doing in lucid dreaming – and several other dream states that I tried to explore – and I was not very happy to return to the grey and stupid reality of being in a country that was on the brink of a war for an unknown reason with a crazy leader leading everyone straight into a catastrophe with an economy that was completely destroyed. It was not a reality that I liked very much.

I started to think that at least I should take the premise of this and use it for the scripts of comics. If you take it as it is and make a script for a comic strip, it actually functions like an appealing description of the most surrealistic things on earth. It was strange to become awake every night and be inside the dream reality. It was just as strange to wake up and find yourself in the midst of the huge crisis going on all around. I tried to struggle between these two strange realities.

Both of these experiences changed me for good. Before, I was just another guy in a small town in a small country who was not asking himself very important questions. After that I began to question everything. A time of crisis can be horrible, it can bring doom to a person’s physical existence. He could kill himself or be killed or kill someone else. He could become depressed. But in a crisis, you begin to question things you take for granted. But in a psychological sense, it’s good to go through the crisis. You learn something about yourself. You learn to ask yourself questions. It’s horrible to go numb in very comfortable circumstances. A lot of people have enough to eat, they have enough material goods, they feel safe within their social situation, and they don’t want to change it. That’s also dangerous. Sometimes you need a slap in the face. You need a crisis. You need to get wild. You need to ask yourself questions. That’s what happened to us. I should not be complaining.

One of your stories is about your Hungarian colleague who set up an exhibition about life in Serbia under Milosevic and under sanctions. He said he would keep it going as long as Milosevic was in power.

This was a friend in Hungary who did an exhibition of my stuff and he said it would last until the fall of Milosevic. It opened in 1999, when the bombing of Serbia started. I was thinking that it was going to the longest running exhibition in the history of Hungary. It’s another indication that if you live inside a reality you cannot judge it. I thought he would rule forever, that we were doomed to live under his reign for the rest of our lives. The exhibition lasted until the year 2000 when Milosevic fell from power. I guess this friend in Hungary was able to detect something that we were not aware of. I can go into the underground levels of society, just like many artists do. But somehow I can’t predict what will happen in the surface reality the next day.

You talk about outside perceptions of Serbs in your comic strip. You travelled some during the time you were making the strips. Were you surprised at the reactions when you said you were from Serbia?

Basically, I should say that we are living in a different time. It’s not like the 1940s. At that point in history, even in Western Europe, people were relying so much on national identities, also religious identities. These were much more important than in modern time, when we live in an ambiguous culture which can be very narrow-minded but which can also accept many different types of information from many different parts of the world. I didn’t encounter any problems from most people when I said that I was from Serbia, which was at that point a place with a burning crisis with a crazy president Milosevic in charge. I think people understood that they were meeting somebody from another country where the situation is not so stable. Basically they were polite. Maybe because I was in my circle of friends and acquaintances. They were mostly artists. It might have been different if I’d gone to a bar where truck drivers were hanging out.

For most people, if you said you were from Serbia in the 1990s, it was scary. You were part of a reality presented like it was Nazi Germany, which was not really the case. It was very much a society that turned the wrong way in many ways, that made many bad decisions politically and also strategically. But if I had to judge it now, it was a confused country with confused people who were not able to realize what was going on around them. Sometimes when you are confused, you act violently. It’s again this psychological thing. I think most of the atrocities done on the Serbian side were done not with some strict plan, like was the case with Nazi Germany, where they had a plan of the different society they wanted to build. Here, the people were bewildered by everything going on.

Maybe this is going to sound awful, but in many sense, these were crimes of passion. Most of the people liked Yugoslavia and they didn’t want it to split apart. Sometimes if someone very close to you betrays you, you have violent feelings and you want to kick him or kill him. A huge part of it was done in this strange state of betrayal, like the lover who has been betrayed. And this society was very irrational, and there were a lot of con men who could use that, who said, “Okay, we are going to do everything for you and you just sit there and be quiet. We are going to clear things up for you.”

I was not participating in any of that. Like many artists, we were feeling like we were watching not from the inside but from a point outside. We were disgusted by everything. For many people, for instance in Western Europe or the United States where it is more rational and not so emotional, it was very hard to understand.

But as you point out in one of your strips, after 9-11 the United States was in a similar situation, with big flags and emotional reactions.

Yes, in some way, it is universal. We are not Martians here in the Balkans, and our experiences are similar to other human experiences in other parts of the world. And that’s why it’s so difficult to talk about this. If someone wants to explain what happened here in one sentence, I would say, “Be careful!” I have spent years trying to understand this, and still I don’t understand why it happened or how it happened.

How much do you think people in Serbia or in Croatia or Bosnia have decided to understand this and how much do they want to forget about it because it was so horrible?

People want to forget. That’s certainly the case. Most of them don’t want to be reminded. I mean – look at me. I don’t say that I’m very different. I don’t like to think about these things. It was very difficult. It was very hard to go through all that. I also want to forget about it. I don’t wake up every morning and think about it. It was so horrible and unpleasant that I understand why people don’t want to go back to it. For most people it was like a trauma.

You have to know that something bad happened on your side. You can be a patriot who says “Yeah, we did the right thing.” Still, you know that somebody did something. Maybe you would like to hide this from yourself. So, it’s better to forget than to be reminded of that.

When you look back at the work that you’ve done between 1992 and 2001, can you give an example of something you think you did very well and another example of something you wish you did a little differently?

Whenever I look at my work, I think it could be different. Usually after I do a drawing, I just flip the page over because I always see the wrong things in my drawings. I don’t like to concentrate so much on what I did because I will probably find something that could be changed. I did it with an honest perspective at that point in time. But later I think I could have done better.

I’m proud of some things. I ‘m glad that I used my time in a useful way. At least I tried to make something out of this horrible situation.

And you have a record of it.

Yes.

At one point in your book you are reproducing emails when Pancevo was being bombed. I’m wondering why it was easier to write this in email form rather than make strips.

It was easier because in the emails I was referring to things that were happening on a daily basis. Some of the details weren’t easy to illustrate in drawings. At the same time, I was so depressed that I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to draw. You go through all the different phases in situations like that. Some things were easier to express in drawings, sometimes it was easier to express in words. So I made a combination of these two media, which was based on my mood, nothing else.

The Chinese have a curse: may you live in interesting times. You were obviously living in interesting times. Since the end of these wars, and the end of hyperinflation, the end of sanctions, things have become more normal. Has this been a challenge for you artistically to live in less interesting times?

I have found different challenges. After the end of the crisis in the Balkans, I have started to work on comics for Vreme magazine, a political weekly published here in Belgrade. I do two pages in color every week on a different topic. Usually it doesn’t address the political situation in a straightforward way. I find old articles, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, and then I illustrate them in the form of a comic strip. It was a golden age for the press. You can find many intriguing articles back then. Now the press is becoming less interesting and more analytical and with much less fantasy than in the past.

Even if it is not a political commentary, it also speaks about the people here. People, they don’t change. You can go into the past, and you can find some of the same elements. People were probably in a bar 100 years ago and speaking about similar topics as we do now.

I’ll give you one example. I found one article about a man who came back from the front after the end of the first World War. He lived in Zajechar, a town in eastern Serbia. He began to behave in a funny way. He went to his regular job, but he began to act a little bit differently. At some point, he burst into a strange kind of anger. He began to talk about how the human race is moving toward catastrophe. He went to his own house and burned it down. He ruined it completely and started to live in a hole in the ground next to his house. His wife and his children ran away. For me, it was this fantastical scenario. You can’t imagine that a human being could do something more drastic than that. This story is completely forgotten. I spoke to people from that town and there’s no memory of that man. Newspapers are supposed to live for a day or a week, and then it’s forgotten. But you can find some great stories from the past, and by bringing them to the surface you can learn something from them.

There’s a relatively new government here now in Serbia that at least outsiders call a nationalist government. We’ve seen the rise of some even more nationalistic groups like Dveri Srpske. I’m curious what you think about these formations. Do you think they’re temporary or represent a more fundamental shift?

It’s different from what it used to be. The nationalists of 2012 are different from the Serbian nationalists of the 1990s. The reason is that there is some sort of realization among the people to agree with Western values. The nationalistic government that is in charge says, “We want to play by the rules of the West.” Which means that our nationalism is not going to be like the time of Milosevic. Even these nationalistic forces that are now in change won the elections by speaking about joining the European Union. I would call them conservative-minded people who try to imitate the conservative-minded people in Western Europe. Milosevic didn’t feel like he was following this line. He expressed his nationalism in a much more straightforward and much more brutal way.

These new nationalists, they are politically correct nationalists. They know the line. That is the Western way. If you are polite enough, you can do everything. You can say that you don’t like Muslims, but you can’t say it like that, you have to find a way to put the sentence in a different way with that same meaning. If you say “I hate Muslims” in a correct way, it can pass. So these new nationalists learn this. Which means that Serbs can become part of Western civilization, for better or for worse. It doesn’t mean that these people are any better, at least for me. I despise them the same way I hated them before. But there is a different frame.

Or at least it seems to me at this moment. Maybe I will change my mind. Maybe I will be wrong again. I don’t want to speak in absolute terms.

The people who belong to the parties in charge, they pretend that they want to be part of the European Union, and the EU pretends that it wants Serbia to be part of the EU. So there is this strange game. In Serbia, people are afraid of change, afraid of becoming something else. They are afraid that their substance will be changed when they become something else, which is of course stupid. And the EU is in this crisis where they are very much afraid of having more irrational elements inside the union. So they gave some signals to the Serbian administration that were very discouraging. On the surface, they say they will bring you into the club tomorrow. But under the surface, there is the message: you better stay in your wild part of the world. There is this strange dishonesty on both sides, which is not permanent. It is going to change. Is it going to be a fast change or will it be an exhausting change that lasts for 10-20 years? I don’t know, but I think it will change.

So, that’s why you are reasonably optimistic?

We are living in a world that is transforming, that is reaching some sort of world civilization, a united states of the world. It’s not an easy process. We should not expect it to happen in five days or five years or 50 years. This change is going to happen. It’s just a matter for time. So I’m relatively optimistic. I don’t know whether it will take a long time or a short time. But things are going to change for everyone, including the cannibals and the Serbs and the Eastern European freaks. They will all become well-adjusted citizens.

For better or for worse.

Quantitative Questions

I ask all of those I interview in my travels through Central and Eastern Europe three quantitative questions to see if I can get, by the end, a quick thumbnail assessment, country by country, of what has and has not changed since 1989.

On a scale of one to ten, with one being most disappointed and ten being least disappointed, how do you feel about the changes that have taken place in Serbia since 1989?

I would say five. There are very good points and very bad points.

On the same scale, how do you feel about the changes that have taken place in your own life over the same period of time?

I feel like I’m older and cleverer than I was when I was a kid. So I would say a two. I feel now that most people are not comfortable with getting older. But with me, I feel like I’m getting better as I get older. Maybe I’m crazy this way, I don’t know.

And how do you feel about the near future for Serbia, on a scale of one to ten with one being most optimistic and ten being least optimistic?

I would say two here as well. I’m not very deeply pessimistic but I am a bit pessimistic. I’m not hugely pessimistic because I think that things will get better because here people feel so disappointed that it has to end at some point. We don’t know which point it is. But I believe that it will be change for the better. But I’m bad at predicting things, so who knows.

Beyond the Jobs Report: A Call for a Transformational Economy

Don’t count on the latest round of good economic news to have much of an impact on the elections. There are very few undecided voters left and these minor changes aren’t likely to change anyone’s mind.

But it’s still worth noting that the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the country gained 171,000 jobs and that unemployment inched up to 7.9 percent from 7.8 percent. Both numbers are good. Unemployment only edged up because so many jobless Americans became confident enough to look for work again.

President Barack Obama can rightly brag about improved economic numbers in recent months. There are more jobs. Gas prices are down. The economy is modestly expanding. Consumer confidence has bounced to a four-year high and the Dow Jones Industrial Average recently hit an all-time high. Clearly, the economy is faring well under his leadership.

But, let’s be honest. As tough a row as Obama has had to hoe — inheriting a deep recession and a giant budget deficit — our nation knows how to create jobs at a much greater pace and grow our economy more equitably. It’s up to us, we the people, to create a better society by electing better policymakers and lawmakers.

In the 1950s, with a top marginal tax rate of about 90 percent, we had the necessary revenue to help veterans get college diplomas, to create good jobs, and to grow a middle class.

Yes, racism was an even-bigger problem then than it is now. However, the progressive taxation we had at that time generated enough revenue that most of the country’s residents regardless of race, gender, or economic status could have been brought into the middle class had it not been for rampant discrimination.

The same potential exists today, even more so because we’re an even wealthier country now. We can greatly expand the number of good-paying, full-time jobs with a fair and economically sound approach to our federal budget priorities and long-term debt reduction. It’s time our leaders stopped cow-towing to corporate interests by masquerading as adherents to the ideology of government minimalism.

If we cut wasteful Pentagon spending, restore top marginal tax rates to Reagan levels, close corporate tax loopholes, end tax breaks that benefit only the wealthy, cancel subsidies to polluting oil and gas companies, and impose a tiny tax on speculative Wall Street transactions, we will have the revenue we need to rebuild our infrastructure, create sustainable energy sources, improve public schools, expand access to health care, and build a sustainable economy that provides all Americans with a decent standard of living.

Then, not only will we see an expansion in our economy, but the right kind of expansion — one measured by something like a Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), rather than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). We need to measure not just general economic expansion but our overall wellbeing.

Either Obama or Romney can do this. Either a Democratic or Republican House and Senate can do this. It’s not about politics. Or ideology. This isn’t rhetoric and this isn’t short-term analysis of monthly jobs numbers. This is common sense. And it’s the transformational approach we need.

Karen Dolan is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (www.ips-dc.org), where she’s studying alternative metrics to the GDP, such as Maryland’s Genuine Progress Indicator.

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