No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength. Learning for instance, to eat when he’s hungry and sleep when he’s sleepy.

Jack Kerouac[1]

[Now there’s an idea! Tired of the everyday grind? Want to get away from it all? Why not go sit in the woods, and meditate? Maybe that works for you, but I have problems with it. Food aside, I don’t like being cold, or too hot; midnight visits by forest wildlife, dangerous or not; mosquitos, fires, floods or even just heavy rain; or digging trenches to take care of the necessary bodily functions. Also, where can you get a beer in the woods? Beer is too heavy to carry a lot of it on a camping trip! And anyway, it’s best drunk in company.

A lot of these problems go away, I suppose, if you drive an RV to the woods, camp in it, run to the store to replenish supplies, drink in local bars and meditate indoors. But for the most part that’s not what Jack Kerouac had in mind. Kerouac was a writer of the so-called “beat” generation, precursors of the craziness that followed in the mid-1960s and the 1970s.[2] He died in 1969. More importantly for our purposes, he once took a job as a fire-lookout on a mountain-top for what may have been three months.[3]Apparently he was a solitary watchman, but not a camper. He had shelter – at one point he speaks of looking out a window – a warm sleeping bag, and canned food from one source or another, but apparently no live-in companion. So he used that opportunity to meditate, and he got results.

One day, for example, he found a bear stool nearby, and for a time he obsessed about finding the bear that had created it. He searched for the “Primordial Bear,” he said, Avalokitesvara,[4] the king of the mountain, but the king “never came.”[5]Then he had a revelation: It wasn’t necessary for the bear to appear, or for Kerouac to endure solitude to understand life. “[I] realize that no matter where I am, whether in a little room full of thought, or in [the] endless universe of stars and mountains, it’s all in my mind.”[6]

What was in his mind? Why, the stars, the planets, the universe, life and the meaning of everything, but only in the sense that all of it was just words. “Thinking of the stars night after night I begin to realize ‘the stars are words,’ and all of the innumerable worlds in the Milky Way are words, and so is this world too.”[7]Apparently he had no mental space available for pictures.

You may think this is peculiar, or even interesting, but no doubt you’re also wondering why I bring it up. Well, I think Kerouac identified, or at least exemplifies a mental process that’s all too common today. There is no “real” reality; there are only words, and they are all in our heads; that being the case, we can eliminate just about any problem by erasing the bad words and substituting good ones, or vice versa. All we have to do is talk our problems away!]

That’s a stretch, you say? I’ve gone too far? I don’t think so. Just look at this year’s Republican and Democrat primaries. As we pointed out last time, Hillary Clinton, the candidate of the Democrat Establishment, is billed as the inevitable candidate of the Left. Yet obviously lots of folks in her party don’t agree. They’re still fighting for Bernie Sanders, a relative unknown, a socialist who’s winning lots of primaries. And they’re fighting hard. Why? Well, the explanations are a bit thin. Mostly they’re just words. Sanders is a real leftist – a socialist – while Clinton is not-so-left, and possibly cozy with Wall Street. The differences between them really aren’t so great, so why worry? Others argue that the Sanders people are mostly young and inexperienced, and don’t know where their best interests lie; or alternatively, that they’re scary thugs, who probably shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

Then there’s all that disruption on the Right. Donald Trump is the last Republican standing after a marathon campaign that started with 16 [or 17] competitors. Trump ran as an insurgent, and was ridiculed as the candidate of bigoted, unemployed white males, who also were scary thugs. The implication, of course, is that people like that really don’t belong in a country as polite, refined and sensitive as ours. Trump will get the Republican nomination but he can’t possibly win in the fall against Hillary Clinton.

So these are the words we should use to banish all fear? We should ignore what’s going on simply because the insurgents are not up to our high standards? They – the insurgents – should come back when they’re not so, well, pushy? Surely there’s a better way to understand the political heat generated this year by an electorate that’s obviously in pain? Do we want explanations, or do we simply want to chant mantras to drive away bad thoughts?

Let me suggest some things to look at if you want to do a reality check. To understand what’s going on, you have to follow the money: Who has it and, more importantly, who doesn’t. We know part of the answer; the top 1% of earners in this country average about $1.2 million a year[8]; but that’s not the big problem. The big problem is that the remaining 99% of us are hurting badly, constantly, and with no end in sight. How do I know that? Well, I don’t for sure, but I am working on a misery index[9] to chart that kind of thing; I don’t have all the details, but my preliminary research has turned up some interesting stuff.

For example, let’s look at bankruptcies. No doubt you’ve all heard about Chapter 11, bankruptcies; those are the ones companies file to reorganize their affairs and hopefully survive.[10] While these are important to economists, I guess, for our purposes they’re not as useful as the ones filed by individuals.[11] For example, as late as 1981, only about 8% of bankruptcy filings by individuals [or families] related to medical costs.[12] However, that benign statistic changed radically in the 21st Century. In 2008 one study found that, for the period 2001 – 07, (i) 62.1% of all bankruptcies had a medical cause,  (ii) “most medical debtors were well educated and middle class; three quarters had health insurance[,]” and; (iii) bankruptcies “attributable to medical problems rose by 50%” during the period covered.[13] Republicans, I should add, can’t blame Obama Care for that. George W. Bush was President.

That was pretty bad, but what does it say about today? Of course, we all know that the wheels came off our economy in 2008. One would expect that personal bankruptcies would have gone up, not down, after that, but government officials don’t seem to be counting. There‘s a private estimate out there that, as of 2013, 2 million personal bankruptcies would involve medical bills.[14]

The Government really needs to look into this and report back to Congress [and the rest of us] about the situation. At a very minimum it would be good to know:

  • Are personal bankruptcies up or down over the last 8 years? By how much? What are the totals for each year?
  • What are the reasons for the bankruptcies? Are medical bills still the big factor, or are there other causes, such as job loss, other loss of income, bad real estate deals, consumer debt and so forth?

These are simple questions that, I think, any sensible politician would want answered. If large parts of the electorate are financially stressed, politicians should know that. Ignorance, willful or otherwise, can be dangerous to political careers.

Then there’s one of my other favorite subjects, student loans. Talk about financial stress! First you take young people, tell them they have to go to college if they’re going to be anything in the new economy, then arrange for the Government to lend them money to do it. Guess what happens? Well, tuition tends to go up.[15] Also, students incur a large amount of debt.

How much of that debt is there? You know, I searched for a while, but really wasn’t able to come up with an answer. It should include all student loan debt issued or guaranteed by the federal government. My sense is that the number is very large, in the trillions of dollars. However, I was able to find official numbers on the total amounts students currently are allowed to borrow; as of today, dependent undergraduates have a lifetime borrowing limit of $31 thousand; independent undergraduates, $57.5 thousand; and graduate and professional students, $138.5 thousand.[16] So what if you, say, go to law school, graduate with $138.5 thousand in debt, and can’t find a job? Ugh! Would you be unhappy? I would.

[So people are hurting out there, and I can see why. It has nothing to do with ideology, economic theory, or anything like that. It’s just that they’re broke, and in debt, and can’t pay their bills. Our politicians need to stop living in their own heads, like Jack Kerouac, and move into the real world. That’s what the insurgents in both parties are telling them. People need help, not lectures from outer space. Our Congress and its ideologues should be pragmatic for a change.]

 

 

[1] See Kerouac, Alone on a Mountain Top, in Hoopes & Peck (eds.), Edge of Awareness (Dell, 1966), at p.24 – 34, especially p. 32. Kerouac was one of the principal writers of the so-called “beat” generation, precursors of the craziness that followed in the mid-1960s and the 1970s. He died in 1969.

[2] For more about him, check out the Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Kerouac

[3] Id.

[4] Frankly I’m a bit mystified by the reference. Traditionally in Buddhism Avalokitesvara is the god [or goddess, or both] of Compassion, not a bear. See the Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avalokite%C5%9Bvara  But, as you may guess, Kerouac wasn’t necessarily bound by traditional beliefs, even esoteric ones.

[5] Id. at 34

[6] Id. at 34

[7] Id. at 34

[8] That’s based on 2008 data. See The Economist, Who exactly are the 1%? (Jan 21, 2012), available at http://www.economist.com/node/21543178

[9]  It’s not the one that the Reaganites used back in the 1980s, which involved adding the inflation index to the unemployment rate, a non-scientific way to make a political point, which was that both were up in 1980. See the Wikipedia write-up on misery index at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misery_index_(economics)  It was first deployed by the Johnson Administration, in the 1960’s..

[10] Want to know about bankruptcy around the world? Take a look at Wikipedia on that subject, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bankruptcy  . It also provides a short but understandable introduction to the various types available in the U.S.

[11] Id.

[12] See The American Journal of Medicine, Himmelstein, Thorne, Warren & Woolhandler, Medical Bankruptcy in the United States, 2007: Results of a National Study (2008), at p. 1, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/documents/american_journal_of_medicine_09.pdf

[13] Id. at p. 2.

[14] See CNBC, Mangan, Medical Bills Are the Biggest Cause of U.S. Bankruptcies: Study (25 June 2013), available at http://www.cnbc.com/id/100840148

[15] See, e.g., National Bureau of Economic Research, Cellini & Goldin, Does Federal Student Air Raise Tuition? New Evidence on For Profit Colleges (2012), available at http://www.nber.org/papers/w17827   (Aid-eligible for-profit institutions capture a large part of the federal student aid subsidy.)

[16] See Congressional Budget Office, Options to Change Interest Rates and Other Terms on Student Loans (June, 2013), at Table I, p. 16, available at https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/113th-congress-2013-2014/reports/44318-StudentLoans-1Column.pdf

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