Showing posts with label wealth. Show all posts
Showing posts with label wealth. Show all posts

Monday, July 09, 2012

Pride and paradox in New Orleans

"Uncle Lionel" Batiste, I imagine, never made nearly as much money as he did sweet jazz music.

And when Katrina hit New Orleans, the co-leader, vocalist and bass drummer for the Tremé Brass Band floated to safety from his ground-floor apartment in the Lafitte project by hanging onto his drum.

Floating with Uncle Lionel in that big bass drum, some say, was the pulse of the Crescent City. That pulse survives him, as evidenced by the massive "second line" Sunday night on Frenchmen Street in the city's Faubourg Marigny district, outside some of his favored musical haunts just hours after Uncle Lionel died of cancer at age 80. Above is a picture of that.

In any other American city, there would be something deeply nonsensical about Paragraphs 1 and 2 naturally leading into Paragraph 3. A poor man, chased from public housing when the federal levees gave way and the waters rushed in, bore the pulse of a great city, kept the beat of the music of its soul and is sent to his heavenly reward with an outpouring fit for an earthly king.

In this country, in these times, that is just foolishness.

ALMOST 2,000 years ago, the people of Corinth probably thought much as Americans do. So much so that the apostle Paul had to set them straight with a little crazy talk -- a little nonsense now preserved in the New Testament to benefit wise guys such as your average American.
18 Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool so as to become wise.

19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God, for it is written:

“He catches the wise in their own ruses,”

20 and again:

“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain.”

21 So let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to you,

22 Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you,

23 and you to Christ, and Christ to God.
IF NOTHING ELSE, we Americans think we know it all, that we possess the wisdom of the world. Especially since August 2005, we've been pretty sure that New Orleans folk are pretty foolish.

Foolish to live in a saucer too near the rising sea.

Foolish to rebuild after -- And isn't it all too obvious? -- God, or Gaia, or Mother Nature, or climatological science . . . or the wisdom of human civilization, for Socrates' sake, strongly suggested that rebuilding the next Atlantis might be a colossal waste of resources and federal funds. How dumb can you be?

Dumb enough to re-elect Ray Nagin, that's for sure. I think Paul would be on board with us "wise" Americans on that one.

In short, the Crescent City is a sinking ship of fools, according to
"the wisdom of the world."

The Almighty's mileage may vary, however.

, in a paradox of biblical proportions, it would seem the meek have inherited the cultural landscape in this caste-riven city near the drain plug of the class-obsessed American South. This in a riddle of a city, ensconced in an enigmatic region that has played so large a role in status-obsessed America's long-running mystery -- which revolves around how we reconcile our status-obsession with "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . . ."

Common sense holds these truths to be self-evident, that there are bunches and bunches of ways in which we really don't want to follow New Orleans. We don't want to tolerate endemic poverty, for one, or endemic insouciance about the value of a good education, for another.

We don't want to be the nation's murder capital.

We want to believe that "Can we all just get along?" is a game plan worth implementing as a society. That's not one the Crescent City has been particularly committed to, not across the racial divide and not across the class divide, either.
They say if you's white, should be all right,
If you's brown, stick around,
But if you's black, well, brothers, get back, get back, get back.
IN NEW ORLEANS, the white, brown and black in the chorus of Big Bill Broonzy's "Get Back" transposes to white, Creole and black, a racial and caste system once rigorously enforced . . . and which holds considerable social, if not de jure, relevance even now. About as relevant to -- as defining of -- a sinking city near the mouth of the Mississippi as a dapper black bass drummer who embodied the soul of a city as he pounded out its heartbeat in second lines and night spots from the Tremé to Times Square. Sometimes, the heart of New Orleans beat on the two and the four . . . other times on the one and the three.

The Big Easy usually isn't -- not when so many bullets have someone's name on them, not when so many have so little, and not when the idea of hope sometimes seems about as tenuous as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' levees.


New Orleans hasn't mastered so many things. Honest and effective government, it probably never will. But it has paradox nailed. Pride of place, too. And soul. And heavenly music. And heavenly eating. And home . . . and Mama an' dem. And, Lord, those second lines!

It understands -- understands in a way we "wise men" never will, metaphysical fools that we are -- that the worth of a man isn't necessarily his net worth or how much power he amasses. It understands that, yeah, Warren Buffett might be a bazillionnaire, but Uncle Lionel was a hell of a drummer, and a mean dancer, and a great mentor for generations of musicians, and a faithful keeper of the cultural flame . . . and damn, Cap, didn't he look sharp?

Oh! didn't he ramble, ramble?

YOU CAN'T BUY that shit, brah. And you can't buy a sendoff like the one Uncle Lionel has earned from the city whose pulse he kept. Not any more than you can buy an immortal soul -- or the profound, life-giving wisdom of holy fools.

Long may they ramble.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Help! Help! They're being repressed!

I am one of those Catholics who believes in God, not cultural self-identification.

I believe that God exercises a "preferential option for the poor." I believe that's in the Bible -- somewhere toward the back.

I believe that how we govern ourselves, and how our governing structures implement a basic vision of social justice, is a direct reflection on a democracy's citizenry, which grants consent to its agents.

I believe that God does not sleep, that nations come under judgment and that we are in big, big trouble.

I ALSO BELIEVE that Louisiana -- my home state -- is working hard to sink from mere banana republicanism to fascistic banana republicanism, and that this stinking turd some self-righteous collegiate twerp left on the opinion pages of LSU's student newspaper is Exhibit A. From the soiled July 28 edition of my old stomping grounds, The Daily Reveille:
Obama and the Democrats love to paint a picture of the "poor" as innocent people "just trying to stretch every dollar as far as it will go."

I wonder how many Democrats have ever been to a Third World country to see what poor really means. For two weeks I stayed with a family in Costa Rica who had no air conditioning, no hot water, no washer or dryer, and the roof of the house was raised above the walls so that air could circulate in and out. And yet they washed all my clothes, gave me meals every day and never complained about it.

There are definitely some Americans who are truly needy, but it would be ridiculous to think the 47 percent of Americans not paying federal income tax are eating food out of dumpsters.

It's sickening to hear Obama and the Democrats portray the poor as blameless people in dire need of government help when our poor live lives of luxury in comparison to the poor of other countries.

It isn't the rich who are paying less than their fair share in taxes. To the contrary, they're paying much more than everyone else. It's America's poor who get free health care and new SUVs who aren't sharing the sacrifice.

And if we don't start taxing the rich, Obama wants to withhold Social Security checks. How about the government withholds welfare checks from the "poor" instead of Social Security to those who have actually paid their fair share?

It's about time the so-called poor Americans share the sacrifice and pay their fair share of taxes.

BACK IN MY DAY, the "f*** the poor" crowd complained about "welfare Cadillacs" and ghetto dwellers buying bottles of Mad Dog and Colt 45 tall boys with food stamps. Now, apparently, it's "free health care" and "new SUVs" that are the problem.

My assumption, though, is that the faces behind the stereotype are still brown ones.

What I don't understand is why the smug Reveille columnist, Austin Casey, didn't aim lower for whom he considers real poor people. Why not starving Somalians instead of Costa Rican peasants?

That could have made him feel even better -- or worse, depending -- about how rich America's poor are in the grand scheme of things. After all, it doesn't look quite so bad that the richest 1 percent of Americans controls 40 percent of its wealth and takes home a fourth of its annual income if we get to put quotation marks around our poor.

Sorry, make that "poor."

OF COURSE, the whole construct of inequality in the United States is unique to "socialists" like . . . well, me. I actually give a rat's ass about stuff like this. Austin Casey and the rest of Tea Party America don't.

When Austin Casey encountered the poor of Costa Rica, they sheltered him, fed him and wished him well. When Austin Casey encounters the poor -- sorry, "poor" -- of America, he pouts, stamps his feet and screams "Help! Help! I'm being repressed!"

Tea Party America is not the land of e pluribus unum -- out of many, one. Instead, it is the land of ad te sorbet -- it sucks to be you.

Jesus has an opinion on that. It's in the Bible -- somewhere toward the back.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A banana republic . . . if you can afford it

We're high for a poor country, in terms of inequality, and we're a rich country. We're about the same level of inequality as China. And, of course, China, half the population are rural peasants who are not part of the modern world.

And if we were to compare us with African countries, dictators in different places, you know, taking a lot of the wealth from normal people, we would be among the top half of the African countries of inequality. So, the U.S. really has reached an extraordinary level of income inequality.

-- Richard Freeman,
Harvard economist

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The tea du jour is hemlock

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It's official. I am nostalgic for the Carter Administration.

You have to go back about that far to find someone -- in this case, then-National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski -- who can quickly cut to the chase in calling out the tea-party insanity gripping Washington . . . and the laissez-faire raping of the poor and middle class that we now mistake for mainstream Americanism.

And he does so brilliantly (with agreement from conservative Republican Joe Scarborough) on MSNBC's Morning Joe, as seen above.

This, as reported elsewhere on MSNBC, is the kind of society in which we now live, and which Brzezinski rightfully decries:
As Congress and the White House wrestle whether to raise taxes for the wealthiest Americans, a new analysis of Census data shows that the wealth gaps between whites and blacks and Hispanics widened dramatically during the recession.

The analysis by the Pew Research Center, released on Tuesday, found that from 2005 to 2009, inflation-adjusted median wealth fell 66 percent among Hispanic households and 53 percent a
mong black households, compared with a 16 percent decline among white households.

Those declines increased the wealth gap between white and minority households to the largest since the census began collecting such data in 1984. The ratio of wealth for whites to blacks, for instance, is now roughly 20 to 1, compared to 12 to 1 in the first survey 25 years ago and 7 to 1 in 1995, when a booming economy lifted many low-income Americans into the middle class

The wealth ratio for whites to Hispanics was 18 to 1 in 2009, also up from 7 to 1 in 1995, the Pew analysis found.

The declines from the recession left the median black household with $5,677 in wealth (assets minus debts, where assets include items like a car, a home, savings, retirement funds, etc.) and
the typical Hispanic household with $6,325. White households, by comparison, had $113,149, the study found.

Sliced another way, the data from the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), showed that 35 percent of black households and 31 percent of Hispanic households had zero or negative net worth in 2009. The comparable rate for white households was 15 percent.

The SIPP income questionnaire is considered to provide the most comprehensive snapshot of household wealth by race and ethnicity.
THE REMEDY for this kind of inequity -- obviously -- would be as complex as it would be elusive and drawn out.

Failure to pursue a remedy, however, is to put our seal of approval on a society not of free men and women but, instead, one of haves and have-nots -- of masters and serfs.

Tea Party America not only chooses not to endorse a society where the downtrodden are lifted up, but also abjectly repudiates Jesus' injunction that "unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more."

Let me put it thus: What part of Matthew 25 don't these so-called "God and country" types get?

31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: 32 and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: 33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: 42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: 43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. 44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? 45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. 46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

IF THIS, for individuals, is a non-negotiable condition for avoiding eternal hellfire, why then would it be any less binding upon communities of individuals -- the context in which we either do what we're told . . . or don't?

Are not nations judged just as readily as men? Is not the Bible of America's "God and country" crowd -- which is the same one upon which members of Congress take their oaths of office -- replete with the sad fates of nations tried and found wanting by the Almighty?

Did not President Lincoln -- a Republican, by the way -- believe the Civil War to be a divine judgment upon this land for the abomination of slavery?

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it--all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral [sic] address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissole [sic] the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether."

ONCE AGAIN, we are becoming a society of master and slave, though we haven't the stomach to call it what it is. In this, we have one political party that cheers on this abomination -- some within it more heartily than others -- and another so compromised by "do what thou wilt" as to be morally and politically self-neutering.

It is in this context that we have the congressional spectacle so aptly described Monday night on CNN by Democratic strategist James Carville:
"The Democrats ... keep trying to surrender. They're saying, 'We'll cut Social Security, we'll cut Medicare, we'll cut Medicaid, we'll give you a plan that doesn't have any tax increases,' ... and (Republicans) keep rejecting it. This thing is a rout. The Republicans are winning this thing in a rout in terms of getting what they want.

"And poor Speaker Boehner came up with a plan today, and ... the Tea Party didn't even want that. So I think that you can't negotiate if one side is not interested in negotiating. This is like Napoleon and Moscow in 1812. 'I don't want to negotiate. There's nothing to talk about here.' So I don't know where this is going to end up. Maybe the Democrats can find somebody to take the white flag. So far, they haven't been able to do it."

WHY AM I not surprised?

And why am I not surprised that America's original sin comes back to haunt us in slightly altered form, or that we're so willing to accommodate it and perpetuate it for the love of money -- another Top-7 smash hit on the cardinal-sin survey?

Don't you be surprised if our love of money above all else -- especially social justice and human dignity -- takes away what we have left of it, through the actions of the self-styled "God's Official Party."

Judgment's not only a bitch -- assuming now be its moment -- it's also exquisitely ironic.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Mr. Sanders gives it to Washington

Can't add anything to this, except perhaps for "Amen!"

Oh, all right.
I can add this one thing: It's a damned sad day in this sad land when it takes a self-proclaimed democratic socialist to do something seemingly as simple as go onto the floor of the U.S. Senate and tell the God's honest truth.

America's tea-party "patriots," maybe what this country needs is more socialism, not less. Especially if the alternative is plutocracy -- a veritable banana republic . . . with nukes.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Oh, you'll go bananas. . . .

It's a Tony Hayward world out there, and the soon-to-be-ex-BP CEO's monumental solipsism and tone deafness obviously is catching.

The Obama clan has it now, probably transmitted from Mr. Let 'Em Eat Oil to the president when he "kicked" Hayward's ass at that White House confab a while back. And then Barack gave it to Michelle who, while eschewing yachting after killing the Gulf of Mexico, did settle on a high-dollar Spanish fiesta while the American economy burns, the Gulf states smother and the ordinary Joe languishes.

OF COURSE, robber barons and the diffident rich always have behaved so, even throughout American history. But when the First Family starts behaving like Marie Antoinette amid hard times, widespread austerity and spreading decay, you just may find you've become a banana republic.

And even the Australians, a world away, are noticing. Look at this in The Age from Sydney:
As the U.S. economy endures high unemployment and a jittery stock market, President Barack Obama has preached sacrifice and fiscal discipline. But the pictures coming out of a sun-splashed Spanish resort may be sending a different message.

First lady Michelle Obama is in the midst of a five-day trip to a luxury resort along with a handful of friends, her younger daughter, aides and Secret Service. Her office said the Obamas would pay for personal expenses, but would not reveal the taxpayer cost for the government employees.

Elected officials -- Democrats and Republicans -- were reluctant to weigh in, not wanting to appear critical of the President's wife. But the trip provided fodder for television news shows, talk-show hosts and bloggers. Critics portrayed the foreign getaway as tone-deaf to the deep economic anxiety back home. Every first family takes vacations: the criticism aimed at Mrs Obama is that she chose to visit a foreign country rather than remain in the US and support its fragile economy.

Just last month, Mrs Obama flew to the Florida panhandle, a tourist draw hit hard by the oil spill crisis, and delivered the message that for parents "looking for things to do with their kids this summer … this is a wonderful place to visit."

The opulence of the European trip also has drawn scrutiny. Mr Obama has urged frugality in lean economic times. He once cautioned that families saving money for college shouldn't "blow a bunch of cash in Vegas."
AT LEAST in Vegas, there's the slimmest of chances you might hit it big, though. When you're dealing with Washington, politics and the public's bankroll, not so much.

Because while money still talks
(in this case, en Español), Obama's bullshit has just taken a walk.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Rich Man, Poor Man . . . invisible man

Channel 7 went to the videotape, and its story about Big Mama's was as I expected.

Which means they got about half the story -- the North Omaha half.

KETV didn't notice was the South O half of the story -- a half that may be even more illustrative. Because in South Omaha, it wasn't that the area was ignored completely -- it wasn't -- but what restaurants there were ignored, amigo.

HERE'S WHAT the TV folk reported -- or some of it, at least:
She said her restaurant wasn't the only one in the area left out of the Berkshire Hathaway guide.

"North Omaha is here," she said. "We're on the map. We've been here. Why were we left out?"

Her daughter contacted Warren Buffett's office directly, twice in the last two years, but she wasn't able to get an answer.

After KETV NewsWatch 7 got involved on Wednesday, Barron received a surprising voice mail from the head of Berkshire Hathaway himself.

"Hi, this is Warren Buffett. I was calling Patricia Barron," the message went. "I'd appreciate if you'd give me a call. Thanks."

"I'm just thrilled," she said. "He called me."

She said she plans to ask Buffett to get north Omaha in the loop.

"That I'd like to be included on his list, this year and next year, and that I want him to come down and have a meal at Big Mama's," Barron said.
ALAS, this is a story older than ol' Jim Crow. It, in fact, is as old as the Good Book.

It's as old as Lazarus begging for crumbs from the rich man's table and getting none. And in what might be a nice visual hook for television audiences, it also features the fantastic spectacle of rich people and trying to squeeze camels through the eye of a needle.

Stuff rich white people like

The Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha is the epitome of "Stuff White People Like."

Specifically, stuff rich white people like.

And judging by the annual shareholder's meeting visitor's guide, rich folk got no use for soul food restaurants in North Omaha, or for Mexican restaurants owned by actual Mexicans who set up shop in Omaha's Latino quarter. "White" restaurants in South Omaha, on the other hand, are recommended to the Berkshire stockholders and Warren Buffett fanboys. Latino joints are not.

One in "deepest, darkest South O," Piccolo Pete's is among Buffett's faves.

But no El Aguila. No El Alamo. No Maria Bonita. No Taqueria Tijuana, or any of the other authentic-as-you-can-get Mexican eateries up and down S. 24th Street and, indeed, all over South O.

THE SAME goes for an acclaimed soul-food joint in North Omaha -- Big Mama's Kitchen. It's notable enough to be featured on the Food Network, but not notable enough that the Berkshire meeting organizers might think it worthy of wealthy, largely white palates.

Neither was another beloved Omaha joint featured on
Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives -- California Tacos. And what might be the connection between two eateries featured on national TV but not featured in the Berkshire visitor's guide?

Could it be proximity to the near north side, otherwise known as "the 'hood"?

In fact, there's not one North Omaha restaurant on the list. Not even a couple of good joints in the affluent Ponca Hills area of town -- nothing, in fact, that you can reach from downtown only by traversing the 'hood.

I'm just sayin'.

Channel 7 has been promoting a story on their late edition about just this tonight. Apparently, Patricia “Big Mama” Barron is not, shall we say, pleased about her eatery's omission from the Berkshire Hathaway guide. Film at 10.

IF ALL THIS turns out to be what my gut tells me it is, you have to wonder about some things.

When I was growing up in the Deep South decades ago, I remember how everybody spent inordinate amounts of time obsessing about "those people." Black people. The N-words.

Obsessing about what they were doing, what they might do to us white folk, and whether they were interested in somebody's white daughter. The rest of the time, white folks obsessed on the best means of maintaining the status quo, which meant keeping the black man -- and the black woman -- down.

But this is a different place more than four decades down the American timeline. We've got more minorities to consider and, besides, the whole George Wallace act is so passé.

Still, it looks pretty segregated to me in Omaha, by God, Nebraska. Very polite, very nice, very civilized . . . and very separate.

And very unequal.

You have to wonder. Wonder what's worse, the Southern obsessions of my youth, or the genteel, upper-class racism of not having to --
or even feeling the need to -- take notice of some people at all.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The road to hell

If there is indeed such a thing as a real hell on earth -- as opposed to pedestrian, rhetorical hells on earth -- Juarez, Mexico, might be a finalist for the designation.

And when you get right down to it, Juarez became hellish due to a lot of factors you can see, to a lesser degree, in my own Louisiana hometown, Baton Rouge. And in things closer to home here in Nebraska -- like, for example, the growth of "concierge medicine."

This hit me like a thunderbolt as I listened to All Things Considered this afternoon. In the NPR program's feature on the plight of Juarez, one part hit me between the eyes with a journalistic two-by-four.

IT WAS this segment in the report:
In March 2009, Calderon put the Mexican army in charge of the Juarez police department after one of the local drug cartels ordered the police chief to quit.

Calderon now concedes that military muscle alone isn't going to end the violence. "We need to tackle this social plan, because the problems in Juarez have deep roots in the structure of this city," Calderon told a group of local business and community leaders.

Young people lack opportunities, he said. Juarez doesn't have enough schools, hospitals or soccer fields. Only half the roads are paved. Murder, extortion and kidnapping go unpunished.

Calderon said the social fabric and rule of law need to be re-established in Juarez. He received one of his biggest rounds of applause when he declared that motorists should be accountable and people should no longer be allowed to drive around without license plates.

Calderon pledged tens of millions of additional dollars for social programs in Juarez, but he also said he will not pull the Mexican army out of the streets.

The double punch of the global economic downturn and the gruesome drug war has battered the border city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. The maquiladoras, or assembly plants, in Juarez have cut more than 100,000 jobs since 2008. The owners of thousands of restaurants, bars, corner stores and other small businesses have shut their doors rather than pay "protection money" to local gangs. Many professionals have moved to El Paso.

Alvador Gonzalez Ayala, a civil engineer who works in Texas, has chosen to keep his home in Juarez. "And I want to remain here," he says. "I want my children to remain here."

He says one of the biggest problems facing the industrial city is the huge disparity in wealth.

Gonzalez says much of the blame rests with the local elite, which he says is "a privileged and influential minority that's totally indifferent to the great mass of poor people [who] live in the area."
[Emphasis mine -- R21]

He adds that the city has been neglected for decades. Young people who see the opulence in Juarez and just across the border fence in Texas are attracted to the quick money of the drug trade, he says. Workers in the maquiladoras earn $60 to $70 a week. Drug runners can earn that or much more in a day.

Gonzalez is involved in several civic groups, and he recalls going recently to talk to a group of preteens in one of Juarez's poorer neighborhoods.

"We were promoting education and science and math. And we were asking them, what do you want to do when you grow up? Many of them told us, 'I want to be a sicario.' That's striking. A sicario is a paid assassin," he says.

THE PART about tolerating cars driving around without license plates reminded me -- in the sense of a concept being carried to its logical conclusion -- of the great Gallic shrug Louisiana gives the larger concept of civic responsibility and good behavior. As did the part about indifferent elites.

It was the indifference of elites that also reminded me of life here in Omaha, home of one of the nation's poorest African-American communities -- one with only the tiniest of middle classes. The indifference doesn't, in my opinion, reach Louisiana (and certainly not Mexican) levels, but it there.

It's there whenever people can tout "concierge medicine" in the face of high infant mortality rates, astronomical levels of sexually transmitted disease, endemic street violence and disenfranchised people whose greatest deprivation is that of hope for a better life.

There are only two things that can lead to such tone deafness and rank selfishness. One is abject malevolence. The other is abject indifference. I don't know, frankly, which is worse.

But the end of the road, if the better angels of our nature do not eventually prevail upon us, is Juarez.