Friday, April 29, 2011

Observations on the 19th c. Japanese response to natural disasters

One of the themes of this still-new blog is the revelatory potential of perspectives brought by history, other cultures, and other disciplines. Julian Sands' beautiful essay in this week's London Review of Books explores Japan's present-day reaction to March's triple disaster (earthquake-tsunami-nuclear reactor meltdown) through a 19th century Japanese lens. I was so struck by the inversion of our present-day values that I wanted to share it with you; excerpts are below but the whole can be found through the link above. 
On 11 November 1855, a massive earthquake and tsunami destroyed most of Japan's capital city, Edo, the precursor of modern Tokyo. Roughly 7000 people were reported dead or injured, and the numbers rose in the days that followed. There were no newspapers published in the city—the shogun's government forbade public comment on anything directly concerning the regime—but by the end of the year hundreds of woodblock broadsheets had appeared with stories and interpretations of the disaster. Among the surviving broadsheets one type stands out: colour woodblock prints depicting the earthquake as a catfish.

Since the 17th century, folklore had associated catfish with earthquakes. It was said that a giant catfish lay under a stone at the Kashima shrine... The god of the shrine had the duty of holding the catfish down. When he neglected his job, the catfish would wake up and shake, causing earthquakes. The god of Kashima seems to have been peculiarly negligent around this time: an earthquake destroyed the castle in the city of Odawara in 1853, another struck near the imperial shrine of Ise in the summer of 1854, and two tsunamis caused thousands of deaths along the Pacific coast that autumn. These events occurred soon after the arrival of American gunships under Commodore Perry forced the shogunate to open its ports to trade, rocking a dynastic system that had maintained stability in Japan for 250 years. It is not surprising that many in Edo believed the gods had chosen this time to overturn the existing world and start things anew....

I have been showing these pictures to students for years, interested in what they tell us about the period, but until the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on 11 March it had never occurred to me just how remarkable and strange to modern sensibilities this outburst of satirical humour in the face of disaster was.
The example reproduced here, ‘Mr Moneybags Launches Forth His Ship of Treasure’, employs a common motif: the suffering of elite merchants and the delight of working men. The man at the top is a wealthy miser: with the encouragement of a catfish, he is vomiting gold coins. Three men wearing the blue leggings, jackets and cloth headbands of craftsmen and builders scramble for the fallen money. The catfish lectures the miser: ‘Sir, you suffer now because you oppressed those beneath you in ordinary times. It would be well for you to change your ways and practise charity and virtue.’ Meanwhile, one of the labourers tells his mates: ‘Don’t be greedy. If you save too much and an earthquake comes you’ll regret it: better to go and spend it at the temporary brothels and keep it circulating.’ Destruction of property naturally hurt the haves more than the have-nots, and construction workers in particular stood to profit from the city’s rebuilding. Indeed, just as many occupations seem to have profited as suffered in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Another print depicted two groups of people standing on either side of a catfish, one labelled ‘those who laugh’ (a carpenter, a plasterer, a lumber merchant, a roofer, a blacksmith, a prostitute, a physician and a street-food vendor) and the other ‘those who weep’ (a teahouse proprietor, a seller of eels, a seller of luxury goods, a diamond dealer, an import merchant, musicians and entertainers). A city made entirely of wood, paper and clay could be rebuilt in a matter of weeks, and reconstruction provided work at good wages to a large segment of the urban population...
Although Japan’s disaster-prone capital lies on a major faultline and tremors are frequent, fire was by far the more common source of destruction in the 19th century. A conflagration that turned several blocks to ashes occurred in Edo on average every five or six years... Since there was a seasonal rhythm to these events and the gap between them was short, Edo’s citizens learned to flee, then return and rebuild. They kept their belongings light and portable and lived in houses that were easily dismantled. In 1880, a fire swept through Kanda’s city centre, destroying 16 blocks of dense tenements and displacing 5986 people. The mayor reported that, fortunately, it had occurred during the day, so there were no deaths or injuries. With a population well prepared for disaster, destruction of property even on this scale was accommodated within the management of the city.
This accommodation was possible because the city’s light physical infrastructure was matched by a strong and enduring social infrastructure. The people of Edo policed themselves and fielded their own fire brigades. The wealthy property owners who had the most to lose from lawlessness and property damage paid directly for these services, which were provided by their tenants and employees, and established town residents provided alms to the poor until houses were rebuilt. Although this charity was in theory voluntary, the need to maintain neighbours’ respect (and keep their custom) made it effectively obligatory. After major disasters such as the earthquake of 1855, registers were compiled in each neighbourhood listing the names of donors and amounts given, making the contributions a matter of public record. Kitahara Itoko, Japan’s leading historian of disasters and the author of a social history of the 1855 quake, has found that the donations corresponded closely to the wealth of each household, with the city’s wealthiest merchant houses, like the Mitsui dry goods business, contributing more than a thousand gold pieces, while smaller shops contributed as little as a few coppers. The shogun’s government made a practice of rewarding almsgivers after disasters, but the same fixed amount was doled out to everyone on the register, so that the compensation was little more than a token to the wealthy but could be double the amount of the original donation in the case of a poor household.
The working man gathering Mr Moneybags’s treasure implicitly referred to a physiological theory of cycles in nature, of destruction followed by renewal. Like typhoon-season floods and dry-season fires, earthquakes and tsunamis were understood as corrections of temporary imbalances in the vital force perpetually flowing through the world (known in Japanese as ki and in Chinese as qi). Periodic eruptions of natural violence released pent-up force and kept both nature and human society healthy by renewing them. In a study of the catfish prints, Gregory Smits has shown that Confucian philosophers as well as ordinary people believed that the economy followed the same principles. Just as ki flowed continuously in nature, money should be kept moving in the economy too, not allowed to stagnate and foster greed. For this reason, many people viewed capital accumulation distrustfully. Nature, they believed, censured it. 
It would be a mistake to presume that these Japanese fatalistically accepted natural destruction. Other contemporary accounts reveal that Edoites mourned the loss of family and friends, that they commemorated their deaths solemnly and sought solace in religion. But the relief of having survived, the outpouring of private and public charity, the break from everyday life and its duties, the levelling effect of the shared crisis, and the economic activity and opportunities in the reconstruction that followed, gave a positive tone to many of the catfish prints, prompting Kitahara to coin the term ‘disaster utopia’ to describe the world they depict. Of course, the condition was temporary, and neither alms nor higher wages were sufficient to cause a fundamental change in the poverty of the masses in the city’s tenements. Nevertheless, since everyone suffered together, and practically everyone contributed alms to relieve that suffering, common folk could believe that nature – in the form of the trickster catfish – had indeed instigated a healthy social renewal, and that these were bright times. Many of the prints plainly celebrate the present: using a formulaic phrase containing equal measures of irony and genuine hope, they call it ‘this blessed age’.
[VL comment: this is quite a contrast to the world of "disaster capitalism," in which wealthy developers swoop in to buy up, rebuild, and profit from areas that have been decimated by disasters, leaving the original residents permanently displaced.  It is also noteworthy that private charity, strongly local, was enforced by a system of complete transparency that itself depended on a strong social fabric. Our atomized American culture is comparatively ill-equipped to care for the dispossessed.]
Why aren’t the Japanese celebrating today? If the Fukushima nuclear plant can be brought under control, post-disaster reconstruction, at least in the long term, holds out the possibility of social and economic renewal. Assistance is flowing into the tsunami-affected region, voluntarism is flourishing and there is talk of this being an opportunity to revitalise the country, evoking notions of economic stagnation and flow that Japanese would have readily understood 150 years ago. Yet a wide gulf separates the Japan of the mid-19th century from the Japan of the present. In its slow unfolding and the inequality of its social effects, March’s triple disaster may bear more resemblance to a premodern famine than to the earthquake-tsunami that destroyed the capital in 1855. No one ever welcomed a famine because of its potential for enabling renewal. The drawn-out disaster gradually exposed and exacerbated class and regional disparities. The tsunami also brought to the surface deep structural problems: the depopulation of rural areas and the advanced age of their inhabitants (the median age of tsunami victims was reportedly around 70); the economic fragility of Japanese farming, which depends on government subsidies and tight import restrictions; and the fragility of the food system, vulnerable as it is to the invisible threat of contamination.
...In Tokyo one of my former neighbours, a woman in her sixties, writes of ‘trains running on reduced schedules, blackouts and calls to save energy, shops half dark, heat off in the house – why, we lived this way just a little while ago. I can only hope this will be the turning point away from mass production and mass consumption, towards a sustainable society.’ For people like her, who remember the days before Japan’s economic take-off, the hope is that this disaster will lead to a reduced dependence on heavy technological infrastructure.

It is remarkable that a country so seismically active and vulnerable, and which had developed the art of light infrastructure, should have embraced nuclear power. Japan began building heavy in the 1870s, soon after the modern state that replaced the shogunate chose to join the international economic and military competition led by the Western imperial powers. The country’s first model factory, a silk filature built under French guidance, and its first planned commercial district, the main avenue of Ginza in central Tokyo, were both constructed from brick in 1872. A massive earthquake in central Honshu in 1891 damaged iron bridges and toppled brick buildings, sparking debate over the appropriateness of Western technology to Japan, and the possible superiority of the lightweight, flexible structures that carpenters had built there for centuries (Gregory Clancey’s brilliant book Earthquake Nation explores the cultural politics of this debate). The debate would continue into the era of nuclear power. Today, Tokyo’s skyscrapers are built with flexible frames, designed to sway in earthquakes. Yet nowhere have architects been able to match the light and quickly constructed urban fabric that Japanese artisans had perfected before modernisation.
Sands goes on to discuss changes wrought by nuclear power technology, the quintessential heavy infrastructure, in 20th century Japan, and he makes the case that the traditionally robust social network is inseparable from the light physical infrastructure that characterized 19th century city life. As various "slow" movements spring up here in the West—slow food, slow gardening, slow art, slow fashion, slow blogging (my neologism for my lengthy posts, perhaps not inappropriately close to "slogging")—I keep thinking that as human beings we long for the kinds of connections that really need to be forged face-to-face, slowly building trust and interdependence over time... in other words, locally. I am grateful for the internet, for the phone, for being able to communicate with dear friends who live far away and 'meet' new friends through comments on this and other blogs. But there is still something irreplaceable about inviting someone over for tea and pastries warm from the oven, about making music together, about having long conversations curled up on a cozy couch, that goes well beyond the advantage of not getting a sore ear from the telephone. Even suffering together through a disaster can be a bonding experience, if all members of a given community share a sense of responsibility.

Given the increasingly inescapable effects of climate change, we need to think about the consequences of our own "heavy infrastructure" for the social fabric of our communities as well as their ability to rebuild.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A little budget fun...

A comment from one of my friends on the previous post prompted me to share two online resources that will educate, enlighten, and entertain.

The first is a "tax receipt" online calculator provided by the White House as part of its commitment to increasing government transparency.  It provides a breakdown of how your income taxes are disbursed across various categories.  National Defense, for example, is the largest chunk, taking up 26.3% of our hard-earned tax dollars (and this doesn't include Veterans Benefits, which is an additional 4.1%). There's no room for doubt about the cost of American military might...

The second excuse for whiling away a gray Saturday afternoon is The New York Times' deficit reduction calculator. Here you can actually try out different budget cuts and see what their effects on the deficit will be in 2015 and 2030. Initially published online November 13, 2010, it's a terrific interactive resource that lays bare the sources of our financial woes. Why, I managed to balance the budget without touching Medicare, Social Security, or federal research programs.

Friday, April 15, 2011

What about all that math and science education we're supposed to be promoting?

Paul Krugman and Hendrik Hertzberg, among others, lauded the president’s budget speech on Tuesday April 11 and the way Obama conveyed dignified exasperation over the notorious Ryan plan. Paul Krugman was fairly sanguine about the direction it pointed in, though he did sound a note of caution that if Obama’s position became the “left pole” from which the Administration would move farther to the right to reach “bipartisan” compromise, it would be better to do nothing at all. 

Unfortunately, it looks like we’ve been had—again—and this time it goes way beyond the Administration ceding ground to the Austerity Brigade.  

In recent weeks we’ve been told:

1. We need to emphasize science and math education so we can “win the future” and “outcompete the world”. 

2. This is the time for austerity, which means cutting the budget for education and federal research support for math and science. 

For the record, I agree with Krugman: whoever came up with the phrase "win the future" should be sent to count yurts in Outer Mongolia

More to the point, the problem with this formula is that the NIH and NSF are the primary forces driving research, not to mention our much-vaunted science education. It is federal funding that supports all those wonderful scientists and mathematicians who are going to win the future, etc., etc.  

How much less funding are we talking about? Drawing from recent reports in Science, The Economist, and the House continuing resolution (CR), the upshot is this:

The House CR proposed cutting the NIH budget by $1.6 billion; the administration bargained this down to $260 million.  Since the average NIH grant is $250,000 per year, my back-of-the-envelope calculation is that this means ‘only’ 1040 grants will vanish instead of 6400. There are about 600 research universities in the US; there are roughly 30,000 NIH-funded PI's or "principal investigators", the most successful of whom have an average of 1.2-1.4 NIH grants at a time. By this rough estimate, cutting 6400 grants would have meant over 1 in 5 academic scientists would have lost most of their funding. 

The CR cut the NSF budget by $75 million; the administration bargained this down to $53M.  In FY 2010 there were over 40,000 NSF grants with a median annual award size of about $127,000. The original CR would have cut 590 grants; now only 427 will vanish. (Note that health-related research is generally much more costly than research in the hard sciences.)

The Centers for Disease control budget will be cut by $730 million (instead of $1.4 billion in the CR).

The Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science will be cut by $35 M (instead of $901M in the CR).

The CR also cut the Office of Biological and Environmental Research (the part of DOE that funds research on climate physics, bioenergy, and initiated the Human Genome Project) by 49%, effectively shutting it down the rest of the year. I can find no information on whether the Obama administration negotiated a less severe cut.

In sum:              
                 House CR cut       Newly negotiated cut           

 NIH            $1.6 B                         $260 M
 NSF            $75 M                           $53 M
 CDC           $1.4 B                         $730 M
 DOEOS     $901 M                          $35 M

Remarkably, these figures represent a miniscule percentage of the multi-trillion dollar budget deficit, and even a relatively small portion of the budgets of these federal offices. What we must realize, however, is that research lab budgets are very streamlined, and every penny must be accounted for on a yearly basis. Young investigators receive support from their university departments, but by their mid-career stage, scientists are expected to cover the costs of their research programs with their own grant dollars. The average biomedical science graduate student is paid $22-25,000 roughly $20-30K (2009-2010), and the grant also covers their health insurance and other overhead, bringing the total cost for a student to about $35-45K. (Note that medical and graduate schools waive tuition for PhD students, which is another sizeable chunk of change that universities swallow for the good of the community.) A post-doc might cost $35-45 40-60K, not including overhead. Faculty salaries vary widely by region, but range from $80K at the low end for young assistant professors to over twice or thrice that amount for the most successful. So one grant might cover the salary of the faculty member, a postdoctoral fellow or a student, some necessary equipment, materials (which easily run thousands of dollars per month), modest travel costs to a conference, and publication costs (the balance depends on the individual lab and other sources of support, and yes, scientists have to pay journals for color figures in their papers and other sundry publication costs). If successful NIH-funded scientists average 1.2-1.4 grants annually (each grant lasts five years, with the possibility for competitive renewal), then to lose 1040 grants means that a thousand scientists, and their postdocs and students, will be out of a job unless they can quickly find another source of support through philanthropy (which is tough to get and doesn’t provide overhead for the university) or industry (which comes with many strings attached, to the benefit of the company rather than the university lab). 

It's also crucial to realize that federally funded research drives the engines of the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, whose main function is to take discoveries made in university and medical school research labs and scale them up into marketable drugs and devices. These industries do not, by and large, conduct fundamental research. (How could they? They exist to turn profits, like all businesses.)

In some ways, scientific labs are like small businesses, which can flourish only when there is robust infrastructural support. Consider our most successful corporations.  They spring up in areas where there's running water, reliable electricity, good roads for transportation, not to mention easy access to educated people. It would be hard to imagine Microsoft, Apple, GE, or Bristol-Myers Squibb achieving greatness from humble beginnings in, say, Afghanistan or Sierra Leone—which is why corporations should be paying taxes instead of getting billions of dollars in rebates.

Every commentator who has lamented these draconian and senseless cuts has thrown up their metaphoric hands and concluded that Republicans must simply hate science.  A few probably do hate the science that provides a rationale for curbing corporate excess—it’s no surprise they wanted to shut down the Office of Biological and Environmental Research, which studies climate physics and bioenergy, among other things—but I don’t think that this is the real motivation.

First, they’re a particularly technophilic bunch when it comes to their own health. 

Second, there is no inherent contradiction between conservatism and science. In fact, among those holding doctorates, scientists and physicians are more likely to be Republican than historians, philosophers, and others in the humanities. In the 112th Congress, for example, there are 20 doctors, only two of whom are Democrats. (Republicans do disdain the humanities, but that's because they see value only in economic terms. Cf. "Ceding the Premise.")

Third, let’s consider what happens to mathematicians and scientists who cannot fund their academic research. Biomedical researchers go to Big Pharma. But what part of the business world most warmly embraces mathematicians and physicists, i.e., those at the top of our scientific hierarchy? 

Why, the financial sector, of course. 

Mathematicians and PhDs of various stripes were the ones who created the algorithms that allow hedge fund managers to shave off a fraction of a penny for each Wall Street transaction and thereby amass untold fortunes while siphoning wealth from the entire economy without anyone noticing.  It's a nifty trick: you can’t teach it in school, you need the combination of unbridled greed and utter contempt for the hoi polloi that comes with constant exposure to the amoral world of economics/finance, in which rationality itself is defined as acting in one's own best economic interest, without any impulse to take into account other systems of value.

Now we know who loses when “we” win the future: us.

Not incidentally, we also know why the Obama administrations seems unable to shake up DC business as usual: it’s all about business in the first place.

If we allow politicians to slash federal education and research programs, our best and brightest (as they define them—scientists and mathematicians) will have no choice but to work for corporate titans to make them even more ridiculously wealthy than they already are, to transform them from the top 1% to the top 0.01%.

This is not an entirely new predicament. The idea that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, has been around since the Romans. (And look what happened to them.) As with so many other contemporary trends, however, the pace of destructive changes is accelerating because of feedback mechanisms within the system. 

Thankfully, there is an alternative.

What an honest, workable budget looks like—and the challenge to getting there

Eighty members of the House Progressive Caucus put together The People’s Budget, which would eliminate the deficit and create a surplus by 2021 in an efficient and fair way, largely by curbing military spending, raising tax rates on giant corporations, and wrestling healthcare costs under control by offering a public option—three mechanisms that a majority of the population have favored.

Check out the People’s Budget and if you like what you read, sign on here.  There is hope for genuine change that allows all of us to flourish, but it will take a little effort to educate ourselves.

This will be an uphill battle, however. To make clear just how difficult it is to wrest money from corporate interests, take the recent prank by US Uncut, a burgeoning movement to pressure corporate tax cheats like GE to pay their fair share.  Earlier this week they posted a fake news release praising GE for returning their legal, if ethically reprehensible, tax refund of $3.2 billion.  Several media outlets ran the story as if it were true, and the result was that GE stocks dropped .6% (far more than the value of the supposed return) until it became clear the press had been duped, at which point the stocks recovered.

As US Uncut rightfully concludes, GE can't be expected to do the right thing voluntarily because its stock would plunge—that's why we have to work to change the laws.  We can argue that a company's priority should not be to keep its shareholders happy, but that's where we are these days.

Further reading:

Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel prize-winning economist, in the current issue of Vanity Fair. 

The Economist's Democracy in America blog has an excellent post for those curious about the effects of cuts to the federal research budgets (see particularly the links).

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Reading the fine print: EPA still in danger

The Clean Air Act

Many of us were relieved when it appeared that Republican plans to curtail the EPA’s power to regulate air pollution were forestalled.  

Alas, the rejoicing was premature. The New York Times reports that three-quarters of the proposed $1.6 billion dollars in cuts to the EPA budget would come from State and Tribal Assistance Grants (STAG)—which are what fund states to comply with new federal rules.  Here’s an excerpt from the article
Those cuts, along with a plan to rescind $140 million of unobligated grants from the STAG program, will be a blow to state agencies that are limping due to years of state budget cutbacks... The spending deal also rejects the administration's request for an extra $82 million in grants to help states implement new air pollution rules from EPA, and cuts another $10 million on top of that, he said. 
...Becker said it's "disconcerting" that many lawmakers want to shrink the federal government, but they are doing it by taking most of the money away from state and local agencies. For example, the spending deal zeroes out a $20 million program meant to cut air pollution in smog-choked areas of Southern California.
It isn't fair that "Congress asks the states to carry out the will of these environmental statutes, and then savages the funding required to do these tasks," Becker said. "We're trying to do the job that Congress asked us to do." 
While the cuts to EPA grant programs were mostly in line with the president's request [italics mine] for next year, the deal goes after the agency's own efforts by taking money from EPA scientists and the offices that design the agency's regulations. Scientific programs would get $815 million, down $42 million from fiscal 2010, and environmental programs would end up with $2.76 billion, down 8.8 percent from last year.
Climate change work by EPA and the Interior Department, which were House Republicans' main target on the environmental front, would end up with $49 million less than last year, leaving them $116 million below the president's request for fiscal 2011. But the programs would be allowed to continue, since the House-approved "riders" to stop greenhouse gas regulations and reporting rules were stripped from the bill.
The compromise also takes a slice out of EPA's budget for its hazardous waste cleanup program. The legislation would chop roughly $23 million from the Superfund budget, reducing it from $1.31 billion to $1.28 billion for the remainder of the fiscal year..... it wasn't much to give away for President Obama, who asked for $1.24 billion for the program in his budget request for fiscal 2012. [italics mine]
In other words, the President had nearly sold the store already.

In sum: we really didn't save the Clean Air Act, as there isn’t enough muscle to enforce it. No surprise, really, when you consider that the EPA has already been crippled by funding cuts that forced it to drop thousands of legal actions against companies dumping toxic pollutants into our waterways.

Economic orthodoxy has triumphed again.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Poetic perspective on economic orthodoxy

Poetry to the rescue! Early 20th century Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote the following poem in 1926, which I post here as both a follow-up to Friday's post about the dominance of economics in our "value" system and in honor of the upcoming April 15 tax filing deadline here in the U.S.  Enjoy.

Conversation with a tax collector about poetry
translation by George Reave

Citizen tax collector!
                Forgive my bothering you ...
Thank you ...
        don't worry ...
                          I'll stand ...

My business is of a delicate nature:
about the place of the poet in the workers' ranks.

Along with owners of stores and property
I'm made subject to taxes and penalties.
You demand I pay five hundered for the half year
and twenty-five for failing to send in my returns.
Now my work is like any other work.
Look here -- how much I've lost,
what expenses I have in my production
and how much I spend on materials.

You know, of course, about "rhyme."
Suppose a line ends with the word "day,"
and then, repeating the syllables in the third line
we insert something like "tarara-boom-de-day."
In your idiom rhyme is a bill of exchange
to be honoured in the third line! ---that's the rule.
And so you hunt for the small change of suffixes and flections
in the depleted cashbox of conjugations and declensions.

You start shoving a word into the line,
but it's a tight fit --
                                you press it and it breaks.
Citizen tax collector, honestly,
the poet spends a fortune on words

In our idiom rhyme is a keg.
                                 A keg of dynamite.
The line is a fuse. 
The line burns to the end
                  and explodes
                        and the town is blown sky-high in a strophe.
Where can you find,
            and at what price,
                        rhymes that take aim and kill on the spot?

Suppose only half a dozen unheard-of rhymes
were left, in, say, Venezuela.
And so I'm drawn to North and South.
I rush around entangled in advances and loans.
Citizen! Consider my traveling expenses.
-- Poetry -- all of it! --  is a journey to the unknown.

Poetry is like mining radium.
For every gram you work a year.
For the sake of a single word
            you waste a thousand tons of verbal ore.
But now
                        the burning of these words
compared with the smoldering
                        of the raw material.
These words will move
            millions of hearts for thousands of years.

Of course, there are many kinds of poets.
So many of them use legerdemain!
And, like conjurers, pull lines from their mouths --
their own -- and other people's.
Not to speak of the lyrical castrates
They're only too glad to shove in a borrowed line.
This is just one more case of robbery and embezzlement
among the frauds rampant in the country.

These verses and odes bawled out today amidst applause,
will go down in history as the overhead expenses
of what two or three of us have achieved.

As the saying goes, you eat forty pounds of table salt,
and smoke a hundred cigarettes
in order to dredge up one precious word
from artesian human depths.

So at once my tax shrinks.
Strike out one wheeling zero from the balance due!
For a hundred cigaretts -- a ruble ninety;
for table salt -- a ruble sixty.

Your form has a mass of questions:
"Have you traveled on business or not?"
But suppose I have ridden to death
a hundred Pegasi in the last 15 years?

And here you have -- imagine my feelings! --
something about servants and assets.
But what if I am simultaneously a leader
and a servant of the people?
The working class speaks through my mouth,
and we, proletarians, are drivers of the pen.

As the years go by, you wear out the machine of the soul.
And people say:
            "A back number, he's written out, he's through!"
There's less and less love,
            and less and less daring,
and time is a battering ram against my head.

Then there's amortization, the deadliest of all;
amortization of the heart and soul.

And when the sun like a fattened hog
rises on a future without beggars and cripples,
I shall already be a putrefied corpse under a fence,
together with a dozen of my colleagues.

Draw up my posthumous balance!
I hereby declare -- and I'm telling no lies:
Among today's swindlers and dealers,
I alone shall be sunk in hopeless debt.

Our duty is to blare like brass-throated horns
in the fogs of bourgeois vulgarity and seething storms.
A poet is always indebted to the universe,
paying, alas, interest and fines.

I am indebted to the lights of the Broadway,
to you, to the skies of Bagdadi,           
to the Red Army, to the cherry trees of Japan --
to everything about which
                        I have not yet written.

But, after all,
            who needs
                        all this stuff?
Is its aim to rhyme
            and rage in rhythm?
No, a poet's word
            is your resurrection
and your immortality,
            citizen and official.
Centuries hence,
            take a line of verse
from its paper frame
            and bring back time!
And this day with its tax collectors,
its aura of miracles and its stench of ink,
will dawn again.

Convinced dweller in the present day,
go to the N.K.P.S., take a ticket to immortality
and, reckoning the effect of my verse,
stagger my earnings over three hundred years!
But the poet is strong not only because,
remembering you, the people of the future will hiccup.

No! Nowadays too the poet's rhyme
is a caress
            and a slogan,
                        a bayonet
                                    and a knout! 
Citizen tax collector,
            I'll cross out all the zeros
            after the five and pay the rest.
I demand
            as my right
                        an inch of ground
among the poorest workers and peasants.
And if
            you think
                        that all I have to do
is to profit
            by other people's words,
                        here's my pen.
            a crack at it