Thursday, March 31, 2011

March 31, 2011--Down Day

Tuckered out and so I will return tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

March 30, 2011--Our 21st Century President

At far back as the presidency of James Monroe, many of our chief executives have articulated policies about our place and role in the larger world that were subsequently dubbed doctrines.

The Monroe Doctrine of 1823, the first and most famous, stated that efforts by European countries to colonize land or interfere with states in the Americas would be viewed as acts of aggression requiring U.S. intervention.

Closer to our time, during the Cold War, the Truman Doctrine of 1947 declared that the U.S. would support Greece and Turkey with economic and military aid to prevent their falling under the Soviet sphere of influence. It further stated that it would be "the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."

After that, still during the Cold War, under the Reagan Doctrine, the U.S. provided overt and covert aid to anti-communist guerrillas and resistance movements in an effort to "rollback" Soviet-backed communist governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Still more recently, President Bush the Younger's Doctrine described a policy under which the United States has the right to secure itself against countries that harbor or give aid to terrorist groups. It was used to justify the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq.

And now, just two nights ago, President Obama articulated a doctrine of his own that should be seen as appropriate for the 21st century.

The New York Tines report linked below offers the details of his speech to the nation about America's participation (underline participation) in the actions (underline actions) in Libya.

It is a bold but nuanced doctrine which is certain to get him into trouble with his antiwar Democratic base; and he is already of course being criticized by Republicans such as John McCain for not going far enough because it does not have the U.S. leading the action, merely participating under, help us, French leadership, nor does it call for the overt overthrow by force of the Gaddafi regime.

Both are reflexive, predictable positions more appropriate for the 20th than the 21st century. And since the Obama Doctrine has upset both sides in the ideological divide, whatever one's ultimate view of it--and it will likely take decades to sort that out--is is the first thing Obama has done internationally that is forward looking and truly bold.

Obama set his doctrine in contrast to Bush's both for the justifications and the unilateral and preemptive way in which we went about invading Iraq. To quote Obama--"To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq." He could have added, but it was clearly implied, "And how did that turn out for us?"

His doctrine defines America's "national interest"--always the essential criterion when committing our armed forces to combat--in a very different way than any of his presidential predecessors. Their doctrines involved protecting us from severe economic or physical threat. Obama's includes that but puts at its center threats to our values, to what it means to be America.

In regard to when it is appropriate to use military power, he said:

It is true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right. In this particular country – Libya; at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. . . .

To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly – our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action. [Italics added.]

Obama is savaged on a daily basis by right-wing talk-show hosts and GOP leaders and presidential candidate for not proclaiming American Exceptionalism. For not saying we have literally a God-ordained role to play in the world because we are qualitatively different from other nations because our country was founded as the result of a revolution through which we became the first "new nation" and developed a uniquely American ideology, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.

Obama did not use the E-word in his speech since exceptionalism expresses an exaggerated and arrogant view of our place in the world, but he did talk eloquently about America's "special" role--about our history, our values, and our democratic example.

For a century that is already seeing historic forces at work that will be discussed and debated a thousand years from now--what is going on in the Islamic world is that tectonically profound--Obama's is a doctrine for our times that redefines what it means to lead, appropriate ways to participate on the international stage, and calls for a way to inspire universal values without waving a Big Stick but by using the soft and hard powers at our disposal with both force and appropriate restraint. All with the knowledge that we are participating in a wave of history--more a tsunami--which we cannot ultimately control but may be able to help guide.

Obama's doctrine is obviously politically risky, even historically risky, because by acting this way America cannot be certain of any outcomes. Including of future presidential elections. Or how the map of the world that emerges will look. We like our wars to be more like the Second World War. But we live in a very different, asymmetrical world. When we think and act as if we are still fighting the Second or Cold War we wind up with what we saw in Vietnam and are seeing in Iraq. How we are now engaged in the Middle East, like it or not, is our best chance to be influential and secure our 21st century national interest--physical and economic security as well as the security that derives from seeing our values influencing the world's next generation.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

March 29, 2011--Beer Boy

Back in the day, I was a sheet metal worker. Tin knockers, as we were called, installed heating and air-conditioning systems. In today’s parlance, HVAC systems.

The sheet metal part consisted of the ducts that were fabricated from sheet metal and connected the cooling and heating components of the system to the registers, or vents in the rooms to which the warmed or cooled air was distributed. We threaded these through risers that moved the air from floor to floor and then, hanging them from the ceilings, ran rectangular sheet metal ducts from room to room. Ducts made of tin. Actually, of galvanized steel.

It’s a bit more technical than this (we also, for example, had to install return systems that drew spent air back to the chillers and heaters) but you have the picture.

Back in the day we were all unionized--my union in New York City was Local 28—and thus we were very well paid. In today’s dollars, we could take home up to a couple of thousand per week in regular pay and overtime.

Journeymen sheet metal workers in New York these days get $46 an hour, time and a half for overtime, and double time after about seven hours of regular overtime during the course of a week, or if they are asked to work on Sundays. Benefits, which are generous, bring the actual compensation to about $85 dollars an hour.

Pretty good wages, but not enough to make anyone rich, especially considering what it costs to live in the New York area.

But in these hard times, and actually for quite a while, to rein in construction costs, and of course maximize profits for real estate developers and contractors, more and more jobs in the city and around the country have been going to non-union workers.

In my day, if a contractor tried to sneak a non-union guy onto a work crew—and some did—on the spot, we’d all walk off the job, shutting it down, and would not return until that semi-scab was let go.

In these antiunion days, this is no longer happening. Unless construction worker unions are willing to make compromises, agree to give-backs a là teachers around the country, contractors, with public labor enforcement officials looking the other way, will turn the work over to workers willing to accept at least 25 percent less; and on smaller job, considerably less than that.

Employers are also forcing unions to accept dramatic changes in work rules. On union jobs, then and now, the seven-hour workday begins when men (and now women) are ready to begin to work. This means, on a building of more than a floor or two, when they congregate at the few elevators that have been certified by city inspectors as ready to carry passengers.

This might include only one or two in a building where the eventual bank of elevators will number a dozen or more. As a result, there is considerable congestion at 8:30, the official start of the workday. It is not unusual for a half hour to lapse before all the men and women can get up to the floors on which they are scheduled to work.

And the same thing happens at the end of the day. So, up to an $85-hour is “wasted” paying for workers to get to and from their actual worksites. Contractors have zeroed in on this practice; and, among others, it is slowly changing. (See linked New York Times article for other examples.)

When I was a tin knocker, as the junior member of the work gang, one important aspect of my job was to run around the jobsite bringing ice-cold beer to the men. Especially to steamfitters who were in an affiliated union.

Their work had been made largely redundant by the advent of modern heating and cooling technology. Before that, but back in the steamfitters’ day, they had a lot to do on the job since heat came from boilers, which generated steam that then had to be brought to all parts of the building through steel pipes. Steamfitters installed those pipes and fit them together. Thus, their name.

But with heat supplied by hot air and air-conditioning supplied by chilled air via sheet metal ducts, there was, in truth, no work for them. But the union rules required one steamfitter to be on the job for every tin knocker. They were called standby workers. With nothing to do, they spent the day standing by, actually hanging around, earning wages even higher than ours, drinking beer, and snoozing in the subbasement where it was warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

The Beer Boy, me, kept them supplied with beer all day long and then ran around waking them up at quitting time to make sure they didn't get locked in overnight.

As with so many of our complex social problems, there is blame to share; but even decades ago, as a 17-yer-old kid, I knew there was something very wrong with our work rules as well as the behavior of contractors and developers. We were all ripping off a lush system in which there appeared to be no limits. We’re paying now for a lot of things that we allowed to get out of hand. Put the construction business high on that list.

Monday, March 28, 2011

March 28, 2011--Putting Imagination to Work

Republicans claim that the reason jobs are not being created by corporations is because their tax rate on profits, 35 percent, is about the highest in the world. It is so high, they say, that it drives companies to Mexico and overseas in search of cheaper labor and, most important, lower taxes.

Thus, cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes is the GOP mantra. It is the ultimate expression of their trickle-down economic gospel. I use this word advisedly because it has the force of religious belief. A belief that has been disproven over and over again when followed by tax-cutting presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush. Both of whom, as a result, saw the national deficit double and triple during the years of their presidencies.

Yet, we continue to hear it from Republican members of Congress and it is the single strategy being touted by all aspiring GOP candidates for the presidency, from Michele Bachmann to Mitt Romney to Sarah Palin to Donald Trump.

But while it is true that the corporate tax rate tops out at 35 percent, the effective rate, the amount corporations actually pay is much lower than that. In fact, if you're a really smart CEO, it can be zero percent. Your company can make billions in profit and not pay one dime to the I.R.S.

It can be even better than that--if you hire the best tax accountants and lobbyists money can buy, your business can manage to pay less than zero percent. You can even manipulate the loopholes your lobbyists got included in the tax code so that you firm can make billions in profits, pay nothing in taxes, and put a claim in to the I.R.S. so that they (I mean taxpayers) owe you more billions.

Case in point--America's largest comapny, G.E., which last year had world-wide profits of $14.2 billion, paid no U.S. taxes whatsoever, and had the audacity to put in for a tax benefit (a version of a credit) of $3.2 billion. (See linked New York Times article.)

The GOP and their flacks who write editorials for Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal and the chatterers on the financial news channels, CNBC and Fox News, say that G.E. and most of the other Fortune 500 companies have figured out how to pay no taxes because the 35 percent rate has driven them overseas where tax rates are lower.

Some of this is true, but part of the truth is not the whole truth. Of GE's $14.2 billion in profit, $5.1 billion came from its U.S. operations. Along the way, incidentally, G.E. laid off 5,000 U.S workers. So we have a complicated picture, not the black-and-white snapshot that goes for thought in Republican circles.

We should also recall, that as a gesture to business and as evidence that he is not a socialist, after the Democrat's drubbing at the polls in November, President Obama appointed G.E. CEO Jeffrey Immelt to head his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

I assume Immelt's message to businesses about how to be competitive is to move as many jobs as possible overseas and for any residual profits from U.S.-based ventures, hire the same accounting firm G.E. uses and put together a team of lobbyists General Electric style--from among the senior staff of all the Senate and House financial committees--so that your company can shift the tax burden to the rest of us.

To paraphrase G.E.'s new slogan--that's putting imagination to work.

Friday, March 25, 2011

March 25, 2011--Ladies of Forest Trace: The Family of Nations

“I know you’re coming here later to take me to Publix—I need fruit and some milk to drink with my Ensure—but I don’t want to spoil the visit by talking about politics, and so I’m calling.”

“That’s all right mom. I’m happy to talk with you about anything any time in person or on the phone.”

“You’re such a good boy.”

“Have the ladies been upsetting you again over dinner or is it something you saw on television.”


“You know I’ve suggested that you don’t watch TV all the time. Especially CNN. For them it’s always Breaking News, Breaking News, even . . .”

“Yes, I know. You’ve said it a hundred times—that since they have to fill up 24 hours with new news to keep us watching, and since there isn’t always something new to report, they repeat the same thing over and over again and call it breaking news.”

“Exactly. And it winds up upsetting you since you’re inclined to think that the bad news never ends even after you’ve heard the same thing six times.”

“And the girls were talking about the same thing last night at dinner.”

“What same thing is that, mom?”

“What they were saying on CNN and what Bertha was reading in her New York Times, which, as you know, she gets every day even though they raised the prices for the paper but not her Social Security.”

“As I said, whatever you prefer. We can talk about it now or . . .”



“It started the night before with that Sprtizer announcer.”

“Spritzer announcer? I’m not sure I . . . “

“On CNN. At 8 o’clock.”

“Oh, you mean Eliot Spitzer. Not Spritzer.”

“Spitzer, Spritzer, whatever you want. But from what he did to his wife, poor thing, to me he’s more a Spritzer.” She laughed at her own joke. “Though he’s very smart and I enjoy watching him. But like I was saying, what he was talking about with one of his guests was Libya. Everybody is talking about that. No more talk about the economy or thank God Sarah Palin. All the time Libya. Which I understand,” she quickly added before I could get in a word about why it makes sense now to be dealing with Libya.

“What about Libya, mom, is so upsetting you?”

“The conversation about why we are bombing them and not other places where the dictators are worse, where more people have been killed by their own government.”

“I’ve too have been hearing that and thinking about it.”

“How, Obama’s critics are asking—and by now every one is criticizing him, even from his own party—how can he pick one place to help and not another. Egypt and Libya but not Yemen or that Bah place.”

“Bahrain. There are of course reasons that . . .”

“They are talking about those reasons on TV and Bertha keeps telling us what her New York Times is writing. What Tom Freeman says.” I didn’t correct her because in general I like the malaprop names she comes up with.

“They are all saying that if we are doing these things for humanitarian reasons aren’t there worse places where we should be helping? Like I said in Yemen or that place next to South Africa.”


“Yes, there. Don’t they have a terrible president there?

“Yes, Mugabe.”

“Hasn’t he been a tyrant?”

“In many ways yes. He has become one. He started out as . . .”

“And so, why not Zimway?”

“If you mean intervene, I can’t see making a strong case to do that there because . . .”

“There’s always a because. There’s a because when we get involved and then there is another because when we don’t. That’s exactly the point I am trying to make.”

“Please do so since this is very complicated. To be consistent, if that’s our goal, either we should stay out of all situations of this kind or get involved everywhere there is a brutal dictator. But then, when we do choose to get involved, people are legitimately asking, is there appropriate justification to do so; and if there is, what kind of process should we go through to make the case and get the approvals needed. Like from the UN or our own Congress.”

“So you’ve been watching CNN too--and I know you read the Times every day—and are asking the same questions. Questions we have enough of, but do we have any answers?”

She paused to allow me to offer some. I am afraid I did not have any good ones to share.

“You’re making my point for me. Even you do not know how to think about this.”

“And what about you,” I ventured, “You’ve been watching the news nonstop and talking with the ladies, who keep on top of things.”

“To me it’s complicated but also very simple.”

“This I am eager to hear.”

“Think about the world as a family. Like our family. A family of nations. Like in our family some of us are closer to each other than to others; and as with us, mainly in the past, they don’t get along very well. They at times have feuds. Family feuds.”

“But, mom, at times, like now, like always, nations also fight with each other, kill each other; and, as in some sad situations, the people within a country fight with and kill each other. In civil wars. Like ours. Maybe like now in Libya.”

“I know darling that I’m making things too simple, but I am trying to make a point so please let me finish. I’m almost 103 and not as quick as I used to be.”

“No, mom, you’re . . .”

“I know what I am and, to tell you the truth, it’s not that good.”

“OK, I hear you. I won’t say another word.”

“I’m talking about how to decide when to help. When someone in the family needs help or says they need help. Do we ignore them? Do we simply help everyone, regardless of their circumstances? Just because they’re family?” She paused as if to let me respond but I remained silent so as not to interrupt her.

“This happened only a few years ago. You remember, don’t you?” In fact I did but again didn’t respond. “One of our family members, I will not be mentioning names, wrote to all of us to tell us that he was going to have another child and needed help to buy another house. We decided not to give him any money. We felt that he had made some bad choices in his life that caused him to be in this circumstance and, when we looked into the matter, we found that the house he was living in really was adequate for his family, even with another child. I think it was you or one of my sisters, who was a very generous person, who said that he doesn’t need a new apartment but that he wants one. You made a distinction between needing and wanting. We agreed that if he needed a new place, really needed one and couldn’t manage it himself, we would try to be helpful. But, then again, I reminded myself about the things he had chosen to do with his life, how he was responsible for his own financial condition.”

“I do remember that and, though it was difficult not to get involved—he was a family member after all—I came to the same conclusion.”

“But then a few years later we agreed to help someone else. They also did things to cause them to need help but the things they did were to try to be generous to others and this had contributed to problems of their own.”

“And another thing, mom, though this is difficult to acknowledge, didn’t we feel closer to them? Hadn’t we a much longer history of involvement with them than with the first person you mentioned who had drifted away and with whom we had hardly much of a relationship at all?”

“You’re making my point for me. Yes. Not every relationship, even within a close family such as ours, is the same. We don’t have the same feelings for everyone even though they may be a cousin or a niece or nephew or even a sister.”

“As you’re saying, it is very difficult in these kinds of circumstances to think about what to do.”

“So, like Obama, or any president, we don’t act consistently but we do act. In the family, we, like him, also have to take into consideration if we have the ability to be helpful. And, as they are saying about Libya, coming back to that, they are claiming that with our planes and missiles, and considering what is needed to help prevent a slaughter of the rebels, that with these we can he very helpful and that we don’t have to be involved for months or years. Of course we’ll see if that turns out to be true. But, again, as when we try to help family members we are never sure if what we do is actually going to provide the help they need.”

“I think I am getting your point. The analogy is not perfect, nations are not the same as families, but it is a useful way to think about the situation.”

“There is yet another complication, and I am sure many more because I am not an expert about this, but self-interest also has to be taken into consideration. Maybe not exactly has to, but always seems to be part of the decision. Our self-interest is not the same in all places and since we can’t get involved in all places, in addition to what we have been talking about, being concerned about what’s good for us, for America, is very important.”

“Experts call this realpolitik.”

“This is an idea about which I also have been hearing. And therefore self-interest gets us in trouble when we claim that our involvement is for humanitarian reasons. If we make that our justification then we have to get involved everywhere there are dictators abusing their own people.”

“Again, I agree with this. But one more thing—how does this apply to the family?”

“What apply?”

“Is there self-interest for us in what we do or don’t do to help family members who may have needs? That would make our involvement very different than doing things out of only concern and love.”

“That is an excellent question to which I do not have an answer. Maybe, when you’re here, or when you’re taking me to Publix, we could come up with one. Though, about that, I am not so sure.”

* * *

I should report that though we got the milk and some ripe peaches we have not as yet been able to resolve that one. My mother, though, promises to think more about it.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

March 24, 2011--Snowbirding: GOD + U = :)

As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I loved skywriting. I would watch in endless fascination as the single-engine plane circled overhead in lazy loops literally spewing out its smoky message. If it was a windy day, the pilot had to be adept so as to get all the letters in place before the wind tore them apart and made them unreadable.

All the airborne messages were advertisements for local merchants, none more prevalent than the ones for the Manhattan-based furrier, I. J. Fox. Over and over, from horizon to horizon, pilots etched in the sky--I J FOX FURS . . . I J FOX FURS . . . I J FOX FURS . . . I J . . . .

Wisely aware of what the winds could obliterate, they left the periods off the I's and J's. Except one time, when there wasn't even a slight breeze, as if to show off his airmanship, one belched out perfectly placed dots of smoke. My friends and I cheered so exuberantly that I suspected the pilot could see us jumping up and down 10,000 feet below on East 56th Street and maybe even hear us over the roar of his engine. “Must have been a World War II fighter pilot,” Heshy, who knew his history and atmospherics, speculated.

While we cheered, our mothers privately imagined themselves in Manhattan mink while in reality only the fortunate few in my neighborhood could afford something in Flatbush Persian Lamb.

So you can image how excited I was the other day, when on a windless afternoon in South Florida, when I looked up to check the weather, in the setting sun, again a single-engine plane was stitching a message in the sky, but of a very different kind--GOD + U = :) . . . GOD + U = :) . . . GOD + U = :) . . .

How times, I thought, and the world have changed.

Intrigued and eager to learn who was sponsoring this metaphysical message, through the Internet, I located a recent article in the Miami Herald, “Two Skywriters Use the Heavens As Their Pulpit.”

There I learned that pilots Jerry Stevens and Keith Poeschl deliver their sky-bourn sermons from a yellow crop duster named Holy Smoke. These boys, I thought, in addition to their unusual form of preaching, have a saving sense of humor. That, and the smiley face, made all the difference to the agnostic in me.

“These are God's love letters to his children,'' explained Stevens, 68, a retired aviator who started his skywriting evangelizing 12 years ago.

Since then, Stevens has taken 33-year-old Poeschl into his ministry, teaching him the art of skywriting. There are now two versions of the Holy Smoke fleet—a plane for each of them; one stationed in Fort Lauderdale, the other in Orlando, so they can spread their gospel from Miami to Disney World, including right here in the skies over Delray Beach.

“This isn't about us,'' Stevens told the Herald, “God is the one strategically putting those messages there . . . we're nothing more than the pen.''

Back in 2002, demonstrating that the pen is indeed as mighty as the sword, he was questioned by the FBI, after writing God is Great in the air over Palm Beach County. It was just a few months after those Anthrax-tainted letters started showing up with the message Allah is Great. Also, it was not too long after the 9/11 attacks, and several of the terrorists had lived and received their flight training in South Florida. Actually, they lived right up the road from where we spend the winter, in a gated community with the unlikely name of Hamlet. “To be or not to be” indeed.

Fully obsessed with this and how it triggered childhood memories, I couldn’t help myself and called Jerry Stevens who was more than willing to talk. I told him my I. J. Fox story and how the kids on my block loved watching the skywriters in action.

He wouldn’t say that much about his earlier life but did reveal that the impulse to write about God in the sky was more the result of a mid-life revelation than the product of a life of devotion. I got the impression that, as with many folks who later in life are “called” to God’s ministry, his past, from a spiritual perspective, was probably considerably less than devout.

But the idea for what he calls “God’s love letters in the sky” came to him while he was in church. “I was praying to God,” he told me, “asking Him to use me any way He likes. While doing that, on the organ, they were playin’ a hymn called, And Fill the Sky With his Praises. That’s all I needed. I guess you can say the rest is history.”

His mission also has a bit of a political edge. He complained that “they” have removed God’s word from all public places and, through his efforts, as God’s pen, “I’m putting His name back out there,” I sensed him winking when he added, “in biblical proportions.”

We chuckled together at that; and, since we seemed to be getting along, I said, “You of course know there are a lot of folks living and visiting South Florida who aren’t Christians.” I didn’t mention all the atheists but did add, “Like me, there are quite a few Jews here. I wonder what they might be thinking about what you’re up to. Especially at those times when your message is Jesus Loves You.

Without missing a beat, Stevens said, “It’s true, I have had some criticism,” but pausing and chuckling again, said, “But Jesus loves them too.”

And with that he told me he had to run. Actually, that he was scheduled to take off in a few minutes. “If I fly over where you’re stayin’ up there in Delray, maybe I’ll dip my wings to you. It’s pilots’ way, you know, to say hello. That is if I’m not workin’ on the smiley face.”

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March 23, 2011--It's Bahrain, Stupid

While all eyes were on Egypt and now are on Libya, we should in fact be thinking much more about Bahrain.

A couple of weeks ago I would have had difficulty locating it on a map much less knew it was the base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet. I knew even less about its strategic importance--how the unrest there is about the global struggle between Sunni and Shiite Muslims with huge ramifications for the region as well as our interests.

First, a brief review if you knew as little about Bahrain as I:

Location, location, location. Bahrain is not only about oil and the U.S. naval base; it is about geopolitical real estate. It is an island kingdom that sits in the Persian Gulf 16 miles off the coast of Sunni Saudi Arabia and right opposite Shia Iran. As one way of displaying Sunni solidarity there is a causeway, the King Fahd [of Saudi Arabia] Causeway that connects Bahrain with Saudi Arabia. The very causeway over which Saudi troops and tanks crossed last week as part of their effort to help the Bahrain royal family put down (read slaughter) Shiite protestors who were/are clammoring for more democracy. For Shiites, that is, because they see themselves, rightfully, as both the majority in Bahrain but shortchanged by the Sunni elite.

Oil, Oil, Oil. There is some in Bahrain but, by Persain Gulf standards, very little. What there is is banking, banking, banking; which, for the oil rich, is essential, especially a Bahrainian-style banking system that is designed to protect and hide and launder all those billions and trillions of petrodollars and euros.

Bur above all else, Bahrain in another convenient place where a proxy battle between Sunni and Shiites can take place. I say another since these surrogate struggles have been underway for many centuries throughout the region and during more recent decades when the Saudis supported Sunni-led Iraq in its bloody war with iran; while Iran, to challenge Saudi solidarity with the Lebanese, has been the chief sponsor of the Hezbollah-Shiite regime in Lebanon.

Enter the United States after which an even bigger mess was created. Michael Slackman, in his Sunday column in the New York Times (linked) got it about right.

Since the U.S. did not back the protestors in Bahrain in their grievances, but rather in a mealy-mouthed way merely encouraged the king to make some democratic concessions, the Shiite rebels saw inconsistency in American policy if not outright hypocrisy. Why, they wondered and are now saying more passionately as they are being smashed with the considerable help of the Saudis, why did the U.S. so quickly come to the aid of the Egyptian rebels but not those in Bahrain?

Good question with an obvious answer--Saudi oil and the Bahrain homeport for the Fifth Fleet.

On the other hand, the Saudis are almost as furious with us as the Bahrain Shiites. "What," our good friend King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, is asking, "were we thinking when we threw our long-term ally, Hosni Mubarak, under the bus [the media's favorite metaphor for what we did to him]? Wasn't he at least entitled to a dignified exit? What would you Americans do me," the king has been wondering out loud, "and my 7,000-member royal family if my own people rose up against what they perceive to be our alleged undemocratic rule? Also, throw us under . . . ?"

More good questions. Though not with easy answers.

Though, actually, maybe there is an obvious one--As long as we get 13 percent of our oil from Saudi Arabia, the king has nothing to worry about. Americans are already getting restive as gas prices again head toward $4.00 a gallon. How would we feel if Saudi Arabia turned off the spigot and it cost us, what, $10 or $15 a gallon?

We would undoubtedly feel we have to do everything militarily possible to keep the Saudi king on his throne. As we are claiming about Libya, we would intervene for humanitarian reasons. This time not because of crimes being perpetrated against the Saudi people by their own government, but for American humanitarian reasons--$10 per gallon gasoline would be a humanitarian enough reason right here in the U.S.A. to get the Fifth Fleet mobilized.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

March 22, 2011--What's In A Name?

Overlord was the name the Allied Supreme Command assigned to the invasion of France during the climatic months of the Second World War. Desert Storm is what the Pentagon called the invasion of Iraq back in the days of George H. W. Bush's presidency. His son's version, Operation Iraqi Freedom should have tipped us off that Bush and Company were more interested in regime change and nation building than looking for weapons of mass distraction. If the latter had been their actual intention, they would have come with something like Operation Yellow Cake.

I have no idea why military leaders seem to feel the need to employ descriptive and/or funky names for their operations. I suppose in the old days they spoke about Overlord-this or Overlord-that in the hope that the Germans would think they were talking about feudalistic issues. I suspect, though, that the Jerries were not fooled and knew it referred to the invasion of the continent though they were in fact fooled about the size and location of the invasion. But not by its code name.

This naming of military operations has a long history and Americans and Western powers are far from the only ones inclined to come up with them.

Speaking about World War II, the German's devised their own code names:

Feuerzauber ("Fire Magic") was the Teutonic-poetic name of their plan to transfer airplanes and pilots to the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Hummer ("Lobster") was what they called their effort to insert German agents into England. And Operation Barbarossa, which was Frederick I's ferocious-sounding last name, was what the Axis Powers named their plan to invade Russia in 1941 with 4.5 million troops.

The British had their own clever names. Among themDracula, for their amphibious invasion of Rangoon, Burma; Matador, their 1945 occupation of Ramree island in Malaya; and Screwdriver for the occupation they led against a Japanese headquarters at Sitaparokia Rock in Indian Ocean waters.

Closer to literally today, we and the French already have names for our military operations in Libya.

France, which claims to be leading these efforts, calls its contribution Operation Harmattan. I needed to look that one up.

According to Wikipedia the Harmattan is a dry and dusty West African wind that blows south from the Sahara into the Gulf of Guinea between the end of November and the middle of March. It can cause temperatures to fall to almost freezing and on its passage over the desert it picks up fine dust particles. Usually so many that they severely limit visibility and block the sun for days.

I get the north-south part of this (France is doing its Libyan thing from the north)--though I hope neither the French nor we lose metaphoric visibility--and it is also good to know that the actual Harmattan tends to end by the middle of March. It is now March 22nd so perhaps Barack Obama will be true to his word and thus what we have joined the French and others to do will end soon.

The U.S. name for its involvement is quite literary, not entirely surprising since Obama is a reader. We are engaged in Operation Odyssey Dawn.

After Odysseus, the hero of Homer's epic, helped defeat the Trojans during the war of that name, with his men, he left Troy to return home and to his long-suffering wife. But the end of the war turned out to be just the beginning of another chapter in his long saga. It will be another ten more years before Odysseus sets foot in Ithaca.

He started out from Troy with twelve ships, but after he sacked the Ciconian city of Ismarus, winds drove him south to the coast of, yes, Libya. To determine where they were, three scouts were sent to reconnoiter, but they did not return and so Odysseus set after them. When he discovered their location and circumstances, he . . . let us, from Homer, hear Odysseus' words:

[My scouts] went about among the Lotus-Eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-Eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches.

And recall, after this narcotic idle in what is now Libya, it took Odysseus many more years to complete his journey. In all, about as long as we have been in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not that I doubt my president who is, about Libya, talking days of involvement, not months or years. But we should keep an eye on things.

Very often, what's in a name is quite a lot.

Monday, March 21, 2011

March 21, 2011--GOP Neo-Anarchists

He's a new neighbor and very nice, but we disagree about almost everything political. He is Dick Morris, the political strategist, FOX News commentator, and with his equally affable wife, a widely-read author.

In case CNN or MSNBC is more your place for news and comment, you may not know him very well. He began political life as a left-leaning Upper-West-Side-of-Manhattan liberal; then found his way to moderate Democrat Bill Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas only to break with him to become a Republican political consultant before returning to Clinton when he was president and mired in the Monica Lewinsky affair, helping Clinton get reelected before he was forced to resign after getting tangled up in a scandal of his own; and now we find him back again in the very conservative GOP fold.

Dick Morris' career of peregrinations is enough to make your head spin.

So his new book (coauthored with his wife, Eileen McGann), Revolt!: How to Defeat Obama and Repeal His Socialist Programs, is right down his current indeological alley.

The title says it all. The Revolt! replete with exclamation point, should even appeal to defeated Nevada Tea Party senatorial candidate, Karen Angle who, while losing to Harry Reid by six percentage points, spoke about "Second Amendment remedies" to Obama's "socialist" policies. The Second Amendment, of course, being the one that allows us to bear and presumably use firearms for more than hunting.

So before ordering a copy--I like to keep track of everyone's views, especially when they are good neighbors--I checked on Amazon to see how the book was doing. How it was selling (decently) and what readers were saying about it.

Reading dozens of readers' comments, I was surprised to see that an overwhelming number were very, very negative. And not from people of my ideological persuasion.

Dick and Eileen, who are at home in Fox World, were frequently accused of being socialists themselves!

To the untra-right they are essentially accomodationists because they support an agenda for social change and improvement. How to rein in, but not eliminate government. How to scale it back and make it more efficient. They want to curtail municipal workers unions, for example, but not fire all public workers and force them to work for private providers of public services. They do not call for the full privatization of public education, just its radical reform. They do not advocate privatizing police and firefighters, just eliminating their ability to bargain collectively while cutting taxpayers' contributions to their benefits packages.

Here's a sample from the Amazon Website. I warn you in advance that it is sadly typical of the lunatic-right's thinking and rhetoric and is thoroughly vulgar and distasteful:

WE DON'T LIKE SOCIALISM. I don't care if it comes from Republicans or Democrats.....unfortunately, some of you are so busy humping a Republican's leg you can't see the big picture. I bet if told you that dog turd on the ground was a flower you would pick it up and smell it and put in your pocket and tell me thank you, huh? Just because I call it a flower doesn't make it one. Just because Dick Morris bashes Obama and his socialism doesn't make him a conservative. (Everything here is as written, including that which is illiterate. To view all the Amazon comments, see link below.)

We are in effect witnessing a lowest-common-denominator form of anarchism. There are lots of folks out there who are so frustrated and angry about how things are going in America (exemplified, of course by the fact that we have an African-American or, to the truly demented, African president) that they want none of it. Government that is.

Maybe it's OK to have a government-sponsored military--though I am not too sure about even that: the Second Amendment, after all, was to enable states to form their own militias--but to these radicals, pretty much everything else that the government does should either be eliminated entirely or turned over to a totally-unregulated private sector.

My poor neighbors. Talk about waking up one day and finding yourselves in bed with a lot of strange bedfellows. And what was it that Proverbs says about inheriting the wind?

Friday, March 18, 2011

March 18, 2011--Snowbirding: Welcome to Paradise

Our neighbor has a flower-festooned sign by her front door that says Welcome to Paradise. It does not require much imagination to agree that this is no exaggeration.

Her place is perched luxuriously atop the dune line, a few steps from this shimmering beach, and from her upper deck all the world is there for her. As is it for us, though we are set back a little and have what a real estate broker would call a “partial view” of that same splendor. So it is not for me to point fingers. We too are blessed.

But not far from here, less than a mile away, just on the other side of the Intracoastal can be found the other side of paradise—Osceola Park. Don’t be fooled by its Floridian name. It is this area’s version of a slum. A drug- and crime-infested wreck of a trailer park.

Osceola was a war chief of the Seminole Indians and led their resistance against the invading Manifest-Destiny-seeking Americans during the Indian wars of the 1830s. Betrayed, as were so many, when he attempted to make peace, after objecting to the details of the proposed treaty which equated Indians with slaves, he was captured and died of malaria less than six months later.

His local legacy? This miserable so-called park inhabited mainly by destitute African Americans, some of whom I suspect share some of his noble DNA.

This place in the sun is one of hidden contrasts. Up the coast, which could easily be called golden, but actually is called the Treasure Coast, is the perfect Palm Beach where everyone who has property facing water dresses in Lily Pulitzer when venture out. This is the territory of the Social Register. Names you, and certainly I, would not know because they are from Old Money, the kind that is never discussed, whispered about, or conspicuously displayed. Where Trumps, of course, and even Kennedys are considered to be arrivistas. So nouveau that they are not worth noticing or even deprecating—they simply do not exist.

But right across their Intracoastal drawbridges, as from mine, screened from sight in the grid of dilapidated streets, are people who decades ago were shunted aside when the rising value of agricultural land and merciless inheritance taxes drove the landowners to sell their farms. With their jobs eliminated these field hands drifted into poverty and despair. Surfacing to public view now in one of two ways—on the Police Blotter reports in the local papers or when they show up on the 6:00 o’clock news being led away in handcuffs after holding up a 7-Eleven.

While we enjoy our portion of paradise, back in Osceola Park, their pleas to the local authorities ignored, residents have formed vigilante groups in an attempt to take back their unpaved, unlit streets. Their patience has run out. Felonious crimes, the tip of the iceberg since most incidents are never reported, rose by more than 70 percent last year. There were nearly 300 car thefts, assaults, and break-ins tallied in a community of only 271 homes.

Up to now, those who live in Osceola Park have somehow learned to live with the daily crimes. But when a child was shot in the head in November they finally said, “No more,” and began to take matters into their own hands. Florida’s very liberal gun laws ironically making it easy for watch-groups in gun-ravaged communities to arm themselves.

It also hasn’t helped that the town of Delray chose to locate 15 so-called Sober Houses in Osceola. Places where recovering addicts are supposed to recover and avoid temptation. But in Osceola Park, with so many active addicts and their dealers controlling the neighborhood, people in rehab are easily tempted, fall off the wagon, and get kicked out of the houses only to wind up living on the streets.

Meanwhile, in that other gilded place just south of Delray, Boca Raton, another story has been unfolding. Not far from the glittering boutiques, posh restaurants, and plastic surgeons’ offices is the Palm Beach County Housing Authority.

About a month ago, they made available to low-income residents applications for a lottery that would award vouchers to a fortunate few who would then be eligible to submit them and after that wait for a number of years for access to subsidized housing. Underestimating the demand they printed only 500 applications. Many more residents than that had lined up eight hours before the office opened; and when housing officials discovered that the supply was exhausted long before all who were waiting could get one, what the press reported as a “disturbance” broke out.

On the local TV news later that evening one could see police in full riot gear, pushing their Plexiglas shields into the press of bodies surging toward to doors of the Housing Authority. Mostly mothers clutching small children, virtually all seeking applications were Black as nearly all the policemen where White.

"Leave or face arrest," police officers shouted at the crowd as they urged them to disperse. People were forced to leave the vicinity altogether, with officers directing them to move across the street and into a parking lot.
It quickly became a mass of women nursing crying babies, pushing strollers, and waiting anxiously for officials to give them information.

When none was forthcoming, people grew agitated. Several fights broke out. Police and firefighters said they were prepared if things were to turn violent. Nearly 50 firefighters and paramedics from the city, county, and nearby Delray Beach set up in the parking lot. And they were needed as some of the women in the crowd had been trampled and injured when things turned ugly.

A 28-year-old mother of five who had been pleading with police officers to let her drop off her housing application, refused their orders to leave the housing office. She was handcuffed and dragged off to a police van, charged with disorderly conduct, disobeying a lawful order, and resisting arrest.

Another, who had waited in line for hours with her three-month old daughter, is currently living in a maternity home from which she must move by June. She is desperate to find housing. "That's why I'm here. This is my first child," she said. "We really need it."

A 22year-old from West Palm Beach, was so angered by police tactics that she shouted at them, "This place is gonna get shot up later. You can’t treat us like this."

* * *
Delray Beach historical notes:

In 1894 the first school was established. There were enough children for the citizens of Linton (Delray’s original name) to petition Dade County to allow them to have one. It was named Dade County School #4—Colored.

Two years later Linton’s first church was established, Mt. Olive Baptist Church. It too served the Colored community.

In the same year, 1886, “Ma” Cohen, a midwife, who had settled in Linton and was of African descent, was the only trained person available to serve the birthing and medical needs of mothers and babies of all races.

A second church, St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (AME), was built in 1897 by Colored settlers.

“Ma” Cohen was joined in 1898 by Susan Williams, a trained midwife and general nurse practitioner. She too was Colored and treated patients of all races since there were no White people in town who had any medical training.

In 1903, hurricane winds wrecked the British ship SS Inchulva, near Delray Beach. Though the town was by then more White than Black, settlers of African descent who had emigrated from the nearby Bahamas, initiated the rescue of survivors.

In 2011, descendents of those founders of schools and churches, and others who are the great grandchildren of those who had provided medical care to all and risked their lives to save those cast into the stormy ocean, today they languish in Osceola Park, ducking drug dealers’ stray bullets and struggling to meet the payments on their ramshackle trailer homes.

All just down the road from my Paradise.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

March 17, 2011--Forbes' Richest & Most

I don't exactly know how or why I stumbled on the Forbes' lists of the world's richest and most powerful men and women, but somehow I did. When trolling the Web this sort of thing just seems to happen, and I wound up lingering among those named for an hour or so thinking about the meaning of I'm not sure just what.

I do know, though, what to think when the list of the world's most powerful people has Barack Obama in 2nd place while in 1st there is Hu Jintao, president of China.

And we know why in 4th place there is the almost-dead king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud. Obvious.

Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin is in 5th place while the Russian president doesn't even make the list.

Pope Benedict XVI, without an army or much of an economy, is in 5th place while Bill Gates is in 10th and Mark Zuckerberg, whose Facebook is allegedly half responsible for the revolutions sweeping the Middle East, is down in 40th. The notorious, ultra-conservative funders of the Tea Party, the Koch brothers are as a single entity in 54th and Osama bin Laden is relegated to 57th place.

With each listing Forbes supplies a brief note about why the person is deemed to be so powerful. About bin Laden they say:

Despite infrequent communications, persistent rumors of his death, symbolic power undiminished: Impressionable youths continue to self-detonate in his name; casus belli of two U.S.-led wars costing over $1 trillion.

Anyone costing us over a trillion to wage a losing war, in my view, should be higher up on the list of the most powerful than, say, the prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, who, though he is about to be convicted of statutory rape, is in 14th place.

Wondering about Berlusconi's ranking, I checked what Forbes has to say about its methodolgy. In regard to the Italian prime minister, they say:

We determined if [those who made the list] were powerful in multiple spheres, awarding bonus points for those who can project their power many ways. Silvio Berlusconi, for instance, got a big boost for not only being the prime minister of Italy, but also a billionaire media mogul and owner of a soccer team, AC Milan.

Being indicted, I suppose, and palling around at pool parties with under-age girls with Muammar Gaddafi kept him from being ranked even higher.

In regard to the world's most powerful women, what do you make of their placing Michelle Obama at the top of the list? Being married to the commander in chief, to me, hardly qualifies as power. Nor does trying to get Americans to lose weight.

I'd put German chancellor Angela Merkel, currently in 4th place, at the top since she is presiding over the only strong economy in the Euro Zone. At the least, she belongs ahead of Oprah Winfrey, who Forbes places in 3rd place. Now I know she has a huge American following and is worth a billion or two, but . . . really?

And I have nothing at all to say about their listing Lady Gaga as the 7th most powerful woman in the world.

When it comes to wealth, things are also interesting.

First, in the spirit of Hu Jintao being the world's most powerful person, it should be no surprise the the richest American, Bill Gates, is "only" the world's 2nd wealthiest person with $56 billion in assets, while Carlos Slim of Mexico, who continues to be in 1st place, is worth considerably more at $74 billion.

Russia may still be considered by some to be a developing country, but of the top 100 wealthiest people, 15 are Russian billionaires. Vladimir Lisin is the richest of them, worth $24 billion; and Forbes lists the source of his wealth as "steel." Which means that when the USSR imploded, Lisin was allowed to "buy" the Soviet's enormous steel production infrastructure. In no way does this make him the Andrew Carnegie of Russia. Lisin is not your proverbial self-made man, as he is designated in Forbes. Quite the contrary, as with all the other Russian billionaires he is a self-made crook.

Case in point, in 99th place is Russia's Leonid Mikhelson, worth $9.1 billion, all of it in natural gas. Again, as with Vladimir Lisin, we're not talking T. Boone Pickens.

It also appears that it is helpful to have the right daddy. Especially, Daddy Sam Walton, founder of Walmart.

In 10th place is Christy Walton who is worth $26.5 billion; in 20th place we find Jim Walton who has $21.3 billion; right behind him in 21st place is Alice Walton at $21.2 billion; and then there is S. Robson Walton who is worth $21.0 billion. Between them, these four Waltons control a neat $90.0 billion in assets, which makes Señor Slim look like a piker.

You can come to your own conclusions about all of this by looking at the attached link from Forbes. I've obviously come to mine.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

March 16, 2011--So What Else Is New?

You knew this was coming. From the moment it was reported that the Fukushima Daiichi atomic energy plant was exploding, you knew, without knowing, that there had been warnings for decades that building these kinds of facilities on known earthquake faults was an disaster waiting to happen.

You knew, without knowing, didn't you, that the specs for nuclear reactors like the ones in Japan were designed to withstand 7.0 magnitude earthquakes, not 9.0s. And you knew as well, without knowing, that there had been for many years warnings that the fundamental design for these kinds of plants had been questioned as fundamentally flawed.

But, like most of us, you (and very much I) chose not to think too much about these Cassandra warnings, suspecting that they were the ideological views of extreme environmentalists or those who wanted to see industrialization and its evils turned back because of inadequate energy resources to a simpler, more self-sufficient time. Later day romantics and Luddites.

And don't you, like me, suspect that we are not being told the whole truth about what is happening in northeastern Japan and that the tragic disaster at Fukushima will turn out to be less like our own Three Mile Island "event" and more like Russia's Chernobyl? That the spent uranium fuel rods will soon burn and for many days release massive amounts of radioactive gases into the air? You know that without knowing, as do I.

Here's what the New York Times has to say about this:

The warnings were stark and issued repeatedly as far back as 1972: If the cooling systems ever failed at a [GE] Mark 1 nuclear reactor, the primary containment vessel surrounding the reactor would probably burst as the fuel rods inside overheated. Dangerous radiation would spew into the environment. (Italics added. Full article linked below.)

So now we know.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

March 15, 2011--Briefly: Solar Energy

How can we watch in horror as nuclear energy plants in Japan melt down and threaten not only that country's future but all plans to maintain or build new facilities of this kind, while other, less polluting and dangerous alternatives languish, awaiting investment and the mobilization of our collective will.

If there is money to be made, investment will follow. But will is lacking.

Take solar energy possibilities in California, the state where not too long ago there was not enough 20th-century-vintage energy available and utility companies needed to institute rolling blackouts.

California is the Golden State not only because there was gold in its hills but because of abundant sunshine. Especially in its extensive interior deserts. So one would expect that they would be in the lead in building solar energy facilities. There should be enough public support to make them profitable and thereby attract the needed capital.

There is evidence that these necessary forces might in fact come together. That is, if environmental litigation can be overcome.

I like to believe I am ecology minded, but what we are seeing in the Southern California desert is enough to get me thinking about burning my Greenpeace membership card.

According to the linked article from the New York Times, the Solar Millennium Company withdrew its license to build five mulit-billion dollar 250-megawatt solar stations in the California desert because of environmentalists' and regulators' concerns about the impact of the project on the Mohave ground squirrel.

I do not want to see these squirrels endangered, but even less do I want to see the rest of us threatened by radiation and global warming.

Note: In Japan, at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which is the one most severely damaged, each of it's six nuclear reactors generates 439 megawatts. So the cancelled California solar array is quite a big deal.

Monday, March 14, 2011

March 14, 2011--1,500th Blog Posting: My President

I began this blog in August 2005 as a form of homage to my father who helped bring me to political consciousness. He literally placed the New York Times before me every morning in the hope that my interest in local sports would lead me to an interest in the larger world. Which it did. But only after my Brooklyn Dodgers and their arch rivals, the New York Giants, abandoned me and I was left to read about the news of the world and the politics in which the events reported about were intwined.

During the past five and a half years our politics has been as interesting and ultimately hopeful as it gets--from the last three years of the Bush administration to the emergence of Barack Obama, who to me, when he was a candidate, represented and promised change that I had given up believing in.

And then there is now.

I am reminded of Paul's Letter to the Corinthians. In part, he wrote:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

There are many lessons here, including for our still young president who is best at speaking in the tongues of man and angels but clearly lacks the ability to move metaphoric mountains. And, I am afraid, as a result, he may be nothing.

He told us that he would be content to be a one-term president if during that one term he could accomplish great things. He also told us that he wants to be on the side of history.

Thus far, I am fearing, it my be too late.

His response to the crippled economy he inherited was to reward those who had brought it down. He appointed some who had been in the middle of the debacle, aiding and abetting it, to fix and transform it and failed to bring to justice anyone who had acted complicitously and criminally. And in the legislation he supported to provide health care to the uninsured, he capitulated passively to the very interests that have brought us the corrupt and unequal system that is currently bankrupting us.

He has ignored the real causes of our unaffordable debt, including not even commenting on the findings and recommendations of the bipartisan commissions he appointed to grapple with what to do about this impending crisis.

On the domestic front, in spite of the pledges and promises, everything seems calculated to doing only what is thought to be necessary to winning a second term.

Internationally, out of timidity and a propensity to equivocate, he compromised with his own appointees and tripled down on George Bush's ruinous war in Afghanistan and failed more recently to show leadership as the wave of history he told us he wanted to be a part of swept across the Islamic world. Who better than a Barack Hussein Obama to show support for the same kind of democratic aspirations out of which our own nation was formed? Again, everything seems over-calculated so as not to make a misstep, not to alienate independent voters.

Wait until the second term we are hearing whispered by those close to him. Then he will be unfettered and will display apolitical, bold leadership.

In the meantime, Republicans must be overjoyed. He has not triangulated, he has adopted as his own, without a fight, their agenda to offer undeserved tax breaks to the wealth and billions to the banks and health insurance companies that feed off the people who elected him. The GOP couldn't have done better with one of their own in the White House.

My father would not be happy.

Friday, March 11, 2011

March 11, 2011--Chris Christie & Peter King

Yesterday, I awarded the Lifetime Hypocrisy award to Peter King for not so subtly demonologizing all Muslim-Americans while claiming that he was concerned about only those who might become radicalized while in the past he had been a fervent supporter of his own favorite terrorists--the Irish Republican Army who killed thousands of innocents but were widely aided and abetted by many in the Irish-American community and never investigated by Congress.

Today, the Newbie Hypocrisy Award goes to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the latest darling of the Republican Party. He has eclipsed Sarah Palin as the political hottie-du-jour because of his seemingly cant-free, blunt, tell-it-like-it-is way of presenting himself and his ideas.

Like most of his fellow Republican governors, his favorite target of criticism and abuse, the ones he holds most responsible for our current budgetary and debt crises are lowly school teachers. He has made his reputation racing around his home state; then to Washington; and most recently everywhere in the media, from a cover story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine two weeks ago, to Morning Joe , to all sorts of Fox so-called news shows.

Everywhere he elicits squeals of adoration for being just the kind of real guy we need to lead us as soon as next year. This after he has been governor for 15 months. Polls show he could give Barack Obama a run for his money (ditto for The Donald Trump, if you can believe it); and Christie matter-of-factly says, yes, I could beat him.

He claims, though, that he's not running because he is not yet ready to be president, but do not be too surprised if after the current crop of GOP candidates implode (Palin's star has more than faded; Newt will not be able to overcome his own hypocrisy--trying to bring Bill Clinton down because of his philandering while Newt himself was fooling around with members of his own staff while his first or second wife lay in a hospital dying of cancer; and of course Mike Huckabee just this week torpedoed himself by comparing Obama to Kenyan Mau Maus, southern-racist-white-boy code for "scary black militant"), after the collapse of these candidates, when presented with a choice between Ron Paul (or his clone, son, Rand) and a reluctant Chis Christie, I suspect all coyness will end and Chrisie, for the sake of the party and America, will declare himself ready for prime time.

But by then, maybe even by next week, his star also will have faded since there will be more and more exposés of the sort from yesterday's New York Times which reveals the inaccuracy and hypocrisy of many of his statements about those evil public employees he proclaims are responsible for our troubles. (Article linked below.)

As I have written here, public employees, because of their often bloated benefits packages, are mighty contributors to many of our states' fiscal woes, but fact-checking shows that Christie has routinely cooked the numbers to make his points and reputation. But that reputation as a truth-telling straight shooter doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

I had a taste of this on my own a week ago. After a charasmatic session on Morning Joe , which left Joe and Mika dewy-eyed, I checked what Christie claimed about public workers in Camden, New Jersey. He beat up on them by stating, with his usual mien of certainty, that of public workers' compensation packages there fully 72 percent is for health care and retirement benefits.

This seemed astonishing to me and so I did the best Google would allow to check. It turns out that, at most, half of their pay goes for benefits. Admittedly still a lot of money, likely too much in the current economic climate, perhaps too much under any circumstances; but far from the 72 percent Christie claimed.

I thought, he either misspoke or it was extra clever of him to make a conscious lie more believable by claiming the percentage was 72 rather than the rounder 70 or 75 percent.

And now the front-page New York Times story. Again, Chrisie's exaggerations (or, if you prefer, his untruths) are relatively small ones, but they are ubiquitous and thus form a pattern of sly deceit designed to build his image and fuel his national ambition.

Note, before I share some examples of his spinning the truth, it is revealing that the usually overly-loquacious Christie refused to be interviewed for the Times piece. Never a good sign.

One of his frequent charges is that when teachers' unions fail to get concessions through collective bargaining they end run the process and appeal to the state legislature to award them the benefits they couldn't get through negotiation. This works, he claims, because the unions have contributed to the campaigns of the very people to whom they are appealing.

The truth is that on the occasions when the Legislature granted the unions new benefits, it was for pensions, which were not by law subject to collective bargaining — and it has not happened in eight years.

He contends, as well, that in school districts where teachers have agreed to givebacks, they have been able to avoid layoffs and no academic programs have been affected. The facts contradict this. The few dozen school districts where employees agreed to concessions last year still saw both layoffs and cuts in academic programs.

And he hasn't told the whole truth about his tax policy. Everywhere he goes he proudly proclaims that he made budget cuts without raising any taxes. But the facts again show otherwise. Last year he cut deeply into tax credits for the elderly and the poor. I guess they either don't count or . . . vote.

If you think this is just another of my partisan rants, tune in on Monday when i have a few things get off my chest about my president, Barack Obama.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

March 10, 2011--Congressman Peter King's First Stone

Talk about hypocrisy. In a town where it was likely invented, Washington, DC, Congressman Peter King, Republican of Long Island and chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, should try to copyright "hypocrisy" as he is revealed in a terrific piece of background reporting in yesterday's New York Times to be the embodiment of it.

(Article linked below.)

At a time when he is holding hearings about the Muslim terrorist threat to America, more than implying that there is something inherent in Islam itself that makes Islamic US citizens dangerous to our security, he has conveniently forgotten that back in the day--the 1970s and 80s--he was a fervent supporter of his own favorite terrorist organization--the Irish Republican Army.

The I.R.A., lest we forget, was responsible for decades of terrorist bombings in London and elsewhere throughout Ireland and the British Isles that resulted in the murder and maiming of thousands of innocent non-combatants.

No matter how justified the Irish freedom fighters' cause (if we consider them that) they used terror tactics to advance their agenda. And Peter King did all sorts of things to aid and abet them.

In 1982, when he was a Nassau County elected official, he told a pro-I.R.A. rally, “We must pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry." Three years later he rationalized, “If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the I.R.A. for it.”

And, if the then congressman who headed the equivalent of the Homeland Security Committee decided to hold hearings in which all Irish-American citizens were considered suspect until proven innocent, who else but King would have been screaming the loudest that such hearings are unfair to the vast majority of peace-loving, patriotic Irish-Americans.

The Times quotes him today as saying that there is no valid comparison between supporting the I.R.A. and Muslim terrorists-- “I understand why people who are misinformed might see a parallel. The fact is, the I.R.A. never attacked the United States. And my loyalty is to the United States.”

I get it-- killing of the innocents only counts if the victims are Americans. As I said, he gets the lifetime award for hypocrisy.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

March 9, 2011--Duh, Winning

I have been restraining myself from weighing in about Charlie Sheen, thinking I am above such things. What with the looming debt crisis, the threats to shut down the government, and of course Libya, I have been too busy paying attention to loftier matters.

Or at least that's what I've been pretending. Actually, in addition to going off the wagon and renewing my addiction to American Idol (and looking forward to the resumption of Dancing With the Stars on the 21st), I have been riveted to my TV and computer screen where I have been ingesting as much Charlie Sheen as I can. But now that the New York Times is covering him more and more extensively, I feel permitted to come out of the popular culture closet.

My decision was made easier by a quote from Charlie in the Times on the day he was fired by Warner Brothers, the owners of his hot show, Two and a Half Men. Up to then, he had only been suspended for the rest of this current season. (See linked article.)

When he learned of the news of his firing, Charlie released a statement to TMZ (the gossip show I also occasionally check out): “This is very good news. They continue to be in breach, like so many whales. It is a day of big gladness at the Sober Valley Lodge [his house] because now I can take all of their bazillions, never have to look at whatshiscock again and I never have to put on those silly shirts for as long as this warlock exists in this terrestrial dimension.”

How can you not love the guy?

He's as popular now as he has been on his show. Charlie set up a Twitter site this week and almost instantly 2.0 million linked to it. He got to the 2.0 million faster, according to Guinness World Records, than anyone or anything ever. Faster than either Kim Kardashian or Jersey Shore's Snooki.

Yes, there is that schadenfreudean aspect to Sheen's circumstances--the guilty pleasure of watching someone so high (this is not a drug pun) come crashing down. But he to me doesn't feel as if he is toppling from his pedestal of success. He is crazily even more successful than when he was rolling merrily along through the recent season of Two and a Half. I barely knew who he was, yet here I am unable to stop watching him. I even tuned into his Podcast over the weekend where he set himself up in a homemade studio and, surrounded by his posse and assorted pornstars, rattled on joyfully for hours and hours. Hey, CBS and Warner Brothers are sort of like whales.

The more I think about him, the phenomenon of him, and I am trying to think about him/it as well as taking prurient pleasure, the more he seems the perfect emblem or, if you will, metaphor for our complicated times. He represents, is a living example of having success and riches beyond imagining from, what, a sort of silly, smutty TV sitcom, which he basically walks though.

CBS will lose at least $250 million this year and next as a result of canceling the show and untold millions more from having fewer episodes to sell in syndication--it's that big a deal. And Charlie will lose about $2.0 million an episode. That's what he gets paid for mugging for 22 minutes a week on the half-hour show.

It's obscene that teachers in Wisconsin on average about $45,000 a year and are in danger of having their salaries as well as their benefits cut while Charlie Sheen pockets many millions a month.

So when he looks directly into the camera and points to himself while saying directly and knowingly to America, "Duh, winning," he's perversely got it right. This is what to too many winning looks like.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

March 8, 2011--Mothercare

Though my mother, now early 103, is not seriously ill, yesterday she called to say she wasn't feeling well and we raced over to be with her. She appears to be doing better, but it reminded me of something I wrote and posted here a couple of years ago; and since I missed my writing time yesterday, here it is again--

Though you hope that when your time comes you will be ready, there is in fact nothing that can prepare you for when your mother has a life-threatening condition. As mine did again three weeks ago.

A small stroke early in the winter had brought us to Florida in the first instance, and then there was that remarkable recovery and our promise to spend more time with her during her last days that contributed to transforming us from visitors into Snowbirds. Fortunately, up to now, those final days have stretched to weeks and months and years.

For most of us, our experience with our mothers and sickness is from when we were ill and she was selflessly there and, you thought, would be, eternally, to care for and protect you from threat and danger. So my first sight of her recently in the emergency room and then a day later in the Intensive Care Unit to which she had been transferred shook me at the core of my being.

There were four phone messages from my brother when we returned from breakfast at the Green Owl. This is never a good sign. We of course feared the worst. The last time there had been so many voicemails in such a short period of time was three years ago when my cousin Chuck died suddenly while exercising in the gym. We are not a family that does that much telephoning or leaves urgent messages unless . . .

In actuarial terms, my mother, just a few months short of 100, is the last survivor from her generation and is thus, by every expectation, euphemistically, next in line. Though Chuck’s premature passing disrupted that protective sense of security and unleashed shock waves of anxiety among all the grieving and surviving cousins.

It was thus with fear for some version of the worst that I returned my brother’s call.

He is a cardiologist in South Miami and, though he is used to medical crises, I could tell from his voice that he was calling as a brother and not a physician. “What is it?” I managed to ask. “Something bad I assume.”

“I just got a call from the paramedics. They have mom and are taking her to the Florida Medical Center.”

“Is she . . . ?”

“Yes.” He knew what I was asking. “But I don’t know her condition. From what they told me I think she had a heart attack or a stroke. But she’s conscious. Which is good, but at her age . . .”

I knew enough about medical emergencies for someone of her age not to need to have my brother complete the sentence.

“We’re on our way there right now. They’ll take her to the ER.”

“We’re on our way too,” I said, “We’ll see you in about half an hour.”

I didn’t need driving directions. I knew how to get there. My father had died in the same hospital more than ten years ago. And I thought, Isn’t it a good thing we’re here snowbirding in Florida. Next I thought, I hope I see her before . . . And, even more personally, What will I do now if . . . ? This latter thought was the first fearful inkling I allowed myself to feel of what ultimately, if after Chuck we returned to “proceeding” in order, what my life would be like if . . .

* * *

We arrived at the entrance to the ER just as the ambulance that had brought her to the hospital was about to pull away. I peered into the faces of the paramedics to search for any hints that would yield about the status of her condition. I was neither calmed nor made more anxious by their noncommittal look. They had obviously seen worse. And, I tremblingly imagined, better. They were busy changing the sheets on the gurney, readying themselves for the call that would summon them to their next run; and by professionally ignoring me they signaled that it was not their responsibility, or in my best interest, for them to share or for me to receive medical information from them. It was probably that bad.

They had completed their job—they delivered her there alive (how alive is what I was desperate to know) and in one piece. Still I leaned beseechingly in their direction. But before I could approach them, knowing they would have little to offer beyond what my brother had reported, still eager for any shred of news, their radio crackled and, as if liberated from me, they jumped into the front seats, pulled the doors shut, and raced off. For them it was another day at the office. For me . . .

And then the first of the waitings began. First for Rona and me to be admitted to the ER itself. They had a strict policy that only two family members at a time are allowed to visit with patients. Since we were told to take seats among the parents with small children, most of whom appeared to have the flu, we knew that my brother and sister-in-law had already arrived and were with my mother. And since he was the doctor in the family, this was good news. It would assure that my mother would be the beneficiary of whatever professional courtesy was offered in even a rough-and-tumble ER. And, truth be told, I still needed more time, after the wild drive down the Turnpike, to collect my thoughts and prepare a face to present to my mother that would communicate concern and love and strength she could depend upon while masking the anxiety and fear I was feeling.

My brother came out through a side door and said that it would be all right for us to bypass the rules—things were quiet in the ER and we wouldn’t be in the way of the staff (the first of the small but welcome courtesies)—and could therefore come in to see Mom. Though they still hadn’t run all the tests that they would during the next endless-feeling hours, he reported, to our great relief, that she was indeed conscious and, by his assessment, because of the symptoms he had observed—a slight slurring of speech--had more than likely had a small stroke. Again saying, “But at her age, no stroke, if it turns out to be that, is ‘small.’” And added, “So don’t dawdle.” With his trained and experienced eye he had undoubtedly noticed I was lagging behind Alice. “She’ll be comforted to see you.”

I took that as my mantra during the next weeks. Lacking any medical expertise, I came to learn that what comfort I might be able to bring as she moved from ER to the ICU to a regular hospital room to rehab, as she worked her way up the chain of care and restoration, could also be restorative. And so I did my best to do so—to bring comfort. And came to feel, which she confirmed in many subtle and direct ways, that this kind of involvement is an essential complement to all the testing, medications, and other treatments others were well trained to administer.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, though I do so intentionally in order to remove any false drama from this account. I want you to know that my mother is well, back home, living independently, and has no lingering effects of what in fact turned out to be a “small” stroke. So much so that she is right now taking an active lead in planning the ways in which she wants, in late, June to celebrate her centenary.

Having said this, trying to offer comfort to a mother who for some weeks was dangerously ill was not as benign for me as I had imagined it would be when my brother in effect said—You will bring her comfort.

One of the frequent side effects of a stroke is depression. Not just for the obvious reason that one had just had a potentially life-threatening physiological event (doctors I learned called these things that—“events”), and who after that wouldn’t feel depressed; but there is clinical evidence that the post-stroke depression also can be just as physiological as the stroke itself.

Thus the first kind of comforting I was able to bring involved trying to help raise my mother from her depression while she was still in the ICU in the hope that she would agree to eat something. Anything. This was extremely important, I was told, since the IV feeding was insufficient to help maintain her weight, which would be subsequently important if, in the felicitous words of one of the nurses, “She makes it [i.e., lives long enough] to rehab.”

It is never easy to convince or cajole anyone that hospital food is anything but abysmal and even unhealthy, and that they must view it as essential to their recovery as their almost equally unpleasant medications. It is a wonder that even a happy and optimistic patient—one, for example, who has just had a rejuvenating facelift—could mobilize any interest in overcooked vegetables or pot roast that is indistinguishable from those limp greens. Thus, to get someone in the ICU who has just had a stroke to think about eating that tasteless mush, even a forkful or two of it, is a challenge. It’s doubly difficult to feel motivated about eating when the screen that endlessly displays vital signs is constantly and alarmingly flashing and beeping and buzzing. Especially when on occasion the power surges and they go terrifyingly flat line. And it is additionally difficult to think about eating if that stroke, as it did with my mother, results in even a small deficit in manual dexterity. Her continuously quivering right hand was clear evidence of that.

Thus, you have a picture of my mother two days after the onset of her stroke. The ICU nurses reported that she hadn’t eaten a thing. Not even the Ensure supplement, which was prescribed to make up for any nutritional gaps in her “intake”--another infelicitous piece of hospital jargon.

Wanting to avoid the Ensure I understood. During one of my own hospitalizations, where the food was even worse that what the Florida Medical Center served up, they had tried to get me to down some. I made a valiant effort, but choked on the chalky taste that managed to penetrate the chocolate flavor that was meant to mask it. So I didn’t even try to get my mother to drink any, I knew better than that, concentrating instead of what looked like it might have once been chicken that was lying, untouched, on her tray that second evening when we visited.

Trying to be upbeat and chipper in spite of her unaccustomed immobility and the look on her face that could not hide the fact that she realized the trouble she was still very much in—it is difficult in an ICU to distract yourself from feeling dangerously—in the face of how I found my mother, and not being very good myself at pretending that all was well when I knew it wasn’t, still I tried, in the spirit of knowing that my assignment in this was to bring comfort, I said, “You’re looking better than you did this morning.”

Nothing came back to me from my mother so I chirped on, “But I see that you didn’t touch any of your food.” To this she grunted and, with eyes closed as if to put the tepid food out of sight, she agitatedly shook her head from side to side. I was glad to see she had the feisty capacity to do that. I took it as a sign that she was in fact doing better than during our morning visit when moving her head or just smiling seemed beyond her abilities.

“Did you try any? The nurse told me it’s very important to eat. I know the food’s not good, but . . .”

“Salty,” my mother grumbled and resumed shaking her head from side to side. I knew she hated salty food.

I looked over at the tray and saw that the chicken, as it cooled, appeared to be growing a crust. But still I said, “I know it’s salty,” almost adding and drying out, “but you need to try to eat. You won’t get better if you don’t.” To this, with great effort, she raised her left hand and, letting it tremble, drew attention to the fact that an IV line was inserted in the crook of that arm; and, by looking up at the plastic bag that was connected to the line, showed me in that way that she was getting nutrition.

“Yes,” I said, “you do get some benefit from that but not enough. You still need to eat. Food.” She continued rolling her head back and forth. I was beginning to worry that by doing this she might bring about another stroke. This couldn’t be good for the blood flow to the back of her brain where the clot had formed. So, to try to stop her and to get some real food into her, I said, “How about if I help you.” Immediately she lay still.

“What if I cut the food into little pieces and feed you?” She made a humming sound which I took to be assent.

Taking advantage of that, before she could change her mind and resume her head shaking, I rolled closer to her bed the adjustable table on which the tray had been placed and cranked it up so it would fit comfortably over her. I then raised the top of the bed so that she was more or less in a sitting position. Rona adjusted her pillows to make her more comfortable. And while she was doing that, I cut the now room-temperature chicken into tiny pieces. Below the plastic line that brought oxygen to her nostrils, my mother appeared to be smiling.

“Here are some mashed potatoes. I know you like them.” (But you won’t like these, I thought.) “Now open wide.” I brought the fork with a small amount of the potatoes to her mouth while cupping my other hand under her chin to catch whatever might drop off.

“That’s good,” I said encouragingly as she strained to lift her head from the pillow and, as I had instructed, opened her mouth.

“That’s good,” I said as she sucked in some of the potatoes while the rest fell into my waiting hand. “That’s a good girl.”

A good what? Had I said girl? To my mother? I called her a girl?

Indeed I had. And, I realized, I had been talking to her as if she were not only a girl but a little one.

As I heard myself—especially my deliberate cadence and tone—from some deep almost prehensile part of myself--I recognized the echo of these words and this intonation as the very ones my mother had employed with me many decades ago when I was her little boy, sick at home with the chicken pox or measles, as she, in the ICU, had become my little girl.

* * *

But even with my mother there, connected to a forest of life-sustaining IV tubes and monitor lines, with the diagnosis still uncertain, with her not as yet out of danger, and with her rapidly approaching 100th birthday, still, in spite of all these signs of frailty and the evidence of her impending mortality, I continued to need to believe that she was capable of rising from that bed and unhooking herself so she could be available to take care of me if I needed her. As she had been through the decades when I had the croup or my tonsils needed to be removed or when I came home bloodied from the schoolyard or, much later, when I faced intestinal surgery. Because, though our roles have to some extent been reversed as a consequence of aging and illness, I still need my mother to be my mommy.

Monday, March 07, 2011

March 7, 2011--The Tire Iron & the Tamale

By Justin Horner from Sunday's New York Times:

During this past year I’ve had three instances of car trouble: a blowout on a freeway, a bunch of blown fuses and an out-of-gas situation. They all happened while I was driving other people’s cars, which for some reason makes it worse on an emotional level. And on a practical level as well, what with the fact that I carry things like a jack and extra fuses in my own car, and know enough not to park on a steep incline with less than a gallon of fuel.

Each time, when these things happened, I was disgusted with the way people didn’t bother to help. I was stuck on the side of the freeway hoping my friend’s roadside service would show, just watching tow trucks cruise past me. The people at the gas stations where I asked for a gas can told me that they couldn’t lend them out “for safety reasons,” but that I could buy a really crappy one-gallon can, with no cap, for $15. It was enough to make me say stuff like “this country is going to hell in a handbasket,” which I actually said.

But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke any English.

One of those guys stopped to help me with the blowout even though he had his whole family of four in tow. I was on the side of the road for close to three hours with my friend’s big Jeep. I put signs in the windows, big signs that said, “NEED A JACK,” and offered money. Nothing. Right as I was about to give up and start hitching, a van pulled over, and the guy bounded out.

He sized up the situation and called for his daughter, who spoke English. He conveyed through her that he had a jack but that it was too small for the Jeep, so we would need to brace it. Then he got a saw from the van and cut a section out of a big log on the side of the road. We rolled it over, put his jack on top and we were in business.

I started taking the wheel off, and then, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones, and I wasn’t careful, and I snapped the head clean off. Damn.

No worries: he ran to the van and handed it to his wife, and she was gone in a flash down the road to buy a new tire iron. She was back in 15 minutes. We finished the job with a little sweat and cussing (the log started to give), and I was a very happy man.

The two of us were filthy and sweaty. His wife produced a large water jug for us to wash our hands in. I tried to put a 20 in the man’s hand, but he wouldn’t take it, so instead I went up to the van and gave it to his wife as quietly as I could. I thanked them up one side and down the other. I asked the little girl where they lived, thinking maybe I’d send them a gift for being so awesome. She said they lived in Mexico. They were in Oregon so Mommy and Daddy could pick cherries for the next few weeks. Then they were going to pick peaches, then go back home.

After I said my goodbyes and started walking back to the Jeep, the girl called out and asked if I’d had lunch. When I told her no, she ran up and handed me a tamale.

This family, undoubtedly poorer than just about everyone else on that stretch of highway, working on a seasonal basis where time is money, took a couple of hours out of their day to help a strange guy on the side of the road while people in tow trucks were just passing him by.

But we weren’t done yet. I thanked them again and walked back to my car and opened the foil on the tamale (I was starving by this point), and what did I find inside? My $20 bill! I whirled around and ran to the van and the guy rolled down his window. He saw the $20 in my hand and just started shaking his head no. All I could think to say was, “Por favor, por favor, por favor,” with my hands out. The guy just smiled and, with what looked like great concentration, said in English: “Today you, tomorrow me.”

Then he rolled up his window and drove away, with his daughter waving to me from the back. I sat in my car eating the best tamale I’ve ever had, and I just started to cry. It had been a rough year; nothing seemed to break my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn’t handle it.

In the several months since then I’ve changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and once drove 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won’t accept money. But every time I’m able to help, I feel as if I’m putting something in the bank.

Justin Horner is a graphic designer living in Portland, Ore. This essay was adapted from a message-board posting on