Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August 31, 2011--En Route

We're heading back to Maine and I will return here tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

August 30, 2011--Now For Some Good News

Yesterday was check-in day at NYU's dorms. When we went out for coffee, dozens of SUVs from all over the Northeast were pulling up at the Brittany dorm on 10th Street to unload boxes and boxes of electronic gear and duffle bags full of big-city clothes. You could feel the excitement and tension.

For some it would be the bittersweet first time a child was going off to college; for others, there was happiness in knowing the long summer of doing very little was ending (jobs were almost nonexistent) and things would return to their empty-nest routines. For the students, they clearly couldn't wait to reconnect with friends and roommates and regain their independence.

Each year at this time, by walking around, we do a little unofficial and decidedly unscientific demographic surveying of who is enrolling.

Over time it is remarkable how Asian the NYU student body has become. A decade ago perhaps 10 percent were Asian; by now it looks as if at least a quarter are. The city's, NYU's, the country's population continues to churn as newer ethnic groups seeking to move into and up in our still very open society. As many here say, "Aren't we fortunate to have wave after wave of new Americans claiming their piece of the action and making their contributions to the betterment of us all."

And then of course, we hear other voices. Angrier one. Those who claim it is past due for us to limit immigration, close our borders, and round up and deport everyone who has been here illegally. This is all very complicated. We have heard these nativist cries before (loudest as now when times are hard), and there are no easy or entirely just solutions; but we eventually calm down and move on, absorbing those who struggle to do well here and over time manage to do so.

We need the energy, the drive and ambition, the creativity that are mainly to be found within these aspiring communities. NYU and New York City--all of America--are fortunate that some of the world's best people still want to come here. They continue to see America as the best place to be free while most of us welcome those who arrive motivated to work hard, especially so that their children have a good chance to succeed.

So I was further heartened to read in the New York Times the latest data about the dramatic increase in the number of Hispanics enrolling in college. (Article linked below.)

The Pew Hispanic Center reported that between 2009 and 2010 enrollments among Hispanics 18 to 24 rose by an astonishing 24 percent.

Part of this is the result of the growth in the population of Latinos, but only a small part. The number of young Hispanics during the same period rose by 7 percent, so the 24 percent gain is noteworthy, particularly because the percentage of Hispanics attending college has lagged significantly behind other groups.

Their enrollment is still lagging. But the gap is narrowing. Thirty-eight percent of college-age blacks attend college, 43 percent of whites, and 62 percent of Asians (our sidewalk data gathering again), while only 32 percent of Hispanics were enrolled as of 2010. So Hispanics (and African Americans) continue to be underrepresented. But Latinos at least are beginning to make the same kind of progress we have seen among other ethnic groups.

Rather than burying news of the report, as the Times did, at the bottom of an inner page, it would have been better to feature it on the front page. We need to get this kind of news into wider circulation as one way to dampen the still-uninformed xenophobia that infects too many Americans. It is time we begin again to acknowledge our immigrant heritage and become more welcoming of others. They want to be here and we need them. We also need to continue to do better for those whose dreams for their children are still far from being realized.

Monday, August 29, 2011

August 29, 2011--Welcome to New York

It took more than seven hours to drive from our house in Maine to the northern border of New York City. At least an hour longer than usual. Clearly many others were bugging out from vulnerable places to find somewhere to ride out the hurricane. Brick- and granite-built New York, we knew, would see us through.

We hit Riverdale in the upper Bronx at about 4:30 p.m. and Rona's GPS said we had "only" eight miles to go. We began to talk about an early dinner. We hadn't eaten anything on the road and I had a developing yen for sushi and so in my mind I began to make plans to head for Sharaku, our favorite local Japanese restaurant.

But those eight miles, after the initial 320, took more than another hour-and-a-half and by the time we got to 14th Street I had lost my appetite for both sushi and the City.

"Who are these people coming into the city?" Rona wondered out loud, "They all seem to have New Jersey license plates."

"Maybe they're going to Broadway for dinner and a show. You know the show must go on."

"But shouldn't they be headed to Jersey to protect themselves from the predicted storm surges and power outages?"

"Maybe they have summer places there and register their cars in Jersey but really live in New York. Like us."

"But we still have New York plates," Rona persisted.

Wanting to change the subject--traffic is to be endured, not discussed; that only makes it worse--I looked around at who was in the street. Mainly young people, tens of thousands of them it seemed after three laid-back months in sparsely populated Maine, mostly in their 20s, and from the nonchalant way they were strolling, jogging, and biking one would image that is was just another lazy summer Friday.

Ah, I thought ruefully, to again be that young, that casual and unaware. They weren't, I was certain, worrying about losing power and getting stuck in elevators or if there was enough emergency food in the house. I was even thinking we should fill our bathtubs with water so we could flush our toilets if the worst happened. Such are the concerns of those in late middle-age.

"Look at that," Rona said, all excited. She was pointing at something on her side of the car.

I was busy dodging taxis which were rampaging around in a big city variation of bumper cars. One passed us on the right by jumping the curb and half riding on the sidewalk. It came to a brief stop at Hudson Street and then, against the light, barged though the gridlocked traffic snaking its way toward the Holland Tunnel. A policeman at the intersection sitting in his car drinking coffee was oblivious to the situation.

Immediately transformed back into a cynical New Yorker, I thought he probably was counting the days until he was eligible to collect his pension and thus couldn't care less.

I muttered under my breath, "It's crazy here. Crazy. One step from full anarchy." The youngsters filling the streets seemed unaware of anything but their mindless texting and wandered as if sightless along the teeming sidewalks, ignoring the tangle of trucks and cars.

"It's a miracle they don't get killed," I muttered. "No one pays any attention anymore to traffic lights much less crosses at street corners."

"Can you see that?" Rona asked again as we ground to a complete stop. "Over there. At the top of that building." I strained to see what she was pointing to. "That sign. For Kenneth Cole. You know, who designs shoes and handbags. He is so clever."

"Yes. We see them in his shop in Soho."

"Often they have a political edge. This one, though, is his best. Here, lean on me so you can see it."

By almost laying my head almost in Rona's lap I could read the billboard atop a nearby 15-story building. It read:

Gay People Getting Married?

The next thing you know they'll want to vote and pay taxes.

"That's great!" I exclaimed, happy to have something other than street chaos to focus on. "It reminds me that though I hate it here, I have to admit I still love New York."

Rona smiled and started humming New York, New York. She then broke into the chorus, "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere."

Joining her I thought, I'll settle for making it to our apartment in one piece.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

August 25-26, 2011--Days Off

Assuming Hurricane Irene allows, I will return on Monday.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

August 24, 2011--Legacy

Barack Obama's legacy will not be just the fact that he is our first minority president or that he was able to get Congress to pass the Affordable Care Act.

Significant as is the fact of his race, no matter that the health care bill is deeply flawed at its heart--the individual mandate--and is likely to be found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, or that footnotes will be affixed to his record for ending don't-ask-don't-tell and even for "taking out" Osama bin Laden, viewed from the deep time of history, many decades from now, he and his presidency will be linked to the Arab spring and summer of 2011.

What began in Tunisia, spread to Egypt and Libya and will ultimately culminate in Syria and perhaps Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and even Iran is the fact that this inexorable, tectonic force of cultural and political change occurred on his watch and was catalyzed by his presidency and more than that by his words and his very being.

In his stunning speech to the Islamic world in Cairo in June 2009, five months into his presidency, among other important issues such as the gap in understanding between the U.S. and the Muslim world and his defense of Israel's and the Palestinians' right to a national home, he reached across the centuries of distrust and boldly proclaimed all people's rights to self determination.

Tackling the thorny issue of democracy in a region with deep-rooted despotic traditions, Obama said, "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone."

But he added: "I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose."

And he reminded his global audience of 1.5 billion Muslims, "Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere."

He also reminded them who he is. He said:

I am a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith.

For this, indeed for everything he said, back home among those who despise him, he was excoriated for talking down America, "apologizing" for some of our own past behavior rather than trumpeting American exceptionalism.

He took that domestic political assault but was heard in very different ways by those who have since taken to the streets to topple their autocratic leaders.

There is certainly no direct correlation between Obama's words and their deeds. But it would be to miss the power of words and personal example to ignore the force of both what he said and the heritage of who was delivering the messages.

Of course we do not know the ultimate disposition of these revolutionary changes. Middle Eastern versions of democracy may evolve but, also likely, the Muslim Brotherhood may wind up in control of Egypt and Libya may devolve into three distinct and uncompromising tribal regions.

Those alive 50 years from now, looking back to these turbulent days with that perspective of years, may refer to the reconfiguration of the region as the "former Iraq" and the "former Saudi Arabia," just as we refer to Serbia and Croatia as having been part of the "former Yugoslavia."

But come what may, there will be no denying that in that distant future everyone will be living in a world being radically transformed right now. One, I suspect, more defined by cultural than colonial borders. And, I equally suspect, that through the historical lens Obama's role in this transformation will be fully acknowledged.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

August 23, 2011--Class Warfare: Corporate Welfare

While most Americans are struggling to stay above water and are required to pay their fair share of taxes, many of our largest corporations manage to make enormous profits while paying little or nothing in federal income taxes. In fact, in the case of Exxon and others, because of loopholes and tax subsidies, they literally pay less than nothing.

Here is Exxon at the top of a list of ten corporate examples that should infuriate us:

1) Exxon Mobil made $19 billion in profits in 2009. Exxon not only paid no federal income taxes, according to its SEC filings, it actually received a $156 million rebate from the IRS.

2) Bank of America received a $1.9 billion tax rebate from the IRS last year, although it made $4.4 billion in profits and received a bailout from the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department of nearly $1 trillion.

3) Over the past five years, while General Electric made $26 billion in profits in the United States, it received a $4.1 billion rebate from the IRS.

4) Chevron received a $19 million rebate from the IRS last year after it made $10 billion in profits in 2009.

5) Boeing, which received a $30 billion contract from the Pentagon to build 179 airborne tankers, got a $124 million refate last year.

6) Valero Energy, the 25th largest company in America with $68 billion in sales last year received a $157 million tax rebate check from the IRS and, over the past three years, it received a $134 million tax break from the oil and gas manufacturing tax deduction.

7) Goldman Sachs in 2008 only paid 1.1 percent of its income in taxes even though it earned a profit of $2.3 billion and received an almost $800 billion from the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury Department.

8) Citigroup last year made more than $4 billion in profits but paid no federal income taxes. It received a $320 billion bailout from the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury.

9) ConocoPhillips, the fifth largest oil company in the United States, made $16 billion in profits from 2007 through 2009, but received $451 million in tax breaks through the oil and gas manufacturing deduction.

10) Over the past five years, Carnival Cruise Lines made more than $11 billion in profits, but its federal income tax rate during those years was the same os Goldman's-- just 1.1 percent.

As a point of comparison, what percentage of your income did you pay in taxes last year?

Monday, August 22, 2011

August 22, 2011--Elton's Gig

It has taken me a while, but I have finally been able to locate one job a billionaire created as the result of tax policies and loopholes that assure he pays a smaller percentage of his income in taxes than his secretary. This is justified, it is claimed, because the ultra-rich are "job creators." With their extra untaxed money they invest in new businesses that employ more people.

To test this hypothesis, let's take multi-billionaire Leon Black as an example.

In 1990 he founded Apollo Global Management LLC, a private equity investment firm. It specializes in leveraged buyout transactions and purchases of distressed securities, especially those that involve corporate restructuring and industry consolidations--i.e., firing people to make companies more profitable. As of today, Apollo manages over $72 billion of investor money in its private equity funds and other financial vehicles making it one of the largest private equity firms in the world. Among the most notable companies owned by Apollo are AMC Entertainment, Claire's, Caesars Entertainment Corporation, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Coldwell Banker and Century 21 Real Estate.

So Mr. Black has a lot of money and thus you can only imagine how he spent his recent 60th birthday. In case you can't . . .

He threw himself quite a bash. Three million dollars' worth at his oceanfront estate in Southampton, Long Island.

In attendance were his former Drexel Burnham Lambert boss, the convicted felon Michael Milken; hedge fund mogul Julian Robertson; Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, who contributed to bringing down the economy; New York Mayor Mike Blumberg, whose net worth is at least $19 billion; and, why-was-he-there, Chuck Schumer, who is the senator most devoted to making sure hedge fund operators continue to be taxed at the low capital gains rate.

Perhaps they were there to rub elbows with Howard Stern and another convicted felon and Leon Black's Hampton's neighbor, Martha Stewart.

As a way to protect his own cred among his proudly-déclassé listeners, Stern the day, after the party, said:

"Leon throws some good parties because Leon's worth like twenty gazillion, like twenty billion or something crazy; and for him, you know, a billion for him is like ten dollars to us."

Not exactly "us," Howard. For you maybe, who SiriusXM Radio pays $80 million a year to interview porn stars. In your world a few hundred million may be chump change. For the rest of us a gazillion is real money.

In any case, what do you get when you spend $3.0 million on a party for yourself?

A full moon, the New York Times reported (see link). Though I thought a full moon doesn't require hiring a caterer. On the other hand, for cash you can transform your backyard into a nightclub, as Leon did by having a stage built over his swimming pool. And you can serve an endless buffet of crab cakes and steak while your guests get to sit on rented puffy couches and pillows.

And you can put on some spiffy entertainment.

In Leon's case, Elton John.

For a million, a million-and-a-half, his usual fee for such gigs, Sir. Elton belted out "Your Song," "Benny and the Jets," and of course, "Candle in the Wind." Just like at you-know-who's funeral.

All this because buyout-artist Black only has to pay 15 percent in taxes.

As Howard Stern said, "Oh, I wish I was Leon Black's child."

Actually, Howard, you are.

Friday, August 19, 2011

August 19, 2011--David's Question

David is friend of at least 40 years standing and for most of that time has managed his family's money. There is quite a lot of it and so he has been busy and taken his responsibility seriously.

Since 1990, when he retired early from AT&T, he has spent nearly full time studying markets, financial instruments, and the vagaries of economic theory and history to better enable him to do due diligence for his close relatives. He is very smart and thorough and thus he and they have done quite well.

He is a devoted student and advocate of prudent and diversified investing. His formula for the deployment of his family's assets conforms to the classic buy-and-hold approach--do not be tempted to trade excessively, especially do not panic as the result of day-to-day, even year-to-year fluctuations in the various financial, commodities, bond, and real estate markets. Make strategic decisions and stick to them. Edit investments, for sure, but never do anything emotional or rash. Hold true to the plan. Let others do the panicking. History tells us, he always says, that things behave cyclically; but over time they return to long-standing patterns and formulas.

He was in Maine for a few days and so midday yesterday we met for coffee. The Dow was down at that point by about 400 points, a nearly 4.0 percent decline. I was concerned and so looked across the table to him; but before I could say anything, as if reading my mind, he asked, "Do you have any idea what's going on?" I knew he was talking about the financial markets.

"That's what I was about to ask you! Since knowing you, every time there have been gyrations in the market I asked you that question and you always had a calming answer. And so . . ."

"And so indeed." He had for him a wild look in his eyes. As if talking to himself, he said, "For months I have had no idea what is going on. I understood the collapse of the real-estate-derived bubble; but germane to your question--to my own question--I have no idea why recently we should be seeing such wild swings. First the major averages doubled since their low point in late 2008, early 2009. The Dow, for example, regained a substantial part of what had been lost. It nearly doubled. But from that point on, we have seen what we are now seeing."

"It's very disturbing," I confessed, "to hear you of all people talking this way. Why you . . ."

"I agree. I can't believe I'm saying these things. My belief in market fundamentals, my knowledge of economic history has stood me in good stead over the decades when we experienced various booms and busts. The most recent the dot-com collapse of the stock market. But I cannot say that anything I know or have learned provides any comfort or understanding of the current situation."

"But wouldn't you in the past have seen what we're enduring as cyclical? More like the dot-com situation?"

"Yes, but this seems very different. It feels more like a fundamental restructuring of the global economy in ways, and in directions, that I cannot understand or predict."

"What about what economists have to say? Are any of them making sense to you?"

"Not really. People I have been following for years, who have good track records and have influenced me are equally befuddled and are sending contradictory messages. If they were honest, they would say what I just said--that they have no idea what's going on."

It was past 2:00 p.m. and he had to leave for New York in order to avoid having to do too much driving after sundown.

We paid the check and got up to leave. He then did something he had never done before--he turned me to face him and reached out to hug me. As he did, he said, "Try to hang in there. Maybe something good will come of this. This has been true in the past."

I was surprised by his emotion. He has always prided himself for being cool and calm in a crisis. "But this time," he said wearily as he turned to go, "I'm no so sure."

And with that he was gone.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

August 18, 2011--Ladies of Forest Trace: Your Next President

I was about to settle down for lunch on Saturday when my 103-year-old mother called.

“Did you hear your new president?”

My heart stopped for a moment, thinking she was referring to Vice President Biden and that something terrible had happened to Barack Obama. But she did not seem upset. Quite the contrary.

She must, I then thought, be referring to a speech that Obama was scheduled to deliver at the launch of his bus tour of Iowa and other parts of the Midwest. He had been having a rough month, agreeing to a debt-ceiling compromise that many of his base supporters were roundly criticizing and he was hitting the road in an attempt to fight back. Maybe he had given a barnburner of a speech and she was calling to tell me about how he had earlier in the day renewed his presidency. That Obama was, in a sense, like a new president.

“No, mom, I didn’t hear Obama’s speech. It must have been a terrific one to get you so excited.”

“I’m not talking about him.”

“I’m confused. Didn’t you say ‘your new president’?”

“You may be getting hard of hearing, but, yes, that’s what I said.”

“I’m still confused. Who are you referring to? I mean, who’s our new president?”

“Are you too busy up there in the woods to watch CNN? You do have TV, don’t you?”

“You know I do. But I don’t watch it as much as you. To tell you the truth, when we’re here I like not watching it. It’s too upsetting.”

“Well, you should have been watching an hour ago. He gave a remarkable speech.”

“Again, who?” I was getting frustrated.

“In South Carolina.”

“This is not helping. I’m still not following you.”

“I’m talking about Governor Ferry. His speech.”

“Oh, you mean Governor Perry of Texas. He announced his candidacy today.”

“Yes, him. Ferry, Perry, what’s the difference. He’s still the same person. You know how old I am,” indeed I do, “and I sometimes get confused. But I’m not confused about the speech. His. If he makes any more like that one, I’m afraid he’ll be your new president.”

“Our new president?” I corrected her.

“Yours, ours, again it makes no difference. But in November watch out.”

“You mean a year from November.”

“That too. For me the sooner the better.”

“You mean for Perry to be elected? I thought you were a big Obama supporter. Didn’t you tell me three years ago how you were working for him at Forest Trace?” The retirement community in Florida where she lives. “That though your friends, the ladies, were originally all for Hillary you persuaded many of them to vote for him?”

“That was then and this is now.”

“I know you’ve been disappointed with Obama about many things. Like the rest of us who held such high hopes for him. How he isn’t a strong enough fighter for things we thought he believed in.”

“True, but I didn’t call to talk about him today. I saw Ferry’s speech and it excited me and . . . “

“That’s not a surprise. He a very good speech . . .”

“Again you’re interrupting me. Please let me finish my thought. Then you can interrupt me.”

“Sorry.” I admitted that I do have a tendency to do that.

“He’s an excellent speaker, that governor. Like those preachers on TV. Those tele-avengers.”

I couldn’t restrain myself from correcting her again. “You mean televangelists.”

“Those too. The ones who always seem to get caught fooling around in the men’s room.”

“I don’t know about Perry.”

“As my mother always said, ‘Give it time and we’ll see.’ Of course in Yiddish it’s better.”

“I’m not following you. When you called you seemed excited that he would become our—I mean, my new president. No?”

“Yes, no.” I held off asking what she had meant, or what this yes-no business was about. “I am not saying that I’m excited about his becoming the next president just that I think he will.”

“Now I believe I’m following you. You were more agitated than excited. I misunderstood you. I too am feeling that . . .”

It was her term to interrupt, “So what else is new? To misunderstand me.”

“Please, mom, we were about to go into town to shop for dinner so can you . . .”

“Rushing, rushing. Always you’re rushing off the phone. In New York I can understand that. Where no one can sit still and has ants in their pants. But don’t you go to wherever you are to slow down?”

“To Maine, mom. Stop pretending to be confused. You’re less confused that people half your age. And that includes me.” All true.

“Getting back to the subject at hand.”


“The new Bush.”

“The what?”

“The last one. The one you called W. President Bush. His son.”


“If you would listen to Ferry you would think it’s him again. And the way he flaps his arms. Just like X.”


“Him too. Again with the Texas Miracle. How many more of these can we afford? These miracles are very expensive. Look what Bush’s did to us. How much do we owe?”

“More than $14 trillion dollars.”

“Most of it from the first miracle worker?”

“Maybe not most, but pretty near. If you count the first two years of the Obama administration, where the deficits were largely inherited, I guess you could say most of it, yes, came from George W. Bush.”

“Like an inheritance.”

“That’s one way of thinking about it.” This is among her ongoing favorite subjects.

“I’m sure Wolf will have a lot to say about the latest miracle.” She was referring to Wolf Blitzer who she watches religiously. “And on Meet the Press tomorrow. Though I still miss Tim Rusty.”

“I doubt that Perry will agree to go there so soon. Or ever. Maybe if he turns out to be the frontrunner. Then he’ll have too. But as you’re saying, though he may be selling snake oil of the kind people seem to want and he’s energetic and a good campaigner.”

“They’re already saying that he has to be taken seriously. Considering that that Michele person is going to win the hay poll in Iowa later today.” She of course meant the Ames, Iowa straw poll, which Bachmann in fact went on to win, eking out Ron Paul.

“We do go for his kind of salesmen. Especially if they sound like preachers. What is it about us that though people all over Europe have become less religious here we are becoming more so?”

“I suppose it’s part of our history. How the original settlers came here to practice their strict forms of religion.”

“Yes, that’s who came here originally, but then there were tens of millions of immigrants who came not to pray but for opportunities. Like my family. My father was very observant, that is true, but that’s not why he worked so hard to bring us here. He wanted us to get an education and live a better life. He wanted us to keep the holidays but not to let religion rule our lives. Above all, he wanted us to become Americans and that, to him, included not mixing religion up with government. He had seen too much of that in Europe and knew how that had been used to keep people down. And with the Cossacks and Nazi even worse. How because of religion—our religion—just for that you could be tortured and killed.”

I was hoping we wouldn’t get too deeply into a discussion about the Nazis. For her it is the most upsetting of topics and I didn’t want her becoming even more agitated. At her age it’s , , ,

“But let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about the president. The next one I mean.”

“Good,” I said, feeling relieved.

“I am just afraid that he will get nominated since the Republicans have so many weak candidates and that with the economy kaput, he just might be able to get elected.”

“You may be . . .”

“. . . right, I know. But maybe once we learn, the public I mean, when they start paying attention, that there wasn’t such a miracle in Texas—that most of the jobs he says he created were because gas costs $4.00 a gallon and Texas has all that gas--and when those who are not so religious realize he’s running to be Preacher in Chief and to turn this into a Christian country, maybe then he won’t look so good.”

“I hope you’re right. But I worry. Didn’t you tell me that I missed listening to ‘our next president’?”

“Yes, I was impressed with how he spoke and presented himself, but I was also being ironic. Maybe to make me feel a little better. I don’t know.”

She was beginning to sound rueful and so to try to change the subject I asked her if she was watching the PGA golf championship in addition to CNN. She likes to follow golf.

“I have been but it’s not the same with Tiger not playing.”

“I thought he was,” I said, relieved to see her talking about something else besides politics.

“He was, but he missed the cut. So he’s not playing this weekend. This is some story, isn’t it? Maybe he needed to be fooling around to play so well.”

“Interesting point,” I said. I have had the same thought since he got caught cheating.

“So maybe there’s still hope.”

“Again, I’m not following you.”

“If the Democrats are smart,” she chuckled, “they’ll keep a close eye on this Ferry character.” She paused for effect and added, “If you know what I mean.”

Indeed I did and thought, has it come to this?

And with that she hung up, saying, “I have to get back to the golf.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

August 17, 2011--Tomorrow

I hope to return tomorrow with another report from the Ladies of Forest Trace. My mother called to talk about our "new president."

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

August 16, 2011--Crowd Dynamics

The British are confused as to why so many "normal," educated, successful people are participating in the urban violence that is wracking their country.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who has more than his hands full with the Murdoch empire's phone-hacking scandal--he has been exposed as having an ultra-cozy relationship with Rupert--couldn't complete his vacation in Provence and had to race back to London to fulminate in political rage about the "thugs" who were torching and looting large areas of London and Birmingham. He sputtered that those convicted of even minor crimes should be evicted from public housing and presumably left to live on the streets.

Since the police--Scotland Yard--are being scapegoated as responsible for letting things get out of hand and, if this is proven to be true and to have happened on Cameron's watch, his coalition government is likely to fall and Cameron himself will wind up ironically being kicked out of his public housing--Number 10 Downing Street.

The frustration is understandable and the finger pointing and rush to avoid responsibility are also understandable since the causes for what is going on may turn out to be both obvious and condemning. More about that in a moment.

The rioters the press there, and here, have been focusing on are the kinds of people who are, well, just like us. Again, educated and economically and socially successful people from many (read not-only-ethnic) backgrounds. If all the troublemakers were Africans and "Pakis" (all Muslims in England are to many labeled Pakis) what else would be new. Since they are perceived to be on the dole, what can one expect of them anyway.

There must be deeper causes than just urban blight, lack of jobs for under-educated (and lazy) youth, and unfettered immigration. After all, Brit leaders and the self-satisfied have be harrumphing, the opportunities are there for the ambitious and hardworking; and so if "those people" refuse to appreciate all that England has to offer, well, they can bloody well go back to where they came from.

Thus British (and American) professionals and academicians are searching for deeper reasons to explain the alleged widespread participation in mayhem and violence of ordinary people who should by all measures be feeling good about their lives and prospects. They are the last ones, in other words, who should be out in the street throwing rocks at the police.

The New York Times the other day reported about some of these kinds of rioters and joined their British colleagues in the search for the real explanation for what is happening. (Article linked below.)

Especially perplexing is the seeming split-second decisions many made to join in the looting. An aspiring social worker who has no interest in television turned herself in after impulsively stealing a $500 set. She could not explain why she ran off with it, saying, "I never watch the telly." A young engineering student who has never been in trouble with the law found himself grabbing water bottles from a store that he helped trash because, as he said after being arrested, he was thirsty. An 11-year-old, also a "good" kid, was arrested after stealing a trash can.

I hope he doesn't live in public housing.

Luddite experts are lashing out at modern society, especially the social media and beyond that technology itself. It's all, they say with certainty, about Twitter and Google and iPhones. Others are looking to that branch of social science, "crowd dynamics," that attempts to study how and why people get swept into forms of behavior when in large crowds that they ordinarily wouldn't think of engaging in when alone or out with a few chums having a pint or two.

Then, compounding all of this, is the claim--again yet to be proven--that things became a conflagration because the police stood on the sidelines and watched while North London went up in flames.

The truth is closer to what was first suspected and then, when glimpsed, frantically papered over--the Cameron government has been imposing drastic cuts to virtually all parts of Britain's social safety net and public programs. The size of the police force, schooling at all levels; public housing (which could be scaled back by we-know-what), government jobs across the board; job-training programs, all have been mercilessly slashed and this is already having a profound effect on middle-income and poor people all over Britain.

Youth unemployment in England is 20.3%. Need more be said? If a young person--even with a decent education--can see no prospects for the future it takes less than crowd dynamics to get them going. Even to become violent.

Before we get too smug about our own situation of relative calm--though Philadelphia has seen the beginnings of riots recently and there is now a curfew in place--we should take note and be very concerned that youth unemployment here is about the same, pushing 20% overall, while it is at least 35% for African Americans.

On top of this, we are seeing British-level public sector cuts in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Florida, New Jersey, and Rick Perry's Texas.

We're almost through a long, hot summer; but we should nervously stay tuned.

Monday, August 15, 2011

August 15, 2011--Midcoast: No Gas

"I think we should stop there and fill up.” Rona was pointing at a gas station, shrouded in fog and dust that looked like something out of Grapes of Wrath.

“I never heard of Irving gas,” I said, not eager to pull in. “I’m sure we’ll find some real gas in a few miles. We still have a quarter of a tank.” I was nervous about the look of the proprietor who was standing in the hazy sun leaning against one of the pumps and spewing a steady stream of what looked like tobacco juice.

“Let’s stop anyway. I could use a pit stop and some cold water.” It was an unusually hot day for coastal Maine and we had been driving around for a couple of hours exploring, and both of us were parched.

“I dunno,” I whispered as if he could hear me, “Take a look at that grizzly-looking guy by the pump.”

“I see him. What’s the issue?”

“Doesn’t he look . . . ,” I was hesitant to say what I was really fearing, “Well, a little peculiar?”

Rona twisted around in her seat to get a better look as I slowed the car enough to allow us, without a fuss, to turn into the station or, without making it obvious that we had opted to drive on, give me face-saving cover to accelerate and pass by as if that was what we had all along intended to do.

“Stop being such a priss. I have to pee and we don’t know how far it is to the next gas station or general store. What’s he going to do to us? Hold us hostage? Murder us? This is Maine, not rural Alabama.”

With my manhood thus challenged, I swung the car hard to the left and swerved up to the pump at which he was planted. I thought that by doing so so aggressively he would know we were people to be reckoned with. But he didn’t flinch, glaring at us as he continued his ritualistic spitting.

In as deep a voice as I could muster I grunted “Hello.” He didn’t even nod.

Rona popped out of the car before it had come to a complete stop and raced to the back of the tattered variety store where she was hoping to find a bathroom. I could only imagine what it would be like. Though I also needed to use a facility I had already decided it would not be this one, that I would hold out for as long as necessary to find a place that would be more sanitary.

So I sat in the car up by the pump, humming to myself, and hoped Rona would be quick about her business.

The owner-sentinel detached himself the pump and wiped the hairless top of his head with a grease-stained rag that he had extracted from his coveralls. It left a scar of grease on his sweating forehead. He continued to chew on his plug of tobacco and, after a conclusive spit, leaned toward me and peered in the car window, especially surveying the back seat. An Igloo ice chest was all that we had there and I could see he thought of it and, likely us, contemptuously—clear evidence to him that we were weekenders or at most in the area for some of the summer. The very opposite of true Mainers.

I was hoping that Rona would hurry up.

“Wanna fill-up?”

“Are you talking to me?” I managed to stammer.

“Don’t see no one else around.”

“Well, maybe a bottle of water, if you have that inside.” I gestured in the direction of the store.

“No gas 'tween here and the next town which by my measure is 'bout 22 miles. So if you need some, this is pretty much your last chance for quite a while.”

“We have plenty of gas,” I lied, still wondering what Irving gas was. I was glad he couldn’t see the gas gauge from where he was positioned. “But, as I said, we could use some water of you have any.”

“You don’t have some in that fancy chest?” He gestured dismissively at our big Igloo. “Guess you don’t,” he spat not waiting for me to answer, “otherwise why’d you be lookin' to buy some more. Not that I can figure why anyone would want to pay for somethin' like water. It sure beats me. It’s one of them few free things we have left. Though if you’re hooked up to town water they make you pay a pretty damned penny for it. Sheeet.”

“Can’t say I disagree,” I muttered.

“Good, though, you don’t need no gas.”

“Why’s that?” I ventured. Still no sign of Rona.

“Don’t got any anyway. Though I got a little diesel. You can’t use any of that, can you?” He glanced at our car and shook his head at either it (it’s unusual in Maine with all its dirt roads for any car to still be shining from its last waxing) or the fact that it uses regular gas.

It was good, I thought, that we still had a quarter of a tank. “Take a look at that sign.” He pointed to the glass window on the pump taped to which was a torn off sheet of paper that said, in magic marker, No Gas. From the look of the sign it appeared that it had been duct-taped there for some time.

So I took the chance to say, “Looks like you haven’t had any for quite awhile.”

“True enough,” he said, turning away from me to spit, “You could say I’m in the no-gas business.” He liked his own joke, laughing and coughing and spitting all at the same time. Some tobacco juice sprayed on the hood of our car. I was now glad for the coat of Simonize we had applied earlier in the week.

I hadn’t noticed that Rona had come up behind him. “That’s pretty funny,” she said, “The no-gas business. How then, if I can ask, do you manage to stay in business?”

I had calmed down enough, having spoken civilly with him while Rona was preoccupied, and so actually had some interest in what he might say.

“I don’t need much to get by,” he had turned to face Rona and was clearly ignoring me. “That’s one of the good things livin’ in a cabin over there in the woods. I pretty much have what I need. Don’t have to pay for water,” he chuckled and looked back over his shoulder toward me, “And I eat pretty simple. Mostly stuff out of cans and what I can grow. Nothing too fancy for me. So I’m ready for ‘bout anything. I heat things on my wood stove which also goes a long way winters to make things comfortable ‘nough. A few folks like you stop here to buy a little this, a little that. Postcards. Cigarettes. This time of year I have some local apples. I do pretty good with them. 'Nough to keep me going. And I even have some of them Trojans.” I assumed he was smiling at Rona.

I saw Rona avert her eyes. “But no gas?” she again asked.

“Nope. Don’t need it and even if I did couldn’t get none.”


“’Cause the Irving folks wouldn’t let me have none anyway.” Rona looked at him quizzically. “Got no credit. Got not cash.” He shrugged and explained, “Then, get no gas.”

“I get it,” she said softly, looking a little embarrassed.

“I think we’d better be going,” I offered in an attempt to extract us from the situation. “We have to be home in time for . . .”

“Really in time for nothing,” Rona admitted. With me caught not telling the truth I was again concerned where things might next be headed.

“Looks like he’s in a big hurry,” he said sounding edgy, again without turning he pointed toward me. “Hurry, hurry, hurry,” he spat then snorted, “Hurrying with nowhere to go.” Rona nodded. “Got your car all shined up,” he said to me while still facing Rona, “And a beautiful girlfriend.”

“Wife,” I said under my breath.

“Girlfriend, wife, makes no difference to me,” he said, equally sotto voce. “Ever spend a night in the woods?” I recalled it was many decades ago, not since Boy Scout camp. As if reading my thought, he said, “Ought to try it some time. Would help reorder things for you. Make you ’preciate what you got. So you know what’s important. Get in touch better. Mind you, I’m no hippy or tree hugger. Just a guy who grew up right and has his head more-less screwed on straight. Might sound boastful to you.” In truth it had started to. “But don’t come to any conclusions till you’ve tried it out.”

“You know,” Rona broke in, “I’ve been saying, now that we’re spending half a year here, that we need to get out on the water more and into the woods. Like you.” She again turned to him.

“I don’t mean to insult you ma’am, you seem very nice to me, but I wasn’t meaning ‘getting into the woods more.’ I’m sayin’ really gettin’ into the woods and lettin’ it take hold of you. I’m not talkin’ a little trail walkin’. I mean spendin’ some time in a cabin with no plumbin', no electric. That’s what I’m sayin’.

“And,” he repositioned himself so he was now facing both of us, “one thing you can bring along with you—like I do—is your music.”

As a musician Rona smiled broadly at that. He continued, “I don’t know what you like, but I . . .”

“I am curious,” Rona interrupted, “to know what you listen to. That is, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all.” He swiped at himself again with his rag, making more of a mess of the top of his head. “I’m sure you think you got me all figured out and . . .”

“We don’t,” Rona assured him.

“Just the way you think I got you folks all figured out—New York license plates, a shiny station wagon, an Igloo cooler in the back seat, and I saw your husband gettin’ nervous,” he winked, “when he first spotted me.”

I gestured to Rona it was time to get back in the car.

“I do have my prejudices, that I’ll admit, but I try my best to put them down. The way I live up here, and see things, you gotta deal with as much truth as you can. And bein’ too quick to come to conclusions about people doesn’t fit that philosophy.”

Rona had edged her way to the car.

“You asked me about my music,” he returned to that, “And, just as you probably are suspectin’, I do like my classic rock. I am of that era. But mostly,” he paused, “I take my quartets out there with me.”

I couldn’t help from exclaiming, “Your quartets? String ones?”

“Those very kind.” He was grinning ear-to-ear. “Can’t beat ‘em when the wind’s howlin’ or it’s about to rain.”

Rona by then had opened the car door. She was smiling sweetly at him, as by then was I.

“Now you folks have a nice rest of the day.” He spat and placed another plug of tobacco in his cheek.

Friday, August 12, 2011

August 12, 2011--Down Friday

Lot's going on and so I will be back here on Monday.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

August 11, 2011--The Un-Fortunate 500

Whatever happened to the time when business leaders were Leaders? When they did more than obsess about their companies' bottom line? When they also cared about the country and acted, in part, accordingly?

Do you remember Thomas Watson of IBM and Jack Welch of GE and Lee Iococca of Chrysler and David Kearns of Xerox and David Rockefeller of Chase? Men, and they were at the time all men, who were comfortable playing an active public advisory role in the governance and leadership of their country.

There are a few today who are active beyond the interests of their companies, but mainly in philanthropic roles. Bill Gates of Microscoft is the current best example, devoting most of his time and a substantial portion of his cash to the generally good work of the Gates Foundation.

But where are these guys and, finally, women now that their country is facing a crisis in leadership? Hunkered down in the corporate bunkers, I suspect, hoping that this too shall pass.

Yes, President Obama like other recent presidents trots them out periodically for a photo-op about one thing or another; but when was the last time they played a substantial role in helping the larger economy or spoke out singly or as a group on any issue of substance? I may have missed this, but what I have heard is silence and witnessed is passivity.

There is the Business Roundtable whose membership is composed of most of America's leading CEOs, and in the past the Roundtable did more than host summer networking meetings and run seminars for themselves. As a group the BRT took influential positions on national issues. The Roundtable, for example, used to advocate and even sponsor dramatic reform of the nation's public schools.

They say about themselves that--

[The Roundtable is] an association of chief executive officers of leading U.S. companies with nearly $6 trillion in annual revenues and more than 13 million employees. BRT member companies comprise nearly a third of the total value of the U.S. stock market and invest more than $114 billion annually in research and development – nearly half of all private U.S. R&D spending. Our companies pay more than $179 billion in dividends to shareholders and give nearly $9 billion a year in combined charitable contributions.

One would think that we would be now hearing from this powerful group about how to address our economic crisis. How we need to see government policy focused on creating jobs and cutting into our long-term debt by restructuring entitlement programs, the Pentagon, and, heretically, by sensibly increasing national revenue. Even raising some taxes. Including their own.

Frankly, a restored economy would be in their own narrow, corporate self-interest. I don't imagine they like what they see in the global markets or what is happening to the values of their own companies' shares.

So where are they? I know, on vacation like Congress and the president. I hope they aren't enjoying themselves.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

August 10, 2011--Poor Standard & Poor's

Yes, everyone's right, from the talking heads to the president of the United States--Standard & Poor's used dubious economic data when they downgraded the United State's credit rating.

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner pointed out that S&P forgot to include $2.0 trillion of U.S. assets when doing their sovereign-debt arithmetic. It was a mistake so obvious that even an Accounting 101 student would have been able to pick it up. Yes, yes.

President Obama noting this as well, sternly pointed out that their decision for the first time in history took away our triple-A rating and ranked us with Italy of all countries and lower than France (France?) for political and not economic reasons. They pointed to our government's inability to govern. As if that has anything to do with our capacity to pay our bills.

New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman, not much of an Obama fan, expressed outrage that this rating agency, funded in its corporate work by the very firms it rates, casually strewed triple-A ratings on the financial instruments banks and financial institutions peddled that brought us to the breaking point. Lehman Brothers, the day before it went under, was still getting S&P A-ratings when any accrediting agency worth its salt would have, should have known about the hanky-panky rampant there and in the rest of the financial industry.

So, yes, they got it wrong again this time, dreadfully wrong and the markets went into gyrations.

But, in one essential way they got it right.

And, if we could only calm down and stop scapegoating S&P, while not exonerating them for all their shabby and probably felonious work, we should pull up our socks and thank them.

Someone, anyone, even a compromised Standard & Poor's has to tell us we're in a big-time economic crisis and force us to get our economy in order. It's a mess and will be a very messy process because of extreme partisanship in Washington and because greed continues to hold much of corporate America and the wealthy in self-absorbed thrall.

The Chinese said we're "addicted to debt," and they should know because they are our most reliable pusher. But we could wink at that and ignore them since they own so much of our paper and would bring down on their heads their own economy if they were to call it in.

But the shock to the system provided by Standard & Poor's, corrupt as they are, is not so dismissible. People who invest money still pay attention to them. And, more than anything else in America, money talks. Case in point the erratic behavior of the world's stock markets during the past few days.

If Barack Obama were a leader, rather than a rhetorician and perpetual campaigner, he would see this as an opportunity and do more than scold S&P and House Republicans. He would call Congress back from its undeserved vacation and have the four senior congressional leaders--two from each party--literally move into the White House, lay his own plan before them (not, as he has done for nearly three years, react to other's initiatives), and push them to come up with a real "grand bargain" that focuses on job creation and deficit reduction that is as much about generating additional revenue as it is about cutting expenditures.

I would keep them talking 24 hours a day until they came up with something fair and meaningful. This is admittedly an unlikely prospect--most of the GOP doesn't want just to defeat Obama, they want to destroy him. But then he would have something to campaign about. Not just more of his now too-familiar cliches. He'd actually have a program to run on, not only promises and hope. Of those, he has run out.

The only way to restore them--both essential to national well-being--is through real leadership and specific policies that he puts forward and fights for. Even at the expense of becoming a one-term president. This is a likely outcome anyway (unless the Republicans nominate one of their "crazies") so he might as well go down fighting. Ironically, if he went down fighting, with an emphasis on the fighting, like Harry Truman in 1948, that probably would assure his reelection.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

August 9, 2011--Class Warfare: Bianca Platform Pumps

There is a civil war raging right now within the United States.

Unlike the Civil War of 1861-65, the battlefields this time are not littered with the dead and wounded but rather with the frustrated and angry.

One side is clearly winning; the other dramatically losing.

The winners are the rich and powerful; the losers, the rest of us, are the working and struggling middle class and poor. It is classic class warfare, but a war we are loath to talk about because according to our founding ideology and myths in America we do not have economic classes or a class system. It is Europeans who have those.

Among the things that make for American exceptionalism is this lack of a class structure and the fluidity and impermanence with which some rise and others fall.

Or so it is claimed.

Here, since everyone has an equal chance to succeed, one class does not have to actively dominate another in order to prosper. Differences are decided by a honest struggle between those who have merit and those who, too bad, do not. Or between the ambitious and the "lazy," with those lacking merit or too indolent to compete responsible for their own ultimate circumstances.

Or so it is claimed.

Class war between and among us, therefore, is unnecessary. We have an open system and individuals fall into natural or self-determined configurations. As if according to the Market, Nature, or divine plan.

Or so it is asserted.

Further, to even broach the subject of class in America, much less class warfare, taints one as foreign, a Marxist, even a communist because it was Marx and his intellectual and political followers who promulgated the notion of class struggle as the natural, final product of European capitalism. Again, among the things that make America allegedly different is this lack of inevitable struggle.

Conveniently for the very affluent, this pressure, almost a prohibition not to discuss class matters in these terms is yet one more way that they are protected from exposure and direct confrontation. Rather than talk honestly about economic and social differences and their actual causes we condemn even the beginning of a discussion of these and instead turn against those who want to have this conversation.

A consideration of class in the United States, though, is getting harder and harder to suppress as the economy worsens and recession persists and more and more evidence emerges that sheds light on the truth about class, inequality, and the American opportunity structure. The gap between the income and assets of the wealthiest 5 percent and the remaining 95 percent has grown to be so wide now as to surpass the social distinctions common during the 19th century's Gilded Age.

And then there is the anecdotal evidence, in many cases the worst kind, since it is right there before us to contemplate and rubs in our faces how we are straining to live--keep or find jobs, pay bills and mortgages, sustain our children, and contemplate retirement--while the fortunate and privileged few increasingly go about the merry business of getting and spending.

We are currently unpacking more about the getting part--how much of it is because of loopholes and unfair education and tax advantages--but it is the spending part that is making increasing numbers of us crazy.

Take, for example, an article from last week's New York Times that chronicles how luxury goods are again flying off the shelves (linked below).

If you aren't frustrated enough by concerns about your own circumstances or the status of your shrinking 401(k) how does it make you feel to learn that Nordstrom has a waiting list of women eager to snap up Chanel sequined tweed coats with a $9,010 price tag? Not good I am sure.

Or that Neiman Marcus has sold out all their $775-a-pair Christian Louboutin Biance platform shoes? Or the fact that Mercedes-Benz reports that it sold more cars in July in the U.S. than in any other month during the past five years. Or that the luxury items sector of the economy has shown increased sales in each of the last 10 months? Tiffany's alone saw its first-quarter sales up a cool 20 percent. Louis Vuitton can't keep its plastic handbags in stock nor can Givenchy or Gucci or Yves Saint Laurent turn out enough multi-thousand dollar dresses to satisfy the soaring demand.

These folks are winning the class war because they have figured out how to mobilize powerful allies. Allies such as the dug-in Republican Party, dominated now by the Tea Party, that protects and expands the super-rich's tax advantages and works day and night to resist filling in even oil companies' tax loopholes. They have other partners who are in effect hired to do their bidding. Lobbyists who labor to protect their advantages; even presidents of the United States who care more about pandering to the economic interests of the wealthy than serving those of the majority. And then of course there is the current Supreme Court which, through a series of rulings since John Roberts became Chief Justice, has consistently sided with business and corporate interests at the expense of the rest of us.

This is not a pretty picture. In fact, to use a phrase from the 1970s, it represents "social dynamite." It needs to be defused by more balanced policies or it will, well, explode. We have seen this already in Greece and economic riots are currently flaring up in north London.

Be further warned that government-enabled inequality is actually worse here than in either Greece or Britain. We may not be comfortable having a public discussion about class in America; but to save our otherwise wonderful country, the time to do so is long overdue.

Monday, August 08, 2011

August 8, 2011--Bat Mitzvah In Vermont

Friends' youngest daughter was bat mitvahed on Saturday, in Vermont, in a tiny town, in a Baptist Church across the green from the house in which she has been growing up beautifully.

We trekked across the heart of Maine, to be there. It was a memorable family-centered ceremony that featured those in attendance (mainly non-Jews), under the direction of an imported cantor, singing Jewish prayers and songs in rounds. A first for me, but uniting, spiritually uplifting (even for agnostics), and appropriate for the setting and the feeling of ecumenicalism.

After this transporting day I thought to reprise here something I wrote about the father a few years ago when he was still navigating the difficult transition from Brooklyn and New York City to a very different kind of life in central Vermont. I called it "A Jew In Vermont." If you didn't see it when it was posted, I hope you will now enjoy reading about him and his life:

To come to Vermont for a visit in the autumn to witness the leaves changing or in summer to get away from the heat of the city is a non-sectarian event. But to leave your roots behind in that city in order to live there permanently is decidedly something else.

My Jewish friend (who to protect him from himself will here be referred to as “he”) who moved up here eight years ago, put his condition this way as we sat in a vast meadow, having arrived at it after following an abandoned logging trail; sprawling on the cut hay grass and looking out over the broad Connecticut River Valley toward the White Mountains of New Hampshire—I cannot recall a more transporting vista or feeling more at one with nature—he said: “Every day, and I mean every day, I think about what I need to do to get back to New York City.”

His wife, also Jewish, made a remarkable adjustment to their new life. Actually, a remarkable transformation. Really, a remarkable metamorphosis. She owns horse and cows and sheep and chickens and slaughters and butchers the latter to feed the family. She takes care of and rides the horses to the hounds (truly) and for hunting. Last year she had a moose license from the county and this year is allowed to “take” one doe. She seems to know everyone and all about every aspect of their lives—even of the usually stoical Vermonters. Jewishness does not appear to have been a problem for her.

He on the other hand knows nearly no one, can’t distinguish the front end of the horse from the rear (and doesn’t care to learn); has allergies to virtually all of Vermont’s wildflowers (which proves beyond DNA evidence that he is Jewish); and even the sight of anything that contains cheddar cheese makes him instantly nauseous.

There are, I suspect, other Jews in Vermont. For example, there is something that looks very much like a Jewish Center in Woodstock. But you would never know this from him. Though he holds a Hanukkah party every December and invites to it everyone who he knows or suspects might be Jewish (don’t ask how he makes that determination), even stretching his definition of what makes one Jewish, at its most attended there were no more than ten people who showed up—and, to drive home his predicament, I understand he invited potential members of the Tribe from every part of the state.

The few friends he has made (he calls them “acquaintances”) are worried about him. Even the non-Jews. Those are, truthfully, more concerned than worried—concerned being the gentile way to be worried. So, concerned or worried, they have through the years made many suggestions and offered encouragement about things he might do that they feel he would enjoy and that might make him become more of a Vermonter. Like get into serious recycling or heating his home with wood fires or organic gardening or throwing pots or developing an interest in nature or macramé. Some, more radically, thought he might like skeet shooting or gourmet cooking. To them he said, “But I lived in New York. I always ate out.

And, he insisted, after getting into source separation where he divided his clear glass bottles from his green glass bottles and his coated paper from his newsprint, and so on, everything they suggested and urged made him think about illness, dying, and, what else, death. “A Jew after all,” he would insist, “is a Jew.” Though no one within 50 miles of where he lived understood any of this, they did respect his right to think this way. Vermont, after all, prides itself on its openness to all manner of views and differences. It was the first state in the union, for example, to legalize same-sex unions. Do you need to know anything else?

“When I made a vegetable garden,” he moaned, “I was surprisingly good at it. In Brooklyn, where I grew up, there was hardly any dirt to stick a seed into much less a backyard that wasn’t made of cement. So what would I know about gardening? Organic no less. But when it came time to harvest my crop, every time I pulled a radish or carrot from the ground it felt like I was committing a violation against the Commandment ‘Thou shall not kill.’ I could almost hear them crying in pain.” I nodded my head in understanding. “And even worse was when I bought two of the latest high-tech wood stoves and tried to heat our house that way. To be environmentally responsible. I did well at that too, but when I had to clean the grate all I could think about was how all those mighty logs were reduced to a mere handful of ashes. ‘Dust to dust,’ as the sages said. It took me weeks to recover from the depression I felt.” Again, I nodded.

“And then I threw pots, even though I never could figure out how what I was doing had anything to do with throwing.” This sounds promising, I thought. “But I had my problems with this too. Metaphysical ones.” I had no idea where this was headed. “Because whenever I placed one of my vases or bowls into the kiln they came out shattered. I turned them into shards. Just like the Zohar says, you know that ancient book of Jewish mystical lore. How Cabbalists believe that the world was once a perfect vessel that became shattered, scattering the shards everywhere. And that we Jews have a responsibility, Tikkun, to regather those shards as our contribution to healing the world. So there I was in the pottery shed making more shards all the while thinking I’m not carrying out my responsibilities. In fact I’m making an even bigger mess of the world!”

To this I had nothing to say and so he continued, “But what was worst was trying to become interested in nature. You’re up here now to see the autumn leaves. Fine. You think they’re a majestic and beautiful sight. And you are right. Before we moved here, when we would come for a visit that’s what I also felt. But now, when Nature puts on this display, all I can think about, again, is dying and death. This is the dying season. Call me crazy,” and I was considering it, “but that’s the way I look at things in Nature. Yes, things bloom and are beautiful but very soon they start the withering and dying.”

I decided not to talk about dormancy and regeneration and the promise of spring. After all, I was headed back to New York in a day and a half to my restaurants and cable TV, so I tried a different tack, “But maybe this is a good thing. I mean maybe what you are observing in Nature is to put you in touch with elemental things and thereby inspire you to make every moment count.” I only half-believed this, but I was trying my best to be a good friend.

“And tell me what will I be doing with all those moments that I’ll be counting?” He swept the horizon dismissively with his hand.

For this I didn’t have a ready answer and said to him, in part to change the subject, “Look at those clouds over the mountains. Aren’t they magnificent?”

“Clouds. Smouds. To tell you the truth, right now I could go for a nice pastrami sandwich.”


It is about four years since I wrote this and as of now my friend is feeling very different about his condition. When I asked him on Saturday about plans he had been hatching to relocate in southern Vermont/northern Massachusetts--to be closer to his New York city--he smiled and enigmatically said, "It's now a maybe."

Friday, August 05, 2011

August 5, 2011--On the Road

We're heading to VT for the weekend. I will return to ME and here on Monday.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

August 4, 2011--Rona's Joke

We were feeling down yesterday morning but thankfully Al, Ken, John, and Billy were at the diner when we showed up for coffee. We were upset about the recent henanigans in Washington.

I'm not sure of everyone's politics. In a small town, to remain friendly--which is desirable since we all need each other--we try to avoid conversations that might get too heated.

But today, after some of the implications of the debt-ceiling deal were being analyzed in the press, with everyone on both the left and right feeling disappointed about the deal itself but more about the craven and self-interested way in which all of our "leaders" acted, over Doug and Crystal's endless cups of coffee, we quickly agreed that we were feeling betrayed. It was Al, I think, who said for all of us, "I don't feel as if anyone in Washington is representing me."

It was a beautiful morning but our mood was darkening. Trying to sound perky, Billy asked, "Anyone know a good joke?"

Ken agreed, "We sure could use one."

"Don't look at me," I said. "I'm the world's worst joke teller." Rona was nodding in vigorous agreement. "What about you, big shot, do you know any?"

"In fact I do," Rona said, puffing herself up. We all turned to look skeptically at her. "It's not the greatest but if no one else has one it mine will have to do."

Billy again said, "We sure could use one."

So here's Rona's joke on the assumption that you too could use one. I'll do my best. As I confessed, I'm not that good at telling jokes.

She began: "There's this son who calls his mother . . ."

"Is this going to be a Jewish mother joke?" Al asked with a faux sigh.

Rona smiled at him, "It easily could be." And then continued.

This son calls his mother and says, "I have bad news. The cat died."

In an angry tone his mother admonishes him, "What kind of a way is that to tell me the cat died?"

"Well, he did. What was I supposed to say?"

"You could have begun by telling me that the cat isn't feeling well and then after a minute told me that he hasn't been eating for a few days. After that, you could have said to me he's taken a turn for the worst. And then you might have added he really isn't doing well. Then, you could have told me that he died."

"I see your point," her son said. "I'm sorry I told you the way I did."

They talked for a while longer and then he hung up.

Two days later his mother called to tell him that his father wasn't feeling well and, after pausing for a second, said, "And he died."

"That's pretty grim," Al said, "But it is sort of funny." Ken and Billy had chuckled, clearly not used to Jewish-mother jokes.

On the other hand, it's not the greatest joke and as you can now see I'm not very good at telling them.

"But, as I said," Billy said, trying to be encouraging, "We need jokes during these times. In fact, I have one for you." We all leaned toward him eagerly. "There is this couple. He's 92 and she's 90. They live in a retirement residence and after chatting for a while, he asks her out on a date . . . "

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

August 3, 2011--Other People's Messes

Barack Obama is getting roundly criticized for folding up to Republican pressure not to increase taxes in order to help reduce the nation's debt. He may deserve much of this criticism since he knows that there is no way out of this mess without increasing revenues. My guess is that even many Republicans pandering to the Tea Party know this.

The most savage attacks on Obama, though, are coming from the left. If you read progressive blogs such as the Daily Kos you will get a quick taste of the intensity of this criticism. Kos bloggers are calling for someone to challenge Obama for the 2012 nomination. The way Gene McCarthy took on Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and thus contributed to his downfall and the ultimate election of Richard Nixon. Lots of luck.

Though much of what we are hearing is understandable--Obama was elected by promising to bring about real change and by claiming that he would take on and solve our deepest programs--what in fact could Obama do in the face of the very real threat that Republicans in Congress (in the control of their intransigent Tea Party colleagues) were seemingly all right with allowing the country to fall into default?

If Obama had drawn a line in the sand and said, "I will not agree to or will veto any deal that does not bring in more revenues by increasing taxes on the wealthy and closing the most outrageous of corporate loophole," if he had done that with credibility it is likely that the controlling Tea Party wing of the Republican Party would have said, with actual enthusiasm, "Bring it on."

They are apocalyptic minded at their core and feel that The End is not only near but necessary to bring about both the political and eschatological millennia.

Beside various forms of posturing for cheap political gain, Obama in effect had two choices--not budge, and when Congress couldn't agree to anything, time ran out, and we faced default, invoke dubiously the 14th Amendment (and face certain impeachment since the 14th Amendment was specifically about what to do about the Civil War debt); or Obama could have agreed to a Republican-driven "compromise" that included spending cuts without enhanced revenues. That is what he did; and this, even with the hindsight of just two days, on quick glance looks awful.

But here's another way to think about what Obama ultimately agreed to--

It took more political courage than any other, more politically macho alternative.

He chose the path of seeming weakness. It took real guts to do that.

Rather than preside over the first national default in our history and to his political base look like a hero--not caving to those "satanic" Republican "hostage takers" who "put a gun to his head" (language left-wing Democrats actually used; what would we liberals say if the Republicans had evoked those violent images?)--rather than this Obama took the "bad" deal, thus avoiding default for a least 18 months, and the battle will now turn to the 2012 elections when voters will get a chance either to toss out the Tea Party and their craven GOP followers or put even more of them into office so that The End will loom yet nearer.

In the process--one scenario or the other--it is likely that by this action, a version of intentional passivity, Obama sealed his political fate. He is as a result more likely than ever to be a one-term president. The GOPers of course still despise him, his progressive base is searching for an alternative "to primary" him, and independents are abandoning him in droves.

This result, ironically, may be looked back upon by history as a very different kind of profile in political courage. He allowed himself to look ineffective, accepted a seemingly terrible deal, but at least for a while saved the country.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

August 2, 1911--Medicare Part D

Merck last week announced it would lay off an additional 13,000 workers. Nothing so new about that. The pharmaceutical giant since 2009 fired 20,000 others.

These massive retrenchments have added significantly to cuts in general among big pharma companies. The American drug industry since 2000 has cut 299,000 jobs.

This is not because they have been losing business. They continue to be highly profitable in part because along the way have been outsourcing more and more of their production to China. So I suppose, Republicans are right--big profit makers such as Merck have in fact created jobs. But they have their geography wrong--the hiring has been overseas, not in the U.S.

When questioned about the latest round of firings, Merck blamed it on Obamacare. They claimed that his health care bill will cut funding for Medicare Part D, which up to a point pays for seniors' prescription drugs. This, they allege, will mean less money for them and will, in the words of a company spokeman, have "a devistating effect on American jobs." (See linked New York Times article.)

They got part of the story right--it will have a devastating effect on American jobs. Not Chinese.

But the rest of their explanation is bogus.

Obamacare will not reduce seniors' ability to purchase the drugs they need. Quite the contrary. It will phase out the Donut Hole in the current program, which can cost Medicare recipients thousands of dollars a year for their drugs. When the new policy is fully implemented, low-income older citizens will no longer have to choose between paying for food or prescription drugs. They will be able to buy both.

Thus, companies such as Merck will actually see sales and profits increase. This is why they supported the Affordable Health Care Act as it was working its way through Congress--they saw the opportunity to make more money.

The actual reason Merck has laid off so many employees is because of its $14 billion purchase of drug giant Schering-Plough. As is true in mergers and acquisitions of this kind, these deals pay for themselves by combining two companies into one and restructuring them in ways that allow the new, mega-organization to save billions in operational costs, mainly by laying off workers.

By firing as many people as they planned to do when they bought Schering (note the past tense planned), Merck projected savings of more than $4 billion a year. That's how they saw the purchase paying for itself.

This is the real reason for the layoffs--not Obama's non-plan to cut Medicare Part D. But as long as people are inclined to be susceptible to manipulation, blaming everything they don't like on Obama (or by simply lying, as in Merck's case), the real culprits will be able to continue to wiggle off the hook.

Monday, August 01, 2011

August 1, 2011--The Beginning of the End of the "American Century"

Someone said that if the United States were to default on its sovereign debt--has its national credit rating downgraded and cannot pay interest to those who hold our T-Bills--this unthinkable event would be forever etched on our national timeline.

The one that we remember from high school history which graphically shows the establishment of the Jamestown Settlement (1607); the landing at Plymouth Rock (1620); July 4, 1776; the war of 1812; the outbreak of the Civil War (1861); the American intervention in World War I (1917); the 19th Amendment that granted Women the right to vote (1919); the beginning of the Great Depression (October, 1929); December 7, 1941; the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964); the end of the Cold War (1989); the day on which the U.S. defaulted.

That day, even with a deal that defers the debt debate, will also signal the beginning of the end of the American Century, which was declared at the end of the First World War in 1918. So after nearly 100 years we will be pretty much right on schedule.

We are also about to no longer be able to chant with credibility that "We're Number One."

"We're Number Two" will henceforward be more appropriate--China will sooner than they should become Number One; and not too long after that we'll only be able to claim that "We're Number Three" as India zips by us.

All accelerated by defaulting, as at some point we likely will. With that we will become the laughing stock of the world since this will be a self-inflicted crisis engendered by Congress. By both parties. Though mainly by Republicans who in the first place amassed most of our national debt, want to blame it on Obama, and now do not want to do anything balanced about it other than cut spending and taxes.

In fact, the real agenda for the right-wing of the GOP, not much discussed as we obsessed about the Boehner plan versus the Reid plan versus the Gang of Six plan is that for Tea Party fanatics--and that is what they are (more about that in a moment)--what they are in fact working to accomplish is the effective end of government. To roll back the New Deal and the Great Society

Not to reduce and eventually liquidate our debt (Bill Clinton had us on that road until George W. Bush began his unfunded spending for wars and massive tax cuts for the wealthy) but by not routinely raising the debt ceiling to pay for things already legislated and approved--like student loans, like cancer research, like Medicaid, like food stamps, like unemployment insurance, like the Internal Revenue Service, like . . .

Like pretty much everything the government pays for with the exception of defense, including preemptive wars against Islamic countries. For this there will always be enough money, even if we have to borrow it.

While the extremist right has itself effectively mobilized, we liberals have been, well, enjoying life.

The dirty little secret is that liberals, me included, because we on average are more credentialed and are disproportionately found in lucrative professions have been among the major beneficiaries of the last decades' fiscal and tax policies.

I could total it up for you, but my progressive friends, who earn at least as much as I, have saved many thousands of dollars because of the Bush tax cuts. More than most Tea Party members.

And we have even done better than most of them in regard to the value of our real estate. Yes, values have come down off their highs of three-four years ago, but those of us with vacation homes and condos are still, in comparison, way ahead of the game, in spite of the real estate bubble bursting.

And we have more in our tax-deferred 401(k)s than the average right-winger. Reagan-to-Bush tax policies have seen to that.

Since our children go to college and graduate school in greater numbers, we have benefited from federal programs that support higher education and offer various forms of subsidized student aid. This further advantages us.

We take more vacations; we have better health care; we have more discretionary income to buy stuff than most Tea Partyers, all thanks to tax and fiscal policies put in place largely by Republicans.

While political fundamentalists have been getting frustrated and angry and, key, getting successfully organized to take control of local, state, and federal governments, we have watched them disdainfully from the sidelines while enjoying our lifestyle, much of it provided by their Republican friends and colleagues.

During the Vietnam War, liberals were mobilized until the draft was ended. When we no longer could be inducted, we wiped our hands of the whole thing and let others--in effect, low-income American mercenaries--do our fighting. Just as now when less than one percent of the population is either serving in Iraq and Afghanistan or has a family member in the military.

So, frankly, we don't care, we haven't mobilized. Life is too good.

Now it looks as if our good times may be coming to the beginning of the end. Ours as well as the country's.

If Tea Party members who are holding the rest of the GOP hostage (threatening to run candidates against them in primaries next year if they do not do their bidding), if they have their way--and to me it looks as if they ultimately will--we will see the slow asphyxiation of our social safety net and the end of government as we have known it since the 1930s.

Tea Party folks are not interested in compromising since this apocalyptic scenario is exactly the outcome they are seeking. They are also acting out of a version of political religious fervor. To them, Thou Shall Not Raise Taxes is an article of faith, their 11th Commandment. Literally, as they struggle to resist their leaders' threats and blandishments, after having had their arms twisted, they together march over to the chapel in the nation's Capital--why there is one there is another undiscussed issue--to pray to God for His advice about how to proceed in regard to the debt and to help them keep true to their secular faith.

I am not making this up. You can read about their search for divine legislative guidance in the linked article from the New York Times.

We're heading for Number Three indeed.