Friday, May 31, 2013

May 31, 2013--Late Night

We had a big city night and I just woke up. We were at Aaron Neville's concert and stayed out way past my usual bedtime. He was amazing. I'm going back to bed and hope to sleep until 10:00.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

May 30, 2013--Dow Wow!

Though stocks gave back some of their gains yesterday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is at an all time high. Even pessimistic bears on CNBC are looking less dour, even suggesting that maybe, just maybe this is not another blip or bubble but reflects a much stronger American economy.

Looking for explanations about the positive economic news, some are saying that U.S. investments are doing well because everywhere else--from Europe to Japan and China--things are heading in the opposite direction. South Americans, the French, Russian oligarchs, Middle East sheiks are all looking for safe havens, and America is pretty much it.

No one, of course, is giving Barack Obama any credit, even though the Dow has more than doubled during his watch; housing prices are dramatically rebounding; and Obamacare, though not yet fully rolled out, is already significantly cutting the cost of health care. And we know that if things were doing poorly here he would be getting all the blame He can't win for losing.

Thus I've been wondering again why this is true--why Obama (who has many leadership faults) is so vilified. Listen to late night talk radio if you want a taste of who is living under rocks. The stuff they spew is borderline seditious.

One reason is that he likes to be the smartest person in the room, especially when with Republican members of Congress. At those times there's not that much competition for who's brightest. You've got Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Paul Ryan, Michele Bachmann, and Barack Obama. Not much of a contest. But if Obama were really smart--I mean politically smart--he'd tone it down to see if there might be some way to get some things done.

And then they also know, in addition to rubbing their faces in their--how to put this--ignorance, he also can't stand them as individuals. He even hates having a very occasional drink or dinner with Republicans. To cite Maureen Dowd, he seems to be missing the "schmoozing gene."

He has those few people he likes and then there is everyone else. Being so obviously contemptuous of his congressional colleagues (including most Democrats) is a huge impediment to working together on some of our really big problems.

Then, of course, there is the problem that he's cool and they're not. Even their children and grandchildren think Obama is cool, and one can only imagine how that makes Mitch and company feel.  Old, cranky, out of touch. Not a good basis for a relationship.

Finally, there is the unspoken issue that probably for many in the GOP trumps all the others--Obama's otherness. His "foreignness," the way he grew up in Indonesia, and the fact that he's . . . black.

It's probably too late for Obama to mend any fences or forge a few good relationships--like the one he clearly has with his bromantic partner Chris Christie--but I would like to see him give it a try. For our sake or, if that is not sufficient motivation, for his place in history

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

May 29, 2013--Facebook $$$

The reason I didn't buy any Facebook stock when they announced there IPO was because, like other skeptics, I couldn't figure out how they would monitize their social network.

At the time they had about 1.0 billion participants but, with so many people--especially young people--moving on from computers to "mobile devices" (mainly smart phones) with their relatively tiny screens, how would Facebook, I wondered, be able to run money-making ads alongside the basic Facebook content.

It appears that many came to the same conclusion. The IPO was a flop and the per-share value of Facebook stock since then hasn't gotten much better.

(Actually, I didn't wonder about this at all. The whole social media thing and mobile devices and apps and Instagraming were and are mysteries to me and I didn't want to invest any of my money in things I didn't understand. Instead, I invested in international stock and bond funds, which I also do not understand. But about these I felt that if I wanted to try to understand them I might be able to do so. So much for my financial acumen.)

But as a participant in Facebook I have been interested in seeing how they would attempt to get me to buy things from the ads they run on my homepage. And, how they would target these ads using the latest data-mining techniques. Would they, for example, know that I buy a lot of contemporary novels and books about American history from independent dealers? Would they know I am a serious cook and buy pots and knives and dried mushrooms over the Internet? Would they know I take vitamins; am of a certain age; am a liberal; and divide my time in Florida, Maine, and New York?

I know enough about how Facebook and data-mining work to appreciate how hard it would be to pitch me since on my Facebook page I have no "likes" listed and never click on any of my "friends'" likes. So Facebook wouldn't know I like jazz and chamber music or that I'm especially interested in the New Deal. Unless, like the FBI and IRS, they read my blog.

So I kept track yesterday of all the ads that popped up on my Facebook homepage--

There were lots of ads for Southwest Airlines, though I never flew with them and in recent years haven't been doing much flying on other airlines.

We did buy an old table for our kitchen in Maine and haunt local antique stores there in the hunt for "cottagey" this's and that's, and I suppose Facebook somehow knows this since I've been getting ads for "Vibrant Rustic Furniture." This sounds oxymoronic to me--"vibrant" and "rustic" in the same pitch--but I am impressed that they have been able to target my furniture shopping so specifically.

I've had ads from "Friends of Hillary Clinton" and "Don't Let Paul Ryan Destroy Medicare." These too feel well directed since at this point I'm for Hillary in 2016.

Closer to home--or to my demographic--there have been ads for the "New York Brain Tumor Walk." Fortunately I do not have such a tumor but I confess when I get a headache I immediately think I do. I suppose it's an aging thing.

There was another one from "Hernia Surgery Experts." Again, as far as I know I am hernia free and if I weren't, I'm not sure I wouldn't go to one who advertises on Facebook. It's enough that I used to have a dermatologist who advertised on the subway--Dr. Zizmore.

Then I've been hearing from some company that, for a fee, would be happy to help me meet "Faithful Women." This is not for me--I'm happy with Rona but if I were looking around I'm not sure faithful would be what I would find attractive.

And then Dr. Delany, my orthopedist, must have turned me in--or told someone at Facebook about my torn meniscus--because I'm being bombarded by ads with headlines including--

Shocking Joint Discovery--Amazing Joint Relief!

So far Motrin is getting the job done and I don't need anything (yet) all that amazing.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

May 28, 2013--Didn't Sleep . . .

So I am only half awake. I'm sure I'll catch up today and be back here tomorrow.

Monday, May 27, 2013

May 27, 2013--Memorial Day Off

The sun plans to be out so I'm taking the day off.

Friday, May 24, 2013

May 24, 2013--Topsiders

We were on our way to Home Depot on West 23rd Street when Rona pulled me into a shoe store with the funky name, Shoe-Gasm.

"Look at these," she said, pointing to a pair of low-heal sandals. "I've been looking for some just like this to replace a pair that are about to fall apart."

"They look good to me," I said, searching for a seat where I could wait with the New York Times while she tried on those and inevitably others.

Not wanting to be pressured by my hovering presence, Rona suggested I look around in the back where there were some men's shoes. "Maybe they have something in your size with soft innersoles. You've been meaning to find some since you hurt your knee."

This was true and so I drifted toward where they had a large display of Sperry Topsiders. I like them and thought perhaps some would provide the cushioning I now required. Besides, our Maine friend, Al, had sent an e-mail this week to let us know he had put his boat in the water and was hoping we would join him soon for some more explorations of Sheepscot Bay. The last time we did, he implied that if I wanted to fit in on his boat it would be a good idea to wear boat shoes. So the Topsiders were reaching out to me for two reasons--comfort and to fit in on Al's boat.

There was a pair that quickly caught my eye and I asked the salesman, a very cool-looking African-American guy, if they had them in size 13. "No problem," he assured me with a wink and within a few minutes had them for me to try on.

To my realtively-untutored eye they looked cool and with the interior padding, as I painlessly walked around in them they promised to receive a nod of approval from my orthopedist. Also, I thought, they'll likely pass Al's muster.

"You know," I said to the salesman, "I'm sure they'll be even more comfortable if I could put the laces in. I looked around in the box and couldn't find any." He was looking at me quizzically, as if I wasn't making sense. "From my experience they're always either in the eyelets or the box, but I can't seem to find these."

"That, my man, is because there aren't any."

"You mean in the box? You keep them separately? I suppose these days with the cost of things you must have guys trying on shoes who don't buy them but walk away with the laces."

With his hands on his hips he smiled at me as if I had said something funny. "You're not understanding, dude, these Topsiders don't come with laces. They're designed to stay on your feet without them; and without the laces you can even wear 'em at your favorite late-night club. You know, when you want to look extra hip."

By then Rona had joined us. She had found two pair to buy and was quite happy with her good fortune. Finding shoes that work for her is not an easy thing. "What's happening? I mean with you? Are they comfortable?" I nodded.  "And I like the way they look. Very cool."

"They're fine, but we can't find the shoelaces." I gestured to include the salesman in the "we."

"I keep telling him, lady, that these don't come with laces. If he wants to be cool (and he still looks good for someone of his--how shall I put this--years), he should think about getting with the program." He winked at me again to make sure I was OK with his having a little fun with me. I was.

"Look," Rona said, "you can always get laces for these if that's troubling you."

"But they're designed and engineered not to use laces," the salesman interjected. "You'd ruin them if you tried to stick in a pair. If you need something with laces, I may have some Eccos that could work for you. But," he shrugged, "they're not as today as these Sperrys."

"So what will it be?" Rona asked, "Comfort or cool?"

"What do you think Al would say?"

"I think he'd like you to look like you belong on his boat but also to be cool."

"Let me think about these," I said. "You've given me a lot to process. Maybe I need different shoes for New York City and Maine. Or . . ."

"At least I found two pair." Rona said, feeling good about herself. "You do your processing. I'm heading for Home Depot."

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

May 23, 2013--Malthus

On our way north from Florida Rona suggested we drive up the Delmarva Peninsula. Along Chesapeake Bay. The last time we did was more than 25 years ago and it was interesting and beautiful.

"I remember that," I said, "Rural fishing villages and ancient farmlands. It was enchanted. A place that time seemed to forget."

But when only a few miles north of the 20-mile bridge from Norfolk, we encountered a seamless string of shopping plazas where there were more Pizza Huts and Dunkin' Donuts than farms and rolling pastures.

"What happened?" I sighed, "Are all these condos second-homes for folks who work acrooss the Bay in Washington?"

"Probably," Rona said, upset that she had recommend this now spoiled route. "I know Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld have homes here."

Later, when checking with friends who live and work in DC, they confirmed that many of the ticky-tacky houses were indeed vacation or retirement homes, but most were for the increased population of the Peninsula.

This got me thinking more generally about the growth in population, something surprisingly not all that much discussed when we talk about global issues, very much including climate change.

Some quick research revealed that the population in the U.S. grew from 130 million the year I was born to 316 million now, an increase of 240 percent. And the population of the world during that same time grew from 2.3 billion to about 7.0 billion, a staggering increase of 329 percent.

This does not bode well for the planet. or humans. If the rate of growth continues for another 50-60 years we will see another doubling in the size of the population. That is unless a series of health, war, or environmental catastrophes intercede.

From recent reports that the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the air now exceeds 400 parts per million--the first time this has been true in nearly 3.0 million years (well before humans evolved) a generally-agreed dangerous level--it may be that we are approaching a point of no return. There may be no turning back from the combination of high population growth and, due to economic development, the concomitant use of carbon and fossil fuel. Unless we change our behavior, together they will continue to shape a doomsday scenario.

The sustainability of exponential population growth was very much a part of late 18th century discourse. At the same time that Enlightenment thinkers such as William Godwin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were proclaiming that human progress was limitless, there were others arguing that this was a false notion, that because resources were not infinite, human progress would inevitably be constrained as population grew to the point where it outstripped our very finite resources.

Best known was the Reverend Robert Malthus who proclaimed the Iron Law of Population, which could be summarized from something he wrote in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population--

"The increase in population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence."

Malthus' Malthusian jeremiad was quickly pushed aside as the Industrial Revolution produced such a wealth of goods and services that it did look as if progress was boundless.

But now we know the Iron Law is more true than false; and, as part of the mix, as we struggle with climate and sustainability issues, should be population concerns. It is hard to imagine anyone making a convincing case that the Earth is capable of supporting a global population of 10 to 15 billion. But during the remainder of this century that is where we are in fact headed. If this were to occur, the consequences will not be pretty.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

May 22, 2013--Day Off

I will return tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

May 21, 2013--The "Patient Experience"

As I have been hobbling from doctor to doctor to MRI to doctor the past couple of weeks, I assumed that the only one keeping track of me was Rona.

Assume again.

From what I've been reading, the drug companies are hot on my trail.  From a report in the New York Times, here's how it works--

There are data-mining companies that specialize in tracking patients' encounters with doctors, the tests that are prescribed, how patients' insurance works and reimburses, and what drugs are recommended. Also, using other data-gathering techniques, these companies can learn if patients are taking the drugs they bought and if they refill prescriptions on time. Perhaps most chilling, they gather information about what doctors talk about with each other and how they collaborate, including which doctors in a geographic area are most influential among their colleagues. From this "influence mapping" they are able to develop an "index" and do all they can to influence the influencers.

In effect, as the CEO of one of these marketing companies claims, they are able to monitor all aspects of the "patient experience."

The information gathered is in turn sold to pharmaceutical companies who use it to target-market their drugs to doctors and other medical professionals. If they discover that a particular physician has many patients with high cholesterol but is not prescribing their latest statin, they do what they can to reach out to that doctor in an attempt to convince him or her that theirs is the most effective medication.

The drug marketing people say that by engaging in these quasi-ethical practices they can help doctors by "providing information that is customized to their needs."

For example, German drug maker Boehringer Ingelheim uses insurance and prescription data to focus on doctors who have many patients with chronic respiratory disease but do not prescribe long-acting drugs such as BI's Spiriva. Of course, to get patients as well to think Spiriva, they run endless TV commercials on those channels that appeal primarily to middle-age women.

In the words of BI's USA chief executive, "You start analyzing what [doctors are] doing and you can find out if, through a combination of factors, you can intervene."

I can remember the time when that intervention was by young (and very attractive) pharmaceutical sales reps who made the rounds of doctors' offices, leaving sacks of free samples that physicians then passed along to their patients. To further predispose doctors they also paid for sumptuous lunches and dinners for all who worked in the office.

But wouldn't you know it, as a result of  the data-mining, Big Pharma has been able to cut way back on this in-person salesforce. Thus far thousands have been laid off.

And all along I thought this information about me and my doctors was strictly confidential. The research companies claim that their work is accomplished anonymously, without identifying individual patients. Forgive me for being skeptical. I wouldn't be surprised if ZS Associates already knows the results of my recent MRI. On the other hand, I am still waiting to hear about it from my surgeon.

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Monday, May 20, 2013

May 20, 2013--Serious Square Footage

Just as I was getting comfortable with the cost of things in New York City--$1.50 Dannon yogurts and having to pay more than $500 a month to garage our car--in the Sunday New York Times real estate section, in the "Big Ticket" column, I read about "the most expensive residential sale of the week"--

At 320 West 12th Street (three blocks from us) in a former nursing home that was converted to luxury condominiums, a penthouse apartment sold for $29,783,812.50.

The seven-bedroom, eight-bath condo was created by combining apartment No. 9, a four-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath duplex, originally listed for $19.5 million, with  No. 7, a $10.5 million 3,200-square-foot unit below it, for a total of 8,500 square feet spread over three floors.

While I was wondering why anyone would want seven bedrooms in New York City, much less eight baths, I couldn't figure out how they got to the final selling price--$29,783,812.50. Especially the 50 cents part.

How did the negotiating go, I couldn't help myself from thinking--
"So let me see, you're asking $19.5 million for No. 9 and $10.5 for No. 7. By my calculations, if I bought the both of them, you'd be asking an even $30 million. Do I have that right?" 
"Yes, you do." 
"OK then. Will you take $29,783,812.50 for the two of them? The 50 cents should demonstrate that I'm literally counting every penny and that this is thus a serious offer." 
The broker would think about it for a moment, rubbing his chin and running the numbers, and then would say, "I guess you have me over a barrel. It's a deal! 
And then he would ask, "Will that be all cash?"
According to the Times, the broker commented, "I think the buyer [who remains anonymous, having bought the place via a LLC] saw this rare opportunity to aggregate serious square footage."

Speaking of square footage, if you are really serious about your square footage, on the front page of the first section of the same New York Times there was a piece about the construction on Park Avenue of a building, which when completed, will be 84 stories and thus the tallest residential building in the entire Western Hemisphere.

If you have the money, the penthouse can be yours for $95 million. For this you will get your six bedrooms and your seven baths. And, if you read books, it includes a library. If you don't, it can be converted into a closet. Plus, for one of your housekeepers, for an additional $3.9 million you can have a studio apartment and for your wine, a storage place for only $300,000 more.

Of course it won't hurt if you're a Russian oligarch or a Persian Gulf prince.

The developer behind this project is Harry B. Macklowe, who tore down the charming Drake Hotel to lay his hands on the land for this behemoth. Prior to that, he was a legend in the real estate community for tearing down, without proper permits, in the middle of the night, a row of historic midtown townhouses and a welfare hotel so he could build his eponymous eyesore, the Macklowe Hotel.

In case you're wondering about his bottom lines, it is estimated that the overall cost of the Park Avenue project will run to $1.25 billion and when all the condos are sold--and they appear to be selling like hotcakes--it will fetch at least $3.0 billion, yielding $2.75 billion in profit for Macklowe. A nice payday.

If these numbers daunt you and you are not an Arab sheik but would like to rub elbows with some real ones, you can buy a 351 square-foot studio in Macklowe House (or whatever it will be called) for $1.59 million. But do not be expecting much of a view--these holes-in-the-walls are located on the first few floors and overlook a bus stop and taxi stand.

Macklowe is reportedly very impressed with himself. When talking about his ultimate project, he mused, "This is the building of the 21st century the way the Empire State Building was the building of the 20th century."

One can only hope that King Kong is paying attention.

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Friday, May 17, 2013

May 17, 2013--My Medicare

Now, from firsthand experience, I understand what that woman was telling me back last spring at a Newt Gingrich rally at the Boca Raton Jewish Center.

We had gone there, not so much because we were thinking about supporting Newt--far from it--but out of prurient curiosity: we wanted to know what Jews in their right mind would support someone who would, if improbably elected, get us involved in a shooting war with Iran the day after being inaugurated. On second thought, maybe for some that's why they turned out to cheer for Gingrich.

Anyway, Newt and Callista were late and we had a chance to chat with some of those in attendance. Beside an overarching obsession about U.S. policy toward Israel (most wanted America to sign off on anything Prime Minister Netanyahu deemed necessary to defend the state of Israel), beyond that was concern about our debt and what they saw to be excessive government spending.

"Just what would you do to cut spending?" Rona asked a woman of at least 80 whose St. John jacket was festooned with Gingrich buttons. "Cut defense?" She shook her head. "Veterans' benefits?" More head shaking. "How about medical research?"

"Absolutely not that," she said.

"So what's left? Maybe Medicare? On that we're spending $800 million a year. More than on defense."

"That's the last thing to cut."

"But isn't Medicare socialized medicine and doesn't it contribute more to the deficit than anything else?"

With this her face became so red that it overwhelmed her makeup and caused me to fear she would soon be in need of medical attention. "I don't want them to put their hands on my Medicare."

"But . . . "

"Don't 'but' me dear. But on the other hand," she growled, pointing at Rona, "they could cut your Medicare."

"That about summed it up," Rona said later, as we drove home. "They want to cut the federal budget but not anything that they feel they're entitled to."

"But it's OK to cut health care for people your age, which, by the way, also includes their children and grandchildren."

"I don't get it, but sad to say I do."

Well, earlier this week I had my first direct experience with Medicare. And, I confess, though I had my doubts about what it would be like--spoiled and used to high-quality private care, I suspected I'd be treated like a patient in a clinic--it was amazing and, like her, I don't want anyone putting their hands on my Medicare.

My first stop was with the orthopedic surgeon. Fifteen years ago he performed orthoscopic surgery on a torn meniscus in my left knee. Recently, I have been having similar symptoms in my other knee and thought I probably would need a similar procedure.

When I called to enquire about an appointment and told his assistant I was now old enough to be covered by Medicare, I was surprised and pleased to learn that Dr. Delany accepts it. To tell the truth I didn't know exactly what that meant; but since he had done such good work on me in the past and was still highly regarded, I said I would like to see him, thinking whatever it cost me out-of-pocket, as the insurers put it, I could fortunately afford it and I did want to benefit by his expertise.

Remarkably he remembered me, or at least my knees, and after catching up about what we had both been up to for more than a decade, he examined me and took five or six X-rays. From that, he suspected I again likely needed meniscus work, but to know for certain I had to have an MRI.

His assistant made an appointment for me for later in the day and when I asked what I needed to do to settle my bill, she said, "Nothing," that I was fully covered by Medicare.

Never before, with my gold-standard Aetna private insurance, had I seen a doctor or had tests done and not been expected to pay at least 20 percent of the cost associated with the treatment. So, to be sure I had not misunderstood, I asked again and again was assured that I owed nothing and would not receive any bills.

"But wait until I have the MRI," I said to the ever-skeptical Rona, who had accompanied me, "I bet it'll cost me at least $200. After all, they are sending me to one of those fancy Upper East Side imagining places where the MRI machines cost $2.0 million each."

And quite posh it turned out to be. And efficient too. I had a 1:30 appointment and by 2:00 was already being inserted into the MRI tube. They used some dreamy classical music to drown out the inevitable pounding; and, when I had my clothes back on and went up to find out what I owed, I again was told that Medicare would cover all of it, including the analysis of the MRI images.

So if I run into that Gingrich enthusiast next winter, I'll tell her about my experiences; but add that not only should Rona and her children be covered at current levels but that this government program should be universalized--Medicare for all--replacing Obamacare with this clearly fine single-payer system.

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

May 16, 2013--More Testing

Again, nothing serious but I have to get some more work done. I will return tomorrow with a report about my first experience with Medicare.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

May 15, 2013--Western Wall

Rabbi Israel Eichler said--

"If the state of Israel fights the Haredim [the ultra-Orthodox], it may win, but it will be erased from the face of the Earth."

He issued this apocalyptic warning--not unlike the kind of threats Israel is used to receiving from Iran and Hezbollah--because an organization of Jewish Israeli women has been attempting to pray at the Western Wall, the alleged site of the Second Temple and thus a holy site for the faithful. Or at least those faithful who Orthodox authorities deem worthy to worship there.

The reason Rabbi Eichler is so confident that the state of Israel (which, again like Islamists, the Haredim do not recognize, though they happily receive subsidies from it) will be erased is because, according to the New York Times, he claims that his "seminary girls . . . each one of them, will have 10 children. That is our victory."

This came to my attention the day after a dinner conversation with a worldly friend who is well known for his tolerance and sense of justice.

"Just between us," he whispered conspiratorially, "and, please, it should not to go any further than this." I was curious to know where he was headed. "Don't you think Islam is a violent religion?" Shocked, I looked at him skeptically. "And I don't just mean the Islamists who are in the headlines. In Boston and Syria and everywhere."

"But what about Indonesia?" I asked. "The country with more Muslims than any other place. And aren't they basically peaceful and democratic?"

"I'm not talking about Indonesia--I grant that what you say is true--I'm talking about Islam itself. Can you tell me one good thing about it as a religion?"

"I'm far from a scholar, but, yes, much of the Koran is as peaceful and generous as the Bible. I mean, the New Testament, since the Old is full of violence and bigotry; and, of course, relegates women to  . . ."

"I know all that," he interrupted me, "But today neither Judaism nor Christianity is perpetrating violence on a broad scale. I know they did in the past, but not now. And it's now that I'm talking about."

"I'm not sure I agree. There are violent fanatics who claim they are following the Bible. It's just that they don't have either the power or venue to express it."

He waived me off, thinking I was speaking rotely from politically correct talking points.

But just the same I think I'll send my friend the article from the Times about Rabbi Eichler.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

May 14, 2013--Medical Testing

I have early morning testing scheduled for a bum knee and so I will return to blogging on Wednesday.

Monday, May 13, 2013

May 13, 2013--Student Debt

I know this idea is going nowhere; but, if we want to spend a trillion dollars wisely, we should forgive all undergraduate student debt.

It totals one trillion and the average debt burden for college gradates is $24,000. Typically, those fortunate enough to have well-paid jobs and thus able to pay back what they owe, take at least 15 years to do so. Of the 37 million former college students who have amassed debt, fully 11 million of them are between 30 and 39.

To make matters worse, unless Congress acts (and how likely is that?), interest rates on these loans will double July 1st to 6.8 percent. At a time when a mortgage rates are only 3.0 percent and banks can borrow money from the Fed for less than one percent (actually, about 0.75 percent). Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed legislation that would set the student loan rate at the same level as the bank-borrowing rate. But we know where that is going--down the filibuster chute.

In the meantime, young people, overwhelmed by debt, are not marrying, not having children, not buying houses, and generally not spending money. They don't have any. And as a result, the economy, which continues to falter, is missing the boost that young people's spending would provide.

To forgive student debt, yes, would be by definition unfair. Why let these all of these young people off the hook while not doing very much to help, say, those with under-water mortgages? Unless we want to set up a big bureaucracy to means-test whose loans should be forgiven and who should pay (which in itself would cost a fortune) some who can pay would get away with a taxpayer subsidy they don't need or deserve.

But for once, about something this important, why don't we just do the right thing, and, forgetting all the caveats, get this mammoth problem out of the way and in the process release recent graduates from this usurious burden and help them get on with their lives and, in so doing, become taxpayers rather than dependents holed up, living in their childhood bedrooms or their parents' garages.

A final thought--who would be the "losers"? Who would have to "eat" the nearly $1.0 trillion in forgiven debt?

Basically, the banks who did the loaning. The same banks which for decades made hundreds of billions in interest that was guaranteed by U.S. taxpayers. The same taxpayers who will have to assume the cost of any unpaid interest if students default on paying back what they borrowed. Which, again because of the stalled economy, is more and more common. The banks that taxpayers bailed out a few years ago after they caused the Great Recession. All they would need to do would be to write off this debt the same way they write off foreclosed mortgages.

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Friday, May 10, 2013

May 10, 2013--Hillary's Chappaquiddck?

Along with others on the political left, at the time, I thought the McCain-Graham-Romney attack on the Obama's administration's handling of the killings in Benghazi, Libya were (1) timed to derail Barak Obama's reelection campaign; (2) undercut Susan Rice's attempt to convince members of the Senate that she could replace the retiring Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State; and (3), more than anything else, it was an attempt to undercut Hillary's 2016 presidential camapign before it could even get started.

The level of rhetoric, I and many others thought, was so excessive that it was easy to doubt the seriousness of the criticism. To rant that the alleged "coverup" of what happened there that fateful day--September 11, 2012--was "ten-times worse than Watergate" was so preposterous as to make it easy to dismiss the McCain-led attack as pure political posturing.

Watergate had the president of the United States approving the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters; bugging phones there; and then, after his burglars were caught, Nixon orchestated the conspiracy to cover up the crime, including the payment of hush money. He was subsequently impeached and cited by the federal prosecuter as an "unindicted co-conspirator."

I thought the worst that could reasonably be said about what happened in Libya, and then in Washington, was that the administration didn't get the story straight before talking about it in public and sent Ambassador Rice around to all the Sunday talk shows with incomplete and perhaps inaccurate talking points.

McCain and company got one scalp--Rice's but didn't lay a glove on either Obama or Clinton.

That is until earlier this week.

Now both Clinton and Obama look as if they had better have a good story about what happened or the Obama administration's record will be forever blemished; and Hillary Clinton in four years will be a less-likely nominee, much less president.

As with Teddy Kennedy, every time he made moves toward the presidency, one event, one word made that hopeless--Chappaqquiddck. And now it may turn out that Benghazi will be the one event, one word that represents the tragedy that occurred on her watch that will haunt and make impossible Clinton's candidacy.

Earlier this week, three senior, credible career State Department officers may have blown the whole situation wide open, so wide open that even liberal Democrats, even Hillary enthusiasts--me included--will be forced to take a second and third look at what Obama and Clinton did and said in the aftermath of the murder in Benghazi of our ambassador and three of his colleagues.

Forget that they were foolish to expose themselves to mob violence and a terrorist attack on 9/11. No one working for the U.S government in the Middle East should be out and about on that day. Ever. No matter how well guarded.

But when word was transmitted to Washington that our consulate was under attack and the ambassador had been killed, surely, with two Americans still alive for a number of hours, there should have been some response by special-forces troops or, minimally, a series of fly-overs by F-16 fighter jets. I feel certain if four of them made passes at full throttle at 200 feet, the crowd attacking the consulate would have been so terrified that most would have run for their lives.

Even if it didn't work, it would have been worth trying and Obama and Clinton, and their scapegoat, Susan Rice, would have had a convincing story to tell and Americans, feeling distraught about what had happened, at the minimum, would at least have felt proud of our response.

Yet more minimally, Obama and Clitnon should have waitied to gather facts--forbidding leaks--and then told whatever the truth was. Even that there had been mess-ups for which they were responsible. There then would have been no need to tap dance and dissemble and the story would have been over in at most a week.

One lesson from the history of the American presidency during this media-suffused age is that it's always the explanation or, if you will, the cover up--not the deed--that bites. Nixon could have survived if he burned the tapes and told a version of the truth; Bill Clinton wouldn't have been impeached if he had said, "I did have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky"; and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton wouldn't be getting skewered.

Americans are a forgiving people--we believe in, even love redemption stories--but we won't put up with being lied to. Nor should we.

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Thursday, May 09, 2013

May 9, 2013--Tea Party in Syria

I suppose, flushed with the delusion of success in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the two senatorial amigos, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have been turning up the heat on Barack Obama to get militarily involved in the civil war in Syria.

Even the justification is the same--as with Saddam, it is being trumpeted, Syrian president Basha al-Assad, possess weapons of mass distruction (WMDs) that he is deploying against his own people. They should recall that after we toppled Hussein, we found none and it may be that the evidence in Syria is just as ambiguous--yes, chemical weapons appear to have been employed but maybe not by Assad. It is emerging that it might have been the Syrian rebels who used them on themselves, perhaps to incite war mongers such as McCain and Graham, and to impel President Obama to too casually talk about how their use would be a "game changer" that crossed a "red line." Meaning . . . meaning, I am not sure what. And it sadly appears that Obama himself didn't have a clear plan in mind when he uttered these macho clichés.

McCain and Graham are on Senate committees that provide access to information about what is actually going on in Syria, and it is not a pretty picture. But just from reading a decent newspaper--if they don't have time to do their committee homework (after all it takes up hours and hours to appear on TV every day)--they would see that in addition to the hideous bloodshed, al Qaeda forces are taking more and more control of the fighting, and to arm them would only provide these jihadists with weapons to turn against us and our allies after they inevitably take over. Another lesson from Afghanistan--when we armed the Mujahdeen who were resisting the Russian occupation of their country, after Russia lost (a further lesson) they used those weapons, are now using them, against U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The French ambassador to Afghanistan soberly said recently that as soon  as the western presence is further reduced (by 2014) things there will revert to Taliban control and girls and women will once again be forced to wear burkas. No wonder, then, that President Hamid Karzai desires to see the suitcases of CIA-supplied cash continue to be delivered so he and his family can sock away their blood money in Abu Dhabi. The good news for the Karzais--they have been assured by the U.S. government that these bribes will keep on flowing. One less thing for them to have to worry about.

Meanwhile, in McCain-Graham's other favorite Middle Eastern conflict, Iraq, we are seeing evidence of an incipient civil war. In this case, as in many other parts of the region, the roots of the conflict are religious and cultural, with faction pitted against faction.

In Iraq it continues, as it has for many centuries, to be Shiites versus Sunnis. Saddam's regime was run largely by the minority Sunni community through the Baath Party. When he was taken down, in spite of our efforts to see a diverse, democratic government replace his brutal dictatorship (at the time it was called "nation-building"), this policy pipe dream lasted for just a few years because all the while the majority Shia, having taken control, slowly and deliberately squeezed out the remaining Baathists.

So what in response have the displaced and discriminated against Iraqi Sunnis been up to? As we see in Egypt and Syria, they are turning for support to the most extreme Islamist elements who, if left to their own devices, would turn the entire region into a series of Islamic republics.

Let us not be naive about this agenda. Over time we will see the Muslim Brotherhood here; al Qaeda there. Jordan could be next and, who knows, maybe even Saudi Arabia after that, where the ruling dynasty has been paying off Osama bin Laden's Wahhabis in order to keep them from overthrowing the the House of Saud.

But the trajectory in this extremest direction is clear. And unwittingly we have been helpful in encouraging it by the very fact of our involvement After all, how would we feel, what would we do, where would we turn if a powerful outside force invaded and occupied our country? Don't you think that extremist elements in our own country--in the NRA or Tea Party, for example--would attempt to take control of the situation? I suspect the militias and dead-enders would be more effective in grabbing power than our political and economic elites.

If all else fails for McCain and Graham, there's always Benghazi. Who would have thought I'd be missing their third amigo, old Joe Lieberman.

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Wednesday, May 08, 2013

May 8, 2013--Another Down Day

Medical things are moving along but I need a day of rest. I plan to return tomorrow. I will return tomorrow, Thursday

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

May 7, 2013--Yassar Arafat and Led Zeppelin

When president, toward to end of his second term, in July 2000, stymied on the domestic front as are  all lame duck presidents, Bill Clinton turned to foreign policy and came very close to brokering a deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that would have created a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel that could have led to the possibility of lasting peace, and to Noble Prizes all around.
Clinton was so involved with the intimate details during the Camp David summit—including knowing which streets in Jerusalem would be Israeli and which controlled by Palestine—that he so persuasively overwhelmed Israel prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority chairman, Yassar Arafat that they came stunningly close to signing on to the Clinton-negotiated plan.
Sadly, it is claimed that Arafat, at the last moment, after it appeared he would agree to the deal, walked away, fearing the political repercussions back home from more uncompromising Palestinians.
So it comes as little surprise that late last year Clinton attempted to negotiate another diplomatic coup—getting Led Zeppelin to agree to reunite and preform for one night at a benefit for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
But as with Arafat and Barak, he once again failed.
The CBS "60 Minutes Overtime" webcast reported Monday that the former president was enlisted to ask the British rock stars to perform together. David Saltzman of the Robin Hood Foundation says he and film executive Harvey Weinstein flew to Washington to ask Clinton to make the pitch. Led Zeppelin's surviving members Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and Jimmy Page were in Washington just before the Sandy concert for the Kennedy Center Honors. But they turned Clinton down.
There is no word on the record as to how Bill Clinton took the rejection. Obviously, less was at stake than at Camp David but, still, poor Bill Clinton can’t seem to catch a break.

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Monday, May 06, 2013

May 6, 2013--Day Off

I have some medical things to attend to this week and hope to be back here tomorrow.

Friday, May 03, 2013

May 3, 2013--Hollywood On the Potomac

When Roone Arledge, the programming genius behind the ascent and profitability of ABC Sports (remember "Wide World of Sports" and the original "Monday Night Football"?), was asked to also take responsibility for the failing ABC News division, I knew it was all over.

By "all over" I mean the end of keeping journalism and entertainment separate. From then on, especially on television, the dominant medium of the time, profit would rule; and in order to have TV news make money, it would be necessary to make reporting and news itself entertaining.

Cut to last weekend's White House correspondents dinner.

Seated at the same table, laughing at president Obama's jibes and jokes, were Bill O'Reilly (of FOX so-called News) and Anton Scalia (of the Supreme Court). Just across from them were Wolf Blitzer (of CNN) and Sharon Stone (of Basic Instinct) and nearby were Chris Matthews (of MSNBC) and Scarlett Johansson (of Lost in Translation).

Even Joan Rivers was on hand, keeping an eye on the red carpet (yes, this year, they actually instituted one) to offer up her snarky comments about Barbra Streisand's and Sofia Vergara's gowns and dos.

Most striking and revealing was the number of actors and producers present who either currently or in the recent past have been involved in film and TV projects set in Washington, more specifically in the White House.

Presidential intimate Valery Jarrett and UN ambassador Susan Rice were seen competing for air time with the cast of HBO's Veep, ABC's Scandal, and Netflix's House of Cards.

Also front and center were Michael Douglas who played the president in The American President and Claire Danes, the star of Showtime's thriller, Homeland. Even the terrorist heavy from Homeland, Navid Negahhan, who played Abu Nazir was in the house. As reported by the New York Times, Amy Poehler said, "I thought we killed Osama bin Laden."

I suppose it's good to see some bin Laden jokes and to know that, even though the White House and the Congress can't get anything done, at least they can entertain us.

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Thursday, May 02, 2013

May 2, 2013--New New York

Since we try to catch up on trends while in New York City, it was fortuitous that a double issue of New York Magazine--"The Best of New York"-- awaited us in our mailbox.
They do this every year and, as usual, the first article was about restaurants, because everything new and trendy gets played out more than anywhere else in the city's restaurant scene. 
For example, I learned that during the time we had been out of town, "Asian fusion" cuisine has been replaced by "Asian hipster" cuisine. So to get with things we had to figure out the difference--what is the meaning of hipster when applied to food? Where do we go to find the best of it? And what now constitutes hipster dress since I didn't want to look like a lapsed snowbird when sampling some?
New York Magazine food critic Adam Platt, tries to help--
Long ago, Asian fusion was the all the rage in trendy culinary circles, but these days Asian Hipster is the fashionable phrase on many jaded Manhattan chowhounds’ lips. At his eponymous West Village restaurant, Wong, on Cornelia Street, the talented Simpson Wong dresses his light, temperate Southeast Asian creations with sunflower sprouts (on shrimp fritters) and shiitake mushrooms (over rice noodles), but if you’re in the market for a stout Chang-style feast, try the appropriately named typhoon lobster, which Wong and his chefs toss, in grand neo-Cantonese style, with curry leaves, crispy garlic, and industrial amounts of ground pork.
Get it?

And, I learned, that in order to blend in, a hipster jacket from Rag & Bone would be a good idea. As incredible as it may seem, since a friend works for R&B, I already have one in my closet and so I am all set. Rona, on the other hand, is not so uptight; and whenever we head out for typhoon lobster she’ll be just fine.
More striking is Platt’s list of the best restaurants in the city. To me this usually means in Manhattan.
Technically, the “City” consists of all five boroughs—but what could possible be best in a place like the Bronx much less Staten Island? A ride on the ferry? And Brooklyn? That’s where Rona and I were born and raised; and we spent decades—like millions of ambitious others—desperately trying to figure out how to get out and find our way to the City—the real city, Manhattan--across the East River. That, after all, is why more than 100 years ago they built the Brooklyn Bridge. 
But fully half the restaurants Platt listed as New York’s best are in Brooklyn. Most of those in Williamsburg. Where, New York tells us, are found the best real hipster and “indie rockers.” It’s also where the hottest of hot HBO series is based—Girls. Lena Dunham’s creation that captures depressingly well the vacuous lives of her generation of young people. Especially those from over-privileged backgrounds who are being subsidized by their parents. How else can these under-employed 20-somethings afford $7.50 lattes and apartments that begin at a million-two?
The Brooklyn I remember had a few local Chinese restaurants like the Golden Ox and Italian places such the Tower of Pisa. Shrimp with lobster sauce was featured on Kings Highway and spaghetti and meatballs at the Tower in East Flatbush.
But at Parish Hall in the new Williamsburg, where the Satmar Hasids and old Polish immigrants are being squeezed out by soaring real estate prices, you can order grass-fed lamb tartare, steamy bowls of Cayuga-flour dumplings threaded with turnips and Swiss chard, and wedges of a classic French pear tart for dessert, which the kitchen tops with scoops of vanilla ice cream flavored with the faintest hint of blue cheese.
Suddenly ravenous, I asked Rona, "Do you know anything about Cayuga flour?"

Ruefully, she said, "I think we've been out of town too long."

"Though I don't know," I said, "about ice cream with blue cheese."

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