Friday, February 28, 2014

February 28, 2014--Afghanistan 2006

Kevin O'Leary was a guest last week on CNBC's Squawk Box. He is the chairman of the $1.5 billion O'Leary Fund and a co-host of Shark Tank, a TV reality show that has budding entrepreneurs pitching their business ideas to self-made millionaire investors.

During his Squawk appearance he and the hosts got into a discussion about corporate tax rates. Currently, the U.S. federal rate is 35% and is in the news as Republicans in Congress are once more pressing to have it lowered to 25%, claiming that having a 35% rate puts us at a competitive disadvantage with corporations in other countries, even socialist ones such as France where the rate tops out at  33.33%. (And while they're at it, they want to cut individual top rates from 39.6% also to 25%.)

In the UK, the GOP points out, the top rate is only 23%, in Germany 29.55%, in Denmark 25%, Norway has a top rate of 28%, and in uber-socialist Sweden it is just 22%.

Taking even right-of-center hosts Joe Kernen and Becky Quick by surprise, O'Leary said he advocated a zero tax rate for corporate profits. The same rate that prevailed in Afghanistan in 2006.

To his astonished hosts who demurred, he argued that this would allow corporations to take their resulting increased profits and invest them in corporate expansion or investment in job-creating enterprises.

Becky Quick in particular went uncharacteristically ballistic. She is usually stone faced. It's her signature persona. Being inscrutable and unflappable. But O'Leary's proposal was even too much for her and she let him have it, lecturing him that people like her and him who are among the top 1% of earners should be willing to pay their fair share in taxes, at least as much as at present.

Rhetoric aside--and what she said was rhetoric infused--what she and other co-host Andrew Ross Sorkin failed to do was cite the overwhelming, widely-available evidence about the actual rate companies pay in taxes. Not the rate that's on the books.

If on average corporations pay, say, 25-30%, maybe there is a case to be made to lower the official rate to help make them globally competitive. If there is evidence that companies that have figured out strategies to pay less in taxes and as a result have been actual job creators, again, there may be a  case to be made to significantly lower taxes for all corporations.

But the evidence readily at hand was never presented. O'Leary was never confronted with the fact that on average, large corporations' effective rate is just 12.6% in federal taxes. Even taking into consideration what they pay in state and foreign taxes, their actual (as opposed to on-the-books) rate is 16.9%.

And there is no evidence that shows a positive correlation between effective tax rates and job creation.

I'm not sure how O'Leary would have responded, but at least the discussion would have been fact-, not opionion-based.

If I know these numbers from Congressional Budget Office studies, I do not understand why Quick and Sorkin, who do this for a very nice living, wouldn't as well.

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Thursday, February 27, 2014

February 27, 2014--Migraine

I have one and so there will be no blogging for me today. I expect to be in better shape on Friday.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

February 26, 2014--Success

For some reason many people I know, of all ages, though mainly ones solidly middle-aged, have been talking about success--theirs--or lack thereof.

I've been thinking about it too and doing some reading, though, as a pretty-much retired person, in my case it is a retrospective look-back and conversation with myself.

Here's a little of what I've come up with. Some of it upsetting.

Since pretty much every society from global civilizations to isolated indigenous tribes, during all of recorded history, are organized in some sort of social hierarchy, success here, there, and everywhere, ancient and current, is linked to however distinctions are made within those tiered social structures.

Some value money and possessions more than others; some value wisdom more than youth and ambition; some reward spiritual vision more than physical prowess; while others select among those with the most of this kind of prowess when seeking, anointing, or following leaders.

Though what is valued varies this widely, and in even more ways, again in all instances and through all time, ultimately we find societies hierarchically structured with people in one way or another well aware of where they stand, where they are comparatively positioned, who is above them and, just as important, below.

Cultural anthropologists, especially those of an evolutionary bent, see the ways in which people are arranged in a society essential to survival and the very fact of universal hierarchies suggests that hierarchy itself is adaptive--essential to species survival. In other words, we have a better chance of surviving, thriving if we are arranged in social groups with clear distinctions among members. It makes us more formidable.

In most of the West it is thought, or necessary for our national narrative, that these social distinctions are not immutable (we do not, for example, believe in a caste system or see it to be "natural") and therefore there are opportunities for social mobility. Up and, alas, down. This, it is claimed, is in effect natural, based on natural social and cultural laws, perhaps socially constructed ones, but still having the force of "law."

Equally important in societies such as ours where there is the belief that the ultimate place one finds oneself in the social order is based more on merit than inheritance (though much economic theory sees heritability as a powerful predictor of one's ultimate status), in order for there to be social stability, people who do not achieve as much as they strive for, or feel qualified for, must come away reasonably reconciled to how well things turned out for them.

Here's where it gets complicated--the process of reconciliation.

If we live in a meritocracy and one does not "succeed," what is the explanation we tell ourselves when we wind up frustrated, with less than we hoped for, or felt we deserved? How do we reconcile ourselves to how things turned out for us when we are disappointed?

In conversations I have been having, I am finding a matrix of reconciliation behavior that troubles me.

Many tell me that they are less successful than they had hoped and (here's the disturbing part) are not doing as well as their talents, intelligence, hard work, ambition should in fairness have yielded. I am hearing a great deal about how unfair the process itself is--that if one did not go to the right schools, get the right advice, did not have the right parents, were not the right gender, ethnicity, age then things were rigged against them.

Further, even among people who I do know are not belief-driven, people who pride themselves, justifiably, in their ability to be rational and clear-thinking, I am hearing what sounds like a belief in destiny. I don't know what else to call it.

That, in a sense, things are not unfair or rigged but in many ways are predetermined. For some this takes a DNA path--geniuses are cited as examples to make the larger case. It is felt that DNA, not one's particular life circumstances, talents, efforts is destiny.

I see these merging explanations to be part of a reconciliation system in which one comes, often unhappily, to accept one's "lot in life" without having to take responsibility for one's ultimate "fate."

Things are either rigged or destined, the story goes, and since no matter what I do, no matter how worthy I am, there is no real chance that my ambitions can be realized or talents recognized. So, ultimately, why even try since these things are beyond my control and, here's the rub, responsibility.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

February 25, 2014--Two Young Friends

I have two young friends, recent college graduates, who were hired by Google to do significant work.

Both are liberal arts graduates with just BA degrees; and, since I know next to nothing about what kind of work is available for art and communication major types at a place such as Google, I wondered what the H.R. folks there might have had in mind when they made lucrative job offers and what they might have seen in my friends to inspire them to hire them.

This wondering is in the context of knowing many more senior friends--people in the 50s and 60s--who are frustrated that they have not yet achieved the levels of success they feel qualified for, prepared for, perhaps entitled to in their own careers. These older friends, in search of explanations for their own self-defined lack of success tend more to look askance (I'm being nice here) at these newbies than at what they bring, or do not bring to cutting-edge companies and organizations. These older friends often fail to look within themselves to discover their strengths and limitations and, in doing that, figure out what they, even at 55 or older, might do to make themselves more viable, more competitive.

I've been wondering about this for some time and haven't been able to figure it out. I know that's in large part because I too am feeling "aged out."

Then there was help from Tom Friedman's column in Sunday's New York Times in which he extensively quotes Laszlo Bock, Senior Vice President of People Operations (I love his title) at Google.

In case you missed the Friedman piece, here is some of what Bock shared with him--
G.P.A.'s are worthless as a criteria for hiring. We also found that they don't predict anything. Good grades certainly don't hurt. [But] there are five hiring attributes we have across the company. 
If it's a technical role, we assess your coding ability, and half the roles in the company are technical. For every job, though, the number one thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it's not I.Q. It's learning ability. It's the ability to process on the fly. It's the ability to pull together disparate bits of information. 
The second is leadership--in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership. Traditional leadership is, were you the president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there? 
We don't care. What we care about is when faced with a problem and you're a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what's critical is to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power. 
What else? Humility and ownership. It's feeling the sense of responsibility, the sense of ownership, to step in to try to solve any problem--and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others. 
Without humility you are unable to learn. It's why research shows that many graduates of hotshot business schools plateau. Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don't learn how to learn from it. 
They, instead, commit the fundamental attribution error, which is if something good happens, it's because I'm a genius. If something bad happens, it's because someone's an idiot.What we've seen is that people who are successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They'll argue like hell. They'll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, 'Here's a new fact,' and they'll go, 'Oh, well, that changes things; you're right.' You need a big ego and a small ego in the same person at the same time. 
The least important thing we look for is expertise. If you take someone who has high cognitive ability, is innately curious, willing to learn, and has emergent leadership skills, and you hire them as a H.R. person or finance person, and they have no content knowledge, and you compare them with someone who's been doing just one thing and is a world expert, the expert will go, 'I've seen this 100 times before; and here's what you do.' 
Most of the time the nonexpert will come up with the same answer because most of the time it's not that hard. Sure, once in a while they will mess it up, but once in a while they'll come up with an answer that is totally new. And there is huge value in that.
Now I am beginning to understand why Google hired my two liberal-artsy friends. What Bock describes is just how I think about them.

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Monday, February 24, 2014

February 24, 2014--Snowbirding--At Publix

Rona was planning to bake oatmeal cookies and needed a few ingredients--sugar, dried currents, oat meal, and butter.

Publix was not crowded and it took just 15 minutes to round things up. Even the checkout lines were shorter than unusual--it was a beautiful afternoon and we assumed everyone was either at the park or on the beach. But after paying and halfway to the parking lot, Rona slapped her thigh and said, "Butter!"


"Can you believe it, I forgot the butter. Sit there for a minute and I'll go back to get some."

The "there" was a bench right by the entrance which is usually where elderly folks sit while waiting for the bus to take them back to their assisting-living places in west Delray. I had never sat there or wanted to be seen anywhere near those benches--I didn't want anyone to confuse me with the ladies from Brookside.

"I'm fine hanging out here by the ice cube chest. You'll only be a minute so I'll be fine and  . . ."

"You look exhausted. We've been running around all day and it's hot and humid. Sit. It won't kill you."

"If it won't kill you maybe it won't kill me," a woman on the bench who looked to be well into her 90s called to me and patted the space just to the right of her.

She sensed my hesitation and smiled, tapping the cushion again. "Come. As your niece says, you look exhausted."

"She's my wife," I said, examining the bags of ice cubes, humming to myself.

"Sorry Dearie. My eyes aren't what they used to be. Nothing is like it used to be," she laughed, "But I can see, if I squint, that she's maybe older than she looks. And maybe," she was quick to add, "you aren't as old as I was thinking." Again she chuckled. "Living here everyone, everything looks old. The only young people I see are the aides where I live and some of the shoppers. Which is why I sit here. The bus takes us to shop but I don't shop. What do I need from Publix? Brookside gives us everything we need."

She pointed again at the seat next to her and nodded her head toward it to indicate it was for me.

I was tired, that was true, and so with a shrug of resignation I plopped down next to her.

"Isn't that better? Rest while your wife does the shopping. What else is there to do." She didn't pose this as a question.

"Well, actually, lots of things." I didn't want to appear to be agreeing with her. "All we need is butter. We, she, Rona is baking oatmeal cookies and we forgot the butter. And I'm . . ."

"Like you said, doing 'lots of things.'" She smiled knowingly.

About what she was knowing I wasn't sure, but it felt as if she was having fun at my expense. There was an edge to her, which I generally like in someone her age. But not when directed at me, especially when I'm overtired. All we needed was a pound of butter. What I needed was a nap. I hadn't been sleeping well and the humidity and pollen in the air were getting to me.

"So you live here?"

"Not really. We're here for the winter primarily to be near my mother, who is quite old. She's good, but still . . ."

"I know the 'but still' business. My son lives in Chicago and comes four or five times a year for visits. He's retired and could be here more; but . . . "

"I also know the 'but' business." I thought fair was fair in the needling business.

"I know what you're thinking. But still it's better this way."

"What way is that?"

"Visiting, not living. Though, like you he could be a snowbird. It's so cold in Chicago." She sighed, then added, "To tell you the truth, I'm glad my son only comes for visits. I don't want him to turn into me."

"To tell you the truth . . . ," I tried to say.

"The truth is that you actually like it here." I attempted to remain expressionless. "You don't want to admit that. You say you're here because of your mother, but I can tell. You look to me like you're enjoying living here in spite of yourself."

"I don't live here." I didn't understand why I had allowed myself to be drawn into this. I was tired and . . .

"OK. I misspoke. You don't live here. Have it your way. But, you do like it here? No?"

"In a way," I confessed under my breath, hoping she wouldn't hear. And then, to change the subject, I said, "I wonder what's keeping Rona. All she needed was butter."

"But you hate it, don't you, that if you told people you live here or spend half the year here they'll think you're an alta cocka, which means . . ."

"I know what it means."

"That you don't like. For people to think of you that way."

"Do you?"

"I hate it." The intensity of her response surprised me. "People look at me, actually they avoid looking at me because they think I'm just a little-old-lady. They know nothing about me but that's all they see. Or rather try not to see. Like I don't exist." She paused then said, "I hate being old. Living the way I do. With people half of whom don't know who they are or only talk about their 'conditions,'" she made air quotes, "and their grandchildren. They're like clichés--complaining about how their children never call or visit."

"I know what you mean," I said softly.

"So you're lucky to still have your mind and such a beautiful wife. Even if she wasn't so beautiful you would still be lucky. Just having someone is lucky." I was glad to see she was smiling.

"I don't know what to say. But I am . . ."

"Lucky. Say it. You can say it."

I said, "Lucky."

"Does that make you feel better?" She had turned to face me.

"Yes, but . . . not really."


"Because that means that tomorrow I could be just as unlucky as I am lucky today."

"That sounds very complicated--lucky today, unlucky tomorrow. Remember I'm a little-old-lady with only half a mind."

"That I doubt."

"Doubt what?"

"The half-a-mind business."

"So why did he put me in Brookside?"

"He being?"

"My wonderful son."

"Are you being sarcastic?"

"Partly," she confessed and then interrupted herself, "Look. See what I mean?" She was pointing to a thirty-something couple with two young tow-headed children who had entered the store. "That's why I like sitting here. See how happy they look. It reminds me of when I was younger and looked forward to the future. Now to me the future looks less happy. In fact, not happy at all."

"But you're . . ."

"Like I told you, a little-old-lady."

"In a nice place, well taken care of, with a son who calls and visits, and . . ."

"A little-old-lady," she repeated with a flat voice.

"Old, yes," I said, "But not little."

"If I could stand up I would show you little."

"That's not what I'm talking about. Not how tall or short you are but . . ."

"I appreciate you're trying to make me feel better. That's very sweet of you." She touched my arm. "But soon you'll see what I mean. I mean you won't turn into a little-old-lady, but there is the inevitable." She sighed and said, "I don't know what made me say these things to you."

"That's all right," I said, "I understand."

"Maybe yes. Maybe no. Well," she began to get up using her walker for support, "I think I see my bus. They're here to collect me. To take me back." She shook her head about that prospect.

"Can I help you?" I stood up and reached out to help her.

"I'm fine thank you. That is, for a little-old-lady." She laughed as she shuffled toward the door.

At the same time Rona reappeared. "What you been up to?" she asked showing me the butter.

"Nothing much," I lied. "Just hanging out waiting for you."

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Friday, February 21, 2014

February 21, 2014--Monday

Monday is when I will return with thoughts about impulse control.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

February 20, 2014--"365"

I believe I've reported here that I am addicted to the TV series West Wing.

Too busy to watch it from 1999 to 2006, the seven years it was on, thanks to the miracle of streaming and blessed now with time, about two months ago we began watching the first of the 154 episodes of, thinking that if it didn't grab us, we'd move on to House of Cards or some such.

We'll, just yesterday morning we watched episode 124, "356," which begins with President Jeb Bartlet delivering his last State of the Union address.

Other WW addicts will know that in this episode, former Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, returns to the White House after heart bypass survey to help restore order to the chaos his leaving caused. In addition, many of the senior staff have left to work on various presidential campaigns since Bartlet cannot run again and as a result things in the White House are not going well.

Bartlet's Multiple Sclerosis has worsened; and for the final year of his term, he and the staff are just running out the clock. Forgotten are all the big issues they took on earlier. A sense of malaise and finality has settled over 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

We see Leo watching videos of President Bartlet's previous seven States of the Union, which had me thinking Leo was longing for the good-old-days when he and Bartlet were healthy and, as a team joined at the hip, the two most powerful people in the world. I suspected that after watching the videos and becoming fully depressed, Leo would head home and never return to work.

But instead, he has dinner in the Residence with the president and during it takes the opportunity to read his old friend the riot act--reminding him that there are 365 days remaining in his presidency and rather than phoning it in and then calling it a day, he should stop feeling sorry for himself, assemble the staff, and tell them it is time for new ideas and that, at the minimum, they should go out fighting for the things they came to Washington to do.

By the end of the episode, Leo is seen refurnishing his office and the staff are again fired up and ready for one last big-time go-round.

This made me think that with 1063 days remaining in Obama's presidency (more days than John F. Kennedy served), he should call his staff into the Oval Office, show them "365," and remind them about what inspired him to run for the presidency and attracted them to work for him.

As Leo put it, "Let's leave it all out on the field."

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

February 19, 2014--The $44.2 Million Man

In this land of plenty, salaries are outrageous. Especially at the low end.

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 and hour, which means that if you have a 40-hour-a-week minimum-wage job you make $15,080 a year. Well below the poverty level of $23,550 for a family of four.

At the other end of the spectrum, they are even more outrageous.

Corporate CEOs are among the most extravagantly paid.

Jamie Diamond of JPMorgan Chase, in spite of the fact that on his watch the bank agreed to settle federal lawsuits for $20.0 billion, in 2013 was paid $20.0 million in salary and bonuses. That comes to a neat $9,615 an hour.

Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, in spite of the fact that Goldman was successful sued by the Feds for upwards of $1.0 billion, was paid $14.7 million last year.

Michael Duke, CEO of Walmart, with thousands of stores and hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide, with annual sales topping $470 billion, was paid $20 million in 2013.

The new CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, will earn $14.4 million this year, partly because GM doesn't want to be accused of sexism if they paid her anything less.

At the higher end of the CEO scale, Tim Cook of Apple, netted a cool $40 million in 2013.

Turning to sports, LeBron James of the Miami Heat is earning earned $19.1 million from the team and will bank much more than that from his various endorsements and TV commercials.

If Alex Rodriquez were permitted to play this year for the New York Yankees, he would have taken home a cool $25 million. Instead, he is suspended for the season because of illegal drug use and will take home zilch. But not to worry, after 2014, the Yanks will still owe him $61 million, whether or not he ever plays another game.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig made less than A-Rod. "Only" about $18 million.

Gary Bettman, National Hockey League commissioner made a measly $8.3 million in 2012, the last year figures were published.

Then there is the $44.2 million dollar man--Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League, where star quarterback Payton Manning makes "just" $18.0 million per.

Not a bad deal for a league that plays a 16-week season and then a month of playoffs, culminating in the Super Bowl.

What does the NFL commissioner do to justify receiving such an annual fortune? How many auto plants around the world is he responsible for? How many trillions in investments does he manage? And for that matter, how many touchdown passes did Goodell complete? How many quarterback sacks? And has he ever had any concussions?

And what are we talking about? Over-steroided post-adolecents running up and down a field in shoulder pads and helmets. To oversee this they give the commissioner more than $40 million a year? How we have lost our way.

To top off the Goodell story, as reported in the New York Times, there is a part of the NFL that is set up as a not-for-profit. All well and good if that is to fund charitable activities; but it also appears that it is a cover-operation to slip tens of millions to Goodell, whose on-the-books, for-profit salary last year was a paltry $3.5. The rest, nearly $40 million, came from the non-profit organization.

As I said--outrageous.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

February 18, 2014--Snowbirding--VOTA

"VOTA? VOTA 12 de Marzo? What you make of that?"

Our car needed a major service and, since we have just one, the mechanic, clearly agitated, had come to pick us up to retrieve it after he had completed the work.

Sputtering, he was pointing to a sign in the median on Federal Highway.

"I suppose," I said, "it's to remind people to vote March 12."

"But VOTA? Marzo?" He said with a heavy accent.

"Well," I said as if to myself, knowing where this was likely headed, "It also says VOTE March 12th."

"And," he bellowed toward Rona who was in the back seat, "It also say VOTE 12 Mas. What this Mas business?"

Our of the corner of my eye I saw her twist toward the window on the other side of the road away from the sign. To look as causal and unengaged as possible, as if she hadn't heard him.

I was sitting to his right and it wasn't possible for me to pretend we had been talking about the weather. Which we had been until he noticed the sign.

"If they can't reading English, because that's what is going on, why they allowed to vote? Isn't it enough we let them in country? And put them on welfare? And give food stamps? And health."  He looked over at me, wanting me to get involved. It was clear he intended this to be more than a rant. Still, I tried to ignore him.

"You have to be citizen to vote, no?" I tried not to look at him. "I assume still that's true. But considering what going on here, you never know. Maybe these days they get off the boat and they take them right to vote."

"Rona said, "Aren't those new condos?" She was pointing to a new building development well off to the right, hoping to deflect his line of thought.

"Some country we become. To vote you no longer need to speak English. Vota, Marzo, Mas. When I came from Russia no one give me nothing. Nothing. What I have," he gestured at his Mercedes SUV, "this car, everything, I work hard to get. Nobody gave me nothing."

"Maybe the opportunity?" I mumbled.

"Speak louder. I cannot hear. I deaf in this ear."

Not knowing what possessed me to get involved, I repeated, louder this time, "Maybe what America gave you was an opportunity?"

"To work hard. No handouts. No Russian signs to vote. I had to become citizen first. And to be citizen I had to take test. Test in English. What language is that Marzo in?" he asked, seemingly calmed down. Perhaps because I had responded.

"I think Spanish," Rona said from the back seat.

"So if Spanish," he said, "What Mas?"

"I'm not sure," she said, "Could be Haitian."

"Haitian! They let Haitians vote though they can't read sign in English?" He slammed his hands on the steering wheel. The car swayed side-to-side.

"First they let them sneak into country, then they take them to polling booth. Like in Russia."

"What do you mean?" I ventured.

"They have what they call elections there and then don't let half people run for president who want so what does vote mean? It's just like what is happening here. America is soon to be like Russia. Where I have to go next?"

"I think this is hardly a fair comparison," I said.

"You call that fair?" He pointed at another voting reminder sign as we approached Delray.

"I don't remember these kinds signs when I was first here six years ago."

"I seem to," I said, again under my breath. We still had about five minute to go before getting to his garage and felt we had already gotten into this deeply enough.

"It's because of him." I now knew for certain where this was headed. "Him." He pointed north as if to Washington and lapsed into a silent rage. Though, shaking his head, I thought I heard him mumbling something in Russian.

"Look at my hands. These" he took both hands off the steering wheel and held them toward me. The car, clearly perfectly maintained, did not waver. "You see grease." His finger nails and knuckles were in fact deeply stained. "From vorking, not voting." For the first time he smiled, which calmed me.

"That's my point," I tried. "How America gave you the opportunity to . . ."

"Vork like monkey." His smile broadened. "Look, I'm not bigot. I wish for these people same that I had. To vork hard, have a nice place to live, children, nice car just like mine." He gently stroked the steering wheel. "Become Americans. Like me. Real ones. Not with this Vota and Marzo. I do not grudge them voting if they are citizens, but signs like this we not need. Not need helping with everything you need. Food, health, house. Everything." He nodded his head, now grinning, as if he had made an unassailable case. "Need to vork for that."

"There is a point to what you're saying," I acknowledged. "That I'll grant you. But for me there has to be a balance between providing opportunities and making sure people who live here--especially if they are legally here or citizens--don't fall through the cracks and that the playing field is level."

"You're spouting clichés," Rona said leaning forward and sounding frustrated. "'Falling through the cracks.' 'Level playing fields.' "Liberals like us have to have better arguments than that. Just offering clichés is not persuasive or fair to people who are working as hard as Alex." I was impressed she remembered his name.  "Is it fair to say to him, who clearly has worked hard for everything he has, who probably never got anything for free, who maybe is having trouble paying for health insurance and his mortgage and . . ."

"That's me," Alex said. "My house, how you say, is underwater."

" . . . and wants to play by the rules, drives around with four-dollar-a-gallon gas in his car and sees signs in Creole reminding people to vote. We have to do better than responding to his frustrations by offering clichés about opportunity and fairness. Because I suspect to him, things are not looking all that fair. Why should they? Do you," she meant me, "Do you think things are fair? Even to you?"

"You're making my points better than me," Alex said, twisting toward Rona.

We rode the rest of the way in silence. Our car was indeed ready and immaculate.

Driving home, I asked Rona, "Does his asking to be paid in cash so he and we could save on paying tax qualify as leveling the playing field and playing by the rules?"

"He probably would say he wants to play by the same rules as the big boys on Wall Street.'

"Touché," I said. "I suppose in America these days equal opportunity also means everyone being able to look for every loophole they can find."

"Alex couldn't have said it better!"

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

February 17, 2014--Saturday Special

In case you missed it, instead of something new from me today, scroll down to find Sharon's guest blog about Valentine's Day. I think you'll find it to be amusing.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

February 15, 2014--Saturday Special--My Funny Valentine ('s Day Gift)

This fun piece is from guest blogger Sharon--

Trained to look at the past to understand the present, I view my changing expectations for Valentine's Day a brew of early memories fermented by life's experiences.
Two gifts bestowed upon my mother by my dad provided a baseline for both how it's done and what not to do. Early on, no more than ten years into their marriage, my mom received a gold charm bracelet with a single gold heart. At six or seven years old I interpreted this as a positive signal about my parent's relationship. About fifteen years later my mom's gift looked like a St. Christopher medallion, only she wasn't Catholic, it wasn't silver and it was so ugly that not only my mom but even the kids (at least my sister and I) were appalled.
Early on in our marriage, my expectations were influenced by these events. I actually "rescued" the discarded medallion from an ashtray and kept it as a reminder of what you didn't want as a symbol of affection twenty five years in. This was complicated by a husband who liked to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas, but saw Valentine's Day as a Hallmark holiday.
In "How to Be a Better Valentine, Through Economics," Paul Oyer a professor of Economics at Stamford University's Graduate School of Business looks at the common view of successful Valentine's Day exchanges as measured by the amount spent per person and offers some alternatives. His prescription for a more successful Valentine's Day: "Figure out how to signal to your mate that you really care, spend money on yourself, and stop hoping for perfection . . ."
So in that spirit, when my snowed-in husband apologized for not being able to get out to contribute to this year's per person spent, I pointed out that both of us had already given and received the best gift. Earlier in the day, I had signaled I really cared by texting a local snow removal team, spent money on myself by paying them the equivalent of a REALLY nice dinner for two and my husband reciprocated by not refusing. As he was teleworking, he didn't mind having to stop for three hours to shovel, so this gift wasn't just for me.
As for passing on perfection, I'm sure he thought I was making a bigger deal than necessary (although shoveling 14 inches of wet, heavy snow is a big deal) and I remembered the days when in our 30s he was the one that made our landlord's wife happy shoveling the snow around our Connecticut rental, even though our 70-something landlord looked like he could still take someone down in a prizefight. My countervailing memory though was our 40-something neighbor who had a fatal heart attack shoveling out her car.
So, while TV news today focuses on the impact of the snow on floral deliveries, the story which caught my attention was the three local shovelers, all UNDER 60, who won't be around to celebrate 
At the risk of this sounding like "the real meaning of Christmas" story, although I like chocolate, flowers and things that sparkle as much or more than the next guy, a while back I realized the more important lesson from childhood wasn't what gifts were exchanged, but how you treat and regard someone over time.
And as for that bracelet, my mom must have sold it when the price of gold spiked in 1980. It was never really her taste anyway.
For the entire Oyer article see:

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Friday, February 14, 2014

February 14, 2014--Bald News

Here's some scary big-data stuff from first thing this morning--

I logged on to the Daily Kos to see what the political progressives are up to and to check the reactions to something I posted there yesterday.

Kos, which started out without generating income in mind, is now about as full of pop-up ads as Facebook. Maybe not Facebook, but heading in that direction.

I tend not to pay attention to the ads, clicking on the X or Close if that's possible.

For some reason, today I paused to take a look and there were two or three ads pitched to bald people. From the Hair Club for Men, for example.

What's with this, I wondered.

Then of course I realized it's undoubtedly because I'm pretty bald.

OK, if I had bought some Rogaine on line, I could understand. But I never had. Not that or anything similar, like Just For Men.

It has to be because there is face-recognition software that, from my Facebook or Behind the New York Times picture, has figured out that I could use a little work up top.

It's one thing to use this sort of technology at airports or to track down bombing suspects (the Boston Marathon comes to mind), but to identify guys with thinning hair?

This is getting to be too much.

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

February 13, 2014--Ladies of Forest Trace: Three Saturdays

An hour into our most recent visit, for the third time my mother asked, "Is it Saturday?"

And for the third time I said, "No, Mom, it's Monday."

"So you see, as I keep telling you, I am losing my memory." Looking at me, as if to explain, she pointed to her temples. "Soon I won't know who I am."

"On the contrary," I tried to assure her, "Your memory is fine, even for someone much younger than you."

"Everyone's younger than me."

"That's remarkably true," I said, smiling proudly, "And wonderful."

"So why don't I know what day it is?" she persisted.

"Neither do I," I said, half truthfully.

Picking that up, she said with a sly smile, "You're just trying to make me feel better about myself."

"I am, that's true, but as you know, I always try to tell you the truth. Even when it might be unpleasant. Really," I continued, "I get mixed up too. If it weren't for the New York Times, when each day there's a different special section, I wouldn't know if it's Tuesday or Wednesday. The Tuesday Science Times helps as does Wednesday's Dining Section."

"Last week, for example," Rona joined in, "on Thursday I thought it was Saturday and on Friday too. Then, when it was actually Saturday, I thought it was Friday. Talk about being mixed up!"

"You're making me even more confused," my mother said. "I know you're trying to help, but you're not."

We both mouthed apologies.

"Let's assume you're at times mixed up about the days," I decided to press on. "In truth, what difference does that make?"

"Or the time, for that matter," Rona added. "Maybe only when it's time for dinner of to take a medication. Other than that, why is time any more important than what day of the week it is?"

"When you get to be my age, darling, everything you're still aware of will be important. Nothing is unimportant. We hold onto to whatever we can hold onto. Time is one of those things. And what day of the week it is. These may seem small to you, but to me they're very important. It's how I measure myself."

"Measure yourself?" I asked. "I'm not sure I'm following you."

"How well I'm doing. Or how not so well."

"I understand," Rona said more to me than to her. "You've always been such a perfectionist and for most of your life you met your own standards. And now maybe . . ."

"Maybe not very well."

"I disagree," I said, "Not with the measuring part, but with your self-assessment. You, for example, always prided yourself on your handwriting and . . ."

"How important is that? Handwriting?" She shook her head back and forth.

"Admittedly not the meaning of life, but I'm mentioning it to make a point."

"Make your point."

"And," I said," it's still much better than mine. Your handwriting."

"It looks like chicken scratching."

"My friends have trouble reading handwritten notes from me."

"I mean mine. My writing looks like it was done by a rooster."

"What does this have anything to do with what Mom wants to talk about," Rona admonished me.

"Sorry. Rona's right. I got us off on a tangent and . . ."

"That where I am these days. On a tangent. Just like you said, I'm living my life on a tangent."

"That's not what I said, Mom. I was trying to acknowledge that by my bringing up your handwriting I got us, you off on a tangent. I'm sorry. Let's get back to what's on your mind."

"That I think today's Saturday."

"And as I tried to say, who cares? Why should you or us for that matter care. Unless we have an appointment for dinner or something. I read the Times sometimes on Thursday. I mean, Tuesday's New York Times on Thursday. You see how mixed up and confused I am about the days of the week?"

"You're young," my mother insisted, "So there's no reason for you to care because you're still good upstairs." Again she tapped her temples. "When you . . ."

"I should only be so lucky. I hope if I only get to 90 I'll be half as good as you."

"Are you patron of me?" she asked.

"You mean am I patronizing you? No. Absolutely not. You're the last person in the world I would do that too. Why you're . . "

"All mixed up." She tried to hide a smile.

"You know, yesterday, which was Sunday," Rona said, also smiling, I didn't get out of my PJs all day."

"Your what Js?"

"PJs, pajamas." My mother nodded. "We didn't need to go out for anything and I was comfortable in them, so I didn't take them off."

"And I didn't shave."

"Many men don't shave on Saturday."

"Sunday," I corrected her. "But I always do. I don't know exactly why. Maybe it's a pride thing."

"Or something else," my mother said, I thought with a wink in Rona's direction.

"Something else?" I was confused again.

"You want to put a good face on to the world."

"I like your pun," Rona said.

"Or to yourself."

"To myself?"

"Yes, like I have been trying to tell you, when you get to be old--and you are also getting to be old." I shrugged as if to say I prefer that to the alternative. "Things like dates and times and shaving are important. As I said, as a measure. 'How am I doing?' you ask yourself. 'Do I know what day it is? Is it Saturday? or Monday?  Did I shave? Am I still wearing my PKs? Do I know where I am? Can I still hold a pen?'" She winked again. This time at me. "'Do I still know who I am?'"

At this last rhetorical question Rona and I exchanged a long look.

She sensed our anxiety. "I can still answer all of those questions," she said, this time to assure us.  "I know it's not Saturday. Tomorrow is another story."

I said, "Tomorrow will be Tuesday."

"Are you sure?" Rona, by far the youngest of us, asked. This time she winked.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

February 12, 2014--Busy With . . .

I am working on another Ladies of Forest Trace. It will be ready for posting tomorrow, Thursday.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

February 11, 2014--Again Mommy, Again

Some years ago I listened in as my New Jersey sister-in-law read a story to her four-year-old daughter.

What struck me was not so much the story--I think a weasel was prominently featured--but the rapt attention my niece paid to it. Also, though she could not as yet read, she appeared to be mouthing all the words. Clearly she had heard the story before. Certainly, many times to be able to lip-sink it so seamlessly.

And then at the end, I was fascinated to hear her say, "Again, mommy, again." At which time her mother without a shrug or sigh, read it again. And again. And then again. By which time my niece was fighting to fend off sleep.

That contributed to my lifelong interest in stories. Not just my loving to listen to them, or telling them, or attempting to write them, but by the seemingly universal interest all peoples have in stories. More fundamentally, appear to need them. Perhaps particularly those they have heard before like my niece, many, many times.

Can you name one society, one culture, one tribe--pre-historic, ancient, or contemporary--that does not depend upon stories? Not just for pleasure, not just for tribal or communal bonding, but perhaps even for survival.

Because if stories are so ubiquitous in evolutionary terms they must be "adaptive," which means they are needed for species survival. Equally as important as food, language, music, belief systems (which all have stories at their heart), rituals, mores, and social arrangements.

If true, all humans have, actually must have the same propensity, the same, may I say, biological need for stories as my four-year-old New Jersey niece.

Some claim that we shape our sense of personhood by the stories we tell and exhibit about ourselves. We shape into stories experiences for the purpose of sculpting a Self. There is no Self possible, it is thought, if one does not do this. There is no reality about ourselves except that which we create in this story-generating way.

Since post-modernists assert that reality is socially constructed--and not discoverable in any absolute way and then passed along as Truth--to me a persuasive contention--this fits the notion that we each socially construct who we are. Stories are the warp and weft of that life-long effort.

My earliest experience with this transformative, self-building process--beyond the stories my mother must have read to me that I was too young to recall--were the accounts of adventures my Cousin Chuck pursued as much for the stories he made of them as the adventures themselves.

There was one time when he and I camped overnight in a state park in the Catskills. I was a cub scout and knew about making fires and pitching a tent. He knew about neither. In fact, he was the least out-of-doors-oriented person I knew. To him, the out-of-doors was the neighborhood schoolyard. But he insisted on going camping.

So my father drive us to the site, said his goodbyes, wished us well, and said he'd be back for us in the morning.

I pitched a tent by myself, having sent Chuck out to gather firewood. He asked if he could have my cub scout knife in case he needed to defend himself.

I told him there were no bears for at least 20 miles but to indulge him and to get him out of the way so I could pitch the tent without his interference, I gave him the knife.

He returned after 15 minutes with a few twigs and branches. Barely enough for me to heat up the baked beans and grill the hot dogs my mother had packed for us.

As only beans and frankfurters cooked and eaten in the woods can taste, we thoroughly enjoyed our dinner, scattered the embers, slid into our sleeping bags, and proceeded to sleep like proverbial logs.

My father arrived right on time and found us packed and ready to go.

On the way home, during that 45 minutes, Chuck, in response to my father asking how we did, told a story, created a story worthy of James Fenimore Cooper. How the evening began with his struggle to subdue a grizzly bear that had penetrated out campsite and attempted to steal our food and how, after driving the bear back into the woods, we were attacked by swarms of bats and later lay awake all night listening to the howls of a nearby wolf, Chuck ever on-guard, protecting me, his younger cousin, with his 12-inch Bolo knife.

And then when we got back to the house the family was renting, my Dad had him tell the story over and over again to assorted cousins and aunts and uncles who had gathered for the weekend.

By the fifth telling, every one of which I listened to and savored, the one bear had become three, the lone wolf had become a pack, and his knife had grown to 14 inches.

This story lives on in family lore though Chuck prematurely departed this life. It not only reflects the self Chuck constructed but also has helped define our larger family. In the alchemic possibilities of America (also largely created through a national narrative more fiction than fact), we transformed ourselves from shtetl Jews into full-blooded Americans. Eager to take on whatever came our way. To become who we wanted to be. To become how we defined ourselves largely through our shape-shifting stories.

This all reminds me of Woody Allen's joke at the end of Annie Hall--
A guy walks into a psychiatrist's office and says, "Hey doc, my bother's crazy. He thinks he's a chicken!" 
Then the doc says, "Why don't you turn him in?" 
Then the guy says, "I would, but we need the eggs."
Indeed, we need the eggs.

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Monday, February 10, 2014

February 10, 2014--Hillary? Mitt? Bill? (Not that Bill)

We know Hillary's running.

There's a book just published, HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton, that provides behind-the-scenes glimpses of her tenure as Secretary of State, a book that could almost be considered a neo-version of the classic "campaign biography." And then there is Hillary's forthcoming book, also largely about her days in the Obama administration.

This will have the HRC authors, Jonathan Allen and Amie Rarnes, making the rounds of the talk shows--coming to Morning Joe I am sure this week--and Hillary herself at the end of the year, taking time off from $200,000-a-pop appearances, also appearing everywhere. All just in time to launch the unofficial stage of her campaign for the presidency. The official announcement will occur during the spring/summer of 2015.

So that's settled. Hillary is a go and, maybe, as reported over the weekend, so is Joe Biden. But he trails Clinton by about 65 points in the latest polls--65 points!--and so, unless there is a looming Clinton scandal (which with them can never be fully ruled out), this plan of Biden's sounds masochistic.

Then, what about the other side? What's happening with the Republicans?

Most dramatic and politically meaningful is the decline and soon-to-be-seen fall of Chris Christie. He was universally acknowledged to be Hillary's most potent opponent because of his ability to attract independent and undecided voters.

But with Christie ostensibly out of the race (no senior Republicans wants to be seen in the same room with him), who has a chance to secure the nomination and can plausibly beat Hillary in 2016?

Rand Paul has a chance to be nominated by the Tea Party and Libertarian GOP base, but in a general election against Hillary would fare as badly as Goldwater did against LBJ in 1964. Mike Huckabee also looks like a base-pandering contender but also would have general election problems--women, for example, will not forget his recent dumb comments about their "out-of-control libidos."

Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio still look like boy scouts. The half-dozen Republican governors talked about as possible candidates are all excruciatingly borrrring. Think Scott Walker and  Bobby Jindal. Jeb Bush has the Bush problem--he's the brother of George (and that's a problem) and Mama Bush has been saying enough already with the Bushes. (And, to be fair and balanced, enough already with the Clintons--more about that in a moment.) Newt, Michele, Rick and Rick, and--my personal favorite from last time around, Herman Cain--have all been there and done that.

In the face of this undistinguished field, the Harold Stassen of the 21st century (young folks google him to find out who he was), Mitt Romney, it is reported, is again beginning to crank things up.

He apparently will be talking very soon with wife Ann to see if she's OK with another campaign. Mitt's 10 or 12 or 15 sons are apparently all on board. The Romneys are finished renovating their California house, with its twin car elevators, and all Mrs. R's dressage horses and Cadillacs are in good shape, so, what the heck, the money's there, life is short, why not.

So with the prospect of Hillary versus Romney I'm having a back-to-the-past moment.

I think Barbara Bush is right--enough with the Bushes, Clintons, and, I'll add, Romneys. We need some outside-the-box candidates to help us think in new ways about how to solve our problems, grow our economy, and restore our place in the world.

Thus, I'm thinking about Bill. Not that Bill. He's inside the box and thankfully the Constitution will not allow him to run again. Not to mention Hillary who would have a few objections. In there cosmology, it's her turn. And then Chelsea's and then . . .

Get Barbara's and my point?

The Bill I'm thinking about is Bill Gates.

Beginning in a college dorm room (OK, it was at Harvard) he built one of the largest and most successful companies ever. Talk about being a job-creator. With all of Microsoft's limitations, its products changed the world for all time. And now as the operational head of the world's largest foundation, he has been intimately involved in education reform, health care, resource conservation, renewable energy, and many other things we as a country, as a society need to pay attention to.

I'm also interested in a president who has real experience running things, not just a Senate staff of five, and is not timid about holding people accountable. Ask Microsoft senior staff about Gate's leadership and fierce efforts to hold them accountable for their work. If people were to screw up in a Gate's administration they wouldn't be retained for months after messing up and then allowed to resign so they can claim to want to spend more time with their families. Enough of that.

We need more than change we can believe in.

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Friday, February 07, 2014

February 7, 2014--Day Off

I did not get a chance to prepare something for today but will return on Monday.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

February 6, 2014--The Middle Class

Finally the 1 percent or the 5 percent or the 20 percent are noticing that the middle class, what's left of it, is struggling and that is bad for them--"them" being the 1, 5, 20 percenters.

It's one thing when the economy is in almost total collapse (as it was in 2008) and how that makes it awkward for those hardly touched to live opulently. Openly opulent that is. (See below.) It's another thing, however, when the shrinking middle class and their shrinking disposable incomes are so reduced that there are no longer enough markets or customers to fuel the bottom lines of the privileged.

Now they are concerned. Concerned because a diminished middle class is bad for business and thus bad for their assets.

On the other hand, the high-end continues to do very well. "Luxury is not a dirty word anymore, reports a consultant with Robb Reports, a lifestyle magazine for wealthy readers. "In 2008, luxury was a dirty word."

No longer.

Maserati, with sales up 55 percent in 2013, is opening dealerships all across the United States and Rolls-Royce had its best, most profitable year last year. The CEO of The Collection, a luxury car dealership in Coral Gables, Florida, was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying that "People were pulling back when they had to let people go. They'd come in to buy, but it would be the same car and same model so no one knew they got a new car." Now, once again, rich buyers are apparently not having a problem flaunting it.

In 2012, the top 5 percent were responsible for 38 percent of domestic consumption, up from 28 percent seven years earlier. And since 2009, the year the Big Recession technically ended, spending by this top 5 percent of earners rose 17 percent, compared with just 1 percent by the bottom 95 percent.

And thus goods and services that have traditionally targeted the middle class are hurting. Sears and J.C. Penney, as evidence, are in dire straits. Both are in danger of going out of business. Sears is closing its Chicago flagship store and J.C. Penney recently announced it will be shuttering 33 stores and laying off 2,000 employees. Loehmann's, where generations of middle-class women clamored to buy discounted designer-label dresses is bankrupt and already out of business. As another sign of the times, high-end retailer Barneys, which moved out of its original New YorkCity store and rented the space to Loehmann's, is moving back in, feeling that the exponential growth of downtown gentrification will assure the store's success.

As bellwethers, restaurants that depend on middle-class diners are suffering. Foot traffic at Red Lobster and Olive Garden has dropped every quarter since 2005. An average meal at Olive Garden is $16.50 a person and that relatively steep ticket requires middle-class customers. And with fewer and fewer of these every year, places such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster are in trouble.

But now the affluent are worried. Not because they will soon no longer be able to get their garlic knots at Olive Garden but because its stock price is way down, as are other companies' that traditionally draw on the middle-class.

Something that I find curious is the passivity of the middle-class as they see their prospects shrinking. Unlike in the past when there were serious downturns and structural reshaping of the larger economy, this time, with the exception of the short-lived Occupy Wall Street movement and aspects of the Tea Party agenda, there is silence.

Economic downturns are common. In fact, they were so common during the late 19th century through the World War II that hard times for the majority was the norm. Also the norm were the ways in which displaced and exploited working people responded to the recessions and panics and depressions.

I've been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's Bully Pulpit, her biography of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and his successor and friend, William Howard Taft. From the economic tumult during their collective 11 years in office there is a lot to learn about our current troubles and how the public responded to it.

Between 1901, when Roosevelt became president after the assassination of William McKinley, and 1913, the year Woodrow Wilson took office, there were no fewer than four crises--the Recession of 1902, the Panic of 1907, the Panic of 1910, and the Recession of 1913.

And in every case, right through until the end of the Second World War (there were a total of seven severe economic downturns between 1913 and 1945), including, in 1929, the biggest Depression in American history), each recession and panic elicited direct and credible threats to the United States' economic system.

There were bomb-throwing anarchists and fierce socialists and communists who organized nationwide strikes that paralyzed entire industries from the railroads to the steel mills to the coal fields.

There were many times when our political leaders thought that unless the economy picked up, unless something was done to reform factory work and bust trusts and legislation was passed to provide the beginnings of a social safety net to take care of people falling through the cracks, unless this and more was accomplished, our very capitalist system might be overthrown. All the agitation the result of aggressive investigative journalism (an important subject in the Goodwin book) and pressure from the bottom up, very much including union activity and progressive political advocacy.

Now, again with the exception of a few months of non-violent demonstrations by Occupy Wall Street protestors, things have been preternaturally quiet.

Is there anything ticking out there? Any undercurrent of threat to the system itself?

Nothing of this sort appears to be looming on the horizon.  Perhaps, though, it things for the middle class continue to deteriorate, if they see opportunities for their children more permanently threatened, the great sleeping giant--the American people--will rise from their Barcaloungers, put aside their iPhones,  and . . .

No wonder the 5 percenters are worried.

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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

February 5, 2014--Boycott Israel?

When the American Studies Association late last year voted to exclude Israeli academic institutions from participating in events it sponsors, it was a blip on the academic landscape. After all, the ASA has only a few thousand members and, truth be told, who cares.

But when Secretary of State John Kerry made some relatively innocuous comments about a larger, economic boycott of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nearly had a stroke.

Forget for the moment that Kerry was not advocating a boycott but rather referring to talk about it that he feels will grow louder if the American-sponsored peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis fail to produce even a fig leaf of results, the very fact that Netanyahu went, pardon the reference, ballistic should tell us something.

That "something" being that there is a growing movement among some Western people (Jews as well as non-Jews, which is significant) and corporations to boycott Israel if the government in Jerusalem continues to expand the occupation of the West Bank and refuses to get serious in negotiations with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu and his associates can try to ignore more local calls for a boycott (by New York Times op-ed columnist and Palestinian human rights activist, Omar Barghouti, for example) but they cannot so easily  shrug it off when the $200 billion Dutch Pension fund PGGM begins to divest itself of investments in Israel and Secretary Kerry says that unless there is serious progress on a deal the nascent boycott will be dwarfed by what will follow--in his words, a "boycott on steroids."

That's what friends are for--not to threaten (as Netanyahu sees it), but when necessary for your well-being, to tell you the unpleasant truth. And, in Kerry's case, to, by implication, imply such a boycott would be understandable. Kerry also knows how to play hardball.

So, he's not Netanyahu's best friend.

A boycott would be understandable because even reasonably objective observers are seeing comparisons between today's Israel and yesterday's South Africa.

How else to put it--with so many Palestinians forced to live behind militarized fences, allowed to enter and leave at the behest of Israeli occupiers of their territory, it feels to many to be too much like the old South African apartheid state.

And, recall, the worldwide imposition of economic sanctions ultimately brought an end to that hideous era. And, it appears, equivalent sanctions may be gaining the attention of even Iran's formally impervious "supreme leaders."

Perhaps, then, an expanding boycott of Israel may be the best and only thing that will enable the peace movement there to again assert itself.

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Tuesday, February 04, 2014

February 4, 2014--Self-Esteem

In the early 1970s, when concern mounted that minority children were not doing as well in school as white students, researchers began to assert that this was because of a self-esteem gap.

The findings indicated that white kids on average felt much better about themselves than black and Latino youngsters and this in turn led to gnawing differences in academic achievement. Ultimately, this lack of feeling good about themselves meant that many fewer minority children eventually graduated from high school and went on to college. And, as a result, over time, more wound up on the economic sidelines, in jail, or worse.

Based on this research, during the 1980s, many educators embraced what came to be known as the "self-esteem movement," an effort to help low-income students feel better about themselves. It was asserted, without verifiable evidence, that if a kid felt positively about herself, she would do better in school and, ultimately, life.

The evidence that was lacking was not that children of color had lower self-esteem (in many ways they did) but that there was a causal relationship that was proclaimed to exist between that and academic achievement.

Progressive ideologues and educators at the time did not see the possibility of reverse causation--doing well in academics or various other things such as musicality, aesthetic expression, physical adeptness, or leadership skills precedes feelings of genuine self-esteem rather than derives from it.

Thus, the inclination to overpraise and over-coddle children became commonplace. God forbid a child should be allowed to struggle; face difficulty, frustration, or danger; or feel second-best for coming in second in a race.

But this movement coupled with parental hyper-involvement has not gotten the job done.

There are still unacceptable gaps in achievement between majority and minority children (exacerbated by class differences) and, ironically, the over-protected, overpraised children of the affluent themselves have been shortchanged in the process. Study after study shows these children to be risk-adverse, under-motivated, and less rigorously serious than their overseas counterparts.

And there has been a spate of popular books calling this to Americans' attention. Amy Chua's 2011 best-seller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, slammed American mothers of over-indulging their children, allowing them to spend too much time texting and playing video games, engaging in trivial after school activities, and collecting certificates and trophies for participating rather than actually doing well by achieving something worth celebrating.

She noted that Chinese (and Chinese-American) parents limit TV watching, forbid social networking, praise no grades less than A's, insist on hours of homework, and have their kids taking violin lessons rather than rushing off to Gymboree.

And on Sunday, the New York Times offered a front-page review of another cautionary book by Chua (and Jed Rubenfeld), The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, about how American, addicted to instant gratification, including overpraising, has "lost its Triple Package."

I think we know which groups are doing the rising and falling--that isn't new news--but the Triple Package is interesting and worth paying attention to--

First, most upwardly mobile and successful Americans, as a group, feel superior to other groups.

Then, paradoxically, individuals are simultaneously riddled with self-doubt and feelings of inferiority. These two elements of the Triple Package supply the motivation to work extra hard to succeed.

And then, third, there is the capacity to control one's impulses, which leads to having long-term goals and respect for various forms of authority, from parents to teachers.

We may not like these messages and what is leeching out of our culture, but we ignore them at our peril.

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Monday, February 03, 2014

February 3, 2014--Ladies of Forest Trace: India

"Come over as soon as . . . you can. There's something . . . I need to talk to you about."

My mother, short of breath, sounded ominous. I thought, considering her age, was this the . . .

"Are you OK?" I asked, not really wanting to know the truth.


"We'll be there in 35 minutes." I was already looking for the car keys and signally to Rona to get ready.

"Just you."

"Me? Alone?" That was unprecedented. Rona and I have always visited together.

"You. There's something . . ." She didn't or couldn't finish and hung up.

"I need to go to Forest Trace," I said to Rona who was hovering close, picking up my sense of concern.

"Give me a second to get my sweater."

"My Mom wants to see me."

"Just you?"

I shrugged.

"Of course, whatever she wants. But call me as soon as you get there. I can always have car service drive me and . . ."

"Just me," I said as I headed for the car, full of trepidation.

It's not as if this was unexpected. She is after all nearly 106 and though in remarkably good condition for someone her age--or even someone ten years younger--the time comes for everyone.

The drive south was harrowing. More so than usual. Everyone who lives here says I-95 is a death trap with cars darting across lanes as if in a Nascar race. So with death on my mind anyway, I shifted into the extreme right lane and got in line with the usual stream of cautious and traumatized senior citizen drivers. I thought, considering the circumstances, I'd better not get killed.

My mother wasn't at the front door when I arrived. As she always is. Arms out. Smiling. Like she wants to envelop you and all the world.

I rushed to the den, relieved when passing her bedroom not to see her curled in her bed in her last throes of  . . .

"Here I am," I said, breathless myself.

"That I can . . . see," she gasped.

"You have me worried. You never asked only me to come to see you. I was afraid that . . ." I trailed off not able to complete my thought.

"I need to talk . . . to you. You. I have something to say . . . to . . . you. My son." She squeezed out her words one at a time.

"I'm here for that or anything you need."

She sat silent for a moment, panting, then said, "India."



"What about India, Mom? I'm all confused." I genuinely was.

"I want to talk with you about . . . India."

"I'm glad to hear you're all right enough to want to talk . . . But India? I thought . . . Honestly, I thought that . . ."

"I was . . . dying." She smiled up at me.

"You scared me half to death. I thought . . . But?"

"Half to death sounds . . . good to me. At my age . . ." She trailed off.

"You're 106, Mom, so when you called and said . . ."

"Not yet."

"Not yet what?"


"OK. You're 105-and-a-half. What difference does sixth months make?"

"At my age I'm allowed . . . to be . . . any age I want."

"At your age?" I couldn't restrain myself from feeling put upon. Relieved, yes; but in truth annoyed as well that she had gotten me here this way to talk about . . .

"What did you tell me . . . about India?"

"Here we go again with India."

"Indulge me a minute."

"Go on."

"Like I tried to say . . . before being interrupted," she was sounding better, "What did you tell me about India?"

"I can't remember. Please remind me."

"That you want to go . . . there."

"True. I casually mentioned it to you a few months ago. That, all things considered . . ."

"I'm trying now to consider all things."


"And I have something I want . . . I need to say . . . to you."

"I'm listening." I moved closer and took her hand in mine. Though still not understanding why India or what I had said about it was on her mind.

"You should go."

"I just got here." I was totally puzzled.

"Not here. There."

"Which there are we talking about?"

"Where . . . you said you wanted to go. To India."

"I was just talking. We were just talking. Looking for things to talk about. I think I said that it's one place I haven't been that one day I might like to visit. I said might. Which is different than want."

"I know the difference. I'm not saying you need . . . to go; but if you want to, you should. Go."

"Since you brought me over this way, as if you had something very important to say or, because . . ."

"Again with the dying business. I told you that I'm not . . ."

"I'm relieved to know that. But, again, let's not worry about India. We don't need to. You for sure don't.  I mean, need to worry about India or anything. I'm OK, we're OK with the way we are living and how . . ."

"I am keeping you from . . . your dreams."

I was beginning to understand where this was going. What was concerning her.

"No you're not. We're living how we want to live."

"I don't believe you."

"How can you say that, Mom?"

"Because . . . I know you. I know Rona. You're . . . sacrificing for me." She squeezed my hand.

"How can I convince you we're not?"

"You can't."

"Can't what?"

"Convince me."

"I don't know what else to say." I really didn't.

She said, "Time zones," and peered at me as if that would explain everything. Now fully confused I looked back at her and shrugged.

"You say you want to always be in the same time zone."

"Oh, now I think I understand. That we want to live in the same time zone as you--from Maine to New York City to Delray Beach. I mean, in the same time zone as you. So if . . ."

"It's the if I want to talk with you about."

"The if? Just as I thought I was understanding you, you have me mixed up again."

"It's usually me . . . who's all mixed up. Now you. That's what I'm trying to say. About . . . being mixed up."

I thought it better to just listen.

"Old people get all mixed up." I nodded. "I'm all mixed up . . . and now you're mixed up." I continued to look at her, trying not to show concern about her being so seemingly mixed up.

"You're getting to be . . . an old man." All too true, I thought. "Which is my point." Now she was squeezing my hand with more strength that one had any right to expect from someone as old as she.

She saw tears beginning to well in my eyes. "I don't want you . . . to get any older waiting for me." I knew all too well what she meant by waiting.

"Go there . . . if you want. Forget about time zones. Live. Live . . .  your life. Don't worry about me. I am all right. And will be all right until . . ."

"It's hard, Mom. I understand what you're saying and I love you for it. And for many other things. But, yes. It does feel as if we're all waiting."

Now she too was teared up. Too old sentimentalists, I thought, tethered to each other for more than seven decades. Waiting. Maybe even wondering who would be first to . . .

"Live your life," she repeated.

"We are," I tried to assure her as well as myself. "We . . ."

"Just do."

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