Saturday, December 31, 2011

King Time

What better way of ringing in the New Year than writing about the past? In my case, there is much more of that than the future. Sounds like a downer, but it's one of those facts we all have to own up to. Nothing like a good book to get one thinking about such things.

So, it was about time that I read Stephen King's new book about time, 11/22/63.

First, a confession. I am one of the few people on the face of the earth who had never read a Stephen King anything. Maybe it is my abhorrence of the horror genre or maybe it is because my literary taste finds me eschewing most books that make the best seller list. So why turn to King, later in his career and late in my life?

It took one of our habitual long summer Florida/Connecticut commutes to change my mind. We usually pick up a few books on tape (well, now, on CD), swapping our used ones for "new" used ones at a local used-book store (yes, they still exist, thankfully). On a whim, as I am interested in the art of writing, I picked up Stephen King's On Writing. It was good, in fact spellbinding, King being able to weave memoir with mentoring -- a no nonsense guide to being a good writer (simply put, hard work). I thought it fascinating, maybe because I was a captive audience driving along I95 for hours and hours, but thinking, hey, if I had instead invested those mega hours of my publishing career into King's prescription for becoming a published writer....what if? It got me thinking about the past. But I've always lived with nostalgia on my brain (witness many entries in this blog).

A slight detour in King's usual genre finally brought me to his fiction. I liked science fiction as a kid. In high school, before my senior year when I discovered Thomas Hardy, I had thought, as a nascent reader, that the epitome of fiction was H. G. Well's Time Machine. So, after hearing King's On Writing, I thought I'd like to read something of his if only he would depart his horror / suspense thing. And as if my wishes were granted by a paranormal power, along came King's 11/22/63, more historical and science fiction than anything else.

I ordered it from Amazon so Ann could give it to me for Christmas, but it arrived on the 48th anniversary of 11/22/63, soon after I had just posted a brief piece recounting my dark memory of Kennedy's assassination.

One of King's themes is that the past is harmonic -- that there are events that seem to reflect one another, or rhyme, in one's own life when juxtaposed to others. I guess I took the arrival of the book on that very day as a providential sign, an harmonic event, it was meant to be that I should start it immediately, even though I was in the middle of another book.

I will not dwell on plot here other than to say what any reader of the legion of book reviews already knows -- that the main character goes back in time with the intention of preventing Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating President Kennedy and thus (he thinks) change history for the better. And I am not going to go into detail concerning the conceit he uses to rationalize the mechanics of Jake / George travelling back and forth from the present to sometime in 1958. Let's just call it a time portal.

King's writing is all about his characters and in 11/22/63 the tale is told as a first person account by our stalwart hero, Jake Epping (as he is named in the "Land of Ahead") AKA George Amberson (in the "Land of Ago"). It is as if Jake/George pulled up a chair and tapped the reader on the shoulder and said "I have a fascinating -- no unbelievable -- story to tell you, but it's true, so listen to every word" and you, the reader, feel thoroughly compelled to do so. King's tale is a page turner, moving along with an alacrity that makes the 900 or so pages fly by.

And while much of the book is almost conversational, there are those moments when King shows his mastery of suspense and horror, such as when George first returns to the past and decides, as an experiment which will ultimately lead to his main purpose of changing history, to prevent a murder that he knows is going to happen in the late 1950's. For me the most engaging invention of the novel was the invitation to live in the past once again. The scenes King paints are familiar ones, a land without cell phones, computers, color TVs (or any TVs at all in my case, remembering our first TV, a Dumont the size of Asia with a tiny screen, that arrived sometime in the late 40s in our household), seat belts, and when lyrics like "wop-bop-a-loo-mop alop-bam-boom" and "itsy, bitsy, teenie, weenie, yellow polka-dot bikini" wafted the radio airwaves. Or to put it another way, gas that was 20 cents a gallon, and a pack of cigarettes costing about the same.

When George first goes to 1958, he has to board a bus: ."I let the working Joes go ahead of me, so I could watch how much money they put in the pole-mounted coin receptacle next to the driver's seat. I felt like an alien in a science fiction move, one who's trying to masquerade as an earthling. It was stupid -- I wanted to ride the city bus, not blow up the White House with a death-ray -- but that didn't change the feeling."
While King's supernatural / horror themes may be more latent in this book, they are nonetheless subliminally there, reminding us that we're all in this ship of time together and none will get out alive. There is a foreboding feeling to 11/22/63, all those moments of the past, all the choices that lead to the present, with the future becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of all of our lives.

King deals with several elements of what he thinks time travel might have involved, all interesting and plausible. Among these is his theory that time's "resistance to change is proportional to how much the future might be altered by any given act," something he mentions earlier in the novel and sort of foreshadows what eliminating Oswald might mean.

He also deals with the "butterfly effect." As his fellow time traveler, Al, puts it, "It means small events can have large, whatchamdingit, ramifications. The idea is that if some guy kills a butterfly in China, maybe forty years later -- or four hundred -- there's an earthquake in Peru." (More foreshadowing.)

And the butterfly effect is the reason why, as George stalks Oswald, he decides to do nothing to even cross his path before it is time to act (that is, if he does act -- no spoiler here): "If there's a stupider metaphor than a chain of events in the English language, I don't know what it is. Chains...are strong. We use them to pull engine blocks out of trucks and to bind the arms and legs of dangerous prisoners. That was no longer reality as I understood it. Events are flimsy, I tell you, they are houses of cards, and by approaching Oswald -- let alone trying to warn him off a crime which he had not even conceived -- I would be giving away my only advantage. The butterfly would spread its wings, and Oswald's course would change. Little changes at first, maybe, but as the Bruce Springsteen song tells us, from small things, baby, big things one day come. They might be good changes, ones that would save the man who was now the junior senator from Massachusetts. But I didn't believe that. Because the past is obdurate."

At his most eloquent, King philosophizes about the "harmonics" of time watching as Jake/George - teachers both past and present - observe two students, Mike and Bobbi, dance the Lindy as had George and Sadie (the gal he falls in love with in the past): "The night's harmonic came during the encore...It's all of a piece, I thought. It's an echo so close to perfect you can't tell which one is the living voice and which is the ghost-voice returning. For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don't we all secretly know this? It's a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark."

It is also a well researched historical novel, with King mostly playing down the conspiracy theories while nonetheless providing for the remote possibility. He makes his historical characters real -- this is a Lee Harvey Oswald you get to know as a flesh and blood person (not someone most would want to know, but a real person). One especially feels sympathy for his wife, Marina, an abused woman in a strange land. In fact George draws a parallel (harmonics again) to his love, Sadie, thinking about taking Sadie to the future with him: "I could see her lost in 2011, eyeing every low-riding pair of pants and computer screen with awe and unease. I would never beat her or shout at her -- no not Sadie -- but she might still become my Marina Prusakova, living in a strange place and exiled from her homeland forever."

And it was satisfying to hold the book itself, an impressive tome with a fabulous jacket, one side depicting the past as we know it and the other the past that might have been. In On Writing, King insists that writers must be readers. 11/22/63 is a book to be read.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Another Mission Accomplished Moment

It is more than embarrassing. It could be politically devastating, the Obama administration caught in the cross hairs of political posturing as reported by the Washington Post, Solyndra docs: Politics infused energy programs. These documents show "Obama's May 2010 stop at Solyndra's headquarters was closely managed political theater....Meant to create jobs and cut reliance on foreign oil, Obama's green-technology program was infused with politics at every level."

Am I disappointed that Solyndra was allowed to get so out of hand? -- yes, but not surprised. There are parallels to the "Bush moment" in 2003 after Iraq had been invaded, when he arrived on the decks of an aircraft carrier in a fighter plane, dressed as a fighter pilot, to declare "Mission Accomplished!" -- the navy personnel cheering him on. It doesn't get any more of a political show than that. But, they call it "politics" for a reason.

The worst aspect of these parallel moments is no mission was accomplished. The Iraq war, slogged on while thousands more Americans were killed, tens of thousands injured, not to mention a multiple number of Iraqis maimed or killed. And, when it is said and done, more than a trillion dollars will have been spent on the Iraq war. No mission accomplished there.

While Solyndra did not cost lives, and will not cost the American taxpayer anything remotely resembling the Iraq war, it also epitomizes a failed mission -- a serious detour in the attempt to achieve a modicum of energy independence, and to create jobs. Simply put, the Obama administration misspent valuable political capital on its "mission accomplished" moment.

So, while I understand the political posturing, and do not think Solyndra is out of character with what we have long become inured to, I am dismayed that Obama's first term is being squandered without serious progress in energy independence.

Obama made an interesting remark during his 60 minutes interview: "Don't judge me against the Almighty; judge me against the alternative." Obama choose hope and change as his mantra, a nice thought but unrealistic in Washington. So he is saddled with the sweeping generalization of his "promise" and it is probably why he is so despised by his adversaries. But when I think of the alternatives it makes me hope that he will change.

In the meantime we enter that dreaded season leading up to the presidential election. This year dinosauric Super PACs will be allowed to roam free in the Jurassic political park, organizations that can raise unlimited sums from anyone, including corporations and unions. Be prepared for an unprecedented level of vitriol in this election, with a constant barrage of negative political ads. Even if nothing else comes from the Solyndra debacle, it will feed the PAC beast.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Christmas Message?

At the end of this post is a link to a syndicated Op Ed piece by Cal Thomas, of Fox News fame, published today in our local paper, the Palm Beach Post. It is unimaginable that any real newspaper would publish this, a supposedly feel good Christmas message with the poor taste of using Christopher Hitchens' death and his atheistic beliefs as some kind of a parable. Pity poor sanctimonious Cal Thomas. He would have been annihilated by Hitchens in any kind of debate but decided to "take him on" after his death. Obviously Thomas lives by the Christian dictum, "the one who saves a soul from hell saves this soul and his own as well,” but spare us the lecture. Save your own soul some other way, and all of those extremists in any religion, for their unmitigated gall in proselytizing, or worse, committing wholesale violence throughout history in the name of religion.

No sense getting into a point by point examination of Thomas' "evidence" as he references The Bible as his authority in almost every other paragraph. How can anyone take issue with that proof?

But I will say this. Arguing that an act of kindness by an atheist (or maybe even by a non-Christian?) is not as "good" as one performed by a religious person because "the very notion of 'good' must have a definition and a definer" (i.e. God, according to Jesus) is the height of superciliousness. One cannot perform "good" acts if one is not religious?

Cal must be such a "good" Christian as evidenced by his compassion for people such as Hitchens: "there is no joy in the death of one who had faith that God does not exist." Isn't that nice? But, then his Christmas message: "Hitchens now knows the truth and that can only be the worst possible news for him." Burning in hell, is that what you mean?

If people want to believe in an organized religion, no problem, but keep it out of my face and out of politics as well. If this kind of religious mania was not so endemic, probably Hitchens would not have felt compelled to spend part of his brilliant journalistic career on the topic. His confrontational atheism was in reaction to having to suffer proselytizers such as Thomas, who piously takes Hitchens to a religious whipping post while pretending to be a journalist....

Hitchens, death of an atheist

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pass It On

This is a must-read open letter to JP Morgan's President, Jamie Dimon, written by Josh Brown over at The Reformed Broker. It is in response to Dimon's comment “Acting like everyone who’s been successful is bad and because you’re rich you’re bad, I don’t understand it.” Although Brown's entire letter is a must read, one quote strikes at the heart of the matter:

"No, Jamie, it is not that Americans hate successful people or the wealthy. In fact, it is just the opposite. We love the success stories in our midst and it is a distinctly American trait to believe that we can all follow in the footsteps of the elite, even though so few of us ever actually do.

So, no, we don't hate the rich. What we hate are the predators.

What we hate are the people who we view as having found their success as a consequence of the damage their activities have done to our country. What we hate are those who take and give nothing back in the form of innovation, convenience, entertainment or scientific progress. We hate those who've exploited political relationships and stupidity to rake in even more of the nation's wealth while simultaneously driving the potential for success further away from the grasp of everyone else."

Supporting articles I've written on related topics include one on the Occupy Wall Street movement, another on corporate governance and compensation, and one on the need for a "new economic morality" -- among others!

But, well done, Josh Brown, a brilliant letter to a typical corporate type and indeed, that is the problem, not compensation per se.

Pass it on!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


This is a sort of maintenance, catch-up entry; odds and ends that need to be tied up.

First a follow up about the replacement of our home's roof. After a couple of weeks of delay, partially related to weather, the ordeal is finally over, somewhat anticlimactic as now when I look at the house, it seems like the new roof has always been there. But its guts are very different, with the underlayment and the Polyset roofing system designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. The house might be gone but the roof will be levitating!

Now the rest of the house speaks to me for repair and upgrading, particularly exterior painting. The eves are a high priority as wood rot was replaced while roofing, and bare wood needs to be primed and painted. As some of the eaves are at a second story level, that will have to be done by a professional, but the rest of the house, in particular the courtyard and the courtyard walls, call out to me so I've slowly started to prep and paint. Elastomeric paint is very forgiving, allowing coverage of narrow stress cracks that would have to be filled otherwise. I thought I would despise painting and repairing, something I haven't done in some time, but I find it somewhat satisfying, and doable if I take it in small doses each day. Not the same feeling as when I was younger and routinely did repairs and even undertook larger scale projects on our homes, but fulfilling nonetheless. Maybe it's just being relieved that my life is back to normal after a year of health issues.

Next, I wanted to experiment with posting videos directly to this blog. Although I've posted to YouTube, this is new to me so I just filmed a couple this past week or so. These are not very remarkable, but they are mercifully brief.

The first was taken when Ann's friend, Arlene, was visiting from Tampa, and we went on our boat and up the Intracoastal to look at the Christmas lights. The Palm Beach boat parade was only a few nights before that so I thought most homes would be finished with their decorations, but that was not the case. Nonetheless, one of the homes in Palm Beach Gardens that has a fairly spectacular display, perhaps about a half mile north of the PGA bridge, had their decorations finished. The video is a little muddled as I was trying to steer our boat while filming with the other hand.

[Well, this first experiment failed. The video will not upload. Will keep trying but as the narrative is still valid, I am posting without the first video.]

Christmas in Florida reminds me of the Diane Arbus photograph "Xmas tree in a living room in Levittown, LI." -- the sterile living room consisting of a couch with fringe hanging from the upholstery, a lamp, a clock that looks like a star on the wall, a TV set and an end table, with a heavily decorated, but unlighted, Christmas tree shoved in the corner with wrapped gifts under it. There is a certain sadness that Arbus captured and she would have had a field day in Florida during this time of year where the juxtaposition of Christmas decorations and tropical weather seems to have the same effect as her photographs of the bizarre. To the right is a typical December Florida scene, a Great Blue Heron sunning himself on our sea wall. It just does not say "Christmas!"

The next video might interest local boaters as the Munyon Island docks were just completed and it is a pleasant destination for smaller boats in the Palm Beach area, with floating docks, and an effective breakwater to protect boats from the wakes churned up by the larger vessels traversing Lake Worth north and south. Munyon Island itself was slightly developed to accommodate visitors to the docks with a few small pavilions and grilling facilities, as well as a slightly elevated walkway through the native growth of Munyon where it dead ends into a pathway which I followed only to be greeted by a spider the size of a B-29, so that is where my reconnoitering ended. But the tropical environment is lush on the island and well worth visiting. Here is a history of Munyon and of the restoration project.

We're fortunate to have such a facility so near us (ten minutes by boat) as well as the more elaborate ones of Peanut Island but Peanut can be crowded, particularly on holidays and weekends.

Besides occasionally adding videos to the blog, I want to begin to label the blog entries as I've written more than 250 entries in the four years I've been doing this and while there is search capability (upper left corner) and of course contents and images are searchable via Google et. al. as well, there is no structured index, something that bothers me as an ex-publisher. That is going to be an ongoing job and I'm not sure about the approach at this point but there might be some strange entries in the future to test the labeling capabilities.

Moving on to some family stuff, earlier in the year our son's friend, Jeff, was married and the wedding was sort of a reunion, five friends, boys we've seen grow up from the innocence of childhood, through the terrible teens, and now into manhood, each going their own way in life, but coming together as if no time had passed at all. Uniting them is the love of boating, water skiing and swimming as each grew up on the water, spent summer weekends out at "our" Crow Island and a part of their summers together on Block Island.

So today, this is the motley crew (picture courtesy of Jeff's Mom, Cathy)

and here they are in photographs from years ago:

Finally, one of my fellow bloggers, is "graduating," having used his blog to pursue a dream (starting his own mutual fund) and after several years writing about the market (and maintaining a "virtual" portfolio, providing complete transparency), his blog will be moving to a web site as his "Paladin Long Short Fund" has been approved by SEC (the proposed symbol, not yet approved, is PALFX) I predict Mark will be a very successful trader and offer him my congratulations, bringing his dream to reality -- yet another instance of how technology has been used as a fulcrum for entrepreneurship.

Monday, December 5, 2011

My Bet is on Roger's Version

And by "Roger's Version" I'm not referring to one of my favorite Updike novels but my high school grade advisor and teacher, with whom I am in contact for reasons explained here.

Roger Brickner was passionate about politics when I participated in the mock political convention he staged the year I graduated in 1960, on the eve of Kennedy's election. Remarkably, now 51 years later, he is still passionate and his political analysis has been prescient, better I think than the political analysts we are exposed to on the battle between Fox and MSNBC. Survey research is a highly statistical discipline but the results can be problematic due to methodological flaws, question bias, and socially desirable responses, people trying to put themselves in a favorable light when answering questions (vs. what they do in the voting booth). I prefer the old fashion educated opinion, and they don't get much better on the topic of politics -- or as enthusiastic -- than Roger's broadcast emails during an election year. I have his permission to bring them to light in my blog from time to time and here is his latest one on the upcoming Republican primaries in January....

Dear Friends:

What a difference those two weeks were in terms of the Republican race for a nominee. It is getting down to a battle between Gingrich and Romney, but with Paul holding in there tenaciously in third place. All the others on a national basis will be in single digits when it comes time to vote in just one month's time. These others could exceed once in a while their single digit status. Bachmann in Iowa and Huntsman in NH for instance.

In this discussion I will confine myself to the primaries and caucus scheduled for January.

IOWA CAUCUS Jan 3 These votes will be divided proportionally... I believe a 15% threshold is required to get ANY delegates. the Iowa caucus is a whole afternoon and evening event (ordeal?... read only the dedicated hang in there). I am not ready to give exact percentages yet, but I see the following order GINGRICH, closely followed by ROMNEY, then PAUL, but PAUL will probably fall short of 15%. Therefore I would expect GINGRICH to win a majority of the 28 delegates. This will be a good boost for his challenge to Romney.

NEW HAMPSHIRE PRIMARY Jan 10 these votes will be divided proportionally with a 15% threshold to get ANY delegates. I now see the order as ROMNEY by a wide margin. GINGRICH second and PAUL third. Coming in a respectable fourth is HUNTSMAN, but I would doubt he would reach the 15% threshold . With just 12 delegates (such a fuss NH makes over so few delegates) I would expect the results to show ROMNEY 8 delegates, GINGRICH 2 delegates and PAUL 2 delegates.


ROMNEY 19, GINGRICH 19, PAUL 2. Close race !!

SOUTH CAROLINA PRIMARY Jan 21 These delegates will be winner take all. I see GINGRICH winning by at least 10 points, thus gathering all 25 delegates.



FLORIDA PRIMARY Jan 31 These delegates are winner take all,. I see GINGRICH beating ROMNEY by wide margin. It will be a very bad night for ROMNEY. All 50 delegates will go to the Georgian neighbor GINGRICH.



It will be imperative for ROMNEY to bounce back in the four caucus states of NEVADA, MAINE, COLORADO and MINNESOTA between Feb. 4-7. There are no SOUTHERN states here and ROMNEY must do well to get the balance of delegates more even. I will be looking into these states in the next two weeks and will be able to comment better at that time on whether ROMNEY can keep in the race. One note, the really big northern states of NEW YORK (Apr 24) NEW JERSEY (June 5) PENNSYLVANIA (Apr 24) OHIO (June 12) MICHIGAN (Feb. 28) ILLINOIS (Mar 20) and CALIFORNIA (June 5) seem to be in ROMNEY's column so the decisive delegate numbers may not be known until quite late. Watch MICHIGAN on Feb 28 and ILLINOIS on Mar. 20 as a clue to how these other big northern states will swing.

There is still the chance that for the first time since 1948 the nomination for the Rep. nominee might go beyond the first ballot. A long shot, but an exciting possibility.

THIRD PARTIES? I could see BACHMANN get into it if ROMNEY became the nominee. I'm sure she would get less than 5% of the vote, but it would hurt ROMNEY. PAUL keeps saying he will not run a third party, but he has done it before and may do it again. He would be worth 5-10% of the vote. Because of his war stance he could hurt OBAMA the most. All this is just speculation, but not outside of the possible this election cycle.

I continue to believe that OBAMA will beat GINGRICH by a margin greater than he won in 2008. A ROMNEY candidacy would be a very close race, perhaps a narrow victory for him and if not OBAMA would do less well than he did in 2008 against MC CAIN But we have 11 months before we will know better.


Here is Roger's updated forecast dated Dec. 26...

Dear friends:

I trust you have all had a very Merry Christmas this Holiday season. I enjoyed an excellent meal with a schoolboy friend of 65 years in NYC.

The shifting sands of elective politics continue to rearrange the landscape. I will look at the first three contests.

IOWA The latest "flavor of the month" is beginning to slip. Between Newt Gingrich's mouth and his poor organizational support ( failed to get on VA ballot) is catching up with him in the eyes of the voters. This shows in my latest estimate for the Iowa caucus on Jan 3. My expectations:

1 ROMNEY (20-25%) 8 delegates
2 PAUL (20-25%) 8 delegates
3 GINGRICH (15-20%) 6 delegates
4 PERRY (15-20%) 6 delegates
5 BACHMAN ( 5-10%)
6 SANTORUM ( 5-10%)
7 HUNTSMAN (5-10%)

Three weeks ago, before the decline in Gingrich became apparent, I had him leading, but he has fallen back to third place now. Paul, certainly not the flavor for ANY month will give Romney a good race for first place. I have to say that Santorum is likely to quit when, after traveling to every Iowa county, he will only draw single digits. Same for Bachman, but she may, inexplicably, hold on for a while, though I do not see her getting into double digits anywhere.

Next comes my state of NEW HAMPSHIRE on Jan 10. My prediction made on Dec 3 still seems to hold except I expect Gingrich to fall back to third place, while, once again Paul moves up at his expense.

1 ROMNEY (35-40%) 6 delegates
2 PAUL (15-20%) 3 delegates
3 GINGRICH (15-20%) 3 delegates
4 HUNTSMAN (10-15%)
The rest that are still in the race should get in the low single digits.


SOUTH CAROLINA votes on Jan. 21. If GINGRICH can't do well here he never will.

1 GINGRICH (30-35%) 11 delegates
2 ROMNEY (25-30%) 9 delegates
3 PAUL (15-20% 5 delegates
4 BACHMAN ( 5-10%) if she is still in the race
5 PERRY ( 5-10%)

This is the least certain of my predictions as events will have a lot to do with the results of this event still 4 weeks away. Unless Gingrich wins by more than just a few points here I would expect him to do less and less, including FLORIDA which will come up ten days later. Perry, also should be looking weak in a southern state like SC. Does this leave the non-ROMNEY candidate to be the eccentric RON PAUL?? How fascinating that would be.

Finally, the president and the Democrats in the dysfunctional Congress came up winners over the NO NO NO crowd who focus on OBAMA rather than on issues they espouse. When will they learn? Are they trying hard to lose the HOUSE OF REPS?? More on these after the Reps. decide on who will be their standard bearer.

Have a Happy New Year!! Roger

Friday, December 2, 2011

Unemployment Good News

It's finally happened, a significant downtick in unemployment. Does this make a trend? That remains to be seen. But the headline news -- The unemployment rate fell to a 2-1/2 year low of 8.6 percent in November and companies stepped up hiring, further evidence the economic recovery was gaining momentum. -- is sure to provoke animated "debate" as the presidential election year gathers steam.

But there is some really good news here: "While part of the decline in the unemployment rate from 9.0 percent in October was due to people leaving the labor force, the household survey from which the jobless rate is derived also showed solid gains in employment." And those gains have been underway for four months. Maybe, indeed, the beginning of a welcome trend. And who will take the credit, or, better, who will give it? Perhaps it is merely embedded in the economic cycle, but everyone is quick to blame someone on the other side of the cycle.

This is the lowest unemployment level since 2009, when I was writing "A true recovery requires jobs, jobs, jobs – and how are they going to be created – by banks trading energy futures? What happened to the commitment to the infrastructure? Our roads, utilities, and public transportation are falling apart. Alternative energy seems DOA. Aren’t these the areas our financial recourses should be focused on, ones that will create jobs, in construction, technology, and finance, and can lead a true economic recovery we can pass on with pride to future generations?"

A real recovery still seems to be a long way down the road as it took years and years to get to where we are and mountains of debt need to be addressed.

Meanwhile, the reasons for this drop in the unemployment rate will be parsed by the political pundits during the weekend talk shows. Brace yourself.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Market Melt-Up

Buy, buy, buy, -- be it at Target, Walmart or the NYSE. Everything is coming up roses. Does this mean one can "blame" Obama? Surely, FOX will have an interesting take on this. "GOP comes to the rescue of the payroll tax extension!" Or, "GOP forces China to cut bank reserve requirements to spur world growth!" Or, "GOP threat of not raising taxes on the wealthy leads to the better than expected ADP employment report as job creators plan trickle-down hiring." Or, "GOP considering not abolishing the Federal Reserve as the Fed says it is ready to act if USA hurt by any European banking crisis."

Whatever the reason, stock markets are surging, for this moment at least (DJIA up over 400 points as I write this). But in this see-saw, roulette investment world, one cannot imagine what the future will bring, not to mention even 4.00 pm.


Monday, November 28, 2011

Altar of Consumerism

It's become a religion, thou shall pay homage to the God of Black Friday. With unemployment and economic uncertainty persisting one would think that consumers would be hunkering down in their bunkers, but, no, they are out spending in droves, standing in the dark with their faces aglow staring into iPhones, awaiting midnight store openings after Thanksgiving, stampeding into the stores as the clock strikes twelve. Perhaps it is counter-intuitive, $52 billion in sales on Black Friday weekend during hard economic times, but consumers have been conditioned to "feel good" spending, the same kind of feeling that arises from cathartic prayer.

Our Father™ in consumer heaven,
hallowed be your trademarked name.
Your Black Friday come,
your buying will be done,
at the mall and online.
Give us this day almighty bargains,
and forgive us our debts,
and give bailouts to our debtors.
Leading us away from credit card temptation,
and delivering us from debit card fees.

AMEN (there is even an App named for the traditional closing of a prayer -- just pay up!).

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

November 22, 1963

People our age remember certain moments with such clarity they seem like yesterday. Noon, November 22, 1963 was such a moment as I was passing the Student Union building on Flatbush Avenue, hurrying to class. It was a clear, crisp day. Suddenly, a friend came running toward me. "Did you hear, Kennedy was shot?" Incredulous, I rushed to my dorm to listen to the radio. It was true.

We had tickets for a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that night, one of the few cultural events in New York City that was not cancelled. An unrehearsed version of Beethoven's Egmont Overture was performed rather than the regular program. We filed out, silent, stunned, weeping openly. In quick succession Oswald was apprehended, and while we watched it on TV with others in the dormitory, Jack Ruby assassinated him.

It was a horrific weekend of anxiety, bewilderment, and profound sorrow. Such high hopes for our young President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. These hopes were dashed by what would become the first of other assassinations in the turbulent 1960s, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy.

To have borne witness to them all is almost dreamlike, but Friday, November 22, 1963 is emblazoned in my mind's eye.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Taking One for the Team

Ever since I heard that Hillary Clinton was planning to "retire" I've been thinking, what a waste of skill and experience. My thought was that Obama needs a new running mate, one that can handle the stalemated war of Republican and Democrat ideologues, and what better person than a former, and very effective, Secretary of State. Of course it means true sharing of power at the top, but Obama does not seem to be threatened by that, and as evidence he himself appointed his former rival to the position of Secretary of State.

Today the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece by Patrick H. Caddell and Douglas E. Schoen, both former Democratic pollsters, ups the ante with their article The Hillary Moment, which suggests Obama should actually step aside for the good of the Democratic party so Hillary Clinton can run for President, their argument being that Obama will not be able to run a positive campaign based on his [economic] record and even if he wins we will still be left with a highly charged partisan political landscape, something he will not be able to change. In effect, President Obama should take one for the team.

While I might agree with his difficulty in achieving bipartisan consensus (and that is why I thought Hillary would be the ideal running mate in 2012), I have a problem with ascribing every economic ill to Obama. It is impossible to prove an alternative reality, but if Hillary had run in 2008 and won, we would not be in a much different economic place. And if McCain won, we would have been as equally bad off, or worse ("you betcha" if you know what I mean). After all, the economic problems leading to today were long in the making: regulatory failures, ill conceived Federal Reserve actions, the housing bubble with the attendant rapacity of investment banking firms, Bush tax cuts, 9/11, and ill-chosen wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When you live beyond your means for such a long time, it takes years to repair the balance sheet, especially when dealing with one the size of the United States'. It can't be done overnight and it can't even be done in one four-year Presidential term.

Making such repairs without doing further damage to the economy means compromise, spending cuts and tax increases, ones that do not further exacerbate the steadily growing division between the haves and the have nots, the one percenters and the ninety-nine percenters.

Expecting Obama to step aside is to concede an imaginary failure, undeserved and such a concession would only feed opposition blathering. And that is where you come in Hillary, perhaps you will consider taking one for the team by agreeing to become Obama's running mate in 2012.

I continue to have high hopes for the Obama presidency in a second term. Hillary, I still hear America singing.
PS: Barry Ritholtz's Presidential Blame & Credit, is well worth reading in conjunction with the above.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

All My Sons at Dramaworks' New Home

Life imitating art, the American Dream laid threadbare, the relationship of fathers and sons, themes of individual responsibility to society, all resonate at the new home of Dramaworks, a complete remake of the old Cuillo Theatre on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, renamed the Don & Ann Brown Theatre. All the credit for maintaining the high quality of Dramaworks' offerings goes to the founders, the Producing Artistic Director, William Hayes, the Managing Director, Sue Ellen Beryl and the Company Manager, Nanique Gheridian. Their vision, dedication, and no doubt huge sacrifices during the formative years of Dramaworks is what gave birth to what is, today, one of the leading regional theatres in the country. Their winning formula, while extremely difficult to execute so professionally, is to focus on classic, award-winning plays, and produce them on a level on par with Broadway or the West End.

We were fortunate enough to have tickets to attend opening night, the first production in the beautifully renovated theatre, now seating 218 vs. the 84 in Dramaworks' theatre on Banyan Street. It was a special moment to be there for the opening, and attend the celebratory reception afterwards with crew and cast. It was reminiscent of the time we attended the Academy Awards and were guests of the Academy when I published The Annual Motion Picture Credits Database.

In designing the new theatre, a special effort was made by Dramaworks to retain the intimacy of the old theatre, still bringing the audience into the production in a visceral way.

In the case of their first play, Arthur Miller's All My Sons, Dramaworks could not have chosen a more appropriate offering, for our times and for their new theatre. The production demands of this play, in particular with its larger cast and two story set, would have been impossible in Dramaworks' former home, both technically and financially.

Furthermore, one cannot help but think of the numerous parallels to real life situations such as the Madoff scandal leaving the family with the shame brought on by the father, or the ignored cries of the helpless Kitty Genovese who was murdered in the neighborhood where I grew up, or the most recent failure of assuming individual responsibility in the Penn State debacle. These themes are played out in life and in art. No doubt Madoff, in the process of destroying countless individuals, thought, as Joe Keller, that he was doing something "for family and for his sons," thus justifying his actions. And how do ordinary citizens become bystanders while their neighbor is being murdered or a child sexually assaulted? Miller deals with similar issues in a play written decades before.

Miller once said "The American Dream is the largely unacknowledged screen in front of which all American writing plays itself out," and what is more American than dreaming of riches and the so called "good life." Some men kill for that, some do it with Ponzi schemes and others with defective parts sold to the government at huge profits which cost American servicemen their lives. Or to paraphrase Balzac, "behind every great fortune lies a great crime."

And part of the "Dream" is living with illusions that try to make life more bearable. The mother, Kate, voices this facet of the play believing that her son, Larry, is still alive and will miraculously return home three and a half years after the war has ended. When Ann Deever, the daughter of Joe Keller's former partner who is now in prison, paying for a crime Joe is also guilty of, questions why Kate still believes that Larry is alive, she answers: "Because certain things have to be, and certain things can never be. Like the sun has to rise, it has to be. That’s why there’s God. Otherwise anything could happen. But there’s God, so certain things can never happen." The drama heightens to the inevitable converging lines of fantasy and reality, when Kate admonishes her other son, Chris: "Your brother’s alive, darling, because if he’s dead, your father killed him. Do you understand me now? As long as you live, that boy is alive. God does not let a son be killed by his father."

Dramaworks' production powerfully captures Miller's modern telling of the elements of a Greek tragedy, characters making choices that lead to their own downfall, leaving the audience feeling pity on the one hand and fearing this could be any person, including themselves or their own neighbor. My wife, Ann, was surprised that she didn't cry at the ending but instead we both felt as if we had a blow to our solar plexus. The acting, directing, every element was close to perfection.

All My Sons has the largest cast we've ever seen in a Dramaworks production, ten highly capable actors, some of whom are Dramaworks veterans. All were excellent, but the especially heavy lifting was done by Kenneth Tigar (Joe Keller), Jim Ballard (Chris Keller), Elizabeth Dimon (Kate Keller), and Kersti Bryan (Ann Deever). Their performances were amazing, physical and emotional, resonating with the full force of Miller's words. One wonders how these actors can sustain such emotional levels and then do it again the next day!

The remainder of the cast supported the leads with fine performances: Cliff Burgess (George Deever), Nanique Gheridian (Sue Bayliss), Dave Hyland (Frank Lubey), Kenneth Kay (Dr. Jim Bayliss), Margery Lowe (Lydia Lubey), and Kaden Cohen alternating with Leandre Thivierge (Bert).

The production was directed by another Dramaworks veteran, J. Barry Lewis. Lewis used the larger stage, as well as the lighting and the set, to bring out the best in his actors. I would imagine if Arthur Miller was sitting next to us he would have turned and said," this is precisely what I had envisioned."

The meticulous stage settings which have characterized Dramaworks' past productions, endures now on a larger scale -- a much larger scale in fact, a two story house on stage and its backyard -- thanks to the scenic design of Michael Amico. We felt as if we were sitting in the backyard of Anywhere, Midwest, USA. When the play opens the audience is drawn to a fallen tree, one that was planted in memory of the Keller's son, Larry, which now lies toppled by a storm in the night, a symbol of another encroaching storm that culminates in the powerful dramatic resolution. The scenic architecture perfectly connects the audience to the play, the same kind of intimacy that characterized Dramaworks' productions in their former venue.

Congratulations Dramaworks, the crew and cast, and best wishes to you all in your new home.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


I've written about my old "home town" before. I lived in downtown Brooklyn and in Park Slope for almost eight years before moving to Manhattan and finally Connecticut. But Brooklyn was a special place for me, where I went to college, met my first wife, and had a son. To the right is a picture of Chris and me on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade in 1965.

So it was no wonder I picked up the novel Brooklyn by the Irish novelist, Colm Tóibín. It is a coming of age novel about a young Irish woman, Eilis Lacey, who immigrates to the US soon after WW II, settling in Brooklyn -- in fact near Fulton Street where I lived. There are similarities to the work of Henry James, contrasting the old world to the new, and written by a man about a female protagonist -- a remarkable novel well worth reading. One cannot help but contrast Brooklyn to James' Portrait of a Lady. Eilis having to make choices of suitors as did Isabel Archer.

Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street called Bartocci's, but it might as well have been the old Abraham & Straus also on Fulton Street. What Eilis is told by the bosses' daughter the first day of work embodies the essence of the American immigrant experience: "Brooklyn changes every day...New people arrive and they could be Jewish or Irish or Polish or even coloured. Our old customers are moving out to Long Island and we can't follow them, so we need new customers every week. We treat everyone the same. We welcome every single person who comes into this store. They all have money to spend...You give them a big Irish smile."

Eilis is the reluctant immigrant at first, being sent to America by her mother and sister so she could have a better life and employment which was then so difficult to find in Ireland. She knows no one there except a Priest who sponsors her. Eilis finally embraces the experience (falling, she thinks, in love with an Italian boy, never being quite sure) before she finds that she has to return to her home for a few weeks (don't want a spoiler in this brief synopsis so will leave it at that). Her old home in Ireland now seems foreign to her but over the weeks she begins to feel that she cannot leave (thinking she is now in love with someone else). It is now Brooklyn that is feeling foreign although she has put down deep emotional roots there.

The resolution is somewhat surprising but Eilis is constantly reinventing herself for whatever situation. One can imagine what it must have been like for an immigrant, especially a young woman, to make her way in a strange land after WW II. It can stand with Gish Jen’s novel about the Chinese immigrant, Typical American

Tóibín skillfully takes the reader on Eilis' journey, a truly unforgettable portrait and lovingly rendered by the author.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Home, Again

I usually write something about returning home after a summer on the boat and traveling but never got around to it this year. All hell broke loose upon our return, having to do some landscaping after another typical brutal hot Florida summer finally killed some of our original plantings, and, then (after committing to the landscaping), finding a leak around the eaves of the roof which revealed the roof underlayment was decaying (thanks, again, Florida!). While we could patch and fix for the next couple of years, ultimately the roof will need replacement. It would be only a matter of time before water encroaches the living space. So, now that new plantings are in around the house, we are starting a new roof. Bad planning.

In the process of getting four different estimates I've become an expert in roofing, underlayments, attachment methods, and tiles. Metal roofs are the vogue now in Florida, but I think they are ugly on some homes, including ours which has a Mediterranean look. So we are going with a Spanish "S" concrete title and 3M's Polyset roofing system. While the expense is substantial, the new roof will be beautiful and with hurricane protection to 150 mph.

So between landscaping, roofing estimates, the round of obligatory medical appointments, and volunteering to be the pianist during visitors' hours at a West Palm Beach rehab center, it's been a busy period. Nonetheless, there is always time for some good literature and in that regard here are two I finished at the end of the days and while waiting for appointments.

Ethan Canin's Carry Me Across the Water, is a gem, beautifully crafted with multiple converging story lines. The child of a Jewish immigrant makes his way to America with his mother, leaving behind his father who stubbornly stays, not believing what was coming, when the Nazis finally prevail in the 1930's.. His mother ultimately settles in Brooklyn, remarries the devout Hank Kleinman, from whom our protagonist August Kleinman derives his surname.

But the novel begins with Augie in his 78th year, a widower and father of three children, a man who pursued the American Dream through hard work, taking chances, and surviving WWII, the latter playing significantly in the novel. When Augie was a soldier he came across a Japanese soldier in a cave on one of the Japanese islands who has his own story, one that August becomes part of at the end. Meanwhile, after the war, August Kleinman becomes wealthy (a prevailing theme in Canin's work -- the juxtaposition of rags and riches).

Canin skillfully navigates multiple time lines, effortlessly leading the reader back and forth from Kleinman's childhood, to his long marriage to Ginger, often talking to her internally as he steers himself through those narrow cave passages when he was a GI, to his building a successful brewery in Pittsburg, and finally his declining years as he tries to make sense of his relationship to his middle child, Jimmy. During a visit with Jimmy and his wife and grandchild, he makes plans to go to Japan to find closure, for himself and for the family of the Japanese soldier. In the process, he is reconciling himself to his own mortality ("And the end is getting nearer. I know that. Don't think I can't feel it. But I don't give up. That's just Augie Kleinman. I always thought I had a secret that when the end came I would be ready for it -- that the grave would be a relief. But it turns out it's not that way.")

As with all fine pieces of literature, the characters are real, and their conflicts familiar. It is the way of life and Canin captures it poignantly.

In an earlier posting on America America by Canin, I said, "sometimes I felt I was reading a novel that was indeed designed by a teacher, but a VERY good one" (Canin teaches at the University of Iowa's writer's workshop)." Carry Me Across The Water is another example of a carefully executed piece of literature, a novella in length but packing meaning and emotion at every turn of the page.

I landed on this novel after more hilarity from the pen of Jonathan Tropper, enjoying his How to Talk to a Widower, cut out of the same mold of the others I've read by him, Everything Changes, This is Where I Leave You, and The Book of Joe. How many times can an author pretty much cover the same ground, the searching-thirty-something male adrift in a sea of Jewish family foibles and suburban females, married and unmarried and divorced or soon to be divorced, sexual predators at times. Here our protagonist is now Doug Parker who becomes a local newspaper celebrity writing a column about his status as a widower and his twin sister Claire's designs for him to snap out of his long-standing grief. Meanwhile he has to negotiate his younger sister's impending marriage, his father's erratic behavior from his stroke, a child from his deceased wife's first marriage, and his mother's matchmaking, not to mention the women who stalk him and, finally, the woman with whom he finally falls in love again.

In spite of Tropper covering well worn territory, he never seems to let it go stale and his humor never fails: "My parents may behave like they were abandoned in Greenwich and raised by WASPs, but when it comes to preparing meals, we are once again the chosen people." OR "I would come and sit on the lawn beside her grave and make halting attempts at one-sided conversation, but I just couldn't make myself believe there was anyone listening, and even if I could, talking to the grave never made any sense to me. If there's an afterlife, and they can hear you, shouldn't they be able to hear you from anywhere? What's the theory here, that talking to the dead requires range, like a cell phone, and if you go too far the call gets dropped?"

Besides the humor, there is Tropper the astute observer of human nature and of the suburban scene, reminiscent of Updike and Cheever in some ways: "...moving out to New Radford [the suburban setting someplace in Westchester] had meant becoming friendly with a different sort of man than my younger, drunker, wilder single friends back in Manhattan.....[They] were all husbands and fathers either on the cusp or already descending into the tide pool of middle age. These men were all adrift in an alien landscape of mortgages and second mortgages, marriages and second marriages, children, child support, affairs, alimony, tuition, tutors, and an endless barrage of social functions. And all of their living had to be squeezed into those few hours on the weekends when they weren't working their asses off to pay for the whole mess. I'd always assumed that the people who lived in those fancy houses in the suburbs were financially better off then I was, and only once I'd joined them did I come to understand that it's all just a much more sophisticated and elaborate way of being broke."

Furthermore, Tropper always finds a way to tug at your heart, and although he treads familiar ground, I say, bring it on.

So, our roof odyssey has begun, the ripping and banging reminding me of a giant dental procedure, and while I've made some progress with my reading list, the stack of books grows. The pictures below track the first couple days progress on the roof. If only I could read that quickly!


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Corporate Governance Gone Wild

Here is something for the Occupy Wall Street crowd to get specific about: CEO salaries have become obscene. Even new shareholder "say on pay" rules have not reversed the tide, shareholders being led by management's "recommendations" like lambs to the slaughter.

By 2009 the average CEO pay at S&P 500 companies was $9,246,697, including salary, stock and option awards, bonuses, pension and deferred compensation and other compensation (like the use of the corporate jet, when reported).

Compensation for these so called "job creators" has risen to 262 times that of an average worker by 2005, up from 24 times in 1965, about the time I entered the work force with my first job in publishing at $100 a week. If I had learned my ultimate boss earned 24 more times than myself, I think I would have understood, but 262 times? Today it takes the average S&P 500 CEO one working day to earn what his/her average employee earns in an entire year.

There are two issues that get wrapped around these facts for the Occupy Wall Street crowd. First how did salaries get so far out of balance? Then, why would a flat tax or any kind of reduced income tax at these lofty levels help the economy and create jobs?

Here is but one anecdotal example which helps address this issue, Eugene M. Isenberg's (the CEO and Chairman of Nabors Industries Ltd., a Bermuda registered drilling rig contractor) severance package of $100 million. (See the Wall Street Journal's A Very Rich Adieu for Nabors CEO)

This nifty package comes after compensation of "almost $750 million since 1992, including the value of his exercised stock options, according to Standard & Poor's ExecuComp," So that's about $850 million paid to one person over about twenty years, or about $43 million year after year after year. Meanwhile, "the Nabors stock has underperformed the S&P 500-stock index for the prior one-year, five-year and 10-year periods".

It is unclear whether the corporate jet is included in the compensation figures. "Records of Nabors-operated jets have shown frequent stops in Palm Beach, Martha's Vineyard, Mass., and New York, places where Mr. Isenberg has homes. A Nabors spokesman said previously that the company had offices in Palm Beach and Martha's Vineyard and that Mr. Isenberg is frequently in New York on business." Guess there is a need for off shore drilling offices at some of the most upscale neighborhoods in America.

This is but one example of corporate governance gone crazy, Boards rubber stamping their approval of insanely generous compensation packages for CEOs, justifying their actions based on the (wink, wink) peer review system. Hey, look at these other overpaid executives at competitors, we have to keep up with them! Meanwhile (wink, wink), Board of Director positions are in theory subject to shareholder approval, but in practice management has played a major role in selecting and retaining board members. Board compensation of S&P 500 companies is now $234k per year for a few hours work each month and frequently they serve on the Board of more than one company. This compensation package is up 10% from the prior year (how many average employees received 10% increases last year?). So reciprocal scratches of the proverbial back have to be commonplace. Shareholders and Occupy Wall Streeters, unite!

Then, is it reasonable to tax someone who "makes" $43 million a year at a higher rate than his/her average employee making (in this case) probably less than 1/500th of that salary? You bet it is. And is this executive, competent though he may be, creating more jobs because he is taxed less than he ought to be? No way. Innovators and entrepreneurs create jobs, foremost example of course being Steve Jobs, and they are not primarily motivated by compensation and are they are not deterred from their calling by taxes.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Show Us The Figures, Rick

By now Rick Perry's opinion piece in today's Wall Street Journal is making some waves. In many ways I agree with you, Rick, particularly about simplifying the tax code. But that does not mean a simple graduated tax structure has to be thrown out (in favor of the regressive flat tax) and it does not mean one has to entirely do away with capital gains taxation (usually the realm of the wealthy, so that, too, is another regressive move) or does it mean that a carefully thought out, and fair, inheritance tax shouldn't be retained (concentration of wealth doesn't enhance the American dream, it erodes it). And I'm all for responsibly addressing the twin Swords of Damocles that loom in our future, Medicare and Social Security. I'm even for a balanced budget, but not via Constitutional Amendment (imagine having to raise $$ in a crisis with congressional bickering stalling the process, not to mention transitional issues).

So while I agree with many of the feel-good measures, Rick, how does your op-ed piece constitute a "plan?" Show us the figures, Rick -- how many jobs evolve from massive tax cuts and would those jobs materialize anyhow with the next business cycle? Where is the evidence? Or, is this merely an ideological belief?

And that is my problem in accepting your "plan" as a serious one. Furthermore, Rick, you were not the first Republican candidate with a flat tax agenda. Cain beat you to the Texas punch and Gingrich now says he's for an optional flat tax rate of 15%, which beats yours by five percent. By your own logic, that ought to create even more jobs! And Romney now says he's always been for a flat tax. Sounds like a game of Texas Hold 'em. Are all you Republican candidates in? -- place your bets.

There is a pioneering book of social psychology you should read, Rick: Gustave Le Bon's The Crowd; A Study of the Popular Mind. Hard to believe it was written in 1895 as your true-believer words "tax cut" could have been used by Le Bon as an example. Think of them in the context of a passage I underlined as a student: "The power of words is bound up with the images they evoke, and is quite independent of their real significance. Words whose sense is the most ill-defined are sometimes those that possess the most influence...Yet it is certain that a truly magical power is attached to those short syllables" [e.g. tax cut] "as they contained the solution to all problems. They synthesize the most diverse unconscious aspirations and the hope of their realization. Reason and arguments are incapable of combating certain words and formulas. They are uttered with solemnity...and as soon as they have been pronounced an expression of respect is visible on every countenance, and all heads bowed. By many they are considered as natural forces, as supernatural powers. They evoke grandiose and vague images in men's minds, but this very vagueness that wraps them in obscurity augments their mysterious power."

"Tax cut" is the holy grail for supply-siders -- a "mysterious power" indeed when it comes to resulting in more jobs. As Le Bon further says, those unexamined words "become vain sounds, whose principal utility is to relieve the person who employs them of the obligation of thinking." And, that seems to be the new "democracy" of the so-called "debates." As the late preeminent science fiction writer Isaac Asimov said in Newsweek (21 January 1980): “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” (Hat tip, The Big Picture)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Chauncey Gardiner Lives!

The Republican debate last night was laughable, sometimes downright embarrassing. Sound bites galore: "Everything is Obama's fault," "I'm a Christian" (choose your deity carefully), "I love family," "prosecute illegal immigrants and their employers" -- in fact electrocute them! (Who will pick Cain's apples and oranges?) "Less or even no taxes will create jobs." "9-9-9," "drill, drill, drill," "blah, blah, blah." If you can't say it, scream it over the other candidates.

Each has his/her shtick in these "debates" proclaiming a "plan" (as they like to call it), in 30 seconds or less. One cannot help of think of Jerzy Kosinski's prophetic novel, Being There, written more than 40 years ago about a simple minded gardener, Chance, who is catapulted to political fame, becoming "Chauncey Gardiner" when the media mistakes his comment, "I like to watch my garden grow" as a metaphor for the economy. That was Chauncey's "plan."

And did the CNN format remind you a little of American Idol or Dancing with the Stars? I honestly thought I'd see three judges emerge with scorecards. Text your winner America!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Let Them Eat Leftovers

Actually, this is closer to what he meant: "Let the idle poor buy the hand-me-downs of the job creators if they can't afford to pay a 9% national sales tax."

And the non-taxation of used goods is but one feature of Herman Cain's 9-9-9 catchy sounding "plan." Help, I find myself agreeing with Michele Bachmann: "the devil is in the details."

While his 9-9-9 plan is "transparent," it is also transparent that he fails to see it as a regressive tax. It sounds oh-so-fair on the surface, all individuals pay a 9 percent tax on earnings and a 9 percent national sales tax and voila, everything becomes an even playing field. One only has to run an equally simple spreadsheet to see how overwhelmingly regressive such a tax plan would be as at lower income levels, fixed expenses, such as food, shelter, transportation, insurance, health, and, of course, taxes, become 100% of one's earnings. Conversely, even with a national sales tax, very high income tax payers would have even a smaller share of their income taxed unless they spent every discretionary dollar at Tiffany's.

Even if all deductions are removed from the tax code, ones the affluent can more easily access, it is a long way from 9% to the current top 35% marginal rate. And eliminating the 15% capital gains tax is a net gain for those taxpayers. Doing away with the estate tax is another bonanza for the fabulously wealthy (no dispute on my part, though, the estate tax needs reform as outlined here).

Also if Mr. Cain is going to rely on reducing the payroll tax as a bone toss to the middle class, he is ignoring an increasingly large segment of the population -- retired folk who are living on non deferred savings accounts accumulated during their working careers (already subjected to payroll and income tax, and probably at a higher level). They don't get the offset of a reduced payroll tax and in effect this is a means of double taxing and further penalizing savers. And Mr. Cain likes to argue that the removal of the payroll tax is an offset for the average worker that would now have to pay "only" a 9% sales tax, failing to note that half of the 15.3% current payroll tax is presently paid by business.

Overzealous tax reformers advocating a flat tax, or a reduction in income tax, triumphantly use the "growth" card to fill in any revenue shortfall. "Trust me," they are saying, "reduce taxes and the economy will grow to such an extent that everyone will prosper." The "job creators" will work harder.

If, as Cain's supporters contend, the 9-9-9 plan raises as much revenue as the current flawed tax structure, then mostly it is on the backs of working stiffs. And while there are merits in simplifying the tax code, 9-9-9 is not one of them.