Thursday, November 19, 2015

New Whigs

In 1840 the Whig Party elected its first president, William Henry Harrison. There would be three Whig presidents in all. By 1856 the party was defunct. Will the Republican Party follow them into oblivion?
Harrison- First Whig President

Both the Whigs and the Republicans were formed in response to moral issues. The Whigs grew, at least in part, out of a revulsion with the brutal Indian suppression policies of the populist Democrat, Andrew Jackson. They also wanted to secure minority rights in the face of popular voting majorities. In 1852 the party split over objection to the extension of slavery into the western territories, failing to renominate its own president, Millard Fillmore. The Republican Party was born to take its place and emerged with the election of Abraham Lincoln, who went on to become the Great Emancipator, America's greatest president in the opinion of most historians.

Millard Fillmore- the last Whig
Whatever the parties were called in America's persistent two-party system, one usually worked to protect the interests of the well-off establishment while the other worked on behalf of the less-well-off. There were other pairings of opposed elements, such as north-south, central government vs. states' rights, agriculture vs manufacturing, liberal vs conservative. The tactics, causes and domains of the parties have shifted over time, as in the case of the Democratic solid south becoming the Republican solid south when LBJ enacted civil rights legislation.

The Great Emancipator
Whigs and Republicans have both represented professional and business interests but central to the Whigs' platform was a policy of tariffs to stimulate manufacturing. They also advocated free public schools to develop an educated and informed citizenry. After the Republicans replaced the Whigs as, in Bill Moyers' clever redefinition of GOP, the Guardians Of Privilege, they also gave the country its greatest trust-busting president ever in Teddy Roosevelt. GOP in those days was shorthand for Grand Old Party.
The Great Trust Buster

In recent years, the Republican Party has stood the policy of fostering industry, education and competition on its head. Today's GOP subsidizes the outsourcing of jobs, cuts funds for education while making giveawaysof public funds to billionaire professional sports team owners, and eliminates regulations against monopoly producing mergers.

At present, the GOP is facing a split, which may threaten its very existence, between its true constituency, the oligarchs that finance it, and its blue state voter base. Both parties have traditionally been made up of strange and seemingly incompatible groups but this time the coalition just may come apart, as in the Whigs' demise. While the party insiders are mostly denizens of the tonier precincts of NYC and Washington DC, the voting base is largely made up of white voters in the poorer states of the south and west. A recent study has shown that the white population with a high school education or less is undergoing a sudden drop in life expectancy. The mortality rate has taken a sharp upturn due largely to effects of alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide. These people have been persuaded for decades to vote against their own economic interests but if they keep dying off or becoming inert prematurely, no amount of gerrymandering may be enough to maintain GOP control. The ultra-right corporate takeover of the major media has been brilliant but the average viewer of the major propaganda outlet, Fox News, is in his sixties and so time is not on their side. No matter how much the NYT uncritically publishes handouts from the State Dept and the DOD, and the Washington Post publishes op-ed from discredited neocons promoting military solutions to everything, people are just not reading newspapers very much any more. In the past, immigrants climbing the social ladder into the middle class have often abandoned the Democrat party to vote Republican alongside their new suburban neighbors. With social mobility now virtually all downward, GOP leaders will have little left to work with except racial and ethnic animus. Divide and conquer! A new influx of refugees should help them there but how far can they work that theme?

Democrats have a deep divide of their own between corporatist and populist wings but only time will tell if they can be reconciled. Perhaps the corporate wings of the Republican and Democratic Parties could merge as a newly minted Democratic Republican Party. Some of us suspect that this happened a while back but simply hasn't been formally announced. Perhaps the announcement will follow the vote on the democracy-ending TPP. Hillary Clinton may be poised to become, like Lincoln, the first president of a newly formed party.

The Republican division has come out in the presidential debates over the issue of immigration reform, with half the candidates taking a harsh public stance against illegal immigrants, while the other half says it wants to find a way to accommodate them. While hypocrisy has always greased the gears of society, this split reflects a fundamental division in the ranks. The voting base doesn't want to compete with illegal immigrant labor. The funding base wants the cheap labor that only only illegal immigrants can furnish. It has nothing to do with nationality or ethnicity and everything to do with legal status. Illegal labor, foreign labor, third world labor, prison labor, slave labor; it's all good, that is, it's cheap! The GOP wants and needs the Hispanic vote so some, at least, are trying to seem concerned. After all, the Hispanic birth rate is the only thing that keeps the national birth rate from going below replacement level. At the same time, Hispanic voters have the biggest stake in avoiding competition with illegals.

America's two party polarity could better be described as the opposition of left and right but more often it is described as the divide between liberal and conservative. Since Reagan, the GOP has tried to turn “liberal” into an unflattering epithet. They've had some success, leading Democrats to shy away from “liberal” and to identify themselves with the more presumptuous term “progressive”. Republicans unanimously define themselves as “conservative”. What, if anything, does conservative mean? The word starts with conserve, suggesting a will to conserve something. Could be a lot of things; health, standard of living, sense of security, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, peace, the infrastructure, the air, the water, the environment, the planet, all are things that come to mind, although none of these things ever seems to rate mention at meetings of the GOP. Conservative also suggests a caution about change and a tendency to slow the pace of change. Change may be good or it may be bad but it is an inevitable element of life. A common distinction is made between social conservatives and fiscal conservatives. Social issues are almost all sex-related matters, sometimes interwoven with civil rights issues and interpretations of the Constitution, while fiscal concerns are largely about debt and taxation. At the moment the American population consists of four large groups of people who are either conservative on both social and fiscal issues, on one but not the other, or on neither.

In the midst of the over-long presidential campaign, where does the vast assemblage of GOP candidates for president stand with regard to the public on conservative issues? Social issues have shifted quickly in the United States. The sexual revolution of the 60's has left the country a very different place than it was half a century ago. The South was fully segregated by race in the 50's and that too has changed even if racism persists. The status and rights of women have evolved, perhaps more by changing conditions than by political effort. In 1993 the implementation of “don't ask, don't tell” in the military was seen as a huge progressive step for the rights of homosexuals. It is now considered a landmark of discrimination and the push for gay rights has led to widespread acceptance of same sex marriage, something unimaginable just two or three decades ago. Abortion was almost universally illegal in the US until the Supreme Court decided it was a constitutional right in 1973. Many of these changes have been rapid but most are accepted by the majority of the population. Still, not everyone is happy with all these changes so we can assume that there will continue to be be a political party representing people with such concerns. The battles over social issues are real, with significant numbers of people on each side. What about the current crop of Republican candidates?

Most of these conservative candidates are sufficiently resistant to social change to satisfy the voting base. Where there is deviation from conservatively correct dogma, it is seldom a product of creeping liberalism. Three candidates recently attended a meeting of the National Religious Liberties Conference whose leader, on the same weekend, made the case for rounding up and killing all homosexuals. Do such policies qualify as conservative? Many good people oppose abortion but does the tacit approval of the murder of people running abortion clinics qualify as conservative? Slowing the pace of social change may be conservative but what about the radical and violent return to an era that probably never existed? Conservative or radical reactionary?
"Bad science! Bad science!"
Is being anti-science conservative? In 1633 Galileo Galilei was tried and convicted by the Inquisition for promoting the Copernican theory of the universe, in which the earth revolves around the sun. Surely, the Inquisition could be considered conservative in its time. Does it make sense 382 years later to consider politicians holding views similar of those of the Inquisition to be conservative? Was the space exploration program cut back due to budget constraints or by concerns of heresy? Does Jim Inhofe count as a conservative? What about the majority of GOP candidates who follow his lead in bashing science? The English language seems to be failing us here.

Greatest friend of the 1% ever
Most establishment Republicans don't really give a damn about social issues, except as a tool to fire up the base. Deep down, it's all about economics, often camouflaged as fiscal conservatism. If fiscal conservatism is about balanced budgets and keeping spending in line with income, how many of the dozen or more GOP candidates could rationally be called fiscal conservatives? One! While he may be way out there in right field on many domestic issues, Rand Paul is the only GOP candidate who has any reasonable claim to being called a fiscal conservative. He has even called out his colleagues asking: Is it really conservative to advocate unlimited military spending without paying for it when our military budget is already larger than the rest of the world's together? Paul is also the only Republican candidate who has ever opposed a war that the US has initiated. Since Ronald Reagan, Republican Administrations have consistently run up record deficits. “Tax and spend” liberal Bill Clinton produced a surplus, which was quickly eliminated by “conservative” George W. Bush by starting wars financed by deficit spending. So much for fiscal conservatives. They have perpetrated a monster hoax for years. All these Republicans holler about deficits but they keep making them bigger through corporate welfare, tax breaks for their rich sponsors and blowing ever more money on the insatiable military industrial complex. All the candidates seem to have a “tax plan”. Rand Paul isn't immune from this. In every case, these plans would drive the country deeper in debt while trashing its public resources, accelerating the decline of the middle class and further reducing the prospects of the poorer classes, into which the former middle class is sliding.
New Leadership.  Conservative enough?

Some of the GOP base is angry and their anger lashes out in all directions, usually misplaced. Such people are referred to as the Tea Party. They may eventually morph into a separate party, something like the Know-Nothings at an earlier troubled time in our history, but they have little in common with the Wall Street insiders and the Karl Roves of the world, who have been using them badly.

The party insiders are getting worried that outsider candidates such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson are still leading the polls, fearing that they may lead the party into an electoral debacle, or worse, that if elected they will drive the country to ruin faster than the insiders' plan called for. The total collapse isn't supposed to come before the sanctuaries of the oligarchy are fully stocked, armed and fortified. Rumors have even surfaced of a plan to draft Mitt Romney. The group of GOP candidates has been frequently compared to a clown car.
Having spent the early and late portions of my career working on zoos, I'm inclined to view the spectacle as something you'd see in a zoo. A large gorilla roaring and pounding his chest, surrounded by smaller, nastier, screeching monkeys and cold blooded, beady-eyed reptiles with darting tongues. There are also some sloths and aardvark types waiting to be prodded into action but alas, there are no lions or tigers or Teddies in this crowd. Will their prayers be answered with an ark to save them from the coming deluge?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A New Season

September is upon us and it's the start of a new season. School starts, vacations end, so it marks the beginning of an academic year and a new work year too. More important, it's the start of a new football season. Of course I'm referring to American football, although I believe that European football, i.e. soccer will be getting started about the same time.

The start of a new season is another unwelcome reminder that our time here is limited and the clock is ticking. While we occasionally acknowledge our mortality, for example when we attend funerals of people our own age or younger, we don't care to be reminded about it. Institutions, whatever else they've been established for, serve to impart a sense of permanence to our lives. Thus, we resist changes to our governments, our political parties, churches, and schools, or else we fail to acknowledge that they have in fact changed. When the all-male college that I attended started admitting women a few decades ago, the considerable resistance by the alumni was fueled not so much by misogyny as by the concern that a beloved institution would no longer be what it had been, seemingly forever.

Among the institutions that have lent stability and continuity to my life are spectator sports, many of them. Besides football, there are baseball, hockey, boxing, and auto racing, just for a start. New athletes come up, play out their brief careers, retire and die but their teams seem to go on forever. Sports do change though. When I was a kid, baseball was known as the national pastime., a status it had earned during the Great Depression, when thousands of unemployed men could spend their afternoons in the bleachers for less than they'd spend in a saloon. The game was long, slow and fairly boring but it was out in the open air and it did pass the time. I got a taste of it at my first summer job, working at a small hotel at the Jersey shore. I was there seven days a week, twelve hours a day, but most of the time there was nothing happening and nothing to do. Most days, the 93 year-old proprietor of the hotel would settle into his big easy chair in the lobby in front of the large TV set, brass spittoon by his side, and spend the afternoon watching baseball games. I got to join him and was indoctrinated into the finer points of the game.

Ted Williams, pitchers' nightmare
Lots of kids played the game or its poor cousins, softball and stickball. I had a catcher's mitt and managed to overcome the terror generated by the curve ball of the left-handed kid who lived down the street but while I learned to catch the curve, I couldn't hit a baseball if my life depended on it, so I never developed much of an attachment to the sport. After the war, baseball became very popular in Japan but where it really took off was in Latin America. Cuba and the Dominican Republic now seem to provide a disproportionate number of players in the major leagues. Perhaps it's no coincidence that those countries appear to be in an extended period of economic depression. Baseball seemed eternal when I was a kid. I became a Boston Red Sox fan for life. My loyalty remains, although I seldom pay any attention to the game. My early hero, Ted Williams, had his body frozen when he died so he could eventually make a comeback when technology permits. Now that's something that would get me out to the ballpark. I wonder how many American kids still play the game. The economy being what it is, maybe baseball will make a comeback, even without Ted Williams.

My Rangers
Hockey was once a Canadian sport and while four of the six original NHL teams were in the US, about 99% of the players were Canadian. The other two were from Minnesota. Now the league has thirty teams, twenty-three of them in the US, and the players come from all over the world. I barely know who any of the players are but I still feel lifted in spirit when I hear of the NY Rangers winning a game or a cup.
Tony Zale and Marcel Cerdan

Boxing was another enthusiasm of my youth. When my favorite fighter, Marcel Cerdan, died in a plane crash, it felt like I'd lost a member of the family. For a time it seemed that “Heavyweight Champion of the World” was a title on a par with “President of the United States” but having three or more sanctioning bodies each offering their own titles did nothing to help the sport as an institution. When the best of the best, Sugar Ray Robinson and Mohammed Ali hung up the gloves, my interest left with them.

Toughie floors a rival
Other sports have failed to achieve institutional stability for a variety of reasons. In the eighth grade I was briefly a big Roller Derby fan, even gathering autographs of stars such as Mary Lou Palermo and my favorite, Midge “Toughie” Brashun. This sport featured women with status equal to their male counterparts long before the NCAA push to encourage women's sports. The action was fast and rough enough but the sport had an aura of a staged exhibition, not unlike that of professional wrestling, and it vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared.

My life-long fascination with automobile racing got its start with midget auto racing, which was very popular up and down the east coast before and after WWII, with events scheduled every night of the week on mostly quarter mile tracks. The sport may have been even more popular in the Mid-West but trailers carrying the cars were everywhere along the eastern seaboard.. Typically, each night there would be three ten lap heats, two fifteen lap semi-finals, a consolation race, and the main event, a twenty-five lap final. The better drivers would participate in as many as eight such sessions per week, usually in minor cities such as Paterson, NJ, Freeport, NY., or Thompson CT. It couldn't last. Whether it died out from over-exposure or from the fact that so many of the top drivers were killed in crashes, I don't know, but by the early 50's the midgets were being replaced by modified stock cars, which had more frequent and spectacular crashes in which nobody usually got hurt. It could be compared to introducing toothless lions, or gladiators with clubs in place of swords, into the Colosseum of Rome.
Bill Schindler and Al Keller

Midget racing continues in some parts of the mid-west, but the cars now have large roll cages, which impart safety while totally eliminating the sleek, racy look of the cars. Formula 1, IndyCar and Nascar have fared better, establishing a tenuous institutional presence, which so far has lasted through extensive technological changes. The speeds keep going up but ironically the cars keep getting safer. Still, just last month, Justin Wilson, an IndyCar driver from England, was killed in a race in Pennsylvania. He was the first to die in the IndyCar series in four years. That's a big change from the days of the roar of the mighty midgets. The biggest threats now to auto racing are high costs and environmental concerns.

In America every high school with at least twenty-two boys enrolled has a football team. Nearly every college has a football team. It's been that way forever. “Forever” started in 1869 with the first intercollegiate game between Princeton and Rutgers, played in New Brunswick, NJ, although that game was played with rules more like soccer. By 1875 Harvard played Tufts in the first game more closely resembling football as we know it. Schools and colleges may have other teams for basketball, baseball, track and even tennis, golf and hockey in affluent communities but, except for basketball, few people go to watch them perform. People flock to football games everywhere and pretty cheerleaders urge the crowds on in rooting for their teams. Most kids want to play football. It appeals to the violent nature of the American character and it's a wholesome alternative to gang wars, as well as offering supplementary benefits, such as winning cheerleaders' hearts and college athletic scholarships. For the supernaturally endowed athletes, there's also the remote chance of becoming a professional football player, the only hope for mediocre students to become millionaires at twenty-three, other than by winning a lottery, starting a, or being born into the Walton family.
Crazylegs Hirsh in classic Rams gold

Since my own college gave up semi-pro football the year I enrolled, my football loyalties have remained with the professional Rams, whose existence started the same year as my own. While known mostly as the Los Angeles Rams, they started out in Cleveland before moving to LA, an altogether logical move since Cleveland had anothe team, the Browns, and the Rams' quarterback at the time had starred at UCLA and was married to Jane Russell.  High-jacked to St. Louis twenty years ago for a new tax-payer financed stadium, it looks like they'll be returning to their natural home city of Los Angeles next year. While I have little interest in traveling to the US if I can avoid it, that might tempt me to a trip to the West Coast.
LA Rams cheerleaders

Pro football predates me so it feels as though it's been around forever but until the NFL and the upstart AFL merged in 1960, its popularity never rivaled that of college football. This season will see the fiftieth edition of the Super Bowl, certainly the biggest sports event in the USA and the biggest single sports contest on TV throughout the world. How long will it continue? The NFL, and the whole world of football, faces some challenges. Too many over-privileged young players have been beating up their girlfriends or engaging in other anti-social off-the -field activities. There is a Byzantine history of the Commissioner dealing with alleged cheating by the New England Patriots. The NFL's 40 million dollar man, Roger Goodell, has modeled himself after Oliver Cromwell (or Barack Obama) to deal with “actions unbecoming” to the league. The latest tempest in a teapot involved star quarterback Tom Brady allegedly ordering game footballs to be deflated below the prescribed pressure. For this, the football czar ordered suspensions and fines running to millions of dollars, despite a lack of pre-announced sanctions for “crimes” of this nature, or anything resembling proof of guilt. The penalties were recently struck down in court, leaving open the question of how much of the Commissioner's discretionary power will remain.

A much more existential threat to the game comes from the on-going study of its contribution to brain damage among players. In the off season, the San Francisco 49ers were hit by a number of voluntary retirements among their star players. The most striking of these was by linebacker Chris Borland, who after just one year in the NFL, in which he played at an all-star level assuring himself of a very big future contract, decided to quit the game, citing concerns about the impact of the sport on his future health. His health may be assured but that of the game is not.

My own concerns for the future go beyond that of football. I wonder if the planet will remain habitable for the anticipated lifetimes of my grandchildren and I wonder if they will live to see democracy restored in the United States. Those are things I'll never know. Just as a beloved gas-guzzling finned Cadillac may no longer have a place in our society at a time of energy crisis, the violent game of football may not deserve to survive, but for better or worse, I love it, and I celebrate the start of a new season with the hope that it will survive me, and that the Rams spend the rest of their years playing football back in Los Angeles where they belong.  

While writing this I became aware that the New York Tennis Open will have two Italians in the women's final.  Brava Vinci!  Brava Pennetta!  If football falters before I do, maybe I'll transfer my allegiance to tennis.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Remembering Bruce

While listening to WBGO the other day, I got the news that Bruce Lundvall had died. Bruce felt like a close friend to me, despite our infrequent contact over the sixty-five years that I've known him. I suspect that everyone who ever met Bruce thought they were one of his close friends. That's just the way he was.

We both grew up in Glen Rock, NJ. Across the street from me lived Don Dewar, my good friend but, being a year older, Don had his own circle of friends, most prominently Wes Adams and Bruce Lundvall. They all shared a zany, full-blown sense of humor, much in tune with entertainers of the day such as Ernie Kovacs and Bob and Ray. Bruce was a tall, skinny, likable kid. I didn't know then that in his early teens, he was already a completely fanatical jazz nut. After he went off to college, he apparently took up weight lifting or at least serious workouts. The skinny kid came back the imposing figure we all got to know later in those bespoke suits. When I went off to college I became almost as much of a jazz nut as Bruce had been in junior high school.

We bumped into each other several times at jazz clubs in New York in the 50's and 60's but the most surprising chance encounter was in Stuttgart in the spring of 1959. I was traveling around Europe between my brief stint in the military and grad school. Bruce was in the Army and stationed in Stuttgart. Coming out of a JATP concert in the big modern concert hall, who do I bump into but Bruce Lundvall. We went off to a local club together to hear more of Roy Eldridge sitting in with some local German musicians.

After moving to Italy in the early 70's, on my infrequent visits to the US, I was filled in by Don Dewar about Bruce's remarkable career at Columbia Records. He had worked his way up to become the president of the company, where he reigned until leaving to start Elektra Musician in 1982. While working in Saudi Arabia about that time, I noted a qualitative upturn in the pirated cassettes flooding the music shops. They were copying really good records from Bruce's new label, works by Red Rodney and Ira Sullivan, Echoes of an Era, and Steps Ahead. I managed to hear a number of those musicians play at Umbria Jazz in 1984. That was also the year that Bruce left Elektra to take over as president of the resurrected Blue Note label, and the rest is history, folks.

In 1997, I made a career move of my own, returning to New York to work in a large architectural office. One thing I was determined to do in New York was to look up Bruce. It was easier than I could have imagined. By miraculous coincidence, the office I was going to work in and the offices of Blue Note were in the same building, on the corner of Park Avenue South and 23rd Street. I didn't contact Bruce immediately. We all feel elevated by seeing people we've known for a long time turn into important figures, as if a little of their success rubs off on us. Imagine being a childhood friend of a person who grows up to be a senator or even a president of the US. Wow. But then again, such people mostly work with other politicians or lobbyists, not exactly the stuff of dreams, pride or envy. Bruce was way bigger than that; he worked every day for decades with people I worshipped. Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Dexter Gordon would have been enough to keep me permanently in awe but the list of musicians that Bruce signed at the three record companies he headed is amazingly long and includes a high percentage of those whose records are ensconced in my house and whose music has been the sound track of my life.

When I did eventually call, I was welcomed into Bruce's vast two-story high office as an old friend. He showed me around, introduced me to colleagues and loaded me up with promotional CDs. Bruce could and did go on all day with anecdotes about working with musicians he revered as much as I did. His affection for jazz musicians seemed boundless but he worked with other genres as well. Dealing with the inflated egos of opera singers and the weaponry of the rappers were not among his enthusiasms but he could turn some of those experiences into amusing anecdotes.

Subsequent visits sometimes involved lunches at unimaginably good restaurants. Always in immaculate suits, Bruce was welcomed by the owners as their very favorite client, which I have no doubt he was. My visits were curtailed by our office moving downtown next to the WTC. Blue Note also moved out of the building, relocating to lower Fifth Avenue. In the aftermath of 9/11, my office got restarted on W 13th St, close enough to visit Bruce for lunch. One time, Don Dewar was up from Florida and we had a sort of mini-reunion there. Bruce was in very high spirits since the first record of Norah Jones had been an enormous success and the second was about to come out.

During my New York years, I usually got to come home in July, around the time of Umbria Jazz, and in 2001 I saw Bruce there as he was accompanying Diane Reeves and some other Blue Note artists. Unfortunately, that kept him too busy to come to visit us in Acqualoreto. Two years later I returned to Italy for good. I got into the routine of writing to Bruce with a summary of the jazz festivals in Umbria. On a few occasions he would send me a package of new CDs for my impressions. I always hoped he'd be able to come over for a real visit but with time, his health problems began to limit his travels so it never happened.

In this blog I've written about seeing Bruce in early 2014 when I visited the US. He was not in great shape then and shortly after that I heard that he had moved to an assisted living place not far from his home. Parkinson's Disease had limited his ability to move and his ability to speak but his spirit remained intact. It was increasingly difficult for him to get out to hear live music so he organized a jazz festival right there in the assisted living place with many of his Blue Note artists performing in a benefit for the Parkinson's Disease Fund.

Bruce endured more health problems than most people ever have to face in their lives but I don't recall hearing him complain. Mostly, he was just grateful for having had a wonderful life. Working at what you most enjoy with people you admire and being well paid for it would fit my description of the good life. I've known no one who lived it better.  I shared Bruce's love of jazz, of cigars, of good (mostly Italian) food and drink, and of a certain type of humor.  I've alluded to the fact that in our celebrity culture, we hope to somehow bask in the reflected glory of our important friends.  I can only hope that some of his love of life, his kindness, his generosity and his optimism will have rubbed off on me.

Thank you Bruce. If you ever meet Miles again, maybe you can introduce me some day.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

To Run or Not to Run

In the winter of last year, while I was visiting the United States, filing deadlines were approaching to be on ballots for upcoming primary elections. New Jersey's Cory Booker was facing a new election to keep the Senate seat he had won in a special election to replace the late Frank Lautenberg. All of this got me to thinking, US Senator would be a nice job.
Base pay is something like $174,000 per year and there are lots of benefits, from travel perks to really good barbers. Congressman isn't a bad gig either but they have to run for re-election every two years so their job is mostly a full-time fund raising mission for their next electoral campaign. Incumbents tend to keep their jobs but there is some unexpected turnover.

Reading about the likely Senate Committee Chairmen, should the Republicans win control of the Senate, sounded an alarm. Could this really happen? Would these be the people selected to shape the destiny of the world's most powerful nation?

A sampling from the list of Senate Committees and their proposed chairmen:

Senate Armed Services Committee-   
We need to arm the good guys.
John McCain. Remember him? The paragon of wisdom who picked Sarah Palin to be his Vice Presidential running mate. McCain is even older than I am and is subject to apoplectic fits. Had the election of 2008 gone differently, Palin might have preceded Hillary as first female US President. McCain is a leading proponent of arming the “moderate rebels” in Syria to depose President Assad while simultaneously holding ISIS at bay.

Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs- Richard Shelby. Coming from the major urban state of Alabama, Shelby's main claim to fame was leading the fight to cripple Dodd-Frank, the law protecting the public and the economy from further bankster predations.

Budget- Mike Enzi of Wyoming. His major goals are to repeal Obamacare, cut Medicaid and food stamps.

Commerce, Science and Transportation- John Thune of South Dakota, America's transportation hub and center of vast commercial activity. Thune supports Grover Norquist's plan to abolish the inheritance tax, thus assuring the Norquists' spawn remaining in the 1% for eternity.

Energy and Natural Resources- Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, who wants to open up everything to drilling.

Environment and Natural Resources- In the hands of God, through the interpretation of Oklahoma's James Inhofe, the same one who threw a snowball on the floor of the Senate to demonstrate that climate change is a fraud. Big Jim also wants to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from protecting the environment. God will take care of it.

Finance- Orrin Hatch of Utah.   
Who needs democracy? We're a Republic.
Although known for attacking Obamacare, his main job at the moment is promoting the fast tracking of TPP and TTIP, whose ISDS provisions effectively eviscerate democracy worldwide, rendering elected legislatures a thing of the past.

Foreign Relations- Bob Corker, unofficially known as the Senator from Honda, Toyota and Mercedes. Lately he's been proposing legislation to sabotage diplomacy in Iran in order to assure that we can have another war in the Middle East, as per Israeli directive.

Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee will run this committee, which deals with most of the things the GOP is determined to eliminate.

Judiciary- Charles Grassley of Iowa. He is best known for winning approval of the Bush tax cuts which turned a budget surplus into the huge deficit that conservatives have complained about ever since. With the “no new judges” policy of the GOP, his committee could be abolished since the judiciary has been more or less shut down for the past decade.

Homeland Security- Chairman Ron Johnson of Wisconsin starts and ends his every public utterance with “Bengazi!”, a tactic guaranteed to keep us safe.

Veteran Affairs- John Issakson of Georgia. Despite his occasional outbreaks of rationality and his failure to say out loud anything idiotic enough to qualify as a committee chairman, he still gets a Committee chair just for being the seventh most conservative Senator, having an A rating by the NRA, a 100 rating by the American Conservative Union and by being a Republican from Georgia. He even served in the Armed Services for six years, which makes him a weirdly anti-intuitive Republican choice to deal with veterans' affairs.

Pat Roberts campaigns in Kansas

Seeing my country facing these potential disasters, I was naturally dismayed but I figured, well, it would just be up to younger Democrats to do something about it.. Anyway, I'd soon be back to the comfort of Italy where I'd gone into voluntary exile four decades ago. However, another bit of news caught my attention.

Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, after serving three terms in the Senate and eight in the House, was facing stiff opposition in his bid for re-election. The objections were not based on his votes against a US treaty to ban discrimination against handicapped people, or anything of the sort. The problem was that he has no residence in Kansas, the state he'd represented for thirty-four years. His voting address is a house on a golf course belonging to some political supporters. He stays with the couple on his occasional visits to the state.

Tea Partied Out

Roberts wasn't the first one with such a problem. Richard Lugar of Indiana was registered to vote at the address of a house he'd sold in 1977. He was dumped from the voter rolls until he re-registered using the address of a rural farm he owned but which he admitted he'd never lived at. He'd spent 1800 days in Indiana over the course of thirty-six years, which averages out to fifty days a year.

That started a few bells ringing. Since I moved to Italy more than forty years ago, I've spent over 2200 days in the US. Maybe I too could be a US Senator despite my long history as an ex-patriot. I Googled the requirements and found the technical rules plus some of the practical advice variety. To run for the US Senate you must be at least thirty years old, a citizen for at least nine years before the election, and an “inhabitant” of the state you wish to represent. No problem there, although I'd have to decide which state I'd like to represent. I've lived in four states long enough to identify with them: NJ, VA, NY and CA. That doesn't count my four months in Oklahoma during military service, from which I emerged with no sense of having found my true home. In any case I have no desire to represent a place that would elect a Jim Inhofe, a feeling almost certainly reciprocated in Oklahoma. I might prefer to represent Virginia, where I have many wonderful friends, but there too, people like Eric Cantor and Pat Robertson are prototypical politicians and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell set the cultural/political tone for far too long. Part of my heart remains in San Francisco so California could be even better, but it's awfully far from home. Besides the majority of voters and politicians in California are from certified minorities so I'd have a tough row to hoe there. That leaves NY and NJ. My equivocal feelings about AIPAC would seem to disqualify me from NY politics despite my having been a member of the 92nd St. Y for a number of years. If I were to run, New Jersey would be the place. I could easily satisfy the inhabitant requirement, without even having to lean on political supporters, by renting a piece of my daughter's basement and moving my voter registration address there from the apartment I gave up twelve years ago. Besides that, I'm a native son, born in Paterson just like the late Senator Lautenberg.
The late Frank Lautenberg

Residents of New Jersey are characterized by two driving ambitions. One is to make a lot of money; the other is to move out of the state. Senator Lautenberg made a bundle of money before serving in the Senate. While I've fallen short in that area, I have experienced comparable success on the other front by getting further out of the state than most natives, and at a relatively young age.

After checking the technical requirements I turned to the practical advice.

  • Have a solid career background outside of politics. All my career, solid or not, has been outside of politics.
  • Have political experience, preferably in elected office. While my resumè is a little thin here, I've spent the past ten years reading and writing extensively about political issues; in college I was elected pledge master of my fraternity, and more importantly, social chairman for two years running; years later I was elected to the governing committee of the social/cultural/recreational circle in my home community, where I promoted the arts and encouraged the integration of the foreign components with the community at large.
  • Senators who have experience of a managerial nature may be frustrated by the plodding pace of Senatorial debate. I have limited managerial experience and have both extensive experience and great patience with political debate. While I enjoyed boxing as a child, I have learned to control my violent impulses.
  • Be a person of integrity. In my last workplace I was repeatedly called on the carpet for being too honest with clients. “Just tell them what they want to hear, especially that we have an answer. Tell them anything. We'll cover you.” My fundamental integrity, tempered by this sage advice, would serve me well in the Senate.
  • Have reasonable expectations for what you can accomplish. While I have an extensive wish list, I realize that the likelihood of seeing Bush and Cheney relocated to Guantanamo is slim. Nevertheless, my expectations would never be as low as those of Barack Obama, whose starting point on any policy battle has been the default compromise position.
  • Run for the Office. This means organizing a campaign committee and raising money. Raising money has never been my major strength but politicians must learn to delegate responsibility. Jimmy Carter never learned to delegate anything and he was soundly trounced by Ronald Reagan, who delegated everything, mostly to his wife's astrologer and Ollie North.
  • It's good to bond with other politicians.
    As a NY Knicks fan I rooted for Bill Bradley (before NJ had its own team) and later voted for him for the Senate. I've also expressed full support for Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer throughout the hate-filled campaigns to discredit them on non-political issues. Michael Moore has recently written that he was thinking of running for President in 2016, just as I have been thinking about running for the Senate. He has posted his platform. While I have never met Michael, I am a supporter, and I would be happy to support his platform and work with him. I already feel the bond.

    smart more than wise

    more soul than Obama

    strong on the public front
    A real AG

  • Technical Requirements- Candidates must register with the FEC within ten days of receiving contributions or making expenditures in excess of $5000 and the principal Campaign Committee must make a Statement of Organization (FEC form 1) within 15 days of registration. That's what staffers are for folks, so send in your contributions and when we hit the $5K mark we'll hire some staff. I believe campaign funds can be carried over to future elections.

Alas, the 2014 filing deadlines came and went before I got around to filing.  Almost no one voted and the election results were even more catastrophic than feared but from the aftermath of the debacle some interesting bits of information emerged. While the absentee conservative Senator from Indiana, Richard Lugar, had been swept out in the primary election a year earlier by a more intellectually challenged candidate favored by the Tea Party, in Kansas, Pat Roberts not only survived a primary challenge but went on to win another full six year term in the Senate.
Pat Roberts back home in DC
Lacking any other rational explanation, we can only surmise that the good people of Kansas
figured that anyone smart enough to stay out of Kansas for all those years while representing the state in the plush confines of Washington DC, must be smarter than them and therefore worthy of their support.  Could this be a good omen for me?  Are New Jerseyans as sensible as Kansans?

Corey Booker has nailed down his Senate seat for six years. Robert Menendez, New Jersey's other Senator, isn't scheduled to run again until 2018 but last week, the Department of Justice announced it was formally charging Sen. Menendez with corruption. Yes, the same Justice Department that has gone after whistle-blowers for six years while failing to jail or even charge a single bankster for crimes that devastated the economy of the world in 2008, as well as ignoring our prominent war criminals. More shockingly, this comes five years after the Supreme Court, in Citizens United, effectively legalized the bribery of elected officials. Could Senator Menendez have been careless enough to fall into an unpublicized loophole by which he could be prosecuted? Stay tuned. He may be forced to resign and another Senatorial race may be in the offing. It's early but we welcome all campaign contributions.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Bubbles, Bungles and Busts

Prior to the end of WWII the system of agriculture in the central regions of Italy was known as “mezzadria” or share-cropping. Contadini worked for landowners in houses furnished by the owners, with whom they had a contract providing that they share everything produced or sold.

When the war ended industries sprung up in the cities and the contadini, given the opportunity to change their category from “contadino” to the more prestigious “operaio” on their identity papers, fled to the cities in droves. In Terni, Rome or Milan they worked in steel factories, automotive factories or in construction. Some worked as building porters and for the first time in their lives, actually made money. A few of them, very few, accumulated enough money to buy the houses where their parents were still living or more often, houses in the villages they came from.

Here, in and around Acqualoreto, nearly all the farmhouses were owned by three families living in the smaller village of Morruzze, just up the hill. Some of the houses had held eighteen people or more. While there were a few artisans and professionals who lived in the village itself, by the 1960's the land and the farmhouses were deserted. At the end of WWII, Acqualoreto had three teachers, three doctors, a pharmacy with a resident pharmacist, a Post Office, a general store, and another food shop which doubled as a bar. The departure of the contadini disrupted life in the village as well as in the surrounding countryside.. The pharmacy went away, the teachers and the doctors either died, retired or moved away. The doctor who now serves the area lives in Terni, 50 km away. The shops stayed on until about 1990 and 2005, while the Post Office closed in 2005. Local schools from three villages were consolidated into a new building midway between them in the mid 1980's.

A large unrenovated farmhouse
The seventies saw the arrival of the first of the “forestieri”, or outsiders. Large empty stone farmhouses were bought up by writers and movie people from Rome for little more than what a small Fiat 128 cost about the same time; an Australian woman who worked at FAO in Rome was one of the first foreigners to arrive. She decided she'd prefer to commute and have her daughter grow up in the countryside. In nearby Torre Gentile, the American sculptor Beverly Pepper and her journalist/writer husband Curtis Bill Pepper bought one of the dozen or so sentry towers that formed an early warning system around Todi in medieval times. They transformed the tower and its stables into a magnificent home and studio. Throughout the 70's and 80's other foreigners bought up the remaining country houses, usually for very little money, depending on the time of purchase. Among them were painters, writers, architects, professors, journalists, dress designers, lawyers and people from the world of TV.  Prices of the country houses continued to go up, those of houses in the village not so much. In part, because the outsiders preferred to remain reclusive outsiders, but also because the typically two or three room house in the village had been inherited by ten to twenty relatives scattered around Italy, most of whom had little interest in maintaining, restoring, selling, or least of all, inhabiting it. Negligible property taxes on these houses and building department bureaucracy contributed to the stasis.

The housing bubble here, as elsewhere, expanded for years. When the bubble burst in the US in 2008, its effects were not immediately felt here. While there had been no influx of Americans in the new terror-obsessed century, the slack had been taken up by people from Holland, the Caribbean and Ireland, at least until the Irish economy went belly up.

A regally renovated farmhouse
By now the Great Recession has spread and sunk roots and both the Italian economy and the real estate market have collapsed. People who cleverly bought houses for a song in the 80's are getting older and no longer feel invigorated or gratified by the hard work required to maintain these big houses and the land that surrounds them.

Large houses are proving hard to sell in this new buyer's market but if prices of large properties have slumped, the prices of apartments and houses in villages and towns throughout Umbria, and probably all over Italy, have crashed.
Florida bargain
Not like Florida, where people we know have bought houses for as little as $17,000. That's cheaper than a mid-sized station wagon and while station wagons may be fine for sleeping, they offer little in the way of toilet or cooking facilities. Leafing through a current booklet of real estate offerings in the area, I see 2 BR apartments in Todi for €65,000 and €87,000. The first even has a garage and a garden while the other is a ground to roof building in the picturesque old center. That sort of money will buy you a fairly flashy car but cars lose most of their value over ten years or so. House prices can always go lower but they're down now so the odds are on their going up. Of course, if you have more money to invest, there's no upper limit. Just call our friend Caroline Van Agteren at Antonini Realty and she'll fix you right up. You could also contact another realtor friend, Michiel Bloemgarten, who lives right here in Acqualoreto. With the market so far down, he spends more of his time these days back in Holland but I'm sure he'd be eager to help.

Italy's once flourishing industrial sector, which excelled in textiles, clothing, shoes, leather goods, automobiles, glass, steel and ceramics, has been devastated by globalization and the theologians of austerity. While Italian “smoke sellers” have always been adept at selling intangibles, such as “Italian design”, and some continue to peddle pricey Italian-designed products made in China, Italian financiers have never managed to develop that mystical aura of unquestioned, hard-headed respectability with which Anglo-American bankers have so successfully fleeced individual and institutional investors, paving the streets of lower Manhattan and central London with gold in the process. Unemployment is high in Italy and young people are emigrating out faster than from any other country in Europe. In many ways the situation appears bleak. The birth rate is among the lowest in the world.

However, while our shops and our Post Office are long gone, here in Acqualoreto we now have a restaurant and a lively summer festival. More surprisingly, in a village of two hundred people, we have four building contractors, all of them more than capable, and a social circle, which maintains a bar, with members from at least a dozen countries. Food is as good as ever, both in the fresh ingredients and in the preparation, and the countryside is stunning. Our weather is feeling the effects of climate change, but where is it not? At least we're more than 400 meters above sea level so we're relatively safe from major flooding. Although Italians used to smoke a lot, and the lung cancer rates still reflect it, Italian life expectancy is the highest in Europe.

With democracy in the US and the UK now just a fading memory and the big banks having seized control of their regulators in order to facilitate their gaming proclivities, it's only a matter of time before the next major economic crisis. We can't predict how the effects will play out. Will all the remaining wealth of the collapsing countries just continue to quietly flow to the oligarchy or will rebellion spread, with blood running through the streets as the militarized police demonstrate why they've been so lethally armed?

A perfectly restored farmhouse
Umbria is a tranquil place, the home of St. Francis of Assisi and one of the least populated regions of Italy. We don't have legions of angry young men ready to riot. Most of them have already moved to England. If you're sitting on, or in, any valuable property in one of the markets which haven't collapsed yet, this would be a good time to downsize and put some of your winnings into a peaceful getaway home in Umbria. The area is as attractive as ever and if the deflated housing bubble doesn't reinflate soon, it means that the cost of living will remain low. If it does reinflate, you'll be able to congratulate yourself on getting in at the right time. At the moment, there may be better values to be had in Greece and Spain but the future of Greece seems a little iffy and from what we've heard, large areas of recently (over-) developed parts of Spain have simply been abandoned. The unemployment rate in both those countries doesn't bode well for civil tranquillity.

Having no plans to go anywhere, I have no vested interest in any of this hypothetical investment but we do like to see new faces at the weekly Happy Hour of the Circolo, as well as seeing our friends and neighbors prosper. Membership in the Circolo is open to all and we look forward to welcoming interesting new people. 

Proposed retirement community, Patriot Estates, in West Virginia
 However, for any of you reading this who might have (US) Republican sympathies, or similar Tory leanings, it's only fair to point out that you might find even less expensive opportunities elsewhere, more to your liking.

American conservatives have pleaded in vain that the face of Ronald Reagan be added to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Sorry folks, it isn't going to happen, but new and better opportunities are coming up and the more individualistic and adventurist people among you may want to be a part of them. Vast areas of mountainous terrain in West Virginia and parts of eastern Kentucky are currently being transformed into a dramatic new landscape. This area too has a sparse population and now that traditional coal mining has been abandoned, jobs are even more scarce than in Umbria. (The number of people working in the WV coal industry has dropped from 120,000 to 15,000.) Once stripped of its coal, the land is much cheaper than anything here. Buy a plot on one of the remaining peaks and you'll have splendid vistas into the new valleys. No bad interactions with the townies since most have either died or moved away or will soon. All you'll need is lots of imagination, a little real estate nest egg to invest and small change for bottled water to drink and bathe in. Friends, this can be an international monument to the potential of laissez-faire government. Those newly carved mountains would make the perfect site for gigantic likenesses of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush and Ayn Rand.
proposed Objectivist monument

It's time to act folks. Let us know if there's anything we can do to help.