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.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Life Follows Art- A Comic Strip World

One of the last movies my wife and I saw in 2014 was The Dark Prince, the latest Batman epic. We both wondered why we bothered to sit through it, why it was made, and who it was made for. OK, it was a comic strip brought to the big screen, and yes comic books are made for kids and they are full of gratuitous violence and heroic heroes and villainous villains. But comic books are cheap to make and their fantasy world is the stuff of small children. Why then this multi-million dollar special effects extravaganza with violence far too gratuitous, graphic and perverse to subject small children to, yet too simple minded in its characters to subject adults to? It utilizes a degree of sophistication in its special effects that might be wasted on the violence prone adolescents that the movie would seem to be aimed at.

In the real world there are good and bad people too but mostly there are people who are good in some contexts and not so good in others. The basis of classical tragedy is man at war with himself over his good and bad instincts. Most of us have some of both. Public issues usually are fueled by those inner conflicts as well as by legitimate conflicting interests. Here we have a blockbuster film with a villain, Joker, who seems to have no plausible reason for being, only a desire to be evil and an otherworldly ability to exercise his will. Why spend so much time and money on such toxic rubbish?

Or so we thought. Only a few days later congressional elections were held in the United States, where the voter turnout reached a record setting low, partly due to voter suppression but mostly due to sheep-like passivity and the widely held conviction that all the politicians are so bad that it doesn't really matter who is voted in. One might have supposed that the big GOP victory signaled a return of conservatism, that is, a slowing down of dramatic social change, and a desire to reach back to the values and styles of the mid-twentieth century. Whether or not that was the intention, that wasn't the result.

Emboldened by their capture of both houses of Congress, the Republicans didn't even wait for their new members to be sworn in. In the lame duck session they passed legislation to keep the government running for another few months. The Joker managed to insert a number of his trademark acts of civil sabotage. The Joker?! Well, it seems that some of our elected representatives also saw the movie and were inspired by the effectiveness of the Joker. Others may have simply met with Dick Cheney. Among the Joker provisions hidden in the finance bill were:

  • Apache ancestral and ceremonial lands were ceded to what is reputed to be a wholly owned foreign subsidiary of Joker Industries, Rio Tinto, the mining company famous for its environmental and human rights records. This was actually included in the National Defense Authorization Act, rather than the general funding bill.
  • Trucking companies, which in the past could force their drivers to work seventy-two hours a week, now get to keep those slackers on the nation's highways for eighty hours a week.
  • Seeing how useful Citizens United proved to be in the buying of Congress, campaign finance laws were further undermined.

  • Wall Street reforms in Dodd-Frank were gutted to enable Jamie Dimon, Gordon Gecko and the Joker to have another go at destroying the economy.
  • Underfunded corporate pensions can now be reduced, presumably to avoid embarrassment and loss of profits for the companies, as well as to make the Joker smile.
In subsequent sessions, the House ofRepresentatives voted to raise the number of weekly hours worked from 30 to 40 which trigger the employer's requirement to provide health insurance to the employees. This will allow the Joker and other employers to reduce the workweek to 39 hours and avoid providing health insurance to their workers.

Republicans then vowed to attack Social Security with all the resources at their disposal.

Not to be outdone, President Obama, while making his State of the Union address, in which he promised to work for a number of enlightened policies, from lowering the cost of college to slightly shifting the tax burden from the middle class to the very wealthy, none of which have an iceberg's chance in Hell of floating through this Congress, also pledged to pass the secret trade agreements, TPP and TTIP. Besides sending more jobs abroad, increasing our trade deficit, increasing the cost of medicines, and inflicting controls on the internet, these so-called “trade agreements” will establish ISDS courts, responsible to no elected government and staffed by corporate lawyers, which by inflicting fines on governments for passing legislation which might reduce a corporation's theoretical profits, will effectively control all legislation by elected governments large and small, local, regional or national, all over the world. The Joker's smile has never shined so brightly.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


treason- (trè'z'n) 1. now rare. The betrayal of any trust or confidence; breach of trust. 2. The offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary.

U.S. Constitution Article III.
Section. 1.
The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.
Section. 2.
The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction;—to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States;— between a State and Citizens of another State,—between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.
In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.
The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.
Section. 3.
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.
The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.

Words see their meanings distorted and shifted over time. The Fourth, Fifth and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution have simply been discarded as “quaint” by the Department of Justice. The current Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment as protecting the freedom of religion of corporations as well as interpreting their free spending of money to buy elections as protected free speech.

In the post-Orwell era it may be useless to try to assign logical meaning to words, but what the hell, what else have we got to lose? In the days of the Founding Fathers wars were fought between nations with canons and muskets. Now we have permanent war and wars have been declared on everything from poverty to drugs to breast cancer to terror. It would be no more of a stretch than those made by the Supreme Court and the Department of Defense to consider actions by an alien body such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association as an act of war against an American state, and by extension, against the United States of America. The GMA isn't merely lobbying and bribing legislators to do its bidding, the traditional and now legal procedures for having one's way; it is attacking the State of Vermont in a US court over a law passed by the elected state legislature to protect its constituents from corporate malfeasance. A number of corporations belong to the GMA. Monsanto is one and it is no surprise to see it at war with the citizenry of Vermont, as it seems to be at war with the entire population of the earth. Starbucks is another member and that's another matter. While sipping a Starbucks cappuccino did you stop to consider that you might be contributing to a conspiracy to commit treason?

It gets worse. The present act of war against the State of Vermont is apparently to be fought in US courts. It is still to be hoped that a rational judge will throw the case out and assess a hefty fine for bringing a frivolous suit, but with Active John Roberts still at the helm of the Supreme Court, you never know. However, secret negotiations are going on now for the so-called “trade agreements” TTP and TTIP which would set up off shore courts run by and for corporations to carry out war on elected governments, such as the Vermont Legislature, throughout the world. Fines could be levied by the corporate courts on any non-compliant government, with no recourse to review by any court or agency accountable to the public. That would instantly make all local, state and national governments dead meat. Not a shot need be fired, not a bomb thrown, nor a plane high-jacked. This plot is being hatched within the US Government. President Obama wants it in place soon. The corporate-owned GOP congressmen are enthusiastic. The Fox Crazies want Obama impeached for extending health care insurance to those who need it, and for “Benghazi” but never do they mention TPP.
The way I read it, Article III, sec. 3 of the Constitution states that the Judicial Branch shall rule over pretty much all disputes between states, individuals, and foreign states. An effort by the Executive Branch, with approval by the Legislative Branch, to cede such duties and responsibilities to an alien court would seem to be at the least unconstitutional, or with a more generous interpretation, an act of treason, that is, if you accept my personal perception of artificial entities such as the GMA or the US Chamber of Commerce as enemy agents.
Next time you're stopping for a coffee at Starbucks, think about what you're doing.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Fat Lady Has Sung

It's over folks! The 238 year American experiment with democracy has ended, not with a bang but with an embarrassing fart. The unrelenting efforts of the Supreme Court to undermine the Constitution in favor of its corporate sponsors have borne their fruit and both Houses of Congress have now passed into the control of the oligarchy, along with the judiciary. Will the executive branch follow? Does it matter?

In the wake of the mid-term elections, which broke all campaign spending records for non-presidential elections, and may have set new records in percentages of voters not showing up (most reports state the national voter turnout as 36.6%), Democrats have taken to blaming everything from factions, strategies, the press, voter suppression laws, the widespread perception of the two parties as being equally corrupt and ineffectual, the failure of candidates to embrace Obama, and Obama himself, to the nastiness of the Republicans for the debacle, but the debacle stands.

From the nether world of the ex-Confederacy comes news of Rush Limbaugh's latest tirade. He urges the new GOP  Congress to be unrelenting in their quest to dismantle the country. This time I can only agree. Please don't offer any compromises to Obama. He has a tragic affinity for compromise and a tendency to meet his declared enemies 3/4 of the way on any issue. So keep the heat on, Radical Right Republican Reactionaries, pedal to the metal, all the way to oblivion-- total meltdown or nothing!

Well meaning friends ask me if I think the results will have an effect on the next presidential election in 2016. What can I say? Actions have consequences. Inactions do too.

The appointment of George W. Bush to the presidency in 2000 led to a catastrophic series of events from which the United States has never recovered and probably never will. In case your memory isn't working as well as it once did, in short order we witnessed: a corrupted Presidential election, a stock market collapse, 9/11, an unfocused invasion of Afghanistan, the illegal invasion of Iraq, the Bremer administration of the occupation, tax cuts for the rich and the conversion of a budget surplus into a monster deficit, Hurricane Katrina and “good job Brownie” in New Orleans, torture as DOD policy, domestic spying as NSA policy, massive voter suppression, deregulation of everything that needs to be regulated, another stock market collapse with a too big to fail bailout followed by too big to jail and the Great Recession.

While prior to this election, most serious news was successfully suppressed, apart from hysteria inducing stories of ebola, ISIS and out-of-control immigration, the day after the election the news came out of a newwhistle-blower, Alayne Fleishman, who spoke of her difficulty in getting the Justice Department to hear and do anything about the crimes she witnessed while working for JP Morgan Chase. Just a few weeks before this news surfaced documenting his reluctance to prosecute big-time banksters on criminal charges, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his resignation. Fortunately for the denizens of Wall Street, as quickly as a magician can pull a rabbit out of a hat, a nearly perfect Holder clone, Loretta Lynch, was found among the inner circle of lawyers who alternate between defending white collar criminals of the sort who work for banks, and working for the Justice Department. Her current gig is US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. She's the one Obama appointee almost certain to be approved by the Senate. Even Rupert Murdoch supports her. Jamie Dimon can continue to sleep soundly. While Republican Senators, and some Democrats, couldn't bring themselves to approve Debo Adelbile, a well-qualified lawyer, as head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department because he'd once defended Mumia Abu-Jamal, it's hard to picture Republican Senators blocking her appointment just because she has defended a number of crooked bankers. Besides, she's black, and of course, they wouldn't ever want to be seen as racist.

The goals of the new GOP controlled Senate will be:
1. To repeal Obamacare- This may prove more difficult than thought since thousands of people now have health care who didn't have it before. It's one thing to deny something to people. It's another to take something away from them once they've got it.

2. Approval of the Keystone Pipeline and the evisceration of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mitch McConnell, the new Senate Majority Leader, who famously stated in 2008 that his top priority was to assure that Obama would be a one-term President, has a new priority. He feels the responsibility to block all action on climate change and to reign in the Environmental Protection Agency, which his new colleague in the Senate, Joni Ernst, the ex-hog castrator from Iowa, has compared to the Gestapo. It will be interesting to see how well Senator Ernst does her work in Republican committee meetings.

3. Approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Pact.
Obama wants it to happen and the corporate owned GOP Congress will be happy to speed it along. These are the democracy ending “trade agreements” that have been in secret negotiations for months. Secret because if the public knew what was in them there would be rioting in the streets. (or am I being uncharacteristically optimistic?) There's a bitter irony in this since Republicans have always railed against international institutions such as the UN which “threaten US sovereignty”. The TPP, negotiated in secret by a cabal of large corporations, will end all local and national sovereignty in the USA and everywhere else, and cripple the ability of elected governments to legislate on matters related to the environment, food safety, workplace safety, minimum wage, working conditions and internet privacy. They may still be permitted to debate whether theories about evolution, gravity or climate change may be discussed in schools, so we'll probably have to retain a skeleton force of elected officials. Not too big though, since ALEC now writes most US legislation. Yes folks, if you hadn't noticed, government has been privatized. TPP is the biggy, the bomb in the schoolhouse, the one big thing that makes everything else fade into insignificance since it basically abolishes electoral-based governance.

There may be historic reasons for a bit of optimism. Many of my liberal friends are hopeful that in 2016 Democrats will retain the presidency and retake both Houses of Congress. Republicans are in a quandary about whom to select for their Presidential candidate from among the brain dead, the certifiably insane and the sociopaths in their number. All three groups were rewarded with remarkable success in this year's elections. In a bit of a panic over this situation, Wall Street groups have dragged out the name of Jeb Bush as a possible saviour from outside the three main factions.

On the other side of the aisle, it appears that Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her new Athena, Goddess of War mode, is the only Democratic candidate. Hmm, Bush-Clinton! Wonder what that will do for voter turnout? At least the electorate may have an inkling of who the candidates are. Campaigning as the less horrible choice didn't work this year and there's no assurance that it will in two years either. We'll have to pin our hopes on the GOP picking a really grotesquely horrible candidate, something clearly within their capabilities.

History can move quickly. Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany at the start of 1933, following the huge gains his Nazi Party scored in the 1932 elections. Before he died in his Berlin bunker just eleven years later, WWII had devastated much of Europe. That's even faster than the devastation brought on by the election of 2000, although don't tell that to an Iraqi. Some 13 million Iraqis and Syrians are now reported to be displaced and homeless. By 1946, following the Nuremberg trials, Europe was starting to rebuild. Our own recovery (as well as that of Iraq) from the wake of 2000 hasn't gone as well and with the election results in, it may be on permanent hold.

On a brighter historical note, it was in AD 41 that Emperor Caligula discussed making his horse Incitatus the newest member of the Roman Senate, on the basis that his horse was capable of doing as much as the current members. Some things haven't changed in two millennia. We haven't crowned an emperor yet but the electorate, who still theoretically get to choose members of the Senate, took a similar course as Caligula, giving the nod to such luminaries as the aforementioned Joni Ernst, Thom Tillis and incumbents such as Pat Roberts, a stellar all-star cast.

The Roman Senators didn't take the slight lying down. A bunch of them got together and stabbed Caligula to death and then tried to restore the Republic. That failed, as the Roman equivalent of our Secret Service rounded up the assassins, killed them and saved the Empire. The good news is that the Roman Empire glided on for another relatively good three or four centuries till Romulus, the last Roman Emperor was deposed in AD 476 by Odoacer, one of the invading barbarians. 435 years after Caligula! That's a pretty impressive run.

The ascendancy of Jim Inhofe to Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works may throw a monkey wrench into our hopes for a similarly long, slow decline. We all know that our planet earth won't be around forever but mostly we think in terms of geologic ages, a bit of an abstraction. Senator Imhofe may change the time scale of the planet's demise to something most of us humans can relate to personally. The good Senator, like many of his Oklahoma constituents, is not unduly concerned since he and they know that the second coming of Jesus will carry us all (at least the righteous amongst us) away to heaven when we manage to arm Israel sufficiently to pacify the Middle East. The Bible tells us that there will always be seeds and the harvest, no matter what Monsanto is up to and that God creates the weather so what is all this presumptuous talk about our changing it.

Once again, there is a kernel of hope, despite all odds. Our current form of government has been called by many names. Recently Sheldon Wolin dubbed it “Inverted Totalitarianism”. That may be technically valid but sounds a bit academic for my taste. I prefer “Corporate Fascism”, which besides being reasonably accurate, touches an appropriate nerve. The oligarchs running the system all seem to be driven by an insatiable lust to exploit the planet and gather the world's riches for themselves. They are succeeding beyond their wildest dreams. While the current operating mode may be corporate fascism, or whatever name you choose to apply, their phenomenal success is leading inexorably to neo-feudalism. Once everything in the world is owned by the Walton and Koch families, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Paul Singer and a handful of others, we can all go back to being serfs. Mass consumption will end. After all, how much can those people consume? Pollution will be reduced, along with life expectancies. This may not be the future you had hoped for your grandchildren but hey, life is a gift; it's a wonderful planet. Its population of seven billion people may be radically reduced along the way but with a little luck the planet may be restored to health for our grandchildren's grandchildren.