Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mark Lilla: A Man For This Season

Mark Lilla, Columbia University
Charles R. Kessler, The Planet Pluto 


They must have some wonderful dinner parties at Columbia University nowadays. I can just imagine Mark Lilla and Nicholas Lemann, wives, significant others and assorted faculty members sitting around after the meal, drinking their port and lancinating the Righteous Wah Wah Right in a way with which Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw would have felt right at home.

In a sumptuous, two and a half page delight,in the New York Times  Book Review, Professor Lilla serves up the latest deep thinker from the Republican Right, Professor Charles Kesler,  like some over stuffed Thanksgiving turkey.

Selected observations:

"More than a few American citizens are loathing themselves blind over Barack Obama. Why?"

Lilla, of course, is not the first to express bewilderment over this. Even Mad Dog has asked the same question. Here you have a very centrist, not nearly liberal enough Democrat (for Mad Dog's taste) who is vilified as left of Marx and  Lenin, which is a significant disservice to Marx and Lenin.

And then:
"A sense of proportion, once the conservative virtue, is considered treasonous on the right today and Kesler cannot be accused of harboring one."

Of course what allows Kesler to claim to be an academician is his reference to names and people who most of us only dimly remember from our history courses, if we ever took history courses.  And, apparently, one of the great crimes of modern American politicians is to have been influenced by European thinking, in particular German thinking. (Remember where Marx came from.) So, as Lilla observes, two conservative parlor games are "Cherchez le Kraut and Whac-a-Prof."  So who does Kesler go after, as the root lefty in modern American history? None other than Woodrow Wilson. Remember him?  But Wilson is a likely subject, Lilla notes, because "Woodrow Wilson, who openly confessed to reading German..was engaged in a genuinely revolutionary activity--writing books." Wilson was also suspect because he was a professor at an elite Eastern school, which likely would have rejected Rush Limbaugh, had he ever applied for admission.  And,  Franklin Roosevelt, it must be noted, spoke German as a child. (Cherchez le Kraut.)

Lilla says of Kesler: "Once that rhetorical lineage is established, he then tries to show how the Idea spread out into American culture at large, bringing with it existentialist self-absorption, moral relativism and passivity in the face of the new administrative state, so that by the midcentury we nearly became European (only fatter.)"

And what was that idea?  That the state had a possibly benign role to play.

"Yes, the New Deal did convince Americans that citizens are not road kill and that government can legitimately protect public welfare and basic human dignity."

This, in short, is the "Swedenization" of America, Heaven forbid.

"The thing is, the conservatives have also spooked themselves. They now really believe the apocalyptic tale they've spun and placed mild-mannered Barack Obama at the center of it.  It hasn't been easy."

It's worth going on line to read.  Of course, its opening paragraph alone is worth the time on the computer, but Mad Dog realizes most of the eyes on this page will never see the article so I'll (spoiler alert) print it below:

"Once upon a time there was a radical president who tried to remake American society through government action. In his first term he created a vast network of federal grants to state and local governments for social programs that cost billions. He set up an imposing agency to regulate air and water emissions, and another to regulate workers' health and safety. Had Congress not stood in the way he would have gone much further. He tried to establish a guaranteed minimum income for all working families and, to top it, proposed a national health plan that would have provided government insurance for low-income families, required employers to cover all their workers and set standards for private insurance. Thankfully for the country, his second term was cut short and his collectivist dreams were never realized.

His name was Richard Nixon."





Saturday, September 29, 2012

Nicholas Lemann: Mitt Romney in The New Yorker




Nicholas Lemann, Dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, has done a fantastic, magical thing:  He has made me read twelve pages about Mitt Romney, who, until I read his article in the New Yorker , I thought to be one of the world's most uninteresting men.

It's not that Lemann has managed to make this Romney actually interesting in his own right, but Lemann shows him as a product of his environment, which includes his family, his Mormonism, the places he was gestated--Harvard Business and Law school, and the times in which that happened, times during which the economy of this country was profoundly restructured from an economy in  which companies produced things,  to an economy in which companies generated profits from restructuring companies, increasing efficiencies ruthlessly

And ruthless is the operational word here. It is keeping focused on what you are supposed to be doing, on how to score points, to win the game, not on the beauty of the game, not on making a good play or a good automobile, but on one thing, winning.

In my mind, this had made  Romney seem soulless. But that's a bit too simple, you can understand when you hear especially the Mormon friends of  Romney talk about the importance of succeeding in business as almost a spiritual enterprise. 

These men, Clayton Christensen,the Harvard Business School professor , Kim Clark, the president of BYU-Idaho,  Henry Eyring, the second ranking Mormon church official, all speak with fervor about the role of mastering business as a way of protecting the Mormons from persecution, as a way of achieving leadership in a society which has once persecuted the faith. 

What emerges in this astonishingly even handed portrait of Romney, is not a horned monster, but a very predictable product of a certain system and time. 

And Romney is far, far more conservative than I would ever have thought. He is no Rockefeller. He is something else entirely.

Oddly, he is very much the embodiment of what Henry Ford describes as the typical Jew in Ford's The International Jew, a man who wants to seize the financial mechanism of a business with little care about the engineering aspect of the business. Ford complained the Jew does not want to work with his own hands on the product, the automobile; he is only interested in working in the financial department.  This is exactly the attitude of the men at Bain capital, who are transaction men, who pride themselves on seeing where inefficiencies exist in the flow of capital into the company, on how it's accounting is done, on how it borrows and spends money.

 Romney and Bain were part of the transformation of the American corporation, in what  Michael Jensen of Harvard called the third industrial revolution, which changed the nature of American companies from organizations whose purpose was to produce things to produce a profit, to organizations whose primary purpose was to produce a profit, whether or not that happened by producing things or by simply being dismantled and sold for spare parts. 

Of course, as companies were pulled apart by men like Mitt Romney, peoples lives were damaged as jobs were lost, but Romney could not allow himself to be concerned about this any more than a shark can concern itself with the effect of his teeth on the body of the seal.  The shark does what it does; the seal is sacrificed. The world is not a Walt Disney movie with lovable Bambi. In the end, Romney might argue, the ocean is better off with fewer seals and more sharks, but in any event, as the shark, he plays the game to win for the sharks. 

Interesting details:  A very common pattern for young rising Mormon men is to go to a college for a year, often Stanford. Then leave to go on your mission knocking on doors in France or Africa. Then return to Brigham Young University, and finish your college education, and often to marry before you leave. Then off to Harvard Business School, or sometimes both Harvard Business School and Harvard Law. All of which Romney did.

The idea is if you do Business, you learn to lead, and you bring money and power back to the church, to which you tithe,  but then the higher calling is politics, with which Law School may help, and politics offers the ultimate opportunity to protect the children who have wandered in the wilderness, despised and attacked, threatened and abused.

Romney's father was born in Mexico because a colony of American Mormons had moved there to be able to continue polygamy.  One of Romney's good friends, Henry Eyring,  is related to Romney because Eyring's great grandfather was married to two Romney sisters. Mitt Romney home schooled the seven children of the Mormon dean of Harvard Business School, when they all lived in Belmont, Massachusetts.

Mad Dog finds all of this illuminating and surprising. Most of  the Mormons among Mad Dog's extended family  are Jack Mormons, and even those who lived within the bosom of the Church, did so with a wink and a lot of accommodation to wider American culture. Mad Dog knew devout Mormons in college and later, but the whole home schooling, business as a vehicle to protect the group against the threat from the greater American culture which wishes to destroy you, that is all a surprise.

Of course, the idea of playing the game to win is by no means peculiar to Mormons. You have only to go through any "elite" university to meet lots of people who do not want to to know anything about Shakespeare which will not be on the test, people who have no feeling for any subject beyond how to get a "A" in the course.  These are the winning-is-the-only-thing people. For these people Thoreau was an "A" paper and American slavery was just an hourly exam subject.

Personally, Mad Dog has never been a  winner. Mad Dog can stand out in center field and not know what the score is. If he made a good catch, or if he got a hit, or if he hit the cut off man, or if a teammate hit a home run, it was a great game. Who knows, who cares who won?

But for the men at Bain, the only thing that matters is the score at the end.

Oddly, for a man who prides himself on analyzing numbers, Romney was stupefyingly obtuse, saying that the 47% of Americans who do not pay income taxes are parasites who consider themselves victims,  who  expect  the government to take care of them,  when 90% of Americans pay either  payroll taxes or Medicare or Social Security taxes and about 90% of Americans benefit from one Federal government program or another.  

 As Lemann notes, "You'd expect somebody  who proposes to run the federal government to know that."

Obama and Lincoln: The Vision Thing



Lincoln once said he knew he did not so much control events as was controlled by them.
This is a typically humble statement from our most gigantic President, and one of his most telling. 
What it means, among other things, is that no President can control great trends and events, he can only react to them. What we hope for in a President is a man whose makeup will allow him, will force him, to react in the ways we hope are right.

So President Obama took office and faced an economy streaking straight for the financial cliff, and he pressed to take action which would avoid the next Great Depression by looking at the inaction of President Hoover and the Republicans of the 1930's.  Cries of  "Just let the powers of the marketplace correct this mess!" and "Just keep your government hands off the economy and allow the markets to self correct! Let individual entrepreneurs, let the unleashed horses of free enterprise lead the way!" rose up from the Republicans, just as the same cries met Franklin Roosevelt eighty years earlier. 

And Mr. Obama correctly saw all this was bunk. And he understood the cry from Republicans-- that this whole mess was caused by "government regulations" in the first place was utter bunk. The Republicans wanted to blame the whole thing on the housing crisis and the housing crisis was caused, you guessed it, by the government through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Of course, what made Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac dangerous in the first place was the part of them which was rooted in free enterprise, where managers did not get straight government salaries so much as production bonuses. But never mind the quibbles--Obama could see the truth and he could react, at least as much as his office would allow, which was not entirely enough, given the staunch opposition of the Republicans, whose leader flatly stated he would do nothing to save the economy if it would mean saving Mr. Obama.

So the President cannot shape or control the future, he can only react. 
And he cannot even see the future, because none of us can.

Consider this about the future, and mankind's limited ability to imagine the future. Did anyone ever predict the coming of the information age?  Where would such a prediction come from? Well "futurists," I suppose, or "think tanks,"  but mostly from science fiction writers.  That's where people have a free range to imagine, to project, to  look forward through the mists.
But, now correct me if I'm wrong, the science fiction of the 1950's, 60's, 70's and even the 80's was filled with projections about revolutions in transportation, physical exploration, health, production of goods and robotic services, but nobody ever thought about the importance of the simple ability to share information. Nobody seemed to focus on how important information is or could be. 
Now, of course, there was Dick Tracy's two way wrist radio, but, for the most part, everyone missed this simple key, from Presidents to Congressmen to science fiction writers.
Oh, of course, there were glimmers about the possibilities of communications via two way television. Science fiction showed a version of Skype, but that was simply taking the newest technology, television and imagining using it in an interactive way. But that was never given a central place as in, "This is where the future lies." It was always a sort of laugh line. Look, people can see each other when they talk--they'd better be dressed!

We did have some salaried government men working on the internet, not because they were visionaries of a new age, I suspect, but because they wanted a way to distribute command centers, if one got nuked.  And then there was microtechnology coming along from the space program (a government program) and transistors then little sand particles which could conduct current, and then a bunch of computer programming geeks writing software and and a lot of things came together until one day, some smart boy said, "I'm a visionary. I see a computer on a desk in everyone's home." And even he had no idea about smart phones, automatic tellers, aerial drones and all the rest.

The future  coalesces from too many different directions, like so much cosmic dust.  No one man, not even our greatest political man, Lincoln, can predict it or manage it. 

But we've got one man running for Lincoln's office who is humble enough, and smart enough, to react to what's out there.

Let's hope the rest of us are smart enough to know who he is.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Megan McArdle: Animal Farm For the True Believer




 "A greater gap of incomes between successful and unsuccessful entrepreneurs (thus greater inequality) increases entrepreneurial effort and hence a country’s contribution to the world technology frontier. We show that, under plausible assumptions, the world equilibrium is asymmetric: some countries will opt for a type of “cutthroat” capitalism that generates greater inequality and more innovation and will become the technology leaders, while others will free-ride on the cutthroat incentives of the leaders and choose a more cuddly form of capitalism."

Paper cited by Megan McArdle in The Daily Beast by Acemoglu, Robinson, Verdies (Italics mine)

Here you have, in pretty undiluted form, the underlying assumptions, I would say "myth" of an economic theory which forms the core of true belief of Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Rush Limbaugh and the entire cast of one percenters.

Boiled down, centrifuged to a nubbin at the bottom of the tube, it says that without the incentive of huge economic benefit, innovations in science, engineering, physics, all the things which drive economies, which allow nations to progress from the stone age to the iron age to industrial revolution to the information age, cannot happen.  Innovation only happens when the risk takers, the heart breakers, the entrepreneurs are motivated by the prospect of huge cash rewards are allowed to succeed and to bury all those 99% left behind them.

This is the corollary to Animal Farm: Without individual motivation, you get freeloaders  who do no work, (the pigs, the welfare queens, the 47% of Mitt Romney)-- those depend on the work of others to support them. And you have the foolish work horses like Boxer, who ultimately use themselves up and get carted off to the glue factory.

In fact, when you look at innovations which have changed economies, and the lives of the great mass of people, they came from men who were working not for fortunes, but for glory, for the intellectual thrill of solving a problem, for the thrill of being able to present their crowning achievements to their colleagues, who had tried and failed to solve the same problems, who know what they are applauding.

Consider:  1. The development of insulin by three salaried doctors at the University of Toronto in 1921. No fortunes for them. Eventually, fortunes for Eli Lilly, to whom they turned over their work, for only modest financial reward.  2. The development of vaccines for polio, the Plague, influenza, which have saved more lives than any single innovation by pharmaceutical companies in search of the almighty dollar. All developed with either government money by academics on government grants, or by individuals who gained no financial reward, just satisfaction (Alexandre Yersin, plague vaccine.) 3. Radar:  developed by British government scientists.  4. The CT scan: developed by British salaried government scientists working in academia and a National Health System.  5. The Internet: developed by government scientists   6. Rocket and satellite science: more salaried government workers, first German, then Soviet and finally American.  Entrepreneurs?  Johnny come lately to all this because the bottom line was not evident until after the governments put those satellites up there in space.  

So societies where wealth is very unevenly divided are not the drivers of innovation and progress from which welfare states feed.   The innovation which really mattered most emanating from these societies did not come from the profit chasers but from the salaried, usually government or academic (sponsored by government) scientists and engineers.

The wonder is a society like America, where private industry is celebrated, can manage to carve out enough public dollars to do the things through their salaried, much reviled government workers, which allow the rapacious entrepreneurs to feed.  So our humble public servants build the roads, the bridges and develop the frontiers in space, satellite technology, medicine and basic science which the private guys use to get rich. 

Where would Henry Ford have been without roads?  Where would GM have been without Obama?   Where are all those farmers and manufacturers now with a bridge between Ohio and Kentucky which is clogged and deteriorating and backing up the flow of Midwestern goods down south, because John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are in a snit and don't care if the Midwest suffers as long as the sufferers get mad enough to vote Mr. Obama out of office?

You can hate government. You can slam the door to "your" room and stomp around and curse your parents for not letting you take "the" car (their car) so you can go out and party. But you are still a brat. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Romney Care: Let Them Eat Cake



Hello Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. This just in from the New York Times, and possibly, 60 Minutes. The Republican candidate for President has reportedly answered the question:  "How do you propose to provide healthcare for the 50 million uninsured Americans."

Mr. Romney's reply:  "They already have an option: Emergency Rooms."

Does this man not have a doctor he can talk to?

Any doctor, anyone who reads a newspaper or listens to anything but Rush Limbaugh on the radio knows Emergency Rooms are the cake of the American health care system--if the doctor's office is the daily bread.

ER doctors (the real ones, not the ones of the re runs of the TV series, and maybe even some of them, like George Clooney) will tell you the last place you want to send uninsured patients, or really any patient, is the emergency room. Tha really is the place of last resort, in medicine.  In a sense, it's the safety net closest to the floor, or the morgue, as the case may be.

ER medicine is expensive, and by design, superficial and temporary. The main objective of a good emergency room doctor is to get you out of the emergency room and to a doctor who can actually take care of you.  

The ER is the thumb in the dike, not the bricks and mortar.

A system which is designed to funnel people to emergency rooms is a failed system.

Even having to say this is sort of unnerving. 
This information falls into that category of , "Well, everyone knows this, don't they?"
Apparently, one man does not, and he just happens to be running for President.
It reminds me of the remark made by Michele Bachmann about vaccines causing mental retardation:  A woman she met outside the building where Ms. Bachmann had attended a candidate's debate told her vaccines cause mental retardation, so Ms. Bachmann was quite certain this had to be true.

The Queen of France is said to have made a remark which suggested to some of her subjects a certain, je ne sais quois, a certain lack of sympathy with their plight, or perhaps a simple lack of knowledge of the basics of nutrition, or perhaps she was simply uninformed. When told the people had no bread, she said, "Then let them eat cake."  Seemed like a plan to Marie. 

And so, Mr. Romney, too, has a plan.  Let them use Emergency Rooms. 


Monday, September 24, 2012

The Minds of Voters



Listening to NPR today, I heard  rural voters being interviewed. Apparently, Mr. Romney leads President Obama by substantial margins among polls of  rural voters. Mr. Obama won Wisconsin and several other states in 2008 by holding his own among voters in the rural areas. So this is not good news for Mr. Obama.

One man said Mr. Romney was a businessman, so he would be able to get businessmen investing in America again.

Apparently, this man had been listening to Mr. Romney say that once elected, businessmen would be likely to invest again, simply because he is not Mr. Obama, and  optimism would reign once more. And that is all that is really needed to get the economy back on track. Paul Krugman, bless him, noted this is exactly the same plan George W. Bush had for the American economy. But the gentleman from Wisconsin does not, apparently, read Mr. Krugman's column in the New York Times.

A woman said she had voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 because she hoped he would help the economy, but now, in 2012, the economy in her town was no better and so she said she could not vote for Mr. Obama again.

Of course, true to the NPR tradition of simply sampling, and not challenging, the man with the microphone did not ask her: Do you blame Mr. Obama for the lackluster economy?  Do you remember anything about the last 4 years? Do the words, "Financial meltdown," or "Mortgage backed securities" or "Glass Steagal" or "deregulation" sound familiar?  Do you read newspapers? Do you read?

No, that was not the interviewer, that was me snarling at the radio.

Or there is one of the ladies in my office,  who had not heard about Mr. Ryan's plans to kill Medicare, or Mr. Guinta's remark that he not only wanted to kill Social Security and "let individual enterprise lead the way," he wanted to erase all memory of Social Security so his children would never even hear that name. My coworker said, "Well, I'm not political" 
But she votes.

They walk among us, these people. 
Sometimes, I feel like that guy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, who is walking down the street among all these apparently normal people who are actually only facsimilies of normal people, but inside, are nothing like what you and me.  Some may be normal people, but just as likely, they are body snatched, looking normal, but inside, not.

My question is:  What, if anything, can be done to snatch our fellow citizens back?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Globalization, Trade, Mixing


Here is an example of what the citizens of New Hampshire might learn from their neighbors in Maine. This is a street sign.  This technology allows for travel, people from outside the immediate vicinity to find their way to and through your home town.

I am now sitting in Quebec City, where I am listening to speakers who have come from Italy, Russia, China, South America, Scotland, France, Germany...you get the idea. And each of these folks are able to bring something new and something shared to the conversation--in this case of emerging understanding in the world of thyroid disease.

Displayed before me are the benefits of cross fertilization.  

It works in agriculture and it works in human culture. 

Once, attending a Bar Mitzvah of the child of a friend, I was subjected to the rantings of a rabbi whose message was that the "New Holocaust" was not contained in concentration camps but in intermarriage of Jewish boys and girls to Non Jewish boys and girls and as a result the disappearance of the "Jewish people" is on the horizon, through dilution of the gene pool and the loss of Jewish traditions in homes where Christmas trees might stand in the same rooms as menorahs.  

That this rabbi could not see the essentially racist nature of his remarks stunned me.  It made me think of my own secretary, a woman, raised in West Virginia, who though very bright, never graduated high school and she was outraged by the kids who worked at the McDonald's near her house, whose English was poor. She was fearful, if Spanish and Chinese were spoken in her community, she might be displaced and she might lose her status as a member of a favored group, the group of those who speak English.

Here in Quebec City, the Quebec quois  are very fond of French, but nobody seems threatened by the English spoken by the paying tourists.

Is it possible that the world would be a better place if we had more "interbreeding" and  exchange between people from different backgrounds, rather than digging in an fearing the exposure to new people and the new ideas they bring?


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

That Nasty 47%





Is this a great country? Or What?
I mean, where else on earth are the rich and successful the resentfully successful?

In most countries, it's the poor, the downtrodden, the dispossessed who burn with resentment against the winners, the haves, those to whom much is given.

Here, in the U.S. of A, it is the rich who burn with resentment against the poor!
Why, there is genius in that.
Just today, on the radio, I heard Mr. Romney, who paid nearly nothing (13%) in income taxes lambaste those who pay nothing at all in income taxes (retirees, active duty soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, people who make less than $20,000 a year) for not paying their fair share in income taxes. 
Never mind these non income tax paying free loaders, these people who have the gall to feel victimize, are paying payroll taxes, social security tax, Medicare tax, state taxes in sales, property, gas, and poll taxes.  
They are unworthy, and they are undeserving of whatever government programs they have been paying into all these years. They have a nerve,  to have a sense of entitlement.

That's what Mr. Romney is fighting for, a country where nobody feels entitled to anything. As my high school history teacher, Mrs. von Doenhoefer, used to say, "The only right you have in this life, is the right to starve."

Of course, I tried to object and pointed out that the whole concept of a "right" is a mental construct. The lion who meets you on the savanna recognizes no rights. It is only other people who grant you a right, like the right to not be eaten or murdered. 
It's the social contract thing. And Jefferson, with his inalienable rights, he certainly stirred up a can of worms. 
What, exactly, does "inalienable" mean?
Anyway, I'm grateful to Mr. Romney for clarifying things for me.
Now I know who to loathe.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Street Sign Perversity in New Hampshire



First, let us get one thing straight:  living in New Hampshire is the culmination of a life long dream in my particular case. 

Brought to Lake Winnipesaukee at age 8, I was stunned by the air in New Hampshire. You could breath it and not struggle. We had left August in Washington, D.C., where the air, if you have ever been there in August, is and was close to unbreathable. Ninety five degree days and ninety degree nights with humidity in the same range, it left you gasping and desperate. In those days, it took two days to drive by Studebaker to New Hampshire. 

When we arrived, nothing was at all like the sultry south land, not the air, nor the accents of the people, nor the trees. New Hamsphire had these trees called birches, which had white trunks, sprinkled in clumps,"stands of birches"  among deep, dark pine forests.  The lake water was uncontaminated by oil or gasoline--in those days no motorized vessels were allowed on the lake--except for the Mount Washington tour boat. You could look down twenty feet to the bottom of the lake.  We drove into Laconia for blueberry muffins, and the blueberries were local.  I told my friends back in Washington the nights were so cool you had to wear a jacket, and of course, they did not believe me. I was spinning some Shangra-la tale and they knew no place like that could exist.

I told my parents I was moving to New Hampshire when I grew up, and they smiled indulgently and said, "You'd never last a winter."

So, now, in my crotchety old age, I'm back.

And I'm still in love with the place.

But there's this thing, a local perversity, about street signs.

 It's a state trait which extends from the north country to the sea coast: They simply do not believe in street signs, not even in tourist areas like the sea coast, where you know there are lots of people who have no idea what street they are driving down.

I ask my neighbors about this curious aversion to the placement of street signs, which  strikes me as a sort of basic courtesy to those who were not born and raised in Hampton, and I get blank looks, shrugs and utter lack of interest. 

I prod and probe. I accuse my neighbors of harboring some deep seated passive aggressiveness. I describe riding my bicycle down whatever road it is which comes off Route One between the Mobil station and the MacDonalds and it passes across Mill Road (I happen to know it is Mill Road, no thanks to any sign) , and continues down to an intersection everyone calls "Five Corners" but no road sign for this road. Here you have a major intersection with a flashing yellow light and a little wooden shelter if you are waiting for a bus. But no street signs for any of the five cross roads. Actually, there is a sign, "Little River" but it is placed at such an indifferent angle you cannot tell to which of the five intersecting roads it refers.   

Or there that intersection you come to having taking Cusack Road from Route 1 A (unmarked)  as it runs into some new, mystery road and there's a little triangular park maintained by civic minded gardener, but again, no street signs. It's enough of a spot of civic pride somebody has actually planted azaleas, but not enough to warrant a sign of any sort.

Of course, it's not entirely accurate to say there are absolutely no street signs. There are obviously a few street signs, just enough to give the non native a little hope, just enough to make you sound like a complete idiot trying to describe where you were or hoped to be by saying, well, I saw a street sign saying Ancient or Robie or Ann's Place  but these are almost always cross streets. You get on a main road and forget it. No sign. Or maybe, there's a sign for Mill Road where it finally terminates in Winnacunet, and Woodland Road is occasionally, tantalizingly, marked, just enough to get your hopes up that they really do know about street signs in New Hampshire, but then, nothing. You are riding down some long road from Hampton toward Rye and you can see cross streets occasionally marked, but what road is it which is carrying you north? 

It is as if the townspeople are saying, "Well, we'll help you with East and West, but if you don't know where you are going north/south, well then, you don't belong here."

I know I don't belong here: That's why I need street signs!

It's not like I'm asking the taxpayers to provide public garbage cans. I know about garbage cans: They require people to collect trash from them, and that means you have to pay people to do this work, and that means taxes, and taxes are something we don't want to even think about in Hampton, New Hampshire.  So, okay, just throw the trash on the ground and hope the Cub Scouts need some merit badges and hold a clean up day. I get the lack of trash cans.  But, really, how much could street signs cost?

Street signs are low maintenance. Even the initial expenditure must be pretty paltry. And the Cub Scouts might volunteer to put them up, if you give them a street sign merit badge.  

Street signs have all sorts of virtues: Repair men who were not born in Hampton can find your house.  Tourists do not have to turn around in your driveway.  New Yorkers do not have to stop their cars in the middle of the road, creeping along as you are walking your dog, trying find out what state they have got lost in. 

In some states people actually take pride in street signs: They have different and distinctive colors for different towns.  They even paint fire hydrants with faces and uniforms like Nutcracker soldiers in Rhode Island. It's fun. It's community. It's civic pride. 

There is a certain civilizing thrill in naming things, like roads. It can be efficient. If you are trying to give directions you can simply say, "Take Mill Road to South Road and take a left," rather than, "Take that road which you cross where there's a 4 way stop sign, not far from the doggy day care, near that big, burnt out oak tree and go until you see the sign for "roto-tilling" and go past the house with the turret and the sign on the lawn that says, "Save the Middle class." 

It is something you can do for other people. Really, New Hampshire, try that idea on--do something for someone you do not know, who was not born in your town and did not go to your church or your high school. Put up a street sign. You'll see. You'll like yourself better in the morning. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Michael Lewis, Terry Gross, President Obama



Okay, stop reading this and go on line to NPR and click on Fresh Air with Terry Gross and click on the Michael Lewis interview about his months shadowing President Obama. Then come back.

So, okay, you're back now.
Did you have the same feeling I got, hearing the details of the time Lewis spent with Obama, this is a guy you know?  He's the sort of guy you knew in college. He will never be a professional basketball player, but if he could have been, he would have preferred that to being President. He knew himself and his own abilities well enough to know he would be successful as President but not in pro basketball.

He is intensely competitive, but he "stays within himself," i.e., he does not try to do things he is not likely to succeed in doing. 

He understands what most Washington people learn quickly, that the blowhards like Limbaugh and Mitch McConnell et al who call him a socialist, or a racist,  or a closet Muslim or foreign born  Kenyan or whatever  the charge de jouris, they are not describing  him but themselves. 
He is not hurt by criticisms which pertain to a fantasized Obama rather than the real Obama.

He took a long time to realize that Mitch McConnell had no intention of cooperating with him on anything, that if Obama said black, McConnell would say white and that was his only agenda. When he finally saw the game, Obama thought, well, then McConnell will pay the price of looking obstructionist, but no, back in Kentucky, McConnell was celebrated.

I'm going to run right out and buy Vanity Fair and read Lewis's article.

It struck me that Lewis observed Obama is really a writer, at heart. He stands back and observes, for which he's been accused of being "aloof." 

And it strikes me that sometimes this nation gets a President who is better, far better, than we deserve.  It was that way with Lincoln. 

And that's something which on a certain level makes me very uneasy.  One of the things Lewis talks about is how strange Air Force One is. It has special bay doors which are meant to be big enough to allow for the loading of the President's coffin.  

It is an eerie and sobering reminder of what this man faces every day.
I'm old enough to remember Kennedy.
 And I grew up in the South.
There are haters out there. 
Let's celebrate him while we have him.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

Proper Dog Car Riding Etiquette




Mad Dog has felt the pressure from certain quarters, including the estimable blogger, Maud, to address the critical issue of proper technique for transportation of dogs as relates to automobiles.

This particular dog uses this technique at bars and brew pubs around Portsmouth. He is standing in a crate, which is hidden behind the back seat, inside the car and when the car is in motion he lies down to enjoy the ride.

Note the roof of the car is above the dog, not below him. 

--Cave Canem


Unwavering

Mr. Tugboat, canvassing a voter on Plaice Cove Beach, Hampton




Last night, on The News Hour , Ruth Marcus, playing the role of the liberal voice opposite David Brooks, said "I know this is supposed to be a civil discussion, on this show, but really, what Mitt Romney did with the news of the killing of our ambassador was--there is simply no other way to put it--disgraceful."   

Then she noted that for the first time in many elections, the percentage  of "undecided" voters is in the teens. Usually, two months before a presidential election, it's 30-40%. 

Much pondering ensued, about why people have already made up their minds, if this poll accurately assesses the public mind. No firm conclusions were drawn.

I hope this reflects a widespread awareness that  Romney/Ryan would kill Medicare first and then, likely, Social Security.  But,  if the ladies in my office are any barometer, this is not true. Only one of the nine ladies I work with had any idea Romney/Ryan had ever said anything about Medicare. 

I do know certain voters make up their minds over issues which do not capture the spot light. Take the citizen pictured above, who has been unwavering in his opposition to Mr. Romney ever since his consciousness was raised a year ago by Gail Collins,  about an incident he considered revelatory of Mr. Romney's character, concerning a certainly family vacation and a roof rack.  I have pointed out this incident was entirely consistent with the oft expressed Republican conviction there is simply not enough room in the life boat, not enough room on the wagon train, for everyone and we have to pick and choose, make hard decisions about who we will favor in this life.  And, after all, the dog was not thrown under the wheels, or left behind at a gas station. He was given an opportunity, for Pete's sake.
Unimpressed by this line of reasoning, the pictured Hampton citizen,  is also pretty upset about the New Hampshire voter ID law, which likely will disenfranchise him.  Only certain classes of dogs are eligible for  a government issued ID--working dogs who accompany patients, usually blind patients, to their doctors' appointments.  

No poll has been taken of these working dogs with respect to party affiliation, but I suspect they are mostly Republicans, because some of the most ardent Republicans, who are most indignant about government control of our lives,  have been sucking on the government teat for years--they tend to be ex soldiers, who often had 20 years in the service, who got out and worked for the state department of roads, then the VA, then got a job with a factory that made parts for airplanes on a Defense Department contract, and then they worked for the Portsmouth shipyard before they retired on a Federal government pension we could all envy, especially when supplemented by Social Security.

But they built their lives and their fortunes and their financial security, all by themselves. And don't try to tell them the government had any hand in it.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dog On Roof



"They clearly--they clearly sent mixed messages to the world. And--and the statement came from the administration--and the embassy is the administration--the statement that came from the administration was a --was a statement which is akin to apology and I think was a--a--a severe miscalculation."
                          --Mitt Romney

The embassy's comment "is like the judge telling the woman that got raped, 'You asked for it because of the way you dressed.' That's the same thing."
                            --Senator John Kyl (Arizona-R)

"It was disheartening to hear the administration condemn Americans engaging in free speech that hurt the feelings of Muslims."
                                --Senator Jim DeMint (? Demented--South Carolina-R)

"We deplore the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims--as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."
                                   --statement United States embassy, Cairo.


But the best comment on the murders of an American ambassador and 3 other diplomats, comes, not surprisingly from Gail Collins, who actually wrote an article about Mitt Romney without once mentioning the dog strapped to the top of the car.
She wrote:

"All the uneasy feelings you got when he went to London and dissed the Olympic organizers can now come into full bloom. Feel free to worry about anything. That he'd declare war on Malta.  Lock himself in a nuclear missile silo and refuse to come out until there's a tax cut. Hand the country over to space aliens."

The best line was probably from President Obama, who noted Mr. Romney "Tends to shoot first and aim later. This is something you learn not to do, if you want to be President."

My only regret is I have not hear Rush Limbaugh on Mitt's comments.  You know he is capable of making Mitt look thoughtful and judicious. 


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Man Can Write


One of the best American writers of the 19th century was an American President, and that's saying something given who was writing in America in the 19th century: Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson, just to name a few.  But none wrote more powerfully than Abraham Lincoln.

In the 21st Obama contends among our best writers, although you never really know how much of what you hear from a President he actually wrote himself. But, at the very least, you can say the man knows good writing when he sees it and he claims it.

Consider:
"We, the people, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense."

Can you imagine George Bush, or even Ronald Reagan, Inc. or any Republican alive today saying this as simply, forcefully, directly and evocatively?
Not a chance. None of them have it in them. They are, down to the last of them, empty suits.
No so,  for the leader of the Democratic Party and the President of the United States.

The man can write.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Republic, If You Can Keep It


Emerging from the Constitutional Convention in 1787,  Benjamin Franklin was stopped by a woman who famously asked, "Well, Doctor, what have you given us--A Monarchy or a Republic?"
To which Franklin replied, "A Republic, madam,  if you can keep it."

Today, I voted in the primary for the nomination for governor from the Democratic party. Apart from my wife, I saw only one other person in the voting booths. Across New Hampshire, voters were few and far between.  At work, I asked if any of my co workers had voted, intended to vote, had any idea there was an election or who was running. None did.

We have Free Staters who have taken over the House of Delegates, who believe public schools are an anathema, that food stamps are the equivalent of feeding stray dogs, which is a bad idea, because they breed. We have a Congressman in Washington, D. C.  who wants to end Social Security and Medicare. We have a US Senator from New Hampshire, who smiles sweetly as she extols the virtues of a  sheriff from Arizona who rounds up Mexican looking people off the street and throws them into open air concentration camps.

And we take our kids to day care, to school, and we go shopping at the malls, and we remain blissfully detached and unconnected.

There was a wonderful scene in The Band of Brothers, where Private Webster, bursts into a bakery in a German town, to seize bread for  concentration camp prisoners he has just discovered outside town. The baker objects to the soldiers commandeering his bread, and Webster, who speaks German, pulls out his sidearm and shoves it into the baker's face. 
 "Don't shoot!"  The baker begs. "Ich bein kein Nazi.  Nicht Nazi." 
And Webster screams in his face, in English,   "Not a Nazi? That camp can't be more than half a mile from this bakery. You had to smell it, when the wind shifted. Don't tell me you're not a Nazi. If you didn't know, it could only be because you didn't want to know!"

And that's us, right here in picturesque New Hampshire. Not knowing because we don't want to know.  Or because we are too busy with our doggy lives. 
Not that we are Nazis, but if there were any around, we wouldn't care to find out.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Republicans and the Reichstag Fire Down Below




Once upon a time, there was a nation, struggling to have a democracy and they built an admirable edifice, a building to house their representatives, where the business of government could be done. But then, men who wanted to seize power, to steer the government in only one direction, the direction they saw as imperative, burned the building and pointed to their opponents as the ones who had set the fire. 

And the rest is history.

And this fairy tale repeats itself in every nation which is afflicted with amnesia. Not global amnesia, mind you, but selective amnesia.

So when you have an economy built on debt backed by rising housing prices, which are, after all, an illusion, because your house is not worth more than you paid for it until you have sold it, then you have a sense of wealth, which is, in essence, an illusion, and when you have termites in Wall Street firms eroding the essential value of mortgages--which is the arduous process of verifying the credit worthiness of mortgage holders--then you have a very sad history.

But ask the man in New Hampshire whether he remembers the role played by deregulation of the markets, by the repeal of Glass Steagel, and he says it was all the government's fault. What he remembers is the Federal Government through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac made banks make loans to the undeserving and Clinton and the Democrats voted to repeal Glass Steagel, which had since the Depression separated the world of banking into the banks which made mortgage loans and business loans in the community and commercial banks, which were allowed to create whatever risky schemes they desired.

So memory, like history is one long argument.

This is why eyewitness testimony in court, often rendered with great conviction, is such a problem. It seems so real, so undeniable, and it is often so wrong.  You have people who are so sure of what they saw, and who they saw do it, and it is only with cross examination you have any hope of showing how uncertain their recall, that reconstruction housed in neurons and drenched in a bath of prejudice and unstated belief and self interest, really is.

So the Republicans want you to believe Medicare is burning and Social Security is burning and only they can "save" either one, by destroying both.

And our fellow citizens stand up and raise an extended arm, locked at the elbow and shout, "Hail Blue Eyed Leader! Only you see clearly into the past and into the future."

And the blue eyed leader tells the story of his mother, who, after his father's early death, got on a bus to Madison, Wisconsin, so she could go to the  state college and earn a degree, rode 40 miles a day, five days a week,  so she could learn new skills and start her own business. Now, of course, what he doesn't remember is the bus, the road, the public university which taught her those new skills were all government products. He only remembers his mother's individual effort, not the group effort which helped her, which was just there, the way a mother is just there for her child, or the way a father just gives his son a car. That son remembers the 40 mile trip, the individual perseverance, not the group will, which is so big as to be invisible.

No income tax. No sales tax. Cut taxes and the deficit will shrink. Drown government in a bathtub. Live Free or Die. 

Let us sit in our rocking chairs around the wood stove and admire the rich and denigrate the poor and talk about the weather, a safe subject about which every opinion is equally valid. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Getting Real The Dems Come Out (Finally) Swinging



John Kerry said, "Why don't you ask Osama Bin Laden if he's better off now than he was 4 years ago?"

Bill Clinton said a lot of things, and he sounded like he knew what he was talking about, because he can use numbers without putting people to sleep--and he can slyly put in front of people the chutzpa of Paul Ryan, who attacks President Obama for cutting "to the dollar" the same amount Paul Ryan had cut from Medicare.

But most of all, the President himself finally swung into high gear and said, "They want your vote, but they don't want to you to know their plan. And that's because all they have to offer is the same prescription they've have for the last thirty years:
'Have a surplus? Try a tax cut.'
'Deficit too high? Try another.'
'Feel a cold coming on? Take two taxes cuts, roll back some regulations, and call us in the morning.'"

These are the lines we can use around the water cooler the next morning with our co-workers, who are quoting Rush Limbaugh.

"If you reject the notion this nation's promise is reserved for the few, your voices must be heard in this election."
"If you reject the notion that our government is forever beholden to the highest bidder, you need to stand up in this election."

I also like the phrase, "Trickle down tax cut pixie dust." 

So, okay, now we've got a gun toting leader who knows what it takes to play the game. 

NPR this morning was all about the potential political effect of the disappointing unemployment numbers which came out  after the President's speech. You would think the speech was not news, only the jobs report.  But the President, speaking here in Portsmouth, put today's report in perspective. When he took office, 800,000 jobs were being lost every month.  Today we have a report of 95,000 jobs being added in a month, and that's supposed to be devastating news.

One wonders what they are thinking at NPR, or if they are thinking at all. Probably, they are simply wimping out, afraid the Republicans will be angry at them and try to cut their funding again, as if by showing fear, NPR can tame the bully.

But President Obama is doing better now, in the late rounds. For the first half of the fight, he was simply covering up and taking punches. Now, he's starting to bounce off the ropes and throw a few combinations. 





Thursday, September 6, 2012

PBS: With a Whimper




I saw the very first New Hour on PBS, some 30 years ago, with Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil. They were still trying to figure out what to do with a full hour of news. They played with "Postcards," which were pictures of scenes from around the country, to fill that yawning 60 minutes.  Eventually, they got it right and after you got accustomed to The News Hour, all the other news programs looked like shameless news-entertainment hucksterism. 

But the years do take their toll, and now we've got the hoary pundits of Mark Shields and David Brooks who are so wrapped up in their own images as pundits, they simply cannot see the forest for the trees--in fact branches and entire trunks are crashing down on their heads and rendering them brain injured.

Last night Rahm Emmanuel joined Shields and Brooks in the sky box above the convention floor and these two aging journalists did not just embarrass themselves, they embarrassed this erstwhile fan and the viewing public. 

Shields was so intent on demonstrating how even handed and objective a true, professional journalist he was that he asked Emmanuel how the Democrats could complain about the Citizens United case, (which allowed a few very rich people to buy up all the television air time to air their own commercials, espousing their own self serving moneyed interests) when President Obama was the one who ceded the "moral high ground" to the Republicans in 2008 by refusing to accept public funds for his campaign and he was able to outspend John McCain two to one.

The statement/question was so breathtakingly stupid it caught Emmanuel, who is rarely at a loss for words, off guard and he simply, appropriately ignored it. 

He did not answer because the answer would have had to go something like this:  1.  Candidates were not legally required to accept government funding for their own campaigns and Obama did the simple calculation that he could air more TV ads using contributions acquired from millions of $25 contributors than if he took a lump sum for the government. 2. Using the internet, millions of voters contributed typically less than $100 to fund Obama's messages. 3.To compare using the contributions of millions to the contribution of a precious few rich men--the Koch brothers, Mr. Adelson (the casino magnate) as being morally equivalent , in a democracy, is so insipid as to raise the question of whether or not Mr. Shields should be sent immediately for a CAT scan of his brain.
In the Citizens United case a reactionary Supreme Court said monetary contributions are a form of speech, protected by the First Amendment, which was written in the 18th century, before there was television, radio or PBS. Justice Scalia started preaching about "original intent" and the sacred concept of cleaving to the parchment, as if he was talking about a stone handed down from God. 
What Emmanuel and many others have been saying is when you have a huge crowd in a stadium, in  democracy, each voter has a voice. And each voice should be of equal importance. But when you give a microphone and a huge sound system and a podium and a place on the stage to the Koch brothers, then their voices are heard above all others, then their speech is more equal than any other.
Now, Mr. Shields, that, you might think would be immoral. 
But is it immoral for a candidate, faced with Sarah Palin's frothing rants to say, "I will not accept half the air time, half the attention I can be given by millions of eager contributors, so we can pretend we have public financing of national political campaigns?"
Would the moral high ground have been to honorably lose to Sarah Palin and a man who has subsequently revealed himself to be less honorable than we thought he was--a man who has been seen on Jon Stewart saying the Constitution guarantees America will be  a Christian nation?
Who is Mr. Shields to define "moral high ground?"
Where did Mr. Shields ever get the idea he could put "higher moral ground" in the same sentence as "political campaign."
Now you will say, good for the goose, good for the gander, but Citizens United is a bird of a different feather.  This is a decision by a Republican Court to limit speech under the rationale of protecting free speech.
Rather like protecting the integrity of the election by disenfranchising  as many likely Democratic voters as you can with voter ID laws.
When Mr. Ryan shows himself indifferent to facts, hostile to truth telling, where is the moral high ground comparison?
Then David Brooks swoops in for his "Gottcha" moment, asking Mr. Emmanuel how the Democrats can say Mr. Ryan and Mr. Romney want to kill Medicare when they would allow current recipients to keep their current coverage and to phase in the Coupon Care Medicare over 15 years? 
How much insight does it require to know that the Republican Ryan bill, voted for by every Republican in Congress was a bill not to change Medicare, not to save it, but to kill it?  
What is the definition of disingenuous? What does the dictionary have a picture of David Brooks by that word?
Emmanuel, of course, simply replied there is a difference between a guarantee of payment for all costs of medical care and a coupon.  He might have said, a coronary bypass operation costs $250,000 and Mr. Ryan's coupon would cover $8,000 of that. Do you really think Mr. Ryan is "saving" Medicare with his coupon?
Emmanuel looked from one to the other much as the animals of Animal Farm looked around the table and could not distinguish the people from the pigs.