Friday, October 29, 2010
And not just anybody. Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor to the US Supreme Court in 1981, where she served until her retirement in 2006. One of the reasons O'Connor, one of the most popular and ground-breaking justices to serve on the nation's highest court, retired at what many considered to be an early age involved the increasingly ill health of her beloved husband who was suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. He died in 2009.
Along with two specialists, O'Connor wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times this week that issues a call for aggressive federal investment in finding a cure for Alzheimer's. Virtually everybody I've talked with about death says they would prefer to go in any way but that. Yet funding for a cure lags behind many more high-profile initiatives like AIDS research and breast cancer.
Say what you will about tax dollars being used to find medical cures for diseases; there's a strong case to be made for the government's unique ability to marshall critical resources for targeted strategies that benefit the common good. Particularly when something as devastating as Alzheimer's strikes its victims regardless of their politics, religion, personal health, income, or race. Perhaps more than anything else, Alzheimer's really is an equal-opportunity killer. And that's why we need to concentrate on eliminating it.
Some people may look at Alzheimer's like they do smoking. Arguments have been made that allowing smokers to continue playing Russian Roulette with their cigarettes actually helps keep population growth manageable, and can help minimize the number of elderly people who acquire other health issues which could be even more costly than lung cancer. The key to that mindset, however, which I in no way endorse, is that smoking is a personal decision for which the government should not be held accountable.
The difference with Alzheimer's should be obvious: we don't know the causes, we don't know how to prevent it, we don't know who it will strike, but we know it will be fatal. And before it's fatal, it will be utterly awful for its victim and their family.
This is where O' Connor's plea comes in. Please click here to read it yourself. Don't consider it a diatribe of angst from a woman who's simply suffered the death of her husband. The life you save by supporting Alzheimer's research may be your own.
Thursday, October 28, 2010
The last time for me was several Christmases ago, when my brother and eldest nephew, visiting from the frozen tundra of suburban Detroit, took me to a Dallas Stars hockey game. Hoping to save money on parking, and save time by avoiding traffic near downtown Dallas' American Airlines Center, we took the relatively-new Trinity Railway Express (TRE), a commuter train between the downtowns in Fort Worth and Dallas. And indeed, we saved quite a bit of money, because the ticket machines at both stations - going and coming - weren't working.
Recently, the local agency that runs the TRE proposed fair increases and service cuts - the conventional, if not self-defeating measures - to try and balance its budget. Oddly enough, somebody wrote an op-ed piece suggesting that the TRE simply fix its electronic ticket machines, which tells me a lot of people still probably ride free often. And the TRE wonders why it can't break even.
Granted, commuter rail gets hopper cars full of subsidies from the federal government, but then, so do Interstate highways and even Detroit's Big Three. In some ways, corporate America is as hooked on government hand-outs as right wing conservatives claim liberal Democrats are. But sometimes, the federal spending, particularly in an election year, gets too illogical to ignore.
Indeed, in a blatant effort to bolster the political standing of incumbent Democrats nationwide, US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood yesterday announced what sounds like an aggressive program to relieve highway congestion from coast to coast. A laudable goal by anybody's standards, conservative or liberal. Right?
But listen how he plans on relieving that congested traffic. It's not on actual freeways, which would probably be a tolerable federal expenditure for conservatives. Ostensibly, LaHood will be spending $2.4 billion on projects intended to pave the way for cross-country high-speed passenger rail. Not just in the Northeast, which already boasts the marginally-successful Acela. But in parts of the country where it's simply not needed.
Railing Against Rail?
For example, New York State will get over $18 million to improve existing passenger rail stations in Syracuse and prepare for an eventual high-speed rail corridor between, of all places, Albany and Buffalo.
Never mind that the beak stretch from Albany, the moribund state capital of New York, to Buffalo, one of the most-maligned rust belt cities in North America, remains locked in an unprecedented population drain as high taxation and intransigent union labor continue to cripple Upstate's free-falling economy.
Texas and Oklahoma will be getting almost $6 million to study - STUDY - the feasibility of high-speed rail between either Dallas or Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, with the possibility of extending high-speed service south to San Antonio sometime in the future.
At least the DFW - OKC proposal sounds better in theory than the New York project, if only because people are still moving to Texas by the millions - many of them disenchanted or unemployed New Yorkers. Only one freeway links San Antonio to Oklahoma City - I-35 - and it's become one of the most loathed strips of pavement in the Southwest because it's congested almost all the time.
While we can all respect the impact railroads have had on the growth and development of the United States, and while passenger rail remains a vital component of transportation infrastructure in key areas of the country like the Boston - Washington, DC corridor, can high-speed passenger rail be applied across the country?
That Train has Left the Station
First, let's consider the $18 million slated for upstate New York. In their prime, the cities of Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo were bustling, can-do champions of the Industrial Revolution. But within the past 40 years, manufacturing has virtually evaporated, nothing has replaced it, and tens of thousands of people have moved away from a region that was never densely populated anyway. Untold millions of dollars have already been spent trying to jump-start the upstate economy, but New York can't ween itself from high taxes and oppressive state regulations that simply render this region obsolete and uncompetitive.
As a native New Yorker who use to live on the north shore of Oneida Lake in suburban Syracuse, it pains me greatly to say it, but New York is a dying state. We are witnessing the quiet suffocation of one of the most beautiful and historic parts of our country. If it wasn't for New York City's surging population masking the state's overall population decline, the Empire State would be called the Expire State.
The need for passenger rail - let alone high-speed passenger rail - in upstate New York is absolutely, positively, 100% zero.
Nil. Zilch. Zip.
Especially at the billions of dollars it would take to actually lay track and buy the trains. And how can anybody claim high-speed rail would reinvigorate the economy? Are companies refusing to set up shop in Syracuse because no high-speed rail exists? Or are companies dying in Syracuse because of the state's appallingly hostile economic environment?
Sure, the city's famous university will have faculty and students who might use high-speed rail to escape central New York during breaks, but who else is there? The airport and multiple freeways - built when Syracuse was still a powerhouse - aren't being utilized to their full capacity anymore, so... the area needs more transportation options?
And speaking of Syracuse University, one of the best-respected research institutions in the world: what's keeping all of their highly-trained graduates from setting up high-tech firms around their alma mater? Many cities lust after schools like SU and the ripple effect they have on start-ups and hosting high-wage-earning creative people. Why isn't that happening in Syracuse? It's not because of the dreary weather, which would be understandable, although other places in North America have even worse climates. And it's not because Syracuse lacks high-speed passenger rail.
Red River Rivalry
Here in north Texas, the prospect of high-speed passenger rail might at least make sense when you consider our booming population dynamics. Nearly 6 million people live in the Dallas - Fort Worth area, and north of the Red River which slices between north Texas and Oklahoma, almost a million people live in and around their capital. Each of these three cities have been growing for years, and nothing points to that scenario changing - at least, not as long as states like New York continue taxing their residents to death.
But Oklahoma City, Dallas, and Fort Worth lack one key ingredient to successful high-speed rail service: comprehensive urban mass transit to service travelers once they arrive at their destination. Even if Oklahomans and Texans could be convinced to leave their cars at home and ride a fancy high-speed train, what do they do for transportation when they get off the train?
Sure, all three cities have basic bus systems. Here in what we call the Dallas - Fort Worth Metroplex, our TRE commuter train runs sporadically - and often for free! - and Dallas County has limited light rail service. But still, you need a car here to get from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time.
The factor people like LaHood don't seem to understand involves population density. Sure, north Texas has six million folks, but we're sprawled across 8 counties. No city in the Lone Star State has been designed for high-density demographics that can flourish without private automobiles. Amtrak's Acela services the most densely populated region of the United States, but the cities it serves also have dynamic local mass transit systems to accommodate car-less travelers. Neither Texas nor Oklahoma compare in that regard.
You have to take reality into consideration when implementing transportation policy. Yet liberal tax-and-spend Democrats have simply shown their hand just a few days before an election that surely will wipe a lot of them out of office. I've listed only two examples where LaHood's $2.4 billion will be wasted. Only a fool would say there aren't any more. And the real kicker? It's not even LaHood's money to waste, is it? It's ours.
Not that Republicans don't waste enough money on their watch. But like in the old movies, the stationmaster is standing on the platform, but this watch is his trusty silver pocket watch. And the train is fixin' to leave the station. But not before a whole lotta tax-and-spenders climb on board as voters ride them outta town on the rails.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Today, something will take place half-way across our continent that many people thought would never happen.
Today, even people like me, who hardly pay any attention to sports, will cheerfully acknowledge that life will never be the same. At least here in Arlington, Texas, home to the American League's Texas Rangers baseball team.
Because today - in, of all places, San Francisco - the Texas Rangers play their first WORLD SERIES game.
If you've never followed the Texas Rangers, you're not alone. You also probably don't have a clue as to how big this is for us here in the Dallas - Fort Worth area, where for 39 years, the Rangers have proven you don't need to be good to have a strong fan base. And that's not really a compliment for the team. Or even, sometimes, the fans. Because if you're a real strong sports fan, there have been seasons where the Rangers abysmal performance didn't give anybody any reason to support them. Yet year in and year out, through better seasons and worse, a core of optimistic baseball nuts kept hoping that this year would be better than last year. Sometimes they were right - and many times, they were wrong.
But this year, the Rangers kept winning, and our local press - which has never treated baseball as royally as it does football, even during baseball season - started putting last night's scores at the top of the sportscasts, instead of burying them at the bottom like other years. By the All-Star break, some people had even mused about the Rangers' playoff potential. When new owners Chuck Greenberg and Nolan Ryan finally won the right in court to purchase the team, many North Texans were downright giddy.
Now, the Rangers haven't been so perennially awful that they've never before reached the playoffs. Under the celebrated leadership of Johnny Oates, the 1996, 1998 and 1999 teams played in the American League West championships, but they only won in '96. Still, that was better than nothing. And it gave the team's long-suffering fans hope that they could do better.
Well, today, someday has arrived for this team and its fans. Some people may wonder what I'm gushing about, this supposedly-recovering cynic who probably can't think of enough good things to say about the sterile business America's Game has become. And yes, the stink being raised about Cliff Lee and his being wooed by the New York Yankees for next year has put a kind of pall over this season. Particularly after Lee's wife complained about being spit at in Yankee stadium, and Lee himself pooh-pooh'ed her sensitivity. I suppose Lee and his agent figure with the hundred million or so they're expecting from New York, Lee and his wife can afford some good marriage therapy.
Win or Lose, Arlington Wins
But that's an issue for another day. Today, in what there is of "downtown" Arlington, the local dive bar and grill, J. Gilligan's, is setting up tents and chairs in their only parking lot for a watch party tonight, with a mammoth remote screen on a truck parked to one side. Employees were unloading boxes of huge, brand-new flat-screen monitors for inside the joint. And of course, beer trucks were lining up around the block.
Over at the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, crisp new "World Series" banners were being unfurled over the First Base gates, and I wasn't the only person with a camera taking photos of the historic sight.
Hopefully, the history made in San Francisco tonight can be the start of a new era for our boys of summer from here in Arlington, Texas. Perhaps I'm kinda excited because Arlington has never really been in the international spotlight like this before. Maybe it's because we taxpayers helped pay for the stadium - and even bring the team to town from DC to begin with - and now we're starting to see a return on that investment. Maybe it's even because my long-time baseball favorites, the New York Yankees, were ultimately the team we beat to get into the World Series, and their $206 million payroll has been consigned to watching the Fall Classic on TV along with the rest of us.
Which just goes to prove that money can't necessarily get you into the World Series. The Yankees haven't fielded a team in years; they've fielded overpriced super-stars who insist there's an "I" in "team." On the other hand, this year's group of Rangers players have performed like a genuine team all season long. And it's paid off.
And maybe that's what I like most of all.
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Writer David Flick, of the Dallas Morning News, reports that people who grew up in the suburbs and are now living closer-in to downtown Dallas are having to re-learn urban survival skills. Usually, these are the same skills their parents abandoned when they also abandoned urban cores four decades ago or more, taking their families to the brand-spanking-new suburbs.
However, now that career professionals and empty-nesters have re-discovered the energy, efficiency, and convenience of city life, they're moving back into town in droves. They're paying premium prices for new lofts carved out of old warehouses, old office towers turned into condos, or new apartments erected on what had been abandoned lots. Abandoned, ironically, back when middle America couldn't move out to suburbia fast enough.
For suburbanites who keep moving the other way - not back to urban centers, but to the new frontiers of exurbia, only the nasty problems of urban decay can be seen: bad schools, crumbling streets, high crime, no backyards, few big-box stores. But moving downtown instead of further out of town isn't as dangerous, dirty, and confining as people think. Unfortunately for Dallas, whose crime rate has been notoriously high for years, one does need to be more careful in Uptown than in Frisco, but things aren't nearly as bad in Oak Lawn as they are in Oak Cliff. And by all accounts, Dallas is still much safer than downtown LA or Miami.
Faced with a daily commute from the exurbs to Big D, which can sometimes take 45 minutes to an hour one-way if there's a wreck, many logical people from the suburbs sit in gridlock and start thinking. About how all the freeways start looking the same. About why they're living so far away from their job. About how their new subdivision is aging faster than they thought it would.
As soon as the kids are in college - or before they decide to have any, lots of people have realized that setting up one's abode ten minutes from major employment centers literally means time added to your day. Even if you buy a condo on Turtle Creek and work near LBJ & Central, your commute is against traffic, which keeps it shorter than if you had to drive in from north Plano. And if you home-school your kids - another pro-urban trend - it doesn't make any difference if you like the big-city school district or not. Which in Dallas' case, leaves homeschooling as the only way upwardly mobile parents who don't want to pay for private school will settle in town.
Indeed, young families have begun taking advantage of all that can make big cities great places to raise children: existing park infrastructure, multi-cultural neighborhoods, legacy museums and concert halls, and other social institutions that pop culture has made suburbanites forget about.
Urban Living Takes Practice
Yet, as Flick points out, all is not rosy on the new urban frontier. For one thing, higher-density populations generate higher-decibel noise. Street parking can also become an issue, since people moving downtown from the suburbs have never made mass transit a part of their lives. Where can you fit all of those BMW's and SUV's without the acres of concrete parking lots the suburbs boast?
I've seen more than my share of laugh-out-loud examples of really bad parallel parking. You know - the one thing you probably flunked on your driver's test, but that even the DMV official figured you'd never need to know. At least Dallas drivers try to not hit the cars they're squeezing between. I remember watching careless drivers in New York City parallel parking - by bumping their vehicle back and forth between the fenders of vehicles in front and in back of them, working their way into their space one bumper-bump at a time.
Sometimes I get downright angry when I see enormous pickup trucks hogging two "compact car" spaces, or full-sized SUV's squeezed into one space - but with wide-angle rear-view mirrors that render the two spaces on either side unusable. This being Dallas, however, it's not just drivers of oversized vehicles that hog parking spaces. Along Oak Lawn's Lemmon Avenue, I once saw the prototypical urban vehicle, a SMART car, parked over the line, in a compact car lot - a true testament to either the driver's incompetence or narcissism. How can there be an excuse for not being able to fit a SMART car into any parking space?
Sure, it's Big D, but...
The more I read of Flick's article, the more I chucked about how good urban Dallasites have it here. For one thing, housing costs in most inner-city Dallas neighborhoods pale in comparison to those in places like San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and New York City, where big city life can only be afforded by super-wealthy elites and welfare recipients. Dallas also doesn't have Manhattan's 18.25% parking tax or monthly garage rates that can exceed your monthly car payment. There's also no alternate-side-of-the-street parking here.
Dallas' new urbanites can choose from a good stock of relatively-new, amenity-choked apartments, townhomes, and condos that, although smaller than the sprawling homes in the 'burbs, don't lack any of the creature comforts they've come to expect. Meanwhile, back in New York City, many older apartments don't have dishwashers, the only air-conditioning comes from noisy window units, you're fortunate if your building has a washing machine in the basement, and those fancy doormen all belong to a union.
Yes, if you live in urban Dallas, you're living with over a million other folks in one of the Lone Star State's signature cities. I suppose there's some cachet in that. You're close to everything the tourists come here to see and do. And chances are, you're a lot closer to work than your office buddies who drive in from Collin County. If gasoline prices rocket past $4 a gallon again and stay there, you'll also be the envy of every poor schlep driving their Chevy Suburban back and forth from Allen every day.
Parallel parking may still be a challenge, and street noise much more noticeable, but take advantage of the fact that in Dallas, urbanity is a lot less expensive and challenging than it is in other big cities around the country. It's also a lot less crowded, as a friend of mine who lives across the street from the flagship Neiman-Marcus downtown can testify. Even though several office buildings have been converted into condos, and some restaurants and hotels attract big business, street life after dark is still nil.
Town and Country
When I drive to Dallas from my humble, aging, first-ring suburb of Arlington, sure, I enjoy the world-class concerts and chic restaurants that never seem to make it west of Stemmons Freeway. I marvel at the skyscrapers, people-watch all the hipsters and yuppies, and drool over the ultra-luxury foreign cars worth more than many homes in Arlington. But I also enjoy the fact that I can come home to a simple house with trees towering overhead and a creek in the back yard, where foxes and raccoons raise their own families. Last night, a possum waited for me to get out of its way when I got home after my walk.
I've done the urban thing already, and maybe I'll do it again someday. For now, however, at least I know that whenever I need my urban fix, Dallas is just down the freeway, ready to oblige. Even if it is only big city lite.
Monday, October 25, 2010
Why isn't anybody surprised?
Over this past weekend, we learned that Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai has been receiving bags full of money from Iran. Literally - bags full of Euros. For "expenses," as Karzai has absurdly explained.
I used to think that presidents Bush and Obama were correct in supporting Karzai, and for years, it appeared as though he had the western sophistication and the Afghan street cred to pull off a workable democracy in his ancient country. But alas, as time marches on, it's taking Karzai's facade of integrity with it, revealing just another Bedouin trader getting along by the seat of his pants. Whether it's recruiting family members to act as government puppets or lavishing money from the Afghan treasury on poorly-vetted fiascoes in Dubai, perhaps the only distinctive separating Karzai and his henchmen from his more provincial forefathers is that funky hat and cape he wears. The ensemble that made him somewhat of a fashion statement after we installed him as our own puppet after claiming to have routed the Taliban.
Now, however, as the wars drag on in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the incessant drumbeat of battles, deaths, collateral damage, equipment failures, and escalating financial costs seems to be smothering Main Street America's appetite for trying to save Afghans and Iraqis from themselves. This latest bit of news about Karzai's cash stash only makes everything worse.
The New World of War
On the whole, we tend to forget that the actual death counts among our armed forces is curiously low, at least by actuarial standards.
For a military conflict entering its 10th year.
In parts of the world that have only ever been at peace long enough to re-load.
But still, Bush wanted to minimize press coverage when war dead returned to American soil, and Obama wants us to think things are going so well that his arbitrary withdrawal dates are actually based on sound military judgment. Yet many families of American servicemembers complain that the pain of sacrifice they're experiencing isn't being distributed - evenly or otherwise - across the country like it was in previous wars.
Afghanistan and Iraq exist in the periphery of daily life for most Americans, and somedays not at all. We see uniformed soldiers waiting for flights at the airport, and maybe a couple of us will go up and thank them for their service. A soldier visits their family on leave, and when they're at church together, they may receive an enthusiastic round of applause from the congregation. But that's about it. And some families with loved ones overseas wonder if that's all they should expect.
In our jaded, post-war world, where we don't have the draft and military service can actually provide some pretty good employment benefits, many of us shrug our shoulders and say, "well, that's what you signed up for." Which, of course, is true. Even the military reservists who found themselves suddenly in the Middle East after 9/11 should never have counted on not being called up for active duty. International conflicts have a nasty habit of blowing up - literally - over the smallest disagreements, and even though the rest of the world accuses us of being the globe's police, that's how they demand we respond whenever one of their neighbors rattles its sabres.
But be that as it may. If we have these people marching off to armed conflict - whether they've volunteered for it or not - they are putting their lives on the line for you and me. Sure, they get a paycheck for doing that, but can we abdicate basic humanity by not recognizing that a paycheck will never replace a limb or a life destroyed by an enemy of our country?
Have our presidents over-insulated us from the sacrifices that our military is making overseas on our behalf? Comparisons are inevitably made to the first and second World Wars, when stateside rationing impacted military and non-military families alike in the shared cause of securing a crucial victory. True, some of the propaganda to forge the nation's acquiescence of all the rationing was corny - and maybe even unconstitutional - by today's standards. But with Afghanistan and Iraq, by simply billing the Treasury the cost of the war and letting our national deficit skyrocket out of control, have Bush and Obama needlessly created a nation of ambivalence?
Counting the Cost
According to a report prepared for Congress, the total amount you and I have spent on the three major military responses to 9/11 is $1.21 trillion. That's what Afghanistan's Operation Enduring Freedom, Iraq's Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the lesser-known Operation Noble Freedom have cost us.
Let's crunch some more numbers. In 2009, our Department of Defense (DoD) spent extra appropriations of $5.7 billion in Afghanistan and $5.4 billion in Iraq. Of course, these numbers don't reflect the billions that have already been spend to deploy our armed forces and establish military commands in various theaters of operation in the two countries. This combined $11.1 billion doesn't count the additional $34.4 billion approved by Congress this year to help pay for not only additional troops, but also increased public aid to the two countries. So let's assume it's safe to say that this year, you and I will be paying $45.5 billion above and beyond the DoD's annual budget for the war effort.
Let's take that cost and divide it by the number of people we have in the United States, which is 310,561,740 patriotic souls. This year's Afghanistan/Iraq supplemental DoD spending of $45.5 billion, divided by 310,561,740, equals $146.51 for each man, woman, and child in America. That's how much extra the DoD is spending in Afghanistan and Iraq this year per citizen.
Now lets take $1.21 trillion and divide it by the number of US citizens. This gives us an amount of $3,896.17 per person, which represents the total cost per person of the Afghan and Iraq wars.
In and of themselves, these aren't staggering numbers when broken down per citizen, are they? Depending on your economic situation, they may be significant for you personally, and if you have a family comprised of four people, you can see how it can add up even more quickly. But still, as wars go, these are not impossibly staggering financial costs.
But let's compare. In 1940 money, America's bill for World War II ran roughly $288 billion. In today's money, that equates to about $4.4 trillion borne by a population of 132,164,569, roughly a third of today's population.
Incursions as Excursions
We don't need to crunch any more numbers to see that financially, Americans are way ahead of the game when it comes to funding our excursions to Afghanistan and Iraq, compared with World War II.
Which is what they've turned out to be, haven't they: excursions? (Although some might say "incursions!") We've been in Afghanistan for 10 years, and almost as long in Iraq. TEN years! World War II only lasted four, killed tens of millions, cost the United States four times as much, and completely re-wrote history. Meanwhile, our politicians are throwing a pittance into the festering pots of strife in two of the most volatile parts of the world. They've been able to space out 1,000 service personnel deaths over a decade to minimize the bad press, while at the same time, consume volumes of press time trying to prove how well we're doing.
What would it take to really win this thing? Do Americans really lack the political will to "git 'er done?" What kind of real pressure are we under? Will it take another 9/11 to pump fresh blood into the war on terror?
Bush told us that it would take a long time to "defeat" terrorism, but we all know that was a pipe dream to begin with. Terrorism will never be defeated; at best, we can hope to contain most of it and punish its most virulent perpetrators. Osama bin Laden? Do you really believe that the United States could throw all its might towards defeating two fronts in World War II but can't find one man?
The New Status Quo?
Yes, yes, yes: we have press embedded with our troops now that will report on every minute transgression, lapse of judgment, and faulty intelligence matter that our military will inevitably commit. We've got armchair generals in Two-Bit, Nebraska and Manhattan's Upper West Side blogging about all of the split-second mistakes soldiers are making while their lives hang by sand-encrusted Velcro, the horror flashing before their eyes more utterly vivid that the most wild video game they ever played as a kid. During World War II, officers took amazing risks and aggressively pursued their enemies, but today, the only time people value risk is when it might earn them a lot of money.
Of course, if any reporter blabbed about collateral damage back then, their editors would usually give the benefit of the doubt to the military and keep the story quiet for the sake of the nation. These days, everybody's out for themself. Talking heads across the media spectrum cluck - almost gloatingly - about how bin Laden can be so effectively hidden from the most powerful military force on the planet, and late night talk show hosts have made it fodder for their comedy routines. Our pop culture had managed to gut the life and death right out of these two wars, all the while self-absorbed elites like NPR's Vivian Schiller fire staffers like Juan Williams for saying out loud what everybody's thinking.
Would three trillion more dollars spent on the "war" effort bring bin Laden to trial? Shucks, how about just doubling what we've already spent? What about all this fantastic technology we're supposedly on the cutting edge of? Do we just have more time than money to drag these operations out until they just become part of everyday life, like having coffee or checking your e-mail? Is dragging all of this out helping to keep costs distributed so that people can easily forget how much we're spending? It's like any other type of debt our society has become so accustomed to tolerating. Payday will come someday, but we've still got time to buy more stuff.
In the meantime, parents of those soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq say the rest of us aren't sharing in their burden.
No, we're not. And I suspect that's how our political leaders of both stripes want it.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
For Part 2, please click here.
It has been said of New York that there are eight million stories in the naked city. At least.
These two, however, stand out to me as exemplary portraits of opposite ends of the economic spectrum, over which heated arguments are being waged across the United States. On the one hand, right-wing websites and blogs overflow with vitriol against people who don't champion the profit motive, while on the other hand, their liberal counterparts claim they're the only people who truly care about humanity.
To hear some right-wingers tell it, the poor have no business expecting any protections since they didn't have enough common sense to get wealthy in the first place. And left-wingers say that profits stay in the hands of too few people, which means the government is the only entity able to help everybody else.
If this isn't the scenario you see, then please tell me what I'm missing. Because the closer we're getting to election day, I'm seeing very little common sense among extremists on both sides of the political and economic aisles.
Evaluating Leona Helmsley
Economically, Harry's second wife started out with very little. Through hard work and gritty tenacity, before she'd even met him, Leona had become a respected Manhattan apartment broker during a time in the city's history when more people were moving out than in. That, my friends, is strong testament to the value of personal initiative.
Even if she hadn't vamped Harry to claim half of his prized real estate portfolio, she served his business interests well by the way she built up the Helmsley Hotel chain. She focused on customer service and amenities, as well as solid advertising savvy, to re-cast the profile of a previously little-known brand. She also encouraged Harry to ditch his rental apartment properties and focus on commercial real estate, which proved to be a wise financial move.
She helped him better market his iconic skyscrapers to the point where many New Yorkers continued to hold the firm's premiere property, the Empire State Building, dearest in their affections, regardless of any other additions to the skyline. And the Helmsley's provocative Flatiron Building became recognized world-wide as the gateway to Manhattan's burgeoning high-tech corridor.
Would the Helmsley's business empire have blossomed into an estimated $8 billion powerhouse without Leona's input? Perhaps. But to her credit, nothing she touched lost money. After Harry died, she sold most of the Helmsley holdings at the top of the market. Not bad for a Brooklyn hatmaker's daughter, huh?
Yet didn't Leona also personify the worst of capitalism? Money and the power to make more of it ruled her life. She held an egregious contempt for what evangelicals should consider to be the Biblical imperative of taxation; namely, that you "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's." She got what she wanted however she could and despite whomever's career or personal life she had to destroy. And her Darwinian hubris regarding the survival of the richest actually convinced her that helping to build a multi-billion-dollar empire proved she was right.
Interestingly enough, her trial and incarceration for tax evasion met with tepid amusement - and even faint admiration - by conservatives. It wasn't so much that she broke any laws, but that she got caught doing so. Billing the company for clothing you wear in your apartment, which also happens to be located in a company property? How wonderfully cunning!
But her ethical rap sheet runs even longer than her criminal one.
She devalued her business partners' shares in the company by billing it millions of dollars worth of upgrades to her country home.
She exposed her business partners to unnecessary financial risk after arbitrarily firing two employees because of their sexual orientation, incurring two indefensible lawsuits.
She allegedly defrauded company shareholders of an estimated $83,000 monthly in secret "consulting" fees.
She held no mercy for her son's family after he died. We won't even talk about the casualty of Harry's first marriage in Leona's scheme for advancement.
And as if to mock the justice system, she forced her staff to perform some of the community service punishment she was expected to do herself. Indeed, it seemed that in every area of her life, Leona assumed only chumps play by the rules.
Evaluating South Street Annie
At the end of the day, Gloria Wasserman was no better than Leona.
Apparently, although she provided well enough for her family throughout her life, she rarely worked jobs where she paid income taxes. Not that income taxes are a good thing, but not having taxable wages suggests only one thing: she earned everything - literally, even - under the table.
She got so much money panhandling, selling counterfeit goods, and prostituting herself in the Fulton Fish Market that her family claims she sent as much as $4,000 a month to them. She lived in welfare housing and ate at soup kitchens, instead of trying to pay for her living expenses.
She stubbornly refused requests from daughters in both New Hampshire and California to move closer to them so they could look after her. She prized her independence, initiative, and gutsy intuition more than moral integrity, honest labor, and family responsibility. Sure, she bought a granddaughter a used car and helped pay her college education, but whenever family visited New York, she furtively ordered them to call her Annie. She enjoyed the game of deceit and free money.
Because that's what she got, wasn't it? She managed to procure illicit cigarettes and Chinatown junk (which is really saying something about how bad it was) from the black market to sell along South Street. Even her family concedes she probably was a prostitute for years. She apparently "earned" a decent amount of money, yet never bothered to give up her rent-subsidized apartment to a more needy family and get an apartment on the open market - or move to a less expensive place to live, like her daughters kept encouraging her to do.
She took full advantage of the clothing room at her local Catholic charity, sending boxloads of used clothes to her daughters who simply handed them out to needy folks where they lived. Everything, it seems, was hers for the taking and she didn't have to pay for it if she didn't want to.
Leona and Gloria Shared More than a Manhattan Address
By now, the differences between uptown Leona and downtown Gloria can be readily seen. Yet surprisingly enough, a number of similarities also exist between the two. Yes, both were Jewish, approximately the same age, and from humble origins. But they also both assumed the rules only applied to other people. Both saw their individual wiles as a way to get men - and money: Leona saw Harry, and Gloria saw the boys at the fish market. Neither one paid taxes, they both placed their own personal agendas over family concerns, and both have been celebrated because of their fierce independence and ingenuity.
Not that they didn't have their soft sides: Leona for Harry's care, and Annie for other women on the streets. But something tells me neither one of them would have tolerated competition: Leona of another mistress for Harry, for example, or Annie of a younger woman making moves on her fishmongers.
Can it be that capitalists and socialists are more similar that they like to think they are? Can it be that both poles of the economic spectrum reflect narcissistic, self-aggrandizing robots, simply rooting their snouts in the trough of greed? They say they want different things out of life: Leona wanted the high life, while Gloria reveled in the low life. And they both had to take different directions to get where they were headed. Even though something tells me Leona would have been a lot less happy being middle class than Gloria would have been, they both eventually got to where they wanted to be.
So I guess maybe it all depends on what you want your greed to pay for? Either way, the folks in the middle get left holding the bag. We're the "little people" Leona left to pay the taxes, fluff the towels in her hotels, perform her community service sentence, and even be minority partners in Harry's company. We're also the "boys" to whom Annie sold her "creatively acquired" collection of trinkets and vices, all while enjoying welfare programs being paid for by, well, taxpayers and kind-hearted Catholic parishioners.
Meanwhile, neither extreme actually benefits society in the long run, does it?
So why do pundits on both sides of the aisle rant as if theirs does?
Is it because the capitalists' love of money really is the root of all sorts of evil? And the socialists' love of appearing as though they're better than money still puts money at the center of their existence?
Sure seems that way, at least from the lives of these two iconic New Yorkers.
And maybe even more people than that.
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Caution: This part of my essay includes some less-than-wholesome material
After reading about the Queen of Mean, some of my die-hard conservative friends may be crying "Foul!" and insisting on a time-out.
"I can see where you're going with this, and it's simply not fair," they'd be protesting. "So, Leona Helmsley is your 'parallel portrait' for capitalism? Well, she's so atypical of conventional capitalists that it's disingenuous, picking a caricature of Cruella DeVille as the poster child for prosperity."
To which I reply, "Just wait until you see my poster child for socialism."
South Street's Fulton Fish Market
In 2005, New York City managed to achieve something many native Gothamites considered impossible: city authorities moved the storied Fulton Fish Market from its home along South Street in Lower Manhattan to a state-of-the-art fish warehouse in the Bronx.
Old-timers decried the end of an era. Restaurant owners cheered the relocation as a triumph of common sense, since they could now shop for fresh fish in a more sanitary - and sane - environment.
Tourists to South Street Seaport will recall the smelly, dank fish market housed in an ancient brick building in the shadows of an elevated freeway along the East River. I only ever went inside once, and was so disgusted by the rank odor, slimy floor, and fishmongers smeared with blood and guts that I never went back. Anybody who ate fish for dinner in any reputable New York City restaurant knew that just that morning, their meal had been on ice in this wholly undesirable place, but due to both intransigent tradition and a mish-mash of union rules, waterfront logistics, and no other neighborhood being willing to tolerate the stench, this is how it was.
For decades, even after most fishing boats abandoned the nearby wharves and office towers crowded its site, the Fulton Fish Market stubbornly stayed put, both to the consternation of commercial developers running out of prime Manhattan real estate, and the delight of residents and visitors alike who relished the historical aura of the place. It was so... anachronistic, this freeze-frame from the 19th Century amidst cosmopolitan Manhattan, like immediately stepping back in time the minute you smelled it from a block away.
Gloria as Annie (no, not that Annie)
It was into this primal setting that a singular woman named Gloria Wasserman stepped a couple of decades ago. Not that anybody knew her real name, however. Nobody can even remember when she became a fixture along South Street. But she called herself Annie, and she projected the persona of a licentious bag lady to the men who labored there. Indeed, Fulton Fish Market was virtually an all-male bastion of burly, macho, coarse-talking testosterone, and Annie seems to have chosen South Street for her pursuits precisely because she knew how to survive in such a rough environment.
She would show up daily when the morning was still pitch black night. She would hawk illegal cigarettes, run errands, and even sell herself, as long as the men didn't care that her looks had faded long ago. Even into her 70's and 80's, she proudly proffered her, um... chest for the new, young guys to kiss for good luck. She would also flash the workers every now and then, just for a laugh.
Unbeknownst to her boys at the fish market, Annie had always led a life of curious provision, and as one of her daughters told the New York Times, the family didn't want to guess at where the money came from. Granted, she provided adequately for her loved ones, but chastity and propriety could never have aptly described their mother. She died several weeks ago in California, of all places, at the age of 85, but only now are the fish market's old-timers beginning to learn who she really was.
Living Off Others
Prowling the aisles and stalls of the fish market, Annie would feign cuteness with a sing-song "Yoo-hoo" which became her signature call. The stuff she'd sell her guys - including herself - was never expensive or first-rate, but feeling sorry for her, they'd usually pay extra, figuring she was desperate for a way to survive.
Little did they know that Annie, according to the Times, lived in a city-owned rent-subsidized apartment and took her meals at a Catholic charity kitchen. And that she sent upwards of $4,000 a month to relatives in New Hampshire and California. And that she helped pay for a granddaughter's college tuition. And that she'd scour the Catholic charity's clothing room for items to send - by the boxload - to family on both coasts who apparently didn't need it. When doctors told her she needed to get off her feet, fishmongers raised $3,000 to help what they thought would be Annie's impoverished "retirement."
Little did they know.
While the Times piece paints a poignant, wistful picture of an enterprising woman making the best of challenging circumstances, what we really find is a how-to manual for exploiting and stealing, don't we? Gloria Wasserman had learned from a young age that men love a flirt, and she was able to parlay that into a lifetime of bawdy deceit.
Sure, she may be a hero to feminists who detest what they perceive as the subordination of women in a male-dominated society. Urbanites will consider her a martyr to individualism and self-sufficiency, simply winking at the creativity with which she survived life in the big, bad city. Even a worker at the Catholic charity quoted in the Times describes Wasserman as a type of "grandmother" to other women on the street.
Well, "Granny Annie," even though speaking ill of the dead rarely holds the speaker in high regard, your gig is up.
Monday, October 18, 2010
You know that already, of course. And you know why I love the Big Apple: as I've said before, its utterly cosmopolitan vibe hosts a world of anachronisms. Minute by minute, its kaleidoscope of perspectives can be both baffling yet intensely logical.
So it came as no surprise that as I read a couple of recent articles from the New York Times about two of the city's more iconic women, I saw parallels between their vastly separate lives and the economic arguments being posited by frustrated voters during this election season.
But before I launch into my tirade on the economic polarity being expressed by bloggers and editors on both extremes of the political spectrum, why don't I introduce both of these ladies to you so you can make up your own mind.
Actually, I use the term "ladies" quite loosely here, since as you'll soon discover, both of them were anything but.
The Queen of Mean
In 1972, for her third husband, she married one of New York's most powerful real estate tycoons. After convincing him to divorce his wife of 33 years.
Harry Helmsley owned several celebrated Manhattan towers, including the fabled Empire State and Flatiron buildings. He also owned a chain of upscale hotels, for which his new, 52-year-old wife became a famous spokesperson. She ended up going to prison after an employee complained about how company money was being lavished on such excesses as a $1 million marble dance floor at the couple's Connecticut estate.
She, of course, was Leona Helmsley, who perhaps is most famous for her indisputably elitist quote, "only the little people pay taxes." She died in 2007 at age 87, after attempting to cheat her husband's business partners out of millions of dollars, being sued for firing at least two gay employees because of their sexual preference, and leaving $12 million for her dog, Trouble, in her will.
Leona was back in the news recently after her Connecticut estate, Dunnellen Hall, sold for a paltry $35 million. I say "paltry" because the original asking price for her exquisite 40-acre spread clocked in at an admittedly optimistic $125 million in 2008. For Greenwich, arguably the most extravagant of New York City's numerous silk stocking suburbs, such a closing price probably wouldn't even make the legal notices if it weren't for the legacy of its previous occupant, who died on the very site which heralded her public downfall.
Money Money Money Mon-ey
A successful real estate broker in her own right, she hit the jackpot upon seducing Helmsley, who until meeting her had led a relatively quiet life. Although acquaintances believed Leona truly adored Harry, her blatant use of matrimony for climbing the social ladder and her unchecked temper earned her few friends. Her imperious management style made for great Helmsley Hotel publicity, but she could barely muster enough maternal affection for her only child born during a previous marriage. When he died at the early age of 40, Leona kicked his family out of their house and called a $100,000 loan.
Dragging Harry along for the ride, Leona went on a spending spree, pushing legal envelopes almost for sport. To avoid paying $40,000 in sales taxes, she got salesmen at an exclusive Manhattan jewelry store to say they'd mailed her purchases to her Connecticut country home, even though she'd walked out of their Midtown boutique with them. She itemized personal clothing purchases as uniforms for their Park Lane Hotel. Millions of dollars in upgrades to Dunnellen Hall were invoiced as business expenses.
When prosecutors managed to amass all of her tricks for tax evasion in court, 235 counts in all, she ended up owing various government entities $4 million. By this time, Harry had succumbed to senile dementia to the point where he was deemed unfit to stand trial. She ended up spending nearly two years in prison, and was supposed to serve 750 hours of community service, but Leona got hauled back into court after her employees complained she was making them perform her community service hours.
One of the Little People
My brush with the Helmsleys came, oddly enough, by one of their maids. When I worked in Lower Manhattan, our office building had a cleaning contract with the same firm the Helmsley's used to clean their New York real estate portfolio.
And wouldn't you know it, but the same cheerful, short Jamaican woman who cleaned their personal apartment at the Park Lane Hotel also cleaned our office. I forget her name now - I think it was Daisy - but I can still remember her round, full, sunny face, and her happy yet breathless voice, since she was quite stout. Particularly, however, I remember the stories she would tell!
By choice, I would often linger in the office after hours, trying to learn the ropes in the niche trade of freight brokerage. Daisy would show up at about 5:30pm, since back in the day, most New York offices closed at the stroke of five (so employees could line up in subway stations, waiting for trains). She would come straight from her day shift in the Helmsley's duplex penthouse in Midtown.
If she was married, she never talked about her husband, although she had a son she was trying to provide for with her extended workdays. Her English wasn't great, but we managed to communicate well, although at first, neither one of us really talked much. She'd just come in and empty the trash cans while I explored the company's recently-acquired customized freight forwarding software.
It wasn't until the beginning of Leona's trial on tax evasion that I learned Daisy worked in the Helmsley's private apartment. Humming softly to herself, Daisy would gently shuffle into the office pushing an industrial trashcan with a large feather duster sticking out of a side compartment, its feathers splayed upwards. She always greeted me with a muted, melodious hello, and questions about how wonderful my day must have been. But suddenly, she began coming to our offices in a state of grave concern. The contrast from her previously cheerful demeanor was too pronounced to ignore.
I asked her if something was wrong, and that's when she told me she cleaned the Helmsley's home during the day. At first, I really didn't believe her, but she would tell me things that I'd hear about the next day in the media. Nothing wildly confidential, of course, but attitudes of the Helmsleys, Harry's physical condition, and the like. Daisy constantly expressed personal angst about Harry's health and the toll his wife's trial was taking on the couple. According to Daisy, Harry would want her to sit and simply keep him company in their sumptuous penthouse whenever Leona was in court and he was too frail to attend. He didn't seem to understand that she was supposed to be cleaning the place.
Harry would sob to Daisy that people were making up dastardly lies about his beloved wife, and he couldn't understand what was happening. Being the kind-hearted woman she was, Daisy would sometimes get emotional as she unburdened her own soul to me in the privacy of our empty office. After all, some evenings, apparently I was the first person she talked with after spending her day with the confused, weepy, feeble owner of the Empire State Building.
Daisy claimed never to have seen the ugly side of Leona. The purported Queen of Mean, as New York's excitable tabloids dubbed her, would arrive home exhausted from her days in court, anxious for status reports about Harry, which Daisy sometimes delivered herself. Yet even though the stress must have been consuming her, Leona never treated the hotel staff harshly or even impolitely.
To Daisy, the Leona she heard about on the news wasn't the Leona she personally interacted with. The court's prison sentence confounded Daisy, and made her wonder aloud about the criminal justice system we have in the United States.
Next: Part Two - South Street Annie
Thursday, October 14, 2010
If you’re a die-hard capitalist, however, the rescue of the trapped workers this week might send chills up your spine.
Because although watching the miners reach the surface became an emphatic celebration of humanity and life, the behind-the-scenes power play for orchestrating what we saw may only add new life to the discussion of how much government is a good thing.
More specifically, was the Chilean government able to achieve something big business couldn’t - or wouldn't?
Capitalists on the Defensive
Apparently, the Wall Street Journal is so concerned about the worldwide acclaim for Chile's utterly successful government-led rescue, they trotted out one of their most vociferous editorialists, Daniel Henninger, to proclaim that what we saw on live television was actually a triumph for capitalism.
And yes, private enterprise did play crucial roles in plucking the miners from their stone prison. As Henninger trumpets in his piece, the "Plan B" drill which bore the hole through which the miners were extricated was invented by a private American company. And pro-business experts claim that this and other contributions to the rescue effort in Chile comprise enough proof that capitalism was key for success in this case. But while the core of their assertion is correct, their hubris is inaccurate. If it was left to private industry to rescue the miners, how much quicker and more complete would their efforts have been compared with the single-minded focus ramrodded by the Chilean government?
How people answer that question is what unsettles free market champions like Heninger, clouds the public's perception of big business, and lubricates the debate over government controls of commerce.
Digging Money from Rocks
Granted, the mine collapse itself has already been described as a product of failures by both the mining company, which intentionally skirted safety rules, and the Chilean government inspectors, who overlooked safety violations. On that score, we got the same scenario that inevitably plays out whenever lower-level grunt workers are expected to carry on while upper management keeps itself safe and wealthy. This represents one of the classic flaws of capitalism, wherein the corollary between profits and worker safety often skews more towards the former at the expense of the latter.
Interestingly enough, corporate information for Compania Minera San Esteban Primera is missing or inaccessible to non-subscribers on two major mining industry websites, Mining Weekly and Global InfoMine. Is this corporate transparency gone bad or simply conventional proprietary confidentiality? Considering how eager the global media community must be for information related to the company, particularly since so many rumors have come out regarding their allegedly poor safety record, one would think San Esteban would be trying to put its best foot forward in the court of public opinion. But then, just like some political dictatorships, some companies don't give a hoot about what the general public thinks.
Just this past May, in Montcoal, West Virginia, 29 miners died in a massive underground explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine. It became the state’s third major mining disaster in the past four years. The mine’s owner, Massey Energy, features a controversial and politically influential CEO in the personage of Don Blankenship, who has personally campaigned for years against increased oversight of mine safety in the United States. He blatantly champions profits over safety because he knows his workers won't flee - his is the only industry paying decent wages in their part of the country.
One has to wonder what Blankenship must be thinking to watch the Chilean government wrest control of the San Jose mine from its owner, San Esteban, and assert its authority over the rescue effort for the trapped miners. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera makes no apologies for his government’s assumption that they could administer a more coordinated and ultimately successful rescue scenario than private industry. Perhaps Pinera already new that San Esteban simply couldn't handle the emergency, and being a typical politician, he saw the opportunity to make a grand name for himself and his country. And if that was the case, then private industry has a right to quake in its boots.
Because indeed, to the naked eye, the government – which deployed its state-owned copper excavation company to run most of the operation - staged an indisputable victory. They had NASA dietitians design a custom diet for the miners, doctors made recommendations ranging from sunglasses to body-toning exercises, media experts coached the miners on how to handle their newfound fame, psychiatrists counseled on adaptation techniques, and 33 individual tents for each miner's family were set up on-site for their privacy. Would a private company have been as comprehensive in anticipating and responding to all of those needs?
All 33 miners were plucked without mishap from their underground prison, relatively healthy, in apparently good spirits, and happily reunited with loved ones. Who could have asked for a better outcome? Well, maybe at least one of the miners, whose wife only learned of his mistress after he got trapped.
Government or Private Industry?
Was the Chilean government correct in assuming that it had superior capabilities, initiative, and expertise to take over the miners’ rescue? Was its state-owned copper producer, Codelco, really better-equipped than San Esteban, which may still be billed for the $20 million rescue? Are there certain situations and crises where industry is either too lethargic or compromised – either economically or politically – to be as responsive and effective as government agencies?
Obviously, these questions don’t have easy answers, nor can immediate parallels be made between how capitalism works in Chile as opposed to the United States. For one thing, their economy, while robust by South American standards, still pales in comparison to ours. And their government, while remarkably stable by South American standards, is not as complex as ours.
Katrina Can't Compare
Take the debacle of Hurricane Katrina, for example. This is what a lot of media people are doing; comparing the Chilean mine event with our government’s much-maligned response to this natural disaster. Forget for a moment that the Chilean government was dealing with 33 people in a specific spot, even if it was hundreds of feet under rock. Katrina hit a swath of coastline populated by millions of people spread across multiple states who suffered varying degrees of devastation. You can't blame big business for hurricanes, either. For anybody to seriously compare the two seems foolhardy, but since speculation has started to rise, let's look at it further.
Even if Brownie really had done one “h*** of a job” and immediately coordinated a spectacular rescue for New Orleans, the Bush administration would likely have been accused in some quarters of trouncing states’ rights - as well as further enabling a municipal government already festering in corruption, ineffectiveness, and irresponsibility. The Chilean government may have been partially culpable in the San Jose mine collapse because of poor oversight, but the administrations of Mayor Ray Nagan and his predecessors were already notorious for their ineptitude. Which was, of course, symptomatic of their citizenry’s blithe endorsement of all things carnal.
After months of wrangling over the appalling conditions in post-Katrina New Orleans, we learned that evacuation plans, disaster declarations, and even levee maintenance had been negligently administered by local agencies, and that communication fiefdoms among Louisiana policymakers helped obscure reality and minimize responses. Blaming the federal government for all this mess has been the easy way out, but doesn’t address all of the causes for why the world saw a deplorable execution of post-Katrina support.
Ground Zero Can't, Either
How about other mammoth emergencies which required sophisticated rescues? Is the Chilean government really the new poster child for rapid response expertise?
Take 9-11, when trade unions - so often vilified by many conservatives, including me - systematically chopped up, blowtorched apart, sifted through, dug down, bulldozed through, trucked away, and washed down the entire Ground Zero site and surrounding properties in a matter of weeks. Granted, union labor in the United States is its own parallel universe, not quite private industry, and not quite government bureaucracy, but the union laborers were employed by private contractors. And the states of New York and New Jersey, along with the federal government, paid an estimated $3 billion just in overtime to get the work done.
But here again, 9-11 was one of those cataclysmic events which helped realign the course of history. It ranks right up there with Pearl Harbor when it comes to nationalist fervor, response, and ramifications. We'll have mostly forgotten about the Chilean mine rescue before this year is over.
Which really is what all of this speculation is about, isn't it? It's grasping at straws, trying to relate something that is emotional to another event which can help to justify our fascination with it. We can't just celebrate with the miners and their families. We can't just marvel at how a bunch of bureaucrats from a country we barely know anything about could orchestrate what, to us, looked like such a flawless rescue scenario. We automatically cast our gaze across the room to ogres like Massey's Blankenship, or wonder out loud if capitalists need to be even more assertive about justifying their existence, like the Journal's Henninger seems to be doing.
Then there's BP's Big Spill
Speaking of which, let's get back to the topic of the American company that made the drill bit for the "Plan B" rig. In his Journal editorial, Henninger claims "Capitalism saved the miners." While such a prejudiced perspective of the rescue ignores the roles that non-private-sector entities like NASA played in this event, Henninger does make the valid connection between the role of agile, innovative companies which can take advantage of free-market opportunities in ways many of us can't see. Until what they've invented becomes really, really necessary.
People like Massey's Blankenship, and even the Journal's Henninger, like to gut anti-capitalism arguments with broad strokes of social beneficence, claiming we owe all that is good to the profit motive. And to the extent that America's economic policies allow an entrepreneurial environment for exploring new ideas and being able to earn money from products people want, Blankenship and Henninger are correct: the free market can be a great thing.
But how accurate would it also be to ponder the scenario of a mining company dawdling over rescuing trapped miners to first analyze the benefits of doing so - and at what cost - to their bottom line? How many corporations would hold meetings of senior management not to plot the best course of rescue, but to minimize liabilities? I'm thinking here about British Petroleum's farcical oil spill this summer in the Gulf of Mexico. While fellow energy companies ended up stepping in with their own expertise to help cap the blown well, BP seemed bent on alienating as many people as it could, from employees and subcontractors to the government, the media, and business owners along the coast.
Yes, innovation finally brought an end to the BP disaster in the form of an unprecedented capping mechanism that had never before been deployed in such deep water. But we didn't hear too many people gushing about that feat of capitalistic creativity, did we? That's because so much oil had already gushed over the small businesses that were being pushed to insolvency from the crisis.
The Real Issue
Let's face it: there's too much audacity and hyperbole coming from many sides in the political and economic debates swirling around our country. And it's clouding the real issue, which is greed.
Uber-conservatives like Blankenship and Henninger spout platitudes about capitalism like it's the purest form of life. Uber-liberals like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid spout platitudes about government like it can bring utopia. But the real, hard, level field of truth lies more towards the middle of both of these passionate viewpoints, doesn't it?
Yes, we need a vibrant capitalistic economy where people are appropriately rewarded for their creativity, tenacity, and good old hard work. We need to safeguard the political and regulatory environment for players in this economy so they can innovate and produce those things that make our society vital and relevant.
But we also need to remember that the profit motive is not altruistic. In its purest state, the profit motive runs on only one fuel: greed. And while it has some built-in mechanisms for moderating the perpetration of harmful effects on society, those mechanisms often don't kick in until lives are lost or other people innocently lose a lot of money.
The trick is finding the balance between letting capitalists run amok and clamping down on them so hard that the economy suffocates to death. The Blankenship's and Henninger's of America may not see the need for this balance, but then, the Pelosi's and Reid's of America don't either.
Chile's newly-freed miners have been unwittingly basking in the glow of a surprisingly complex combination of both socialist and capitalist energies waging war behind the scenes. Hopefully these miners, as well as those economists extrapolating theoretical lessons from this event, will be prudent in their use of what they take away from what we've all witnessed.
Meanwhile, back at the mine, what about the other miners who've been unable to earn a paycheck while their workplace has been taken over for the rescue effort? Do they give a hoot about the bigger picture, or might they be more anxious for the government to leave so they can get back to work?
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
They've tried to educate the city's vast population of woefully impoverished schoolchildren.
It's been said that the best place to panhandle in Manhattan is just outside the New York Stock Exchange after the trading floor closes. Then, hundreds of stock brokers leave for the evening, shackled with guilt over how they've bet against their fellow human beings that day. Their angst compels them to try and buy some peace of mind at the hands of the city's down-and-out. At least, that's the story. And it's not hard to imagine that a charitable cocktail of altruism tinged with remorse isn't a soothing elixir for Wall Street's less noble players.
But some businesspeople and corporate titans have far more practical motivations for their largess. If New York City can't graduate its own kids with a savvy mastery of basic life skills, where are the city's many companies going to find the workers they'll need tomorrow, next year, or in ten years? Sure, periods of high unemployment cycle through the towers of Manhattan like they do everyplace else, and corporate belt-tightening means that fewer people do more work than ever before. But there isn't a corporation yet that has gone entirely virtual.
One of the Big Apple's best assets has historically been it large, well-educated, and industrious workforce. But, like has happened in all major urban centers in the United States, that supply of prepared workers has been evaporating during the past several decades. It's a phenomenon that could decimate our national productivity if left unchecked, because we're talking about millions of kids matriculating through their high school years with little marketable knowledge and even less intelligence to show for it.
Yet Another Big Idea Grows in Harlem
Sometimes, the aid lavished upon New York's "least of these" by those who've made their fortunes downtown has proven be worth it, perhaps not in sheer volume, but at least in the brilliance of graduates who go on to leave poverty behind. But the very fact that institutionalized poverty continues to grind away at the core of urban America proves that inner-city education initiatives have yet to meet the full-scale challenge of producing educated kids.
It's in view of this bleak backdrop that I've read an account in the New York Times today about yet another chic Harlem-based great-intentions program designed to salvage some of the city's poorest kids from the clutches of poverty. The brainchild of Geoffrey Canada, Harlem Children's Zone consists of two charter schools featuring ultra-low student-teacher ratios paid for by a privileged roster of wealthy New York benefactors, including two billionaires.
It's enough to make your heart swell up with admiration, as long as you don't read too far ahead in the Times' article. For in describing Canada's intentions for his program, reporter Sharon Otterman unintentionally reveals why, ultimately, Harlem Children's Zone won't work:
"Mr. Canada, 58, who began putting his ideas into practice on a single block, on West 119th Street, in the mid-1990s, does not apologize for the cost of his model, saying his goals are wider than just fixing a school or two. His hope is to prove that if money is spent in a concentrated way to give poor children the things middle-class children take for granted — like high-quality schooling, a safe neighborhood, parents who read to them, and good medical care — they will not pass on the patterns of poverty to another generation.
"'You could, in theory, figure out a less costly way of working with a small number of kids, and providing them with an education,” Mr. Canada said. “But that is not what we are attempting to do. We are attempting to save a community and its kids all at the same time.'"
Wow - did you catch that? Canada isn't so much interested in actually providing an education as he is negating the role that parents should be playing in the nurture and development of their children.
Parents Remain the Key
Now, maybe Canada himself hasn't realized that yet, but chances are, he knows he's operating with a view towards treating education as a supplanter of the family. Because we've all known for years that the problem with urban education isn't so much the quality of the teachers, the physical condition of the classrooms, or even the availability of current technologies, but the involvement of parents in the instructional development of their own children.
Yes, some suburban kids from dysfunctional parents fail at school. But some urban kids with loving parents who live in crime-ridden neighborhoods manage to succeed brilliantly. Do safe streets, clean schools, plenty of computers, dedicated teachers, and compelling curriculum help kids learn better? Of course they do. But the fact that kids can learn well without these tools, and that even with the tools they can fail, the lesson seems perfectly stark: you need the parents!
Now, at this point, readers of this blog who either homeschool their kids and/or were homeschooled themselves are saying to their computer monitors: "Homeschooling frees you from the institutionalization of education so you don't have to worry about all of this!"
But even the most ardent supporter of homeschooling must admit that not every family can homeschool. We need to all agree that public school is here to stay, and that even if you choose not to use it, you're still paying taxes to fund it. So we should all want it to work well for the kids who, for whatever reason, get their education there.
Yet I have to concede to the homeschoolers one of their most cherished assertions: educational success significantly depends on the parents. And in his Harlem Children's Zone model, Canada is trying to defy that proven fact. Sure, he's got small class sizes and he strives to employ only the most student-focused teachers. Sure, he's dealing with a discouraging cohort of kids whose parents will not play a significant factor in their education - indeed, they may act as a significant disruption in their education. Some would come to Canada's defense, saying he's trying to make the best of a really bad situation. And all of this is accurate.
But he's just plugging a hole in the poverty dike with his index finger, isn't he?
Without a viable model for integrating parents - however poor or uneducated they may be themselves - into the time-consuming, emotionally-intensive, self-denying, long-term investment of their children, the quality of that child's education will only serve as a reflection of how well you've been able to mask the child's intuitive sense of parental disconnect, and what that really means: that their parents really don't love them.
All You Need Is...
There. I've said it. The "L" word.
Liberals have danced around it for generations. It's not politically correct to question the quality of parenting in ghettos. And yes, dysfunctional urban parents exhibit the same callousness towards their children as dysfunctional suburban ones. But until parents who blame everything else for their problems to avoid confronting their own narcissism proactively insert themselves into the educational process of their children, public education as we know it - particularly in impoverished communities - will continue to unravel.
And if Canada and his patrons actually love these kids more than their own parents do - which, judging by the effort, time, and money they're expending, may be the case - there still aren't enough people like them to go around for all of the kids whose parents are AWOL, either emotionally, physically, or both.
Indeed, sometimes, it's not even about money.
Generally speaking the parent who lives to work and hardly ever carves out enough time to check homework, attend parent-teacher meetings, quiz their child on multiplication tables and vocabulary words, and marvel at baking-soda science projects will most likely end up with the same type of kid whose parents slept with different partners every other night, used drugs, participated in domestic violence, was in jail, or got shot robbing a liquor store. Maybe your kid will turn out to be a well-adjusted genius anyway, but most likely, they won't.
They'll be just like you. Because that's what you taught them.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Christian or Catholic? (continued)
You see, it’s not good enough to simply assume the flowery Christian-esque writings of Columbus adequately testify to his orthodox Christian faith. Catholicism and the Christianity of Martin Luther – and by extension most present-day evangelicals – are two different things. While you can be saved and call yourself a Roman Catholic, you cannot be a papist Catholic – what we would consider to be a conventional Roman Catholic – and believe that Christ offers the only way to salvation.
So how do we know that Columbus wasn’t saved? Well, we don’t. But we can prove that he was probably a papist, or Roman Catholic, by virtue of his very own writings and admissions.
Historians claim that his professed favorite prayer, which he would recite in Latin, was Jesu cum Maria sit nobis in via, which means "may Jesus with Mary be with us on the way."
Any evangelical can see right away that ascribing relatively equal significance to Mary as to Jesus represents heresy. The mother of Jesus may indeed have been most favored by God, but He never made her a deity. Mary cannot save anybody, nor can she convey prayers to God which people have sent to her. Nobody but Christ is our mediator.
In addition to his supposed favorite prayer, Columbus’ personal writings betray a man of stunning narcissism and religious fantasy which make it extremely difficult to qualify his Christian orthodoxy. For example, in his Letter of 1490 to his royal patrons in Spain, in which he outlined one of his expeditions, he enumerated 16 bullet points of content. One has to do with the provision of priests for conversion of the natives, two deal with provisions for civil affairs in the “New World,” and a whopping 11 bullet points detail the ways he intends to safeguard the gold he hopes to seize for Isabella and Ferdinand.
Maybe this is simply a good example of honoring one’s employers, but the focus on material riches appears to trump what some modern evangelicals have claimed to be Columbus’ overriding burden to see natives in the “New World” redeemed through the preaching of the Gospel.
Ethnocentrism Run Amok?
Speaking of redeeming the natives, Columbus doesn’t appear to have had a very good track record when it came to diplomacy and evangelism. Historians believe they have evidence of brutality and human rights atrocities committed, if not by Columbus himself, then by his men. Was Columbus at least complicit by his acquiescence to such things? Other explorers who claimed to have witnessed some of the atrocities committed by Columbus' crew actually convinced Spanish authorities to prohibit Columbus from being a ruler in the very land he “discovered.”
Indeed, liberal historians who have been accused by conservatives of revising history have been able to find substantial evidence that Columbus wasn’t as much a finder of the “New World” as he was an exploiter of it. He seemed less interested in validating the legitimacy of heathen cultures he encountered as he was estimating everything's value. His Spanish Catholic ethnocentrism marginalized the people groups he found here and allowed him to justify the abhorrent way he and his crews treated them. That’s not exactly the type of Christian I want to celebrate.
Even more troubling than Columbus' motivations and actions - whether they were for the conversion of heathen natives or the fantastical visions of riches awaiting discovery - are his own writings. In them, Columbus ascribes disjointed and marginally heretical apocalyptic prophecies to his own self. In other words, Columbus appropriates Biblical passages foretelling the end of the world, and presumes to be the heir-apparent of God’s promises to send Christ back to the Earth after His Gospel is proclaimed across it.
Finding the missing link to Asia would, in Columbus’ mind, usher in an era when the Catholic Church could proselytize across the planet. Islam had already been defeated, or so he thought. What else was left except reaching the farthest corner of the globe for the Roman Catholics?
For example, in his mystical Book of Prophecies, Columbus quotes from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, with God telling Jeremiah: "I formed you in the womb. I knew you before you were born. I set you apart. I set you as a prophet to the nations" (Jeremiah 1:5).
Then, in reference to this passage, Columbus speaks to the Lord, "This is what You ordained beforehand according to Your good pleasure, such as were written in Your book about me, in conformity with your secret purpose" (Book of Prophecies, Folio 15).
Don’t you have to be mighty confident in yourself - if not a little removed from reality - to even presume to place yourself as the equivalent of Jeremiah in the year 1492?
The Legacy of Columbus
In a way, the story of Columbus represents the typical conundrum faced by succeeding generations attempting to analyze the actions and accomplishments of such extroverted, Type-A, pivotal people. Indeed, he defies simple classifications and ascriptions. And he's inordinately blamed for much that would have happened eventually anyway.
Did Columbus and his crews introduce previously unknown diseases to the indigenous tribespeople of the Western Hemisphere? Probably. Did they take back syphilis to Europe? Maybe. But wouldn’t any explorer from any part of the world have done the same thing unintentionally, back when the science of diseases remained in its infancy? What if explorers had come from Asia to the western coasts of the Western Hemisphere? What diseases might they have brought?
Did Columbus and his crews perpetrate unholy and inhumane practices on the indigenous people groups they discovered here? Did they deceive them and plunder from them? Almost certainly. Just as any other discoverer hundreds of years ago likely would have done.
Did they foist authoritarian, foreign regimes and religion on the natives? Did they establish practices to exploit natural resources to the detriment of the natives? Did they exponentially expand the reaches of the burgeoning international slave trade?
Yes, yes, and yes. But from a historical perspective, how much does it really matter that it was Columbus who did it, and not another explorer working for another empire-building nation or the already-lucrative African slave industry?
World history is as imperfect as its participants. And hindsight is always 20/20. If our world lasts long enough, what will generations 400 or 600 years from ours say about us? By no means do I mean to imply that Columbus did no wrong. Just because Columbus opened up a completely new chapter of world history doesn't give him bonus points, free sins, or the legendary indulgences of his contemporary Catholic church. None of this is to absolve Columbus of any culpability for what today we would consider crimes against humanity. We're all responsible for what we do and don't do in life, no matter who we are. My purpose here is simply to indemnify Columbus as the only explorer capable of such things. Who knows? Somebody else could have been much worse.
Columbus in Light of God's Sovereignty
Columbus' expeditions remind us of the power of history's trajectory. But the epic tale of Christopher Columbus also raises questions that black-and-white conservative ideology can't answer. By allowing Columbus to establish the trade routes that contributed to the eventual exploitation of the Western Hemisphere, was God blessing Columbus and rewarding his faith, or simply allowing a more beneficent scenario through Columbus as opposed to a tyrannical despot from Asia or England? Was God indeed intentionally moving to establish what would become the United States? Was Columbus the key component in establishing what right-wing conservatives unfortunately misquote as "a city on a hill?"
Or was he just an ego-maniacal bounty hunter, twisted by anguishing visions of salvific authority and brainwashed by vainglorious papist rhetoric? Somebody who makes for a great hero, but a lousy human being?
In the end, from the perspective of God's eternal sovereignty, how much does that really matter to us? I'm not sure. But can't we at least appreciate the stunning and completely history-changing precedent Columbus managed to set? Not as the discoverer of the "New World" per say, but as the first maritime explorer to chart his way to and from our vast hemisphere. Can you imagine what a feat that was in his day and age? For better or worse, his story rings with amazing parallels to other epic struggles of history, including the strife between Christendom and Islam, the gap between technology and the lack thereof, the blindness of ethnocentrism, and the rubric that money never buys contentment.
Does it matter if God used Columbus instead of somebody else to establish a viable trade route to the Western Hemisphere? Eventually, anybody sailing west would have hit our eastern shores and found their way back home; does it matter that God allowed Columbus to be the first? I'm not sure. That's the thing about God's sovereignty: it's His, not ours.
Evangelicals and Their New Love for Columbus
Does it matter that Columbus probably wasn't somebody whose faith modern evangelicals should embrace? Yes! That does matter!
It's been a relatively recent phenomenon, this urge by right-wing people of faith to redeem historical figures to orthodox Christianity. They've done it with Washington, they've tried to do it with Jefferson and Franklin, and Columbus has also been subjected to their own version of revisionist history.
God has allowed perfectly evil men to accomplish astonishing things throughout history. Consider Herod, Hitler, and Mao. Yet He always fulfills His perfect will no matter how heinous the motivations of mankind. Could it be that despite the fallacies of Columbus' exploits, God ordained for the United States to flourish anyway?
We don't know for certain, do we? So why bother with idle speculation? Let's just take what we do know about Columbus and marvel at how God's ageless plan for our universe continues to unfold.
Exploration exists as a God-given motivator. With it, we can learn more about His Creation, and by example, more about Him as the Creator. Just like everything else, it's what we do with our opportunities for exploration that counts. On that score, you have to ignore an awful lot of history to redeem the personal legacy of Christopher Columbus.
Maybe that's why it's best we leave that task to God.
Monday, October 11, 2010
- If you're a Native American, a Caribbean native, or a native of Central or South America, you probably consider Columbus to be a barbaric marauder who introduced previously unknown diseases to the Western Hemisphere and pillaged its natural resources.
- If you're a white, Anglo-Saxon protestant, you probably consider Columbus to be the great explorer who discovered the New World.
- If you're a super-conservative church-going WASP, you may consider Columbus to be God's gift to western civilization.
- If you're a liberal Ivy Leaguer, you probably consider Columbus to be the seminal cause of every problem western civilization has known since 1492.
- If you're Spanish or Italian, you probably gush with pride over the accomplishments this intelligent, long suffering, single-minded, and quintessentially charismatic man managed to achieve when everybody else thought the world was flat.
Sailing the Ocean Blue
Well, like most characters of history whose legacy has grown larger than life over the intervening centuries, Columbus really was a little of everything.
Except the first person to say the world wasn't flat. Greeks had been claiming the Earth is spherical since the Third Century BC. And Columbus's four voyages didn't necessarily prove the Earth is round, either. Ferdinand Magellan did that in 1521.
But Columbus did indeed achieve a stunning global feat with his exploits in search of a new spice route to Asia. He persuaded Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain to bankroll his excursions and let him share in the profits. And while he wasn't the first person to discover the New World of the Western Hemisphere (where'd all those natives he met here come from?), he did establish nautical trade routes to this land mass, even if it wasn't the Orient. That is his claim to fame which nobody can deny. A master navigator, Columbus literally charted new waters to open up new territories... for exploration, as his supporters see it; or exploitation, as his detractors see it.
Either way, "discovery" of the "New World" was unavoidable.
For even in 1492, the world was becoming increasingly smaller and global. Eventually, somebody in Europe or Africa was bound to want whatever lay west of the world they already knew. You see, "go west, young man" isn't so much an American expression as it is one of western civilization as a whole. And for the Spaniards, fresh from defeating Islamists and restoring Roman Catholicism after generations of war, the close of the 15th Century brought heady days of victory. Their newfound sense of invincibility helped grease the wheels of ambition driving Columbus across the Atlantic.
Had Asians been the first to establish a globally-relevant sociopolitical beachhead on the Western Hemisphere, world history would have taken a completely different course. America's pioneers would have said "go east, young man" in a decidedly Asian accent. The natives who were here when Columbus arrived obviously hadn't the sophistication or inclination to establish robust ties with Asia, Europe, or Africa, so our continent was ripe for incursion from across either the Atlantic or Pacific. Was it Columbus' fault that he possessed both the technological ability and the audacious determination to secure a stronghold here before the British, the Dutch, or the Chinese?
Villain or Hero?
Today, educated elites like to join in the Columbus-bashing that "New World" natives and Columbus' own rival explorers began during his day. For a man who really only plotted the coordinates to a new source for raw materials, Columbus has been vilified for so much more. It's easy to forget that if he didn't discover the new trade route which he mistakenly thought had landed him in Asia, somebody else would have. Maybe somebody with less loyalty to European royalty, yet even more narcissism in his own personal fate. Would somebody else other than Columbus have been better? We'll never know.
You see, Columbus was himself a piece of work. He considered himself an emissary of God to trigger the Apocalypse and a Biblical Heaven on Earth. His writings, which have been characterized as either delusional by critics or prophetic by admirers, depict his voyages as not only an emphatic coda to the demise of Islam (oh, if only that were the case!), but also the extension of the spreading of the Gospel. He believed that once everyone on Earth is taught Christianity, then Christ will return to reign over the world. Columbus even claims this as his motivation for exploration in his treatise, The Book of Prophesies.
Some scholars claim The Book of Prophesies merely represents his desperate bid to cajole Isabella and Ferdinand to keep financing his trips to the Americas. Others claim that it was a reverential exegesis of Columbus' personal faith, and as such represents a manifestation of divine providence in the founding of what became the United States.
Indeed, having become the caricature of New World exploration, Columbus has been enshrined by many right-wing conservatives as a Christian hero who was directed by God to establish a beachhead of Christianity upon these previously heathen shores. And while it's impossible to deny that God allowed Columbus to be the explorer who navigated the first commercially-viable route between the Western Hemisphere and Europe, it's not entirely possible to claim that Columbus believed on the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior.
Christian or Catholic?
As a glorified emissary of the Spanish crown, Columbus would have been well-versed in the stoic imperatives and colloquialisms of the Roman Catholic Church vis-a-vis sovereignty. He desired fame. He became obsessed with end-times prophecies. Some have even even suggested he may have been Jewish and the victim of anti-Semitism. Might all of these factors have combined to make him a gifted mariner as well as a skilled salesman with extraordinary drive? Evangelical in tone, his writings gush with lavish, well-honed euphemisms from the Catholic lexicon validating his zeal and self-aggrandizement. Columbus certainly knew how to extract favors from his royal patrons.
European monarchs generally contrived their authority from misquoted Biblical texts, which the Roman Catholic Church was only to happy to promulgate as long as it fit their interests. So for Columbus to serve both the church and the crown by his voyages to the Americas, he would have to meet with their favor. Especially after his first return voyage, when he proved he knew how to get back home, contrary to the fatalistic expectations of his sovereigns. It's worth noting that the contract for his first trip rewarded Columbus handsomely upon his homecoming in part because Isabella and Ferdinand never thought they'd see him again.
Part of the problem with ascribing saintly affection to Columbus involves the murky character of the Roman Catholic Church during this time. You see, 25 years after Columbus first landed on our continent, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a Roman Catholic Church door in Germany, marking the beginning of Protestantism's split from the faith of Columbus. Doesn't this challenge the generally Christianized interpretation of his God-given destiny, the assumed parity between Roman Catholicism in Columbus' day and orthodox Christianity, and the validity of his personal faith in the Trinity?
Tomorrow: Conclusion (and it's not as anti-Columbus as you may think!)