Friday, December 14, 2007

Merry Christmas

Snow fell yesterday, enough to warrant the use of the snowblower, and more is forecast for this weekend. For some reason, a large flock of geese flew over this morning - heading almost due north. They may have sensed the bad weather to the southwest and are looking for sanctuary.

Speaking of sanctuary, we will soon head for warmer climes for a bit, and so this blog will be quiet until we return in late January. To all our readers - and they are apparently in every corner of the globe - go our best wishes for a very Happy Christmas and New Year.

Oh yes - there's now a new collection of these blog posts in book form. It is called Lines from the Beachcomber, and it is available on, as is an earlier collection, Searching for Joan Leslie. Either book may be purchased as a printed paperback or downloaded free.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Candidates (continued)

It is time to take another look at the presidential candidates. In our last episode we declared John McCain out of the running. Nothing has happened since to change this opinion. We thought Fred Thompson was a dark horse. He has become an even darker horse, fading into the blackness. We thought Rudy Giuliani was the one to watch. But by staunchly endorsing the President’s invasion of Iraq – an act that, more than any other, has driven George Bush’s poll numbers to the cellar – Rudy has shot himself in the foot.

The comer is Mike Huckabee, who commands attention with his unscripted, laid-back demeanor and his agreeable looks. Ron Paul is also interesting, but Huckabee is more plausible as a candidate.

Mitt Romney is a good man, I believe, and he clearly has administrative ability and, most important, character. The foofaraw about his religion is ridiculous. But Governor Romney does not have the kind of personality that connects with large masses of voters. He just does not light up the TV screen. It’s unfair, perhaps, but there it is.

Among Democrats, Hillary is like a marathoner who raced out of a starting gate and now is looking tired, or rather, tiring. People are tiring of watching her campaign month after month. She would have been better off saving her energy for a big finish, as Obama seems to be doing. Still, she is the front-runner, and the only real opposition she faces comes from her own negatives. Hillary is the only person who can defeat Hillary.

In my last piece on this subject, I said that Obama could overcome either of his two handicaps (inexperience and race), but not both. I still believe that, but I am more convinced than ever that he will be a strong, maybe unbeatable, candidate next time around. He oozes common sense, decency, and intelligence with every syllable, and he takes the glare of attention with a cool demeanor that is very impressive for one so young.

Edwards, on the other hand, is a different breed. What he oozes is insincerity, and it is a mystery to me that he has attracted any support at all. The more earnestly he gives his “two Americas” pitch, the more he sounds like a charlatan. If Huckabee is the campaign’s Kevin Spacey, Edwards is its Tom Cruise, glib, shallow, and well coifed.

How will it all turn out? It depends on events in the Iraq. If things appear to be going reasonably well, the Republicans may hold the White House and could recapture Congress. If the situation deteriorates, the Democrats are in. It’s not automatic; candidates matter. But one side or the other will have a strong tailwind blowing from the Middle East.

I look at the debaters, all lined up on the stages mouthing their carefully rehearsed talking points, and I wonder, as so many must, whether this is the best we can do. And yet, as William Allen White said of a lightweight presidential candidate named Roosevelt in 1932, “responsibility is a winepress that brings forth strange juices out of men.”

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The "We're at War" Syndrome

The candidates are all being asked for their opinions on torture, and they all say they’re against it. (What else can they say?) But then they add, as Fred Thompson did on the Charlie Rose Show last night, that if a terrorist was in custody and in possession of information that could save American lives they would favor “doing whatever is necessary.” Thompson went on to say that he believed that the other candidates, even John McCain, would say the same thing, though when pressed he admitted he hadn’t spoken to McCain on the subject.

Thus the straw man lives on. There is this terrorist, see? And he knows when a bomb is set to go off in a crowded New York theater, see? It could even be Yankee Stadium, see? So what are going to do, read him his Miranda rights?

But, said Charlie Rose, some people, including McCain, say that torture in such instances doesn’t deliver the goods; the prisoner will say anything under torture, even a pack of lies. And what about the high moral ground? Are we no better than our enemies, as we always claim to be?

Well, said Thompson, who looked as he was having trouble remembering his lines, those are all valid arguments, but there are valid arguments on the other side, too. Torture is wrong, but it may also be right. Next question.

The story about the hypothetical detainee who has life-threatening information is bogus. For openers, who says he actually has that information? An Army field officer? A CIA operative? A neighbor in Baghdad? Dick Cheney? He can't face his accuser. He can’t call a lawyer. He is completely at the mercy of someone who claims, without proof, that he is a terrorist, or supports terrorists, or knows a terrorist, or has read a terrorist pamphlet.

Consider the following scenario: A black car pulls up in your driveway. Three men get out, and one of them rings your doorbell. When you open the door you are whisked off to a black hole somewhere. You are held incommunicado, month after month, and you are grilled harshly about things you don’t know about. But that can’t happen; this is America, land of court trials, habeas corpus, a jury of your peers, the right to face your accuser, etc.

Under normal circumstances, says the Administration, all that is true. But we’re at war, and the President’s power at such times is absolute. All your rights go out the window with the magic words: “We’re at war.”

That’s the real issue, not waterboarding. The burning question, which no one seems to bother to ask, is: How do we know – really know – that the person we have in custody is the “very bad guy” the administration insists he is? We can’t tell you that, they say, because if we did it would compromise our intelligence methods. Translation: We know, wink, wink; nudge, nudge. Trust us.

Even if I were inclined to trust them, we are as a nation on thin ice. The case for total, unchecked Presidential power, so artfully constructed by White House Lawyer-in-Chief David Addington, sets a precedent for all future presidents, including whoever becomes President in January 2009. Looking over the field, and considering that “we’re at war” will still be an available defense, that’s a sobering thought.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

On the Beach

The beach was crowded today. Crowded for Goose Rocks, that is. It is never so crowded that one can’t find a place to spread a blanket, as it sometimes is at Cannes or Nantasket or Coney Island. But it was crowded enough to force me to pick my way through the humanity on my daily beach stroll. We are closing in on Labor Day, and the renters are determined to get their money’s worth before packing up and heading back to Framingham or Chelmsford.

A new trend is visible on the beach this summer: the widespread use of children’s wagons and baby carriages to cart beach paraphernalia from the renters’ houses to their chosen spots on the sand. In past years, the crowds, such as they were, were clustered in the middle of the strand, near the center of population (and parking spaces). Now, pulling their wagons behind them, they travel hundreds of yards, to more remote destinations. The carrying capacity of those of those little red wagons is amazing: folding chairs, umbrella, a cooler for drinks, balls, frisbees, a bag of sandwiches, a boom box, books and magazines, camera, towels, and other necessities of beach life.

The sand is hard at low tide, and then you see the beachgoers making their long treks, looking like the Okies in “The Grapes of Wrath,” transporting all their earthly possessions to a Better Place. People are funny. On one hand, they rail against private beaches, arguing for total public access. On the other hand, given the chance, they will instinctively seek a private spot, far away from the throng. When I was a youngster, my parents took great pride in the fact that through a friend we had access to a private beach on the North Shore. There were equally attractive public beaches nearby, but private was better because – well, just because.

So the caravans roll on, to the farthest reaches of the beach. Then, after a day in the sun, they wheel their wagons back to their bases. Most of them are good about carting their beer cans and potato chip bags back with them, but some leave their detritus behind. It is sad to see litter on the beach, but the good news is that those red wagons and prams do make it easier for people to police the area.

In another week, summer will officially have ended, and the real caravans – the SUVs crammed to the roof and with full bicycle racks behind – will start their journeys down the Maine Turnpike. The beach will still be busy on weekends in September – the best month, in the opinion of many – but the big crowds will be gone. That’s the good news. The bad news is that winter is just around the corner. In January, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, when there’s plenty of room on the beach, no one comes.

Book note: A new edition of The General Radio Story is now available at This one has an index and a table showing annual sales and earnings from 1915 through 2001. Also available at Searching for Joan Leslie, a collection of these blog postings.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Uneasy lies the head...

President Bush has just used the analogy of Vietnam to buttress his case for hanging tough in Iraq. As many have pointed out, this was a curious decision on his part. Among those reading Vietnamese history with special interest these days must be Iraq’s Prime Minister al-Maliki, and the trip down memory lane cannot be very comforting.

In 1963, South Vietnam was ruled by President Ngo Dinh Diem, and at the time American military and intelligence advisers were strongly critical of him for not waging the fight against the enemy aggressively enough. (Sound familiar?) So, when the CIA folks in Saigon heard that some Vietnamese generals were hatching a coup, the American ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, gave these generals the green light, assuring them that if they succeeded, the U.S. would promptly recognize their new regime. Thus encouraged, the generals decided to “carpe Diem” on November 1. The next day, President Diem and his brother were both killed by the generals, and the new government was indeed swiftly recognized by the United States. The initial cover story was that Diem and his brother both committed suicide, but then photographs surfaced showing their stabbed and bullet-riddled bodies, hands tied, in the back of a truck. Oops. (Today, the murders would probably be shown on YouTube.)

Exactly three weeks later, the President who okayed the Saigon coup would himself be assassinated, in Dallas.

Fast forward to last week. President Bush, asked by a reporter whether it was time to replace Prime Minister Maliki, answered that this was a question for the Iraqis, not the U.S. Of course, Diem was killed by the Vietnamese, not the Americans. If something unfortunate happens to Maliki, the Americans in Baghdad are sure to have clean hands.

But Maliki knows the score, just as Pakistan’s President Musharraf knows the score. He says that the Americans threatened to bomb his country “back to the stone age” if he did not sign on as a U.S. ally. Now he, no less than Maliki, is feeling the heat, as U.S. politicians accuse him of not pursuing Al Qaeda on his border with Afghanistan. He, too, must be well aware of what happened to Diem in 1963.

Maliki, Musharraf, and others may think they have acquired a certain immunity. They fly to Washington, appear at press conferences with the American President, address Congress. But that’s all fool’s gold. Diem, too, flew to Washington and was a press celebrity. His American ties were solid: three years living in New York and New Jersey, a consultancy at Michigan State, a favorite of New York’s Cardinal Spellman. He must have thought he was safe. But when the Americans decided that he had to go, he had to go.

So why on earth did President Bush decide to stir up memories of Vietnam? In the past, he had always rejected any comparison between Iraq and Vietnam; now he was pushing just this comparison. A cynic might think that he was delivering a not-so-subtle message to Mr. Maliki and President Musharaff.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Fed Caves

Yesterday the Federal Reserve Bank dropped the discount rate by a half point. Those whose lives revolve around the daily mood swings of the stock market cheered. The market indexes soared. But those who care about the integrity of our financial system know better, or at least they should. Mr. Bernanke and his colleagues, after months spent assuring us all of their diligence in standing guard against inflation, caved.

A week or so ago, Jim Cramer, host of a CNBC show called Mad Money, screamed – screamed - that the Fed didn’t have a clue about the panic lurking in the wings. If the Fed didn’t slash interest rates immediately, the market would crash, producing an economic catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. What happened to send Cramer ballistic? Countrywide Financial and Bear Stearns and KKR happened. Some investors were shocked to find that money market funds were not instantly convertible into cash after all. The Dow was making 9-G dives every other day. Investors were fleeing the market. If this kept up, they might turn off a stock-market-oriented cable TV channel. We can’t have that, can we? So the anchor of the hour, like the Wizard of Oz, kept urging us to stay focused on the strength of the economy and not to pay any attention to those 200-point drops, which were in any event just creating more buying opportunities.

Then the Dow broke 14,000, and they started singing a new tune: Yes, the economy would be fine - IF the Fed did the right thing and lowered interest rates.

As the Wall Street Journal editorialized today, “The same people who’ve been saying for weeks that all was well are now the loudest in urging the Fed to reflate the bubble.”

It is pathetic to see the Fed buckling under in this way. Yes, there was pain at the lending institutions, and there were scare stories about millions of sub-prime mortgage holders facing eviction. And investors were rattled by big portfolio losses. But when you borrow money, you enter into a contract, and the sanctity of contracts lies at the core of our financial system. When you buy a stock, you can lose money. When you buy a bond, your investment is only as secure as the issuer’s balance sheet. Those are the ground rules we operate by. Bernanke may not admit that he is weakening this foundation, but he is. Once the Fed is regarded as the white knight who will ride in to save you from your bad decisions, watch out.

Some will say that it is, after all, the Fed’s duty to keep its hand on the throttle. But a scheduled meeting of the Open Market Committee was only a few weeks away, and the sudden lurch to ease, following an “emergency meeting,” suggests two possibilities: (1) the Committee did in fact fold under pressure from the Wall Street walking wounded, or (2) the Fed knows something we don’t about the state of the economy.

Neither explanation is very comforting.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Red to the Rescue

In the 1970s, a hot subject in the semiconductor industry was memory testing. A semiconductor memory is an array of cells on a silicon chip, with each cell representing a 1 or a 0, depending on its electrical state. In those days, a memory typically had 1000 or so cells (today’s memories have millions of cells), and the memory makers tested each chip by applying a pattern to the matrix (e.g., a checkerboard, with alternating 1’s and 0’s) and verifying that the cells behaved properly – ensuring, for instance, that a cell didn’t change states when an adjacent cell was switched.

My company made memory test systems at a plant in the San Fernando Valley, and I thought it might be useful to hold a seminar on memory testing at a nearby hotel. The seminar, which was conducted by the manager of the memory-test division, was a success, and, thus encouraged, I immediately began planning a similar event for our east-coast customers. (This was at a time when a sizeable portion of the U.S. semiconductor industry was still located in the northeast.) The site would be New York’s Plaza Hotel, no less. The seminar would be a full-day affair, including lunch, in the Palm Court. It seemed like a guaranteed winner, and we were so bold as to charge the attendees, even though this was patently a promotional event.

The reservations rolled in, and the seminar opened with a Palm Court full of engineers eager to hear the latest tricks of the memory test trade. The speaker for the full day would be the same man we had used in California. This was a risky proposition. He knew his subject cold, but he was, frankly, a less than sparkling speaker. In fact, he was downright dull, and as the morning wore on, I could see from my back-of-the-room perch that he was losing the audience. No one was walking out, certainly - people were too polite to do that – but as the monotone droned on, some people became restless, while others allowed their eyelids to fall to half mast. What had been interesting in Woodland Hills was a snorer in Manhattan. With a full-course hot luncheon on the agenda, I wondered whether anyone would be awake by mid-afternoon.

It was as bad as I had feared. The luncheon was too heavy, and the subject matter was even heavier. The whole project, I felt, was going down in flames. I leaned against the glass doors at the back of the room, praying for the speaker to say something funny. Or sing a song, or tap dance. Anything.

Then I noticed that someone was behind me, on the other side of the door, with his nose against the glass, looking in. It was Red Skelton. A woman was with him.

I opened the door a crack and said hello.

“What’s going on?” he asked in a whisper.

“It’s a seminar on memory testing,” I whispered back.

“You mean, like, test your memory?” he said, obviously curious.

“No, like in semiconductor memories,” I said. Then I took the plunge.

“Come on in,” I said.

That was all the encouragement he needed. Red Skelton strode into the room and up the center aisle, with the audience suddenly wide awake. Then, when he reached the front of the room, he raised his arms to motion for silence and said:

“I just want to let you all know that Mamie Schmidlapp just pledged two hundred dollars.” Then he walked out, waving to the audience.

Pandemonium. The audience ate it up, laughing, applauding, and generally going nuts.
At the back of the room, the lady (Red’s wife) said to me, smiling, “He’s always doing things like this.”

As if energized, our speaker picked up his delivery for the rest of the afternoon, and the seminar was saved. Everyone present apparently thought yours truly was unbelievably clever to have arranged a guest appearance by one of the great entertainers of our time. Of course, I (eventually) admitted that it was all dumb luck.

On the other hand, I was the one who chose the Plaza. It could never have happened at a Holiday Inn in New Jersey.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Summer Circuit

Summer in New England brings with it summer theater and the chance to see the classic old musicals and to understand why they are called classics. It is also a time to catch some little gems that never made it out of Broadway and to the provinces. In recent weeks both opportunities were available, and we seized them.

First, the classic: A full-bore, thoroughly professional The King and I was staged by the Reagle Players, in Waltham, MA. If you live within driving distance of Waltham (we do, barely) and have never attended a Reagle production, shame on you. In New York or Boston, you will pay three or four times the Reagle ticket price, but you will not see higher quality. For big musicals like The King and I, this company usually trucks in the Broadway sets and costumes, and the leads are often played by Broadway veterans. In an era when Broadway pit orchestras have been pared down to 14 or 15 musicians, there were 21 on hand for The King and I, and they handled the original orchestrations smoothly. Anna was played by the incandescent Sarah Pfisterer, no stranger to Reagle and always a joy to watch. “The House of Uncle Thomas” ballet was a highlight and alone worth the price of admission. The huge cast included a large number of young, smiling, non-Caucasian children, all of them irresistible. The only sour note was the fact that there were many empty seats in the large theater the night we attended. This was unusual. In our previous Reagle excursions (She Loves Me, Most Happy Fella, 42d Street, etc.), the house was always full, deservedly. What’s the good in living in a cultural mecca like Greater Boston if you don’t take advantage of treasures like The Reagle Players?

The King and I is a very ambitious, very expensive undertaking, beyond the capabilities of most summer theaters. But one doesn’t need Rodgers and Hammerstein to provide first-rate musical entertainment. Take the group at Bar Mills, Maine, for instance. We have reported previously on this small troupe, which calls itself The Originals. Although it occasionally ventures into the mainstream repertoire, the fare is usually off-beat. This time it was off-beat and off-Broadway, as it staged the 2001 musical The IT Girl, based loosely on an old Paramount movie. The campy plot involves a department-store (“Waltham’s”) sales girl (Betty Lou Spence) who aspires to win the store’s IT Girl title – and, by the way, the store’s owner, Jonathan Waltham. A cast of seven doubles and triples to play 15 roles, covering both ends of the social spectrum – Waltham’s upper-crust friends and Betty Lou’s buddies from the tenements. The staging was creative - a clothes line for the tenements, a ship’s railing for a boat picnic, and, most important, rear projections of old New York, borrowed, one guesses, from the New York production. Susan Brownfield, the lead, was outstanding, which was no surprise to anyone who saw her in The World Goes Round a year ago. A Chita Rivera type, she can act, sing, and dance, and she looks terrific, too. Molly Roberts, an Originals regular, shone as the haughty fiancée who stands in the way of our heroine. The big surprise was the music, by Paul McGibbins. Especially memorable was a lullaby, “Mama’s Arms,” sung by Jennifer Porter, who also directed and choreographed the production – very well, I should add. The score, which had touches of ragtime as well as Gilbert & Sullivan, was well handled by a backstage trio of musicians, with pianist Joe Arsenault a standout.

The Reagle Players do their work in the spacious auditorium of Waltham High School. The stage is enormous, and the lighting and acoustics are first-class. The upholstered seats are reserved. The ambiance is comfortable and the curtain times sensible. If you decide to see a Reagle musical, you will not regret it.

The Originals stage their productions in the cozy, quaint, century-old Saco River Grange Hall, in Bar Mills, Maine. The folding wooden chairs are not reserved, and the rest rooms are portable units outside the hall. The stage is adequate, no more. There are home-brew footlights and a spot, and some cast members were miked, though in the small theater this may not have been necessary. On the whole, the old Grange Hall represents a challenge to this highly talented theatrical group, and their determined professionalism is all the more praiseworthy. Bar Mills is an easy drive for most people who live in Maine’s York County. It is well worth the trip, because the product is always so entertaining.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Hospital in the Valley

It happened a long time ago. Thirty years, I’d guess. I was attending a Board meeting in Silicon Valley, back in the days when Silicon Valley was the center of the universe. The meeting room was on the second floor of a bank building in Sunnyvale. The directors were all officers of leading semiconductor equipment suppliers, and we all knew each other well and looked forward to the chance to swap stories about life in what was then the fast lane.

One of the directors had to leave the meeting early for another appointment. His name was Sam, and he was the oldest member of the group. He said his goodbyes and walked down the stairs to exit the building.

He should have walked out the door, but instead Sam walked into a floor-to-ceiling glass panel adjacent to the door. It shattered, and Sam was badly cut. Somehow he made it back to the meeting room, his leg bleeding profusely. While the one lady present looked the other way, we dropped Sam’s pants to assess the damage, and we quickly concluded that a trip to a hospital was called for. I volunteered to drive, and a director named Mike, who lived in the Valley, offered to navigate.

As we drove to the hospital with our wounded colleague, Mike and I chatted about the quality of medical care in the Valley.

“The hospital we are headed for is one of the best in the world,” said Mike. “Every bit as good as Mass. General or anything else you have in Boston.” I nodded. It was good to know that Sam would be in the best of hands.

Sam was quickly admitted, and Mike and I sat in a very large room just inside the main entrance, waiting for our friend to be repaired. While we waited, Mike kept praising the hospital’s medical staff and its worldwide reputation. As a native Bostonian, I recognized the pattern. In Dallas, for instance, a Texan might say something like, “So you’re from Boston? Well, they say that our symphony orchestra here in Dallas is on a par with Boston’s.” Or someone from Phoenix might compare that city’s art museum favorably with Boston’s. It was an old story: new cities striving to equal the old. Today the subject was hospitals.

Then, from a pair of swinging doors to our left, a patient was wheeled into this large room. He was apparently being discharged from the hospital. The orderly who wheeled him in then walked over to the front desk to deal with the paperwork.

But he did not set the brake on his patient’s wheelchair, and the hard floor in the room was apparently not level. So, while Mike and I and the others in the room gasped in astonishment, the wheelchair rolled across the room, heading for the hospital’s main entrance about 30 feet away. It crashed into the wall, and the patient was thrown from the wheelchair onto the floor. Blood was oozing from his mouth. He was gathered up and whisked back into the hospital.

After a while, Sam emerged with his leg stitched up, and the three us drove back to Sunnyvale in relative silence.

I am sure that the hospital in question was every bit as good as Mike said it was. Mistakes happen, even in the best places.
But the floors are more level in Boston, I think.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The "What, Me Worry?" Economy

One day in the 1970s, when the stock market plummeted and investors were in trauma, a wise man (and the CEO of my Company) said, “Look, it’s not as if this is the end of the U.S. economy. The market will come back.”

Then he added, “Of course, some day it will be the end.”

The market recovered with a bang, and those who sold in fear were proved foolish. Alex was right, as usual. But I never forgot his postscript.

Today, we are trapped in Iraq. Not involved, not implicated, but trapped. There is no exit. Meanwhile, the hawks are beating their war drums on Iran. Garry Kasparov, former chess champ and political wannabe, rants against Russia in today’s Journal. Congressional hawks want us to “get tough” with China. American special ops forces are doing their thing in Somalia and the Philippines and elsewhere. There is serious talk of a military incursion into Pakistan. The neo-cons have Syria in their sights. When all else fails, escalate.

Here at home, the real estate market is in free fall. The country avoids economic collapse only because China and others fund us to the tune of two billion dollars a day. The U.S. savings rate is negative. House foreclosures are soaring. People, according to the polls, have utterly no confidence in the President or in Congress.

Despite all this, the stock market, despite a few speed bumps, charges ahead. If you are a hedge fund manager or a private equity guru, it’s a wonderful life. How wonderful? The managers of the 25 largest hedge funds earned more last year than the CEOs of all the Fortune 500 companies, combined. It's all fodder for John Edwards's populist presidential campaign.

It has always been foolish to count out the U.S. economy. Every time the market tanks, there are those who cry, “Don’t panic.” Sound advice, as a rule. Someday, though, the better advice will be “Panic.” Maybe this is the time. The odds that the game is over are still low, but they have risen from, say 2 percent during the crises of the 70s and 80s to maybe 4 or 5 percent today. Not to worry? Worry. By the time they rise to 10 percent, if they do, the markets will be in shambles.

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with an old friend who now runs a hedge fund in New Jersey. He admitted to holding 40 percent of his fund’s assets in cash these days, because he feels, as I do, that the current disconnect between the market and reality will end badly.

Another old friend, economist Gary Shilling, correctly predicted the sub-prime mortgage fallout when conventional wisdom said that it was a non-issue. Gary thinks a recession is coming later this year, and the chances are building that he will be proved right. But a routine, palliative recession may in fact be too optimistic a projection.

Meanwhile, the CNBC talking heads keep assuring viewers that any market pullback is a terrific buying opportunity. To believer Larry Kudlow, the market is bulletproof. The brokerage gurus and the analysts talk the talk. Stocks are a great buy, they insist, and you should avoid bonds. Above all, don’t hold cash. After all, how can all these people make money if you insist on keeping your assets in your mattress?


A collection of these blogs, under the title "Searching for Joan Leslie," is available on, as is "The General Radio Story."

Monday, July 09, 2007

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont

You just can’t beat the British when it comes to insightful, literate, well-acted movies. The latest evidence is a quiet little gem called Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. The great Joan Plowright plays the title role, a widow who decides to settle into a London hotel she has seen advertised in a Scottish magazine. The hotel, whose name is announced by a flickering red neon sign, has obviously seen better days, and Mrs P.’s room is small and drab, with a bathroom “down the hall.” But Mrs P. decides to give it a go, and she quickly finds herself the center of attention in the Claremont’s dining room, where the long-term guests immediately fasten upon her as a new and interesting ingredient in their mélange. These characters include some of the best old-timers of the British stage and screen, with Anna Massey playing the imperious Mrs Arbuthnot, who reassures Mrs P. that she needn’t worry about being old because “you’re not allowed to die here.”

Mrs Palfrey tries to maintain her dignity without being rude to her inquisitors, but their curiosity is irrepressible. Then, walking along the sidewalk one day, Mrs P. trips and falls, and a young man living in the adjacent basement flat rushes to her rescue and ushers her into his digs to recover over a cup of tea. Overcome by his kindness, Mrs P. invites him to dine with her at the Claremont later in the week, and he accepts. His name is Ludwig, and he is an aspiring writer.

Mrs P. has a grandson, Desmond, in London, and the other Claremont guests have pried this fact out of her. But Desmond has not answered her phone calls; he is apparently too busy with his work. So, when Ludwig enters the Claremont’s dining room, the other guests take him to be Mrs P.’s grandson, and she does not bother to correct them. Later, when the real Desmond and his mother (Mrs P.’s daughter) enter the action, the plot thickens.

But the treasure here is not the plot (based on an Elizabeth Taylor novel), but the characterizations and especially the dialogue. Ludwig’s literary ambition sets up references to Wordsworth and Blake and conversations about Mrs P.’s favorite movie (“Brief Encounter”) and song (“For All We Know”). Joan Plowright is absolutely perfect in her role, and the supporting cast is nearly as good. We should all spend at least one evening with the flavorful characters in the Claremont’s dining room.

Great Britain has given us dozens of movies of this quality, and most of them, like this one, come and go unnoticed on this side of the Atlantic, while the local cineplexes play the likes of “Evan Almighty” and “Oceans Thirty-Seven” (or whatever) and “Live Free or Die Hard.” De gustibus.

As the movie’s final credits roll, Rosemary Clooney is heard singing “For All We Know” as only she can. Within minutes the record was downloaded from iTunes and berthed in my iPod.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Language of War

You can’t tell the players without a program. Even with a program, the Iraq War can be confusing. The various players are called the Coalition Forces, the insurgents, the militias, the terrorists, and the militants. (I may have missed a few.) The terms change from war to war, it seems. For instance:

President Bush, in his Independence Day talk, likened the current Iraq War to the American Revolution. A poor analogy, for, as some churlish fellow pointed out, in the American Revolution, the insurgents won. Of course we don’t call them insurgents today; we refer to them as Patriots. John Adams was a Patriot, as were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the others. In homage, Tom Brady and his teammates are also Patriots.

Today we refer to the enemy forces as insurgents, but this raises an interesting question: If our addition of 30,000 troops we just dispatched to Iraq are collectively called a surge, then, by definition, are they not the insurgents?

In old World War 2 movies, the French and the Greeks and the Dutch who waged guerilla war against their German occupiers were called Freedom Fighters. I suppose that the Iraqis who shoot at their country’s occupiers are also in a sense freedom fighters. The difference, I guess, is the Germans were bad occupiers, and we are good occupiers. But when you see soldiers patrolling your streets and helicopter gunships shooting at you, the difference between bad and good gets blurry.

Condi Rice, Tony Snow, and others are careful to refer to our side as Coalition Forces, in order to promote the impression that the free world is aligned with us in our mission. The Gulf War waged by Bush 41 did indeed involve a coalition. This time around, we initially referred to our side as a "coalition of the willing,” but you don’t hear that anymore, because it’s obvious that hardly anyone is willing.

Much has been written about the definition of the word “terrorist,” and here it gets tricky. Our preferred definition is that a terrorist is one who commits or advocates violence against innocent civilians. But innocent civilians are being killed by the dozens in Iraq and Afghanistan, day after day, and some of them are killed by Coalition Forces. The language has thus been enlarged by the addition of the term “Collateral Damage,” which means terrorist acts inadvertently perpetrated by the good guys.

One recalls novels like Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, in which government reshaped the language to serve its purposes. (The agency responsible for disinformation was called The Ministry of Truth.) There is nothing new here; Rome was ruthlessly imposing “Pax Romana” 2000 years ago, but, in the name of peace, the Romans killed over 150,000 British “insurgents” when they dared to rebel.

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Russians are Coming.....

The sky is cloudless and hazeless, and a light breeze from the north is keeping the temperature in the sixties. The sea is sparkling (the photo was just taken), and the place has the look of October, not July. It is, in short, as close to perfection as you can get, weather-wise, and the gods are obviously smiling down on Presidents Bush and Putin, who are meeting just a few miles from here.

We, like most of the Town’s residents, are steering clear of Walker’s Point, but you can’t escape the sense that Something Big is going on in the neighborhood. For one thing, there is the constant drone of jets overhead, as the Air Force provides round-the-clock cover. The neighbors’ tolerance of this incessant hum varies with their political leanings. The Bush haters take it as an annoyance; the pro-Bush people think it’s a stirring reminder of this country’s vigilance.

Then there are the fishing parties. The Presidents (41 and 43) have been fishing right outside our window, off Timber Island. They, in their white cruiser, are surrounded by a flotilla of security boats and a Coast Guard cutter – enough to drive away any stripers that may been in the area. The cruiser is “Bona Vita II.” The good life indeed.

Friday we drove by Walker’s Point, stopping at the security check point, where we were cautioned to proceed but not to stop again until reaching the next check point. All very serene, with courtesy abounding. The protesters hadn’t shown up yet.

Then, Saturday, on route to a family gathering in New Hampshire, we stopped by Pease AFB in Portsmouth, where we saw Air Force One sitting alone on the tarmac like a beached whale. Far away, in a secluded corner of Pease, we saw the Ilyushin IL-62 that had brought the Russian advance party over a few days before. The irony was tangible to those of us old enough to recall Pease’s role as a SAC base during the cold war. This now-decommissioned and nearly deserted air base, where B-47s and B-52s were poised to strike the Soviet Union for many years, is now hosting a total of four Ilyushin jets through yesterday (three IL-62s and Putin’s IL-96), with a fifth due to land on the 11,300-foot runway this morning.

No matter what your politics, you have to hope that the Kennebunkport summit goes well. This country needs friends these days, especially big, powerful friends, and the Russia-bashers and China-bashers should temper their rhetoric. It is time to revisit Henry Kissinger’s principle of Realpolitik, where in a world of three major powers you don’t want to be the odd man out. For the sake of our children and grandchildren, let’s hope the men at Walker’s Point get it right

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Circling the Wagons

The Iraq War, it will be proven someday, was lost in the first week of May 2004. Up to that point, many if not most Iraqis were convinced that the United States had come as a friend, to liberate them and to establish a western-style democracy with respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Then came Abu Ghraib.

As the photos of sadistic prisoner abuse showed the Iraqis that maybe the United States wasn’t exactly an ideal role model, any hope of winning the hearts and minds of the people vanished. From that moment on, recruitment of what we call “insurgents” became much easier.

It didn’t have to be that way. When the photos surfaced, the official reaction should have been one of total outrage. The response from the White House and the Pentagon should have been along these lines: “This conduct is inexcusable and shameful, and we are going to find out who was responsible, and when we do, heads will role. Meanwhile, we extend our profound regrets to all those Iraqis who were abused, and to their families.”

Instead, the world was told that (1) the United States does not authorize torture, (2) the offenses were acts of a handful of misguided soldiers, (3) the accused would be properly tried and, if convicted, punished. Congressional oversight was a joke, with one committee member rationalizing that “Abu Ghraib was the price of defending democracy.”

The trail of responsibility ended in the lower levels of the chain of command, as it always does. Secretary Rumsfeld pleaded ignorance, as did Generals Abizaid and Sanchez. Needless to say, neither Rumsfeld nor his President had ever signed any order that could conceivably condone the actions of Abu Ghraib. Rule number one is to do what you have to. Rule number two is to ensure deniability.

The whole sorry tale of Abu Ghraib is told in Seymour Hersh’s “The General’s Report” in the June 25 issue of The New Yorker. The General here is Major General Antonio Taguba, who wrote the definitive Army report on the prisoner abuses. General Taguba, a man of unshakable integrity, knew what this assignment meant: “If I lie, I lose. And, if I tell the truth, I lose.”

General Taguba issued a pull-no-punches account of Abu Ghraib, and shortly thereafter General Abizaid, then the head of Central Command, sternly told him, “You and your report will be investigated.” Says Taguba, recalling the warning, “ I’d been in the Army thirty-two years by then, and it was the first time I thought I was in the Mafia.” Last year, the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff, General Cody, telephoned: The message:” I need you to retire by January of 2007.” Thus the messenger was shot.

War is, as Donald Rumsfeld likes to say, a messy business, and it is also clear that our soldiers are fighting an enemy with little regard for the Geneva Conventions. Still, we are supposed to inhabit the moral high ground. At least that’s the way General Taguba saw it, and others agreed with him. But the men of morals were outgunned by the men of expediency. The heavies in the Hersh article include a number of Generals (Abezaid, Miller, Craddock, Formica, Cody, Sanchez) and Secretary Rumsfeld and his Under-Secretary Stephen Cambone.

General Taguba’s was not the only report issued on Abu Ghraib. An independent panel headed by James Schlesinger also investigated, concluding that there was “institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels.” But Schlesinger (a former defense secretary) absolved Rumsfeld of any direct responsibility.

Seven M.P.s were convicted of various charges, and one was sentenced to ten years in prison. The only officer facing trial is a lieutenant colonel due to stand court-marshal in August. The top brass and the Pentagon power structure circled the wagons, as they always do, and they are all off the hook.

(Flashback: Lt. William Calley was convicted of the premeditated murder of 22 civilians in the Vietnamese village of My Lai and sentenced to life imprisonment. As it turned out, he served 3-1/2 years of house arrest at Fort Benning and was then set free. His superior, Capt. Medina, who, according to Calley, gave the order to kill all 109 victims, was found blameless.)

Says General Taguba: “we violated the laws of land warfare in Abu Ghraib. We violated the tenets of the Geneva Convention. We violated our own principles and we violated the core of our military values. The stress of combat is not an excuse, and I believe, even today, that those civilian and military leaders responsible should be held accountable.”

The Hersh article is dispiriting, but it is worth reading.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Summit

A few weeks from now, George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin will spend two days here in Kennebunkport, just down the coast a few miles. It is stirring to consider that decisions made almost within sight of here (a few pesky islands are between us) may shape the world order for decades to come.

One can’t be sure of the temperature of the conversation - there has been a chill in the air lately – but it might go something like this:

GWB: Hiya Vlad. Good flight?

VP: Ochen korosho. Kak vui pashzevayetsa?

GWB: Tell you what, Vlad. Let’s try it in English. Your English is a whole lot better than my Russki.

VP: Very good, Mr. President. And yes, it was good flight.

GWB: Now Vlad, we’re good friends, right?

VP: I hope so, Mr. President.

GWB: And friends can speak about their differences openly. So I have to say again what I said at the G-8: We’re disappointed in your actions in the area of human rights.

VP: Well, if I may use an old Russian proverb, Mr. President, people living in glass houses should not throw stones. May I remind you of Guantanamo, Abu Graib, Haditha…

GWB: That’s different, Vladimir. We’re at war.

VP: When the Soviet Union was fighting in Afghanistan, we were at war. But you were not so forgiving then. In fact, you supplied weapons to our enemies, to people you now call terrorists.

GWB: Look Vladimir, that was then, this is now. The Cold War is over. Let’s be friends.

VP: Friends do not point nuclear missiles at each other.

GWB: Now, Vladimir, I am going to have to help you a bit with your English. The word is nucular, not nuclear. I hope you don’t mind the correction.

VP: But I thought it was spelled…..

GWB: The spelling doesn’t matter, Vladimir. It’s an irregular verb.

VP: It’s a strange language, English.

GWB: Like reelator. Would you like something to drink?

VP: Excellent. I brought some of our best vodka, George. Will you join me?

GWB: Thanks, Vladimir, but I've been on the wagon for years. How about a good old-fashioned, capitalistic Coke?

VP: Yes, we will toast each other with Cokes. Here's to peace!

GWB: As they say in Russia, nazdorovya!

VP: As they say in Casablanca, here’s looking at you, kid.

GWB: Tell you what: Let’s save the serious stuff for tomorrow. Today, why don’t you enjoy the place? A swim in the ocean would be just the thing after your long flight. Would you like that?

VP: But isn’t the ocean water very cold here in Maine?

GWB: Only in the winter, Vladimir. In July, it’s a warm as a cow in the clover, heh heh.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

After Evita

Eva Peron was a legend during her time as Argentina’s first lady and a source of continuing fascination for years thereafter, but her fame exploded with the success of the Andrew Lloyd-Webber/Tim Rice musical “Evita.” The show was a big, big hit, deservedly so. Lloyd-Webber’s music is often scorned by sophisticates, but the man is a skilled melodist in the Richard Rodgers tradition, and in every show he gives you at least one ballad that worms its way into your memory for keeps. I can understand some condescension toward “Cats” and “Phantom,” but not toward “Evita.” It is a masterpiece.

The Eva Peron story was, of course, a goldmine waiting to be tapped. Uneducated girl from backwater town becomes girlfriend of General who becomes President with her help. She becomes the star of the Casa Rosada, the darling of the masses, a veritable saint. Then she dies at age 33.

The musical (opera, really) begins with the announcement, in a crowded movie theater, of Evita’s death. The body of the play is then a flashback, tracing the life of Eva Duarte, right to her death and funeral, with weeping crowds mourning “Santa Evita.” The staging was dynamite. The portrayal of Evita (by the likes of Elaine Paige and Patti LuPone) showed the glamorous lady the public adored, while a cynical narrator, Che, balanced the account by pointing out her flaws. The movie, with Madonna in the title role, was excellent. (Who knew?)

But neither play nor movie provided a hint of what happened after Eva Peron died. This was, after all, a play about Evita, not about Juan, who lived 22 eventful years after Eva died. But those 22 years could keep Lloyd-Webber and Rice busy for the rest of their lives, if they were interested in sequels. In fact, there was more dramatic content in the post-Eva years than in the years when she was the toast of B.A., the “Big Apple.”

Here is what Paul Harvey might call “the rest of the story.”

In 1952, three years after Eva’s death, Juan is the victim of a coup and flees to Paraguay, then to Panama. At a party in Panama, he meets a nightclub dancer stage-named Isabel. A month after meeting her, he is living with her, and he takes her to his next stop, Venezuela. (Exiles have to keep moving.) Then, when Venezuela gets too hot, he and Isabel fly to the Dominican Republic, which under Trujillo welcomes dictators on the run. Two years of heaven in the D.R., then, with Trujillo under pressure, it’s off to Spain. Which is where the story gets really interesting.

In Madrid, Juan and Isabel live in an apartment house. (Ava Gardner is a fellow tenant.) Actually, it’s a threesome, because Isabel has fallen under the spell of a man named Jose Lopez Rega. He is a spiritist, a cultist, an astrologer, and an all-round nutcake. But Isabel thinks he’s wonderful. Juan tolerates him, barely.

Now Eva reenters the story: When Juan was deposed in Argentina, the new regime, determined to stamp out all traces of Peronism, caused Eva’s super-embalmed body to “disappear.” Now, after a series of governments have come and gone, powerful people in Buenos Aires send feelers to Juan. Would he consider coming back? First, he says, find Eva’s body and have it shipped to me. They do. The cadaver is dug up from a cemetery in Milan, and it is shipped by truck to Madrid and to Juan’s apartment, where, according to one story, Lopez Rega has Isabel lie atop the coffin while he murmurs incantations designed to transfer Eva’s essence into Isabel’s body.

You think I’m making this all up. I’m not. But wait; there’s more.

Juan eventually returns to Argentina in 1973, after a 17-year exile, where he is appointed President by acclamation. And Isabel is appointed Vice President, also by acclamation! Lopez Rega is also on hand, manipulating Isabel, who manipulates Juan. Juan dies, Isabel succeeds him as President, and Lopez Rega, a certified kook, is suddenly the most powerful man in Argentina.

Now, what do you think Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice could do with that story? Isabelita, anyone?

By now you may be curious to know what happened to Eva’s body. It found its way back to Buenos Aires, eventually, and is today buried deep under the Duarte family monument in Recoletta Cemetery. It is protected by several feet of concrete. I visited the tomb and took the photo you see above, though of course I can’t swear that Eva is really there.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Here Come the Memoirs

George Tenet, the ex-CIA Director famous for calling the Iraq War a “slam dunk,” has just published his memoir, to mostly negative reviews. Thus the parade of memoirists begins. Douglas Feith, one of the principal architects of the war, is readying his War and Decision for publication this fall. Condy Rice has already dropped “when I write my book” into a conversation with a reporter. Paul Wolfowitz, another in the neocon big three (Wolfowitz, Feith, and Perle), just ousted from the World Bank, can be expected to publish his own self-glorifying story. Others will no doubt join the rush to print as soon as the Bush administration is gone and the coast is clear.

Winston Churchill is often quoted as follows: “History will be kind to me. I know, because I will write it.” And indeed he did, turning out what has become the definitive history of World War 2, a dazzling, six-volume work in which generals, admirals, and others are blamed for costly strategic and tactical blunders, while Winston paints himself as the heroic, wise leader who had to deal with their stupidity. In 1942, Japanese soldiers on bicycles rode down the Malay Peninsula to capture Singapore, while the fortress’s big guns were pointed seaward. Does Churchill accept blame for the fall of Singapore? You decide. Here is a letter written by him to General Ismay on 19 January 1942, as quoted in Churchill’s history:

“I must confess to being staggered by Wavell’s telegram of the 16th ….It never occurred to me for a moment……that the gorge of the fortress of Singapore, with its splendid moat half a mile to a mile wide, was not entirely fortified against an attack from the northward.”

Then, after railing about what should have been done and wasn’t done:

“How is it that not one of you pointed this out to me at any time when these matters have been under discussion?” (The Hinge of Fate, p.50)

It was all the fault of incompetent subordinates. That’s the way it is when you write the history.

(One wonders whether George W. Bush, after Iraq became a snake pit, ever wrote to Donald Rumsfeld, “How is it that not one of you pointed this out to me….”)

Similarly, Henry Kissinger, in his monumental memoirs, absolves himself for any responsibility in the overthrow and assassination of Chile’s President Allende, thus:

“I told Davis to keep the American Embassy out of the developing crisis. ….That conversation leaves no doubt of the state of our knowledge and of our intentions immediately before the coup. We were aware…..that the military….were seriously considering the takeover….But we were unaware of any specific plan or date. And we were party to none.” (Years of Upheaval, p. 404)

But a few years earlier there had been another coup attempt, this one engineered by Kissinger but (according to him) aborted at the last minute. Here is what Dr. Kissinger says of that episode:

“To assist such efforts seemed right to me then and seems right to me today. I cannot accept the proposition that the United States is debarred from acting in the gray area between diplomacy and military intervention, a shadow world in which our adversaries have as instruments a political party, their own infinitely greater foreign resources, and innumerable front organizations to mask their role.” (White House Years, p. 677)

Kissinger wants it both ways: His hands were clean in the matter of the successful coup, but justifiably dirty in the matter of the unsuccessful coup. Ah, the advantages of authorship!

That brings us back to George Tenet, who argues that his infamous “slam dunk” quote has been taken out of context. But Tenet is no Churchill, nor even a Kissinger, and others, notably Bob Woodward, have a different version of the scene, and they are more credible.

What will Wolfowitz write? Will he spice up his memoir by including a chapter or two on his relationship with Ms Riza? Probably not, though his publisher will surely lobby for it. Others being courted by publishers include the aforementioned Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz as well as Scooter Libby, Donald Rumsfeld, and the biggest enchilada of them all, Colin Powell. It is not enough that these people and others will dump their self-serving accounts on us; they will be all over the TV channels, with Larry King, Charlie Rose, Chris Matthews, Bill O’Reilly, and their ilk. There will be book signings at Barnes & Noble and reviews in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Some of the reviewers will have their own axes to grind: To review the Tenet book, for instance, the Journal assigned one of its favorite neocons, Douglas Feith.

I’ll bet you just can’t wait.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Tricks of the Trade

As an old hand at speech writing, I have come to know all the tricks. In this silly season leading up to the 2008 elections, they are all on display. You’d think that the masses would have caught on, would be anesthetized by now, so that all the rhetorical sleight of hand wouldn’t fool anyone any more. Maybe that’s true. Maybe the voters have caught on, and the speechwriters don’t get it. More likely, though, there are still enough gullible listeners to make a difference.

To these people, if any of them are reading this, I offer the following field guide to the tricks of the speechifying trade.

The fact of the matter is……

Whenever you hear a speaker begin a sentence this way, it is safe to assume that what comes next will not be fact. It will be an opinion dressed up as a fact, as in “the fact of the matter is that broccoli is delicious.” The same applies to “the truth of the matter is…” Real facts do not need to be introduced in this way; they can stand on their own two feet. Never trust a speaker who starts a sentence with this construction – especially in the context of a discussion on global warming.

I just want a level playing field.

This bromide was worn out in 1932, but it just won’t die. I remember once, when I was debating trade policy with some industry people in Tokyo, I floated the notion of a level playing field. “Are you kidding?” a colleague asked. “If the playing field is level, we’ll get killed. We want the playing field tilted our way.” We were a small group, in a restaurant, where it was safe to be honest. At a conference the next day, he would plead for a level playing field. So today, when you hear the China-bashers talk about forcing the Chinese to strengthen their currency and thus “level the playing field,” don’t believe a word of it.

I just want everybody to pay their fair share.

Leaving aside the bad grammar for the moment, the concept of fairness is completely in the eyes of the beholder. So organizations with names like “Americans for Tax Fairness” should be recognized as lobbyists with a mission to stack the tax code in favor of their members. When you slice the layers of the onion, you will always find that fairness means that people whose income is higher than yours should pay more, and that you should pay less.

All the polls say…

There are so many polls today that a speechwriter can pick the one that best serves his purpose. Some polls try to achieve a measure of credibility by flying under the banner of a major newspaper or network (as in the New York Times/CBS poll or the Wall Street Journal poll). If by some chance the speechwriter can’t find an agreeable poll, there is always “the only poll that counts is the one in November.”

I believe in capitalism, but….

Or “I believe in free markets but…” Or “I believe in the sanctity of the family but…” The hope is that the speaker will disarm the opposition up front by declaring that he or she is on your side, but… It’s a shabby ploy, and when you hear it you must understand that what will follow is a renunciation of what the speaker allegedly believes in.

We are well positioned for the future.

I hauled this one in from my annual report writing years, but a politician might use it to rebut some short-term problem. What it means is that things are absolutely dreadful, so bad in fact that they could hardly get worse. Being positioned for the future is a safe quasi-promise, because the future could be next year, 10 years from now, or the next millennium.

The power of “but”

As we have already seen, the word “but” is the most powerful weapon the speechwriter has. It is especially useful in the windup of a speech, where one can alter the meaning of a sentence by the simple expedient of switching clauses from one side to the other of the word “but.” Consider the following example:

She’s a beautiful girl, but she’s dumb.

She’s dumb, but she’s a beautiful girl.

In both cases, we present two elements of information. The elements are identical in both sentences. But what a world of difference in the take-away thought!!

I’ll share more tricks of the trade in future posts.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Climate Change

There are times, and this is one of them, when it seems that the ship of state is foundering. It was like that in 1968, amid the trauma of the Vietnamese War, when anarchy threatened, and it was like that during the Depression, when riots sometimes required the Army to restore order. This time around, there is no draft, so the Iraq War has not sent the young into the streets as it did in the 60s. That aside, our political discourse is becoming unnervingly overheated. There are calls to impeach the President, as there were in the 70s, and Congressional attempts to choke off war funding, as there were then. The letters to the editor in the New York Times are weighted with vitriolic attacks on the President, and those in the Wall Street Journal contain equally vitriolic attacks from the other direction. On television, Sean Hannity can barely control his right-wing rants, and the left has its share of nutcakes, too, including the editor of Rolling Stone, who, on the Charlie Rose Show the other night, pronounced George Bush “the worst President in the history of this country, by far." Paul Krugman of the Times would no doubt agree, since he manages to slip that thought into just about every column.

In the run-up to the 2008 Presidential election, the attacks will undoubtedly grow more savage. There will be ad hominem (for Hillary, ad feminam) attacks, because they apparently work, and there will be counterattacks (the don’t-make-the-mistake-Kerry-made rule). Most of us will be sick of the TV debates and the robocalls and ads and mailers long before the elections, but there is no way to turn it off. You shouldn’t even think of turning it off, some say, because the functioning of democracy depends on the existence of a well-informed electorate. (Well-informed, yes; OD’d, no.)

There is no place to hide. The other night, I passed up the Republican candidates’ debate in favor of a “Live at Lincoln Center” concert broadcast by PBS. Surely a Lincoln Center concert would offer sanctuary from political diatribes. But no. A performer named Laurie Anderson chanted (rapped would be a better word) a long, heavy-handed polemic that managed to hit all the bases: weapons of mass destruction, detainees, and global warming (Al Gore’s Oscar included). Whatever the validity of Ms. Anderson’s points, the woman clearly had no business sharing a concert stage with the Juilliard Orchestra, Philip Glass, Wynton Marsalis, and Kelly O’Hara.

Recently – and depressingly – Barak Obama has been given Secret Service protection, probably because of threats in the air. A woman reviewing the film “The Assassination of a President” says her chief disappointment was that it was only a movie. Most Americans would regard that sentiment as repulsive, but the climate of hatred is spreading and intensifying, and that’s a dangerous thing. How dangerous? Within my memory, would-be assassins have shot at three presidents and killed one. That’s four out of the last eleven, so the crazies are batting .364.

The message, then, to the President and his staff and Cabinet, members of Congress, presidential candidates, journalists, op-ed writers, television commentators and anchors, talk-show hosts, comedians, rappers, film personalities, bloggers, and everyone else with access to a microphone, camera, or computer can be summed up in a simple, two-word plea:

Cool it!

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Remember The Maine

Katie Couric, on the CBS evening news on April 26, was breathless as she launched her lead story. “Now, in a CBS exclusive,” she announced, “there are new reports suggesting that Iran is only three years away from having a nuclear bomb.”

Thus it begins, the drumbeat for war with Iran, this time not with speeches from the White House or from Paul Wolfowitz, but with hype from the major news agencies, trying to convince us that they are on to Something Big. Have we forgotten that, in early 2003, the same TV networks had the same doomsday message about Iraq? President Bush and the neocons are now generally pilloried for leading us into war under false pretenses, and that’s a valid charge, but they couldn’t have done it without the press – the same press that now leads the posse to lynch Cheney and the other hawks.

In the run-up to the Iraq invasion, I don’t remember the networks warning us that maybe, just maybe, the WMD evidence was rigged by people hell-bent on regime change in Iraq. Instead, we heard the same dire warnings about chemical weapons (“he used them on his own people!”) and aluminum tubes and yellow-cake uranium. It made good copy, and it kept the viewers from changing the channel. You don’t bump your ratings by telling your audience that on a list of threats to the U.S., Iraq ranks just above Uzbekistan.

But what if Iran is really three years away from a nuclear weapon? The fear in some quarters is that this threat could prompt Israel to launch a preemptive attack on Iran - with planes and missiles supplied by the U.S. It could happen. There is so much hatred in the Middle East that an explosion is always possible. In fact, it’s more likely now than ever, and we are smack in the middle of it, because of the horrific carnage we’ve triggered in Iraq and because of our unquestioning support of Israel. There is, in short, more than enough real danger in the world without our news media piling on. It is a time for restraint on the part of the TV anchors and the headline writers. Alas, restraint is not in their toolkit. Ratings and circulation depend on excitement, not restraint, and the most exciting stories are stories of wars waged and wars threatened.

In 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor (either because of a mine or spontaneous combustion; no one knows for sure), triggering a wave of outrage on the pages of the New York tabloids. Artist Frederick Remington was dispatched to Cuba to supply drawings of the scene in a well orchestrated campaign to prepare the public for war against Spain.

“There is no war,” cabled Remington to his boss, William Randolph Hearst. “Request to be recalled.”

“Please remain,” answered Hearst. “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.”

And he did.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The April Storms

Five inches of rain, winds gusting to 50, and astronomical high tides made a mess of this area a week ago. The roads are still covered with fallen branches, the beach has been eroded, and the pumps are going around the clock in the neighbors’ basements. At the storm’s peak, sea water washed across our road at its entrance, changing our little peninsula into an island. The little sand spit on which this house and 20 others sit will probably be gone in 50 years, maybe sooner. Just a few miles north of here, a seacoast community called Cape Ellis, in the City of Saco, typically sees a house or two wiped out with every major storm. This time, three houses were reduced to rubble. At Kennebunk Beach, the seawall was destroyed.

Somewhere I read that half the country’s population lives within 100 miles of the coast. Without question, the sound, sight, and smell of the sea exert a strong pull on most of us, leading many otherwise sane people to build houses on the most precarious sites. It’s true in Florida, in the Carolinas, on Cape Cod. Here, the zoning ordinance mandates that new or modified construction along the beachfront by placed on pylons, so that the tidal surge will pass beneath the house instead of slamming against it. I like the sound of the surf on a summer night, but I’m not sure I would like to hear it underneath me.

Of course, as evidence mounts that global climate change will cause the sea level to rise, people may lose their appetites for oceanfront living, but don’t count on it. This town, like so many others around the country, now has an oversupply of houses for sale. But only a few of them are oceanfront, and their prices are all in seven figures, with no indication yet that the soft real-estate market is forcing the prices down.

So what does the future hold for little seacoast communities like Kennebunkport? Unfortunately, the irrepressible urge to live on the edge (of the sea) will translate into weakening of the zoning laws, the construction of more condos and other multiplexes, and as a result, ever-higher population density. Those who try to retain the Town’s small-town atmosphere will be brushed aside by arguments based on the need for affordable housing. Which is better, the developers will ask, one $10 million mansion or a 40-unit condominium on the same parcel? Politically, that’s a slam-dunk.

So we will enjoy it while we can. We will even enjoy the wild storms, because if the contest is between nature and Mammon, most of us are pulling for nature.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Untouchables

Richard Perle gazed off into the distance, looking as profound as the seated Abraham Lincoln in the background. The message wrought by the image was clear: Sometimes a true statesman has to do things that are unpopular and difficult in the greater interest of the Republic. Like invading a sovereign country on questionable grounds. Like taking the heat when things go wrong. “You,” said a woman on the capitol mall, looking Perle in the eye, “are a weapon of mass destruction.”

The scenes were from the excellent PBS documentary, “America at a Crossroads.” The horrific pictures of carnage in other episodes had to be balanced, the producers felt, by an hour given to “the case for war.” So Perle was out front; give him that. He could have begged off, staying in the shadows like his neocon ally Douglas Feith. But there he was, squaring off with Pat Buchanan, who called the Iraq invasion “the greatest foreign policy blunder in U.S. history” and with Richard Holbrook and other foreign policy gurus, most of them severely critical of the war. The most articulate and persuasive of these was Simon Jenkins, an ex-editor of the London Times, who reminded Perle that the Soviet Union, with 300,000 troops, was unable to pacify Afghanistan. That was different, said Perle, because the Afghans didn’t like the Soviets. Oh.

Later, interviewed by Charlie Rose, Perle waved off his role as the architect of the Iraq War. Yes, he had long advocated regime change in Iraq, he said, but if he had been running things, the U.S. would have turned everything over to the Iraqis the day after Saddam was ousted. “Did you argue that position at the time?” asked Rose. Perle said he had, forcefully. At that point, one imagines, Rumsfeld, Rice, Bremer, Franks, and Powell all started throwing things at their TV sets.

Perle, like President Bush, insists that victory is attainable in Iraq. He now wants regime change in Iran just as ardently as he wanted it in Iraq, though he says he is not advocating sending the marines into Iran. (Here Charlie Rose did not ask the obvious follow-up: Why not? If a pseudo threat like Iraq justified sending in the marines, shouldn’t a real threat like Iran justify an invasion? Has Perle, despite his bravado, learned a lesson?)

Being a neocon means never having to say you’re sorry. Richard Perle sees himself as the essential patriot, with no patience for those who want to cut and run with the first casualties. He claims moral kinship with Abraham Lincoln and especially with Ronald Reagan. He is sure that he was and is right. Even if not a single other country on the face of the earth agreed with us, he says, it was right to invade Iraq.

The big three neocon hawks – Wolfowitz, Perle, and Feith – are no longer in the offices they occupied when they pressed for war. Paul Wolfowitz, for his role in rationalizing the invasion, was rewarded with the presidency of the World Bank, where he is dogged by his reputation and by ethical missteps involving his girlfriend. Wolfowitz has apologized for botching the girlfriend matter, but to those who attack him for the baggage he carries, he says, “That was my old job. I’m not in my old job anymore.” But some observers, noting that the World Bank stopped funding Uzbekistan soon after that country closed a U.S. airbase in its territory, wonder whether he ever left his old job.

Wolfowitz, Perle, and Feith are all survivors. The pro-war movement is strong in this country. The President will defend them, no matter what. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page idolizes them. All three are passionate advocates for Israel, and that brings more political clout. Someday they will retire comfortably and write memoirs, swapping dust-jacket blurbs with each other.

Meanwhile, they buzz around the world, meeting kings and emirs and presidents and doing their best to intimidate them, because, as Perle says, “there’s got to be some advantage in being a superpower.” The advantage includes money, which follows power. Perle was an investor in a venture capital group (Trireme Partners) specializing in defense investments, a consultant to Global Crossing, a Director of Hollinger International. Controversies swirled around all these connections, but no one laid a glove on Perle. He, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith are essentially untouchable men.

Historians 20 or 30 years from now will render their verdicts on the influence of the neocons on the course of human events. If their vision of a mid-east swept by democracy, free markets, and human rights comes to pass, they will be properly credited (along with President Bush, of course) with lighting the spark. If it does not, they will have left in their wake hundreds of thousands of wasted lives and incalculable damage to the country they served.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


August 17, 1924: An 18-year-old girl named Mary disembarked the White Star steamship Celtic in Boston. She had boarded the ship seven days earlier at Queenstown, the port for Cork, Ireland, after riding in a horse-drawn wagon from her parent’s home in Callan, in the county of Kilkenny. On the trans-Atlantic crossing, Mary shared a second-class cabin with two Irish girls en route to a novitiate in the States. Her father had died when Mary was only six days old, and a few years later her mother had remarried, and in time the new couple had three children of their own – along with the stepchild Mary, who, it was decided, would emigrate to Boston, where an aunt and uncle would see her safely settled.

Mary, who was my mother, never saw her mother or stepfather again. One of her half-sisters followed her to Boston five years later, only to drown in a Vermont lake at age 21. She was my godmother.

It’s a familiar story, told with only slight variations by thousands of first-generation Americans. In the stories I have heard, the emigrants rarely came as a family unit. More often, there was a solo crossing, like Mary’s, or a husband came as an advance party of one and then, once he had a job, sent for the rest of his family. They came from across Europe. In the neighborhood where I grew up there were Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants, Russian immigrants, and German immigrants. The members of each ethnic group clung together for security and solidarity, and it would take another generation before there was any melting in the pot. Mothers would admonish their young to “stick to your own kind,” but it was ultimately a futile warning, because this was America.

The American experience leads many to wonder why the Shia and the Sunnis can’t learn to get along. But the situations are starkly different. The Irish who lived in Dorchester did not have a centuries-old hatred of the Italians who lived in East Boston. In time the various immigrant groups were assimilated into an embryonic American culture, as were the Poles and the Russians and Swedes. Into what culture do we expect the Shia and Sunnis and Kurds to be assimilated?

Decades after stepping off the S.S. Celtic in Boston, Mary returned to Europe several times, warmly embracing her half-brother and the children of her other half-sister. For 50 years she wrote regularly to the family she left behind, and our old coats and jackets were routinely packed in cartons and shipped to Kilkenny, where they were gratefully received. This, of course, was in the 40s and 50s, long before Ireland became the star of the European Economic Community. These days, the Irish are doing quite nicely, thank you. There are still waves of immigration, but nowadays they are always inbound.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Great Buying Opportunity

They come in legions, the analysts and the money managers. The CNBC anchors ask them what they think of the day’s 100-point drop in the Dow, and one by one they say that after the recent run-up a retrenchment is not only to be expected but healthy. They say that with so many new jobs being created the country can’t possibly slip into recession. They say you shouldn’t worry about the subprime mortgage problem, because that’s only a tiny sliver of the economy. They say that the stock-market correction is a buying opportunity, and then they tell you which stocks to buy.

Does anyone believe these guys? Does anyone wonder why, of all the guest experts paraded in front of the cameras, not a single one of them says, “Stay out of the stock market, put your money in the bank or in Treasuries or in your mattress, but don’t put it into stocks”? There are times, and this may be one of them, when this is the very best advice you can get, but CNBC is not in the business of scaring viewers out of the stock market, because for a business TV channel that would be suicidal. So today’s buying opportunity becomes tomorrow’s bigger buying opportunity.

Here are some inconvenient truths you will not hear out of the mouths of CNBC commentators:

New subprime loans reached more than $600 billion last year, almost 20% of the total mortgage market (vs 6% in 2000).

House prices would have to fall 22% to get back in sync with consumer price inflation.

85% of all subprime mortgages are of the adjustable-rate variety, and 60% of these have fixed teaser rates for two years and then float upward for 28 years.

The average teaser rate for subprime mortgages was 7.5% in 2005. On the average, that rate will reset to 10% this year.

In the category just above subprime (Alt-A), $400 billion in mortgages were written last year, up from $85 billion in 2003. The default rate on these mortgages has doubled in the last 14 months.

Last year, 47% of total mortgage loans featured buyer inducements (adjustable rate, interest-only, “no-documentation,” etc). That figure was 2% in 2000.

Loans as a percent of property value averaged 94% in 2006.

(I am indebted to economist and friend Gary Shilling for these statistics.)

Mortgage debt, credit card debt, margin debt (a record $321 billion), car loans, student loans – and that’s just the private debt. We will not mention the public debt, because this is a family blog.

Our economy in fact rests on a mountain of debt, or maybe a row of dominoes is the better metaphor. People squeezed by mortgage resets are likely to default on car loans and max out their credit card debt. Watching the dominoes are the politicians, who have already begun to display “righteous anger” at everyone – bankers, Wall Street, fund managers, brokers – everyone, that is, except the individuals who were gullible enough or greedy enough to grab the money and join the rush to the real-estate casino.

Underlying our economic system is the principle that a loan is a contract whose sanctity will be defended by the law. There are cracks in that foundation. Increasingly, borrowers who default are treated, not as deadbeats, but as victims. Ohio is planning to sell a $100 million bond issue to bail out troubled mortgagees, and several other states are drafting similar measures. Congress, with Senator Schumer leading the charge, is making similar noises. The next entitlement may be universal debt forgiveness.

Although our economy is obviously very vulnerable, most stock-market professionals remain complacent. In fact, the majority remains steadfastly bullish. There must be a code of honor here, sort of a “you tout my stocks, I’ll tout yours” understanding. Maybe I’m a cynic, but whenever I hear a stock-market guru telling me to buy a certain stock, something inside me says that if I do, I’ll be buying shares that he (or his wife or his brother-in-law) is selling.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Candidates

When I started this blog, I said that it would steer clear of politics, and so it has, for the most part. But it is a constraint that as of now is inoperative. Too many important matters cannot be discussed without reference to their political context, so off with the shackles, and into the fray.

We plunge in with a look at the politicians who have announced their candidacy for the presidency. At this point in the cycle, each major party usually has a clear front-runner. That is not so this time around, so let the games begin.

Senator Hillary Clinton. Solid experience in the senate, plus the knowledge that comes from being the president’s wife for eight years, plus a ton of money, plus the highest name recognition in the field. She is also one very brainy lady, and she is attractive. With all that, how can she lose? She can, because she has been typed for too long as a steamroller, and a media-savvy public resents being programmed. Also, because of…..

Barack Obama. In the age before television, Obama would have come and gone in a news cycle. But he looks good on TV and is loquacious and smart, and he has enough money to carry his smile and his words to all our living rooms, month after month. He has two handicaps: his inexperience and his race. He could overcome either of these, but probably not both. But his day will come, possibly in 2012.

John McCain. It is probably foolish to count anyone out 19 months before the election, but I am counting John McCain out. His hawkish pronouncements on Iraq sealed his fate. Also, he is just too serious by nature. Serious should be good in a president, but in a candidate it can be tiresome.

John Edwards. Used goods, though he was not atop the ticket in 2004. His populist message (“two Americas”) plays well to the Democratic base, but not to the country at large. “Americans,” The Economist once observed, “aspire up and resent down.”

Mitt Romney. The recent record of presidential candidates from Massachusetts is not encouraging. Dukakis and Kerry were both liberal Democrats, and Romney is a Republican, but still….. He has a war chest and is considered by many to have a presidential bearing, but that’s not enough. If it were all about being handsome, it would be Edwards vs Romney, but most people want a face with character, like that of…

Rudy Giuliani. Until and unless Fred Thompson enters the race, Rudy is the most adept TV personality in the field. In fact, he sparkles, as he recently did on Larry Kudlow’s show on CNBC. They say he will have a problem with social conservatives, but he is the Republicans’ Obama: street-smart, good-looking, and refreshingly unscripted. He is the one to watch.

Fred Thompson. With practically zero exposure as a presidential candidate, Thompson recently polled 6 percent. That may sound small, but to get 6 percent before spending one thin dime is impressive. He has a “just folks” demeanor that is well honed from his roles as an actor, and he could be a sleeper. An actor as president? It can happen.

Then there are the supernumeraries, the ones who will fill up the stages at the debates: Biden, Dodd, Richardson, etc. Finally, there a few long-shots, who haven’t declared but who could decide to make waves at any time. Jeb Bush or Colin Powell, say.

Flash back to the Republican National Convention in June, 1920. A heat wave had settled in, and the temperature inside the Chicago Coliseum ranged from 90 to 100 all week. On the first ballot, called on Tuesday, there were two front-runners, with the favorite counting 249 delegates. Finishing a dismal sixth, with 58 delegates, was Warren Harding. By the fourth ballot, the leader’s count had climbed to 314, and Harding’s had dropped to 54. By Saturday, eight ballots had failed to yield a winner. The heat was unbearable, and the delegates had used up their supplies of clean white shirts. There was a deadlock among the top contenders, and in desperation the back-room bosses turned to what one of them later called “the best of the second-raters.” Thus, on the tenth ballot Warren Harding became the Republican candidate for President. (He won the general election in a landslide.)

Will 2008 be another year when a dark-horse candidate comes out of nowhere to steal the prize at a deadlocked convention? Probably not; the convention centers these days are all air-conditioned. Still, it’s an intriguing thought.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Inventors

When one counts the people who have the greatest influence on the quality of our lives today, two men stand atop my list: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. No political leader even comes close. You can say the same about Thomas Edison and the trio of scientists – Shockley, Brattain and Bardeen - who invented the transistor in 1947. Without semiconductors, of course, neither Gates not Jobs could have launched their revolutions. In science, giants always stand on the shoulders of earlier giants.

Parents who struggle to ante up today’s obscenely high college tuitions might mark the fact that Gates and Jobs were both college dropouts – Gates from Harvard, Jobs from Reed. It would be foolish to conclude from that fact that a college education is a waste of money, but there was something in the DNA of these two legendary inventors that would have flourished with or without the college experience. In fact, it is possible that, had either man spent more time in the classroom, he might have missed the moment and the inspiration.

A college education is essential for a doctor or a lawyer, but it is not essential for an inventor. Thomas Edison, the greatest among those earlier giants, lacked even a high school education, let alone college. Edison considered that his education was his own responsibility, not that of his parents or the government, so he read incessantly. Of course, people like Edison, Gates, and Jobs are rare, and most of us need a little help.

The country and the world desperately need people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. We need such people more than we need any of the wannabe presidents who fill our TV screens these days. (Come to think of it, a President Gates or a President Jobs might not be the worst thing that could happen to this country.) Inventors can transform our lives in ways we can’t even imagine, and almost always for the better.

We also need people who can recognize genius when they see it. In late 1979, I had dinner at the Oyster Bar in New York with a securities analyst. In those days, securities analysts were expected to analyze companies, not just deliver sound bites on CNBC, and to write long, detailed reports on their subjects. This analyst was one of the best in the business, and at the moment he was filled with enthusiasm for his latest discovery: a personal computer armed with a spreadsheet program called VisiCalc. He fairly bubbled over as he described the power of the spreadsheet to me and my daughter Lucy, a CPA. It was clear that the analyst was on to something big, but we couldn’t see how big or where it would lead. He saw, because analyzing was what he did, and in time that analyst, whose name was Ben Rosen, would parlay his analytical ability into a position atop the computer industry, as Chairman of Compaq. I have to believe that his impressive writing ability helped, too.

We don’t make enough of our great inventors. Yes, the best of them make a lot of money, but their wealth seems to attract resentment as much as it does admiration. I don’t begrudge Gates or Jobs one dollar of their fortunes, which are insignificant compared with the total economic prosperity their inventions have generated. Consider a world without personal computers, word processors, spreadsheets, and data processing. I don’t think we could afford it.

And, most amazingly, both Gates and Jobs are still working hard to bring us all even more technical advances. It can’t be the money; it must be love of the process. Or noblesse oblige: Once you have been designated a wünderkind, it would be almost churlish to pack it in and retire to St. Bart’s. Whatever the reason, we are all lucky to have them thinking up new wonders for us.

So say I, as I type this with the aid of Microsoft Word on my Macintosh computer. Thanks, Bill. Thanks Steve.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Spring at Last

It's spring, and it’s safe to come out now. There are still a few wisps of snow here and there on the ground, but one good rain and it will be gone. There are birds in profusion and a few squirrels scurry about, but so far no flower or shrub has dared to bloom, a good thing, because it was well below freezing last night.

The other day I saw a flock of confused geese flying south, down the coast. Do they know something we don’t? Has the climate in Labrador become suddenly hostile? Does Al Gore know about this?

One of these days I will take my bike off its hook in the garage, fill the tires with air, squirt some oil on the axles, don the yellow helmet my safety-minded daughter gave me, and pedal down the dirt road to the paved street and along the beachfront. For a month or two this will be the ideal exercise, then the paved street will be jammed with cars that leave little room for cyclists, and the bike rides will be chancy, helmet or not.

The snowbirds will come back, and we will be glad to see them. The same can’t be said of the evil seagull, which I swear I saw the other day. As recounted in “The Seagull Wars,” this monster destroyed two screen sliders and otherwise terrorized this house last summer. Now, it appears, he’s ba-ack, and the war goes on – endlessly, it appears, just like Iraq.

The wind is up most of the time, cold from the north, and the seas are choppy. Peak gusts have topped 40 mph on many days lately – strong enough to send trash barrels rolling down the road and ripping the globe from one of the patio lights along our driveway. The beach is still deserted and a joy to walk, but a good jacket is a must, no matter what the thermometer says.

The sky has been a spectacular blue in recent days, with not a trace of a cloud from horizon to horizon, another byproduct of those stiff winds. That pristine sky is shown on the cover of my book, “Searching for Joan Leslie’ (available at, and it looks like computer-generated trickery, but no, that’s the sky as it was when my son snapped the picture. All he had to do was add the copy.

In the early evening that bright beacon in the western sky is Venus. It doesn’t hang around very long, but it’s a dazzler. I wonder if the Venusians can look up at their night sky and see Earth, 67 million miles away. Probably not; I read somewhere that it is always cloudy on Venus.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Tipping Point

By now you must know that half of all income taxes are paid by 5 percent of all taxpayers. No one seems very agitated about this, especially these days when income inequality is such a hot topic along the campaign trail.

Should we be concerned about the top-loading of our income-tax distribution? We should, but not out of pity for all those investment bankers with their huge bonuses. The real problem lies at the other end of the scale. We should be uneasy about the threat to our democratic system presented by the fact that a large and increasing percentage of all voters pay little or no income taxes.

Throughout the last two decades, Congress – Democrats and Republicans alike – has steadily raised the no-tax threshold, excusing more and more voters from paying the cost of running their government. We are now closing in on the tipping point – the point where 51 percent of all voters pay little or no income taxes.

The implications are ominous: Once a majority of voters have no personal stake in the cost of their government, self-interest will lead them to elect representatives who will increase entitlements without limit. That’s where the system goes ballistic, needing more and more tax revenues – always to be paid by someone else – to support more and more services. If the majority could put the whole load on Bill Gates, they would, but that wouldn’t work, so taxes on the minority will have to rise. And rise.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. But a century of income taxes, the graduated kind, has inevitably brought us here. Candidates demagogue the issue, pushing for more “progressive” taxes, in effect promising more voters a free ride. The latest variation on the theme is to promise to rejigger the tax laws to bring relief to the middle class, which is usually undefined but assumed to be wherever the votes are. (One remembers Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill setting the upper boundary of the middle class at an income level of $50,000 a year, a mindset that led Congress to impose the Alternative Minimum Tax.)

We are on a slippery slope. It may be too late to head off the threat to our democracy that our lopsided tax distribution system poses. Our only hope is that a card-carrying liberal Democratic president comes out strongly in favor of a flat tax. Only he (or she) could make it happen.

Don’t hold your breath.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Literary Gourmand

I am inept in the kitchen, but I am married to a very ept lady, who cooks wonderful things. The latest wonderful thing is crab bisque, inspired by a dish we ate in a Sanibel restaurant in January. For some reason, the restaurants around here do not serve crab bisque, though there is lobster bisque aplenty and there is always clam chowder, which can range from watery to gummy. You will also find crab cakes on some menus, as well as crabmeat salads. But no crab bisque. So it was time for Jill to do her thing.

It started with a trip to the Food Network web site, which yielded an easy-looking recipe for something called Crabby Bisque, but it ended, as usual, with a variation on the theme. I do not exaggerate when I say that the final product gave new meaning to the term “to die for.” You may have found a useful tip or two if you’ve been reading this blog regularly, but what I am going to tell you now is the most valuable information you are likely to read this year.

Here’s what you will need:

2 15-oz cans of condensed lobster bisque, available at the supermarket under the Gordon’s Naturally Chesapeake label. (Now you see that we are dealing with crab/lobster bisque here.)

1 pint of heavy cream

1 lemon’s worth of lemon juice (squeeze a lemon; don’t buy juice)

2 dashes of tabasco

1 tablespoon of chopped fresh parsley

2 6-oz containers of fresh crabmeat (save a small amount for garnish)

Put the works into a blender, about 1-1/2 to 2 cups at a time, and blend away.

Heat, but do not boil. Serve with crabmeat garnish

That’s it. You will bless me for sharing this gem with you, and you will wonder how anything so simple can be so delicious.