Monday, December 21, 2009

Cinderella Squared

Back in the 30s, a popular radio show called The Major Bowes Amateur Hour lifted a lot of entertainers from obscurity to fame. Among the shooting stars were opera singers Lili Pons and Beverly Sills, comedian Jack Carter, pop singer Teresa Brewer, and a young singer named Frank Sinatra. The Major Bowes show was enormously popular, because the public always had an insatiable appetite for Cinderella stories. It was even better when they could help choose Cinderella (“call Murray Hill 8-9933”).

Major Bowes died in 1946, and one of his assistants, Ted Mack, carried on the tradition and brought it to television. Ted Mack’s show was also a big hit, proving that it was the concept, and not the moderator or the talent, that registered with the public.

That brings us to the “Idol” series, American and British, that so many viewers are hooked on, and its latest mega-star, Susan Boyle. This middle-aged Scotswoman was launched, as if you didn’t know, by her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Miss Saigon. It was a good, but not a great performance, musically speaking. But the whole package was a blockbuster, the kind of thing that PR people dream about.

The package, you see, includes the fact that Susan is a rather plain-looking woman, the kind you might find next to you in the checkout line at Wal-Mart (if not doing the checking out). One doesn’t expect to find that kind of voice in that kind of package. So you have Cinderella squared. Be honest, now: If Susan Boyle looked like, say, Nicole Kidman, would you be that excited about the fact that she sings well? (As a matter of fact, Nicole sings in the forthcoming film musical Nine, and it is a safe bet that as a singer she is no Susan Boyle.)

Susan, admirable though she is, is not a trained singer of theatrical songs like “I Dreamed a Dream.” Lea Salonga, who introduced the song in Miss Saigon, is a professional, with both the voice and the emotional range required for such a dramatic song. The same might be said of Bernadette Peters, Sarah Brightman, Elaine Paige, and Audra McDonald – but not Susan Boyle. I know that millions of records say that I am wrong, but that’s my story and I am sticking with it.

But, of the several songs I have heard Susan sing, one stands out as perfect for her: “Cry Me a River,” a torchy blues song that she absolutely nails. If I were her manager I would be scouring the music files looking for other torch songs for Susan. She can handle them vocally, and she is a believable victim.

Major Bowes would love her.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Tides in the Affairs of Men

When I was in college, I dated a girl who was a free spirit, the kind you find in tales of Celtic fairies who live in places like Brigadoon and Glocca Morra. She would dance barefoot on the green in her home town and start singing "Honey Bun" while walking along the street (it was the season of South Pacific), and this, of course, added to her appeal. After graduation she took a job teaching in Texas, and I lost track of her for a few years. Then a mutual friend told me she was in New York, a sometimes actress. Since I went to New York often at the time, I called her and asked if she’d like to have dinner. Yes, she would very much like to have dinner.

The free spirit was still there, but now she had become serious about it. She was, some religious authority had convinced her, a true mystic with vast metaphysical powers, which waxed and waned with the positions of the stars and planets.

At first I thought she was pulling my leg. But as we talked on during dinner, it was clear that we occupied different planets.

“You don’t really believe in astrology, do you?” I asked.

“Yes. And it’s pretty obvious you don’t,” she said.

“No, not a bit of it.”

“Look, do you believe that the position of the moon is responsible for pulling whole oceans of water around?”

“Yes,” I said.

“But if the moon can do all that, then why can’t the positions of the planets affect the fluids in your body – in millions of bodies, for that matter?”

The rest of the conversation was centered on her acting career, such as it was. She had brought along a scrapbook, which told of her parts in a few off-off-off Broadway plays. But our evening effectively ended with her moon-talk. I cabbed her back to the Barbizon for Women, and promised to keep in touch. I still remember how, in my bed that night, I couldn’t sleep, thinking of billions of tons of water being sloshed around by one little moon, so far away.

I never saw her again, and I heard that she died a few years ago. But I have never forgotten her earnest profession of faith in the power of planetary alignment to influence human behavior. I think of it often, now that I have a front-row seat to the comings and goings of the Atlantic. It seems preposterous that the moon can move enough water to change the depth of the ocean by 10 feet every six hours, but it does.

It seems that mankind goes berserk at certain times in history. The American Revolution and the French Revolution occurred at roughly the same time, though there is no causal connection. In our own time, there were public upheavals here and in Europe in 1968. Younger readers may not remember it, but take my word for it, 1968 was a nasty time, when the fabric of society was badly torn.

Today’s news tells of a horrific bombing in Iraq, student riots
in Iran, bombings in Pakistan, a military coup in Honduras, a war without end in Afghanistan, the bombing of a Moscow - St. Petersburg train, the Philippine Army at war with thugs empowered by the Philippine government, anarchy in Somalia, genocide in Sudan. Some of these events are connected, most not. The world seems to be lurching out of control, and it is a much smaller world than ever, a world charted by Google maps, spanned by Skype, and circumnavigated by hundreds of satellites, all looking down at every one of us.

And it is a world influenced by forces not yet understood. Tides in the affairs of men, Shakespeare calls them.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

That's Entertainment?

The Times tells us that a new Kander-Ebb musical is in the works. Ordinarily this would be a cause for celebration, and not just because Fred Ebb died a couple of years ago and anything in his trunk is worth preserving. This will be the second Fred Ebb musical to be staged posthumously, the first being Curtains, a clever play-in-a-play having to do with a stage-struck police detective called in to investigate a murder committed during a musical’s Boston tryout run. John Kander’s music was, as usual, very good, and the Ebb lyrics stylish. I didn’t see the show, but I have listened to the CD often enough to remain convinced that Kander and Ebb belong right up there with the other great collaborators of Broadway’s Golden Age.

Sharp-eyed readers will have noted the “ordinarily” in the second sentence, a word that suggests that a celebration may not be in order. You see, the new Kander and Ebb show is called The Scottsboro Boys, after the defendants in a gang-rape trial that took place in Alabama in 1931. Let us pause a second to recognize that Kander and Ebb’s two blockbuster hits, Chicago and Cabaret, dealt with offbeat subjects, though in a definitely musical-comedy format. And let us acknowledge that great musicals like Les Miz and Miss Saigon can deal artistically with profound subjects. Ragtime dealt squarely with racial tensions, and No Strings and Kwamina had black-white romances. Still – a musical with gang rape at its core?

You may offer Sweeney Todd as a successful (sort of) example of depravity glorified, but Sondheim deserves to be placed in his own category. Sondheim plays are unhappy plays, maybe because Sondheim thinks that life is unhappy, and he is simply being true to life. Even when the composer gives us a good, look-on-the-bright-side song, it is presented as pastiche (see Follies). But the real Sondheim comes through in his Assassins, which invites us to listen to Lee Harvey Oswald and other assassins explain themselves. Sondheim is an enigma. The man was “adopted” as a youth by Oscar Hammerstein, whose musicals are filled to the brim with hope (walk on, walk on), June bustin’ out all over, a hundred and one pounds of fun, and a hundred million miracles – none of which seems to have influenced young Stevie.

Forget all that, some people say. Hammerstein was a realist, who wrote about miscegenation (Showboat), racial prejudice (South Pacific), and other themes that were ground-breaking in their day. Granted. But Hammerstein the ground-breaker was a man not capable of writing a Sweeney Todd. Hammerstein had exquisite taste, which his protégé lacks. One guesses that Sondheim would throw up at the mere mention of taste.

The problem I have with the whole ground-breaking theology is that it treats what came before as too silly for words. We hear, endlessly, that no show before Oklahoma! ever began with a lone cowboy on a stage, singing about a beautiful morning. Before that, we are told, musicals began with (if you can believe it) a chorus line of beautiful girls. And the plots were not credible. The shows of the 30s, shows like Anything Goes and Girl Crazy and The Boys From Syracuse, had one thing on their producers’ minds – entertaining the audiences. How lowbrow can you get?

Look, I loved Les Miz and Evita. But I also loved 42d Street and Do Re Mi and Little Me and She Loves Me, none of which had a message but all of which gave their audiences a wonderful two and a half hours.

One of my favorite movies is Preston Sturgis’s Sullivan’s Travels. In it Sullivan is a successful Hollywood director of slapstick comedies who now wants to move beyond all that to direct an Important Film, which will be called O Brother Where Art Thou? So he takes off on an odyssey to sample the life of the oppressed masses, about which he will then write. But on his voyage he discovers that the best thing he can do for the masses is to keep making the kind of silly movies that make people laugh.

“There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh in this cockamamie world,” Sullivan says at the end. And, I might add, for musicals that lift your heart and set your toes tapping - and that leave the messages for Western Union and gang rape for Fox News.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

2000 Acres of Sky

The British are the masters of the miniseries. The Americans may be the masters of musical theater and fast food, but when it comes to miniseries we aren’t even close. The Masterpiece Theater franchise alone gives them the cup, but then there are also the likes of Brideshead Revisited and Monarch of the Glen and Traffik and Ballykissangel and countless others. The British seem to have an unlimited supply of good writers (many of them long dead) and an unlimited supply of (live) leading men, leading women, and character actors, all of whom seem to have flawless diction and experience with the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Old Vic.

Every viewer seems to have his or her favorite in the miniseries treasure chest. One believes there will never be another Upstairs, Downstairs, another prefers Tinker,Tailor, while a third votes for Foyle’s War. My own favorites are all the aforementioned, plus one newcomer, whose praises I now wish to sing.

The series is called 2000 Acres of Sky, and if this produces a sea of blank stares it is not surprising. The series, produced in Scotland, has never made it across the Atlantic. Never, in any form. No DVD formatted for U.S. television, no Netflix, no PBS airing. That’s a crime, because this is one compelling drama, with intelligent writing and some of the most fascinating characters and plot turns you’ll ever see, all played against that awesome Hebridean scenery.

Here’s the situation that launches the series: On the fictional island of Ronansay (near Skye) the small community faces a crisis, as the school population has dropped to three – two fewer than the minimum required by the Scottish school authority. If the school closes, as seems likely, the three remaining students face a long ferry ride to and from Skye. Worse, their parents will probably leave the island, driving one more stake into the heart of the island as it fights for survival.

The solution, Ronansay’s people decide, lies in attracting a family with at least two children. What the island can offer the family is an abandoned B&B and help in making a livelihood on an island that is quite beautiful and attracts a fair number of tourists. So they run an ad in the British papers.

To Abby Wallace, a mother of two small children, living in noisy, crime-ridden East London, the ad’s prospect of a Better Life for her and her children seems irresistible. The catch: Abby’s husband abandoned her and her children years before. The ad says Ronansay is looking for a married couple with children, and Abby is a single Mom. But living down the corridor in the tenement is Kenny, a buddy of Abby’s – nothing more – whose ambition, to the extent he has any, is to be a rock star. Kenny will never make it, because he doesn’t have the talent, but he is a close enough pal (who loves to tell Abby’s children outrageous bedtime stories) so that Abby asks him to join her in answering the ad (and sending a staged photo of “the family”).

What happens if Ronansay chooses them from all the applicants? We can sort that out later, says Abby, implying that once the children are installed in the school, Kenny can safely return to London and his gigs.

The starting premise is obviously promising, and before long we meet and come to know the characters that make life on Ronansay miniseries-worthy. But it is the development of the character Kenny that makes this series so worth watching. Writer Timothy Prager (who wrote 21 out of the 22 episodes) transforms Kenny the born loser, with his freaky face and crucifix earring, into Kenny the magnetic centerpiece of the drama. Kenny, played to perfection by Paul Kaye, is forever wondering what his purpose in life is, and we wonder too, while we become captivated by his essential goodness. To tell you more would be unforgivable.

The series played in the U.K from 2001 through 2003, and it won its share of critical praise and awards. Its failure (so far) to find an American outlet may have something to do with those Scottish accents, though captions are available. (Monarch of the Glen was also filmed in Scotland, but most of its principal actors spoke BBC English.)

You could write a book about the cultural differences that assign most British miniseries to PBS, while commercial TV gives us The Sopranos and Desperate Housewives. De gustibus, non est disputandum.

P.S. You can buy Region 2 DVDs of this series from dealers in the UK, and you can play these on “multi-region” DVD players. (Ask at the store.)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Talk is Cheap

Before television (BT), you had to have talent to command the public’s attention. And you had to work for years to develop that talent. Comedians like Jack Benny, George Burns, and Bob Hope, singers like Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, and Jimmy Durante, dancers like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Eleanor Powell had to spend a long apprenticeship practicing their craft, sharpening their timing, learning how to play to an audience.

Then came television, and a new kind of “talent” appeared: For want of a better word, we’ll call it personality. People with no discernible talent in the traditional sense sought to make it by talking to an audience. In the earliest days of television, when the networks were desperate for something to fill time, there was a late-night show called “Broadway Open House,” with a comedian, sort of, named Jerry Lester. Steve Allen (who actually had talent), Dave Garroway, and Jack Paar followed, building a following, not by singing or dancing or playing an instrument, but by talking. Arthur Godfrey was cut from the same cloth, and of course Ed Sullivan was the embodiment of the no-talent star. He had less talent than your third-grade teacher or your plumber, but he became a sensation simply by attracting and introducing talented people like the Beatles.

Years before television, a talker named Will Rogers was immensely popular for his humor and, yes, personality. Rogers had a talent – rope-twirling – but that was beside the point, and he was the first to prove that one could parlay wit and political commentary into national fame and fortune. But Rogers was a one-off phenomenon in the BT era. All the others needed to be able to do something to achieve stardom.

Johnny Carson occupies a special category: the talented comedian who channels that talent into a late-night variety show, in which a singer or comedian or pianist performs, then sits and banters with the host. No one could do that like Carson.

Another special category is reserved for Oprah Winfrey. I shouldn’t even comment on Oprah, since hers is not a prime-time program, and since I haven’t watched her enough to comment intelligently. But if she has any performing talent I’m unaware of it. She obviously connects with her audience, as Arthur Godfrey connected with his audience.

That brings us to Jay Leno and David Letterman, each of whom has a skosh more talent than Ed Sullivan but not enough for you to notice. NBC has just moved Leno to the 10 PM slot to revolutionize evening television, they say, but in fact to save money. Talk is cheap. A talker like Leno costs a fraction of the money it takes to produce a drama, with all those actors, writers, cameramen, special effects, etc. No one really expects viewers’ habits to change much, except that more people may decide to see what’s on PBS or the cable channels at 10 o’clock. More likely, they’ll log onto the internet.

Letterman, once he finishes his opening monologue (that others write for him) is no Will Rogers. He is not even a Jack Paar and he is not remotely a Johnny Carson. He is in the news today for his admitted dalliance with female subordinates, but whatever credit he claimed for “fessing up” was wiped out when he used his embarrassment as the basis of a one-liner. No talent, no class.

But the fade-out of late-night talk was bound to happen, just as the decline of newspapers and magazines had to happen. A digital earthquake has hit the media world, and the aftershocks keep coming. I keep getting magazines even though my subscriptions expired long ago, and the publishers try to lure me back with $10 “special” subscription rates. I don’t bite.

When Leno and Letterman are gone (which, happily, may be soon), it would be nice if television rediscovered the value of talent. The kind of talent you used to see on The Bell Telephone Hour, Your Show of Shows, The Jackie Gleason Show, and The Carol Burnett Show. A show like any of those would cost money, but I’ll bet it would wipe out the prime-time competition. If I’m wrong – if most people would rather watch Jay Leno or “Reality TV” or American Idol, then our collective taste has sunk so far that it is beyond salvation.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

September Song

The summer is almost gone now. The sun's arc is a little lower, and a few formations of geese are winging south, ahead of the crowd. The beach isn’t as crowded, possibly because the temperature has been in the 60s lately. But the cool weather heralds what are in fact the most beautiful months of all in Maine, glorious September and October, when the sky is a bright, clear blue, and reds and yellows light up the maples and the birches. Tonight the weatherman is talking about frost warnings; the gardening season is short in Maine.

“Oh it’s a long, long while
From May to December
But the days grow short
When you reach September”

So wrote Maxwell Anderson in 1938, for a Kurt Weill melody. The song has been recorded by dozens of pop singers, from Frank Sinatra to Jimmy Durante, usually as a lament sung in the twilight of one’s life. I am old enough to appreciate the metaphor, but I am also hopeful enough to look forward to another spring.

Soon most of the people who live on the Point will pack up and head for lower latitudes. I used to look upon that as a sign of frailty; now I see that it’s a sign of sanity. So eventually I will join the snowbirds, but first there is that beautiful New England autumn to savor. The days may be dwindling down, but they are indeed precious.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Passion Play

Today is Jill’s birthday, and one cannot let the day pass without notice.

I first met the girl who would become my wife in 1953. We met in a passion play, a fact that usually produced gales of laughter in the years that followed. The priest who wrote it (with help from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) was a born impresario, who hired a professional director and staged it in downtown Boston. The play, called The Christus, had a cast of 125, which offered a part to virtually anyone who could breathe. Fresh out of the Army, I played the title role, and Jill was a member of the mob, credited as Julia in the program. Years later, Jill and I would howl as we recalled the fractured ad libs from that mob – things like “If He is the Son of God, why don’t He come down from the cross?”

There were bacchanalian scenes with Herod (with Ketelbey’s “In a Persian Market” setting the mood), a nativity scene (the infant Jesus was the winner of a widely publicized contest run by the impresario to promote the play), and a climactic ascension scene, with the Christus hoisted by cables to the sky as the curtain fell (the scene was played behind a scrim to obscure the cables).

About two months of rehearsals were needed to pull this epic together, and during that period I was careful to avoid any conduct unbecoming a Deity. In other words, no dating. But with the show behind us, we all gathered in the church hall for a mammoth cast party. I decided to ask the best-looking girl there to dance, and it was the best idea I ever had.

We were married on February 22, 1955. It was a good year, as all the Eisenhower years were, and we cheerfully began married life in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment. A year later we bought our first house, a tidy Cape Cod south of Boston. We moved north of Boston a few years later, and in 1965 we (now a family of five) settled into a big, 100-year-old converted schoolhouse in the center of historic Concord. That was our home for the next 30 years. Then, with retirement, a final move to the coast of Maine, where we had summered since 1968.

The last dozen years were probably the best of all, with nothing to do but watch the tides come and go, the seasons change, and our grandchildren grow. And consider how far we traveled since that anonymous member of the cast shouted, “Why don’t He come down from the cross?”

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Random Thoughts on August

The weather has improved lately, which the weather gods owed us after a miserable winter, spring, and July. When I say “improved,” that should be qualified. The temperature has topped out in the 70s on most days, though they say it will reach the 80s tomorrow. So you can’t call it a heat wave, but the vacationers are flocking to the beach before the window closes and the weather gets wretched again. Yesterday was sunny and crisp, a beauty, and today started out well, but there is now a dark grey sheet from horizon to horizon. More rain is coming, they say.

A local fence company has just installed a cedar post and rail fence along the south side of my lot. This replaces one that had seen better days. One problem was rot, the other was the sightseers who drive down my dead-end street, then use my driveway as a turnaround, occasionally clonking the end post. The clonker, a few weeks ago, was a Mercedes with New York plates, and the driver, after destroying the post, attempted to sneak off, but a neighbor hailed the miscreant. A sort of justice was thus served.

The new fence, a new upper deck made of composition material (no painting!), and a refurbished lower deck have smartened up the place considerably. Jill just missed it, more’s the pity, but I know she would have approved. And there’s plenty still to be done, especially to the grounds, which were Jill’s particular obsession. I am whatever the opposite of a green thumb is called (a black thumb?), so I will hire the work done.

Although I scan the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal every day, I depended on Jill to fill in the blanks, to keep me posted on the gossip she picked up on cable while I watched a movie, read a book, or listened to music. So now I am missing the wifely commentary that added spice to the daily news. She had strong opinions on politics, but she was also very smart, and her strong opinions were always worth listening to.

We are already well into August, and I have mixed feelings about that. It is always sad to see our short summer slipping away so swiftly, but this has been a rotten year, all things considered, and I will not be sad to see the end of it. As the months fly by, I know that by January I must escape this wintry Siberia to preserve my sanity. Someplace where it never snows, the only ice is in your drink, and the weather reports are always boring.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Health -Care Debate

Give President Obama credit. In tackling health-care reform, he is opening a can of worms that he doesn’t need. With Afghanistan going badly, with the economy on life support, with political sniping from all sides, why stir up the health-care hornets’ nest?

On the other hand, maybe his crusade isn’t as courageous as it seems. Although he claims that we can pay for reform mostly by eliminating waste, he refuses to touch one of the biggest waste-makers of all: defensive medicine undertaken to avoid lawsuits. This deference to the power of the lawyers’ lobby can’t be explained by anything other than political expediency. It smells bad.

The waste argument is flimsy on other counts. It is said that the insurance system creates an incentive for needless tests, and that is undoubtedly true - in hindsight. But if you have a medical problem and the doctor prescribes four tests, and two are said to be unnecessary, how does the doctor know – in advance – which two are valid? By studying outcomes, they say. So your doctor suggests four tests, runs them by a computer, and tells you that you qualify for only two of them. There. You feel a whole lot better, don’t you?

A modern jetliner has two sets of avionics. One set is almost never used. Yet we pay for the redundancy – the inefficiency – because human lives are at stake. So it is with the health-care system. You want it to be efficient, but if it’s your life we’re talking about, you want all the tests your doctor thinks you need. Period.

The health-care debate boils down to a couple of issues. First, most people in the U.S. are satisfied with the health care they receive. They are being asked to pay for the addition of 30 or 40 million people to a government-run insurance system. Because we are a generous nation, we think it’s a good idea – if the quality of our own health care doesn’t suffer in the process. There’s the rub. The idea that my primary-care physician can increase his patient load by 15 percent by working more efficiently is nonsense. He already works hard and makes full use of his computer. And we can’t magically increase the number of medical professionals by 15 percent. The math is inescapable: Universal health care will mean longer waits to see one’s doctor. Maybe we are willing to tolerate the inconvenience in order to do the right thing. Maybe we’re not. No one is raising the question.

The strongest case for health reform is the financial case. Medicare and Medicaid are in big trouble, and something must be done. Delaying retirement till 67 or 68 makes sense, given increasing longevity (itself an argument for the quality of our health care). Reducing the incidence of malpractice suits makes sense, too. And yes, there is some waste, though almost certainly not as much as the President claims. The financial argument is bulletproof, but it applies only to Medicare and Medicaid. There is no financial case for universal health care, only the moral case. And that, given the state of today’s economy, is a hard sell. So the President is trying to package it as a financial imperative, and that’s disingenuous or dishonest, depending on your politics

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Rain in Maine

The rain started in early June and stopped a few days ago. At least that’s how it seems. And it has been much colder than normal, with temperatures touching 80 only a few times, even though we’re through most of July. The water table is high, and the Saco River looks like the Mississippi. The sump pumps are working overtime to keep cellars dry, and for some cellars it’s a losing battle.

Maine’s economy depends – far too much, I fear - on tourism, and the tourists don’t like rain. A smarter state would work hard to attract manufacturing, but Maine people are ambivalent about manufacturing, especially when it means big plants owned by big companies. We are all for small business, so that’s the only kind we have. We have thousands of small businesses catering to tourists. If a big company threatens to build a plant that might employ two or three thousand workers, there will be a referendum, a mighty battle between good and evil. A greedy out-of-state company presumes to come into our beloved state and upset all that we hold dear. Yes, there will be jobs, but there will also be more traffic, more crime, and the first thing you know we will be on the road to – I say, on the road to depravation. Our River City is Augusta.

That’s the way it is in Maine, which is almost defiantly proud of its poverty. The politicians will tell you that we are disadvantaged by geography, being at the end of the distribution chain. That might have been true a century ago, but in the age of the internet, no one is at the end because there is no end. No, Maine’s economic distress is self-inflicted. We have high taxes, a business-unfriendly legislature, and an apathetic electorate. Our brightest graduates emigrate because they are bright enough to know the score.

The people up north, in “the County” (Aroostook) know the score, too, but there aren’t enough of them. So their attempts to develop some of their abundant land are stymied by the passionate preservationists in Portland, who may never visit the north woods but say they want to save them “for our children and grandchildren.” But their children and grandchildren will be living in Austin or Atlanta, because there weren’t enough good jobs in Maine.

Maine is a beautiful state, and I am very happy to live here (except in winter). And I would not like our coastline to resemble the stretch around Fort Lauderdale or Miami. So I tip my hat to past preservationists who kept growth rational. But things are tough right now, and it is time to put out the welcome mat. Small business is nice, but big business – the kind that can hire people by the thousands – is better. The only kind of small business worth having is one that aspires to be a big business. What would Maine be like today if Bob Noyce or Steve Jobs or Bill Gates had decided to pitch his tent in Portland? It would be different, and to many Mainers it would be worse. But they are wrong. It would be better, with or without all that rain.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Letter

Dear Jill,

I know that you never had any use for e-mail, because you thought that only paper and ink constituted a real letter (and you wrote at least one letter a day to someone or other, it seemed), but I don’t know the zip code for Heaven, so I’ll have to communicate through cyberspace.

The weather at the beach has been abominable – a soggy summer following a dreary spring following a beastly winter. They say that in June we had a period in which it rained 23 out of 27 days, but I don’t remember even four rainless days. On the fourth of July, a Saturday, the beach population was the smallest I’ve ever seen on that holiday. The merchants are ready to commit mass suicide.

Our children and their children have been here every weekend. One weekend there were nine of them, which is one more than the place sleeps, but we managed. And they leave the house in immaculate condition, because you taught them the importance of keeping the guest rooms tidy, since they are the first thing a visitor sees, the “windows on the house” you called them.

That’s not all you taught them. As a matter of fact, you taught us all the entire book of virtues. You left us a moral compass, and whenever we come across a dilemma, we know a simple way forward: WWJD. What would Jill do?

Cathy still comes every month to give the house a top-to-bottom cleaning. The new upper deck is complete, the lower decks have been painted, a new post-and-rail fence has been ordered, the gardens have been weeded. You’d be proud.

Food. Well, I still can’t cook at all, but I am not starving. The neighbors have been kind (what’s that line about “depending on the kindness of strangers”?), the TV dinners aren’t bad, and once in a while I rustle up franks and beans or spaghetti. The freezer has been emptied of all the old food and defrosted. I really don’t need a freezer, any more than I need the new car I bought while you were in the hospital. That was to have been your car, but now this house has more cars than people. In fact, it has more of everything than people, and if this were the Russia of Dr. Zhivago, some commissar would force me to share the space with the masses.

I went with Lucy and her gang to see a play at the Grange Hall the other night. It was essentially a solo performance, based on the music of Patsy Cline, and it was excellent. You’d have loved it, because the lead’s voice was good and the notes were all true.

You still get a lot of mail. Magazines like Real Simple, solicitations from politicians, surveys (which are really solicitations), catalogs, etc. In fact, you get more mail than I do, which is pretty funny when you think about it. I throw most of it in the trash unopened.

Your desk and sewing machine and all those bobbins and spools and yarn are as they were when you left. They will probably stay that way for a long time. The same goes for your pictures on the walls and the knick-knacks on the shelves and all those crossword-puzzle books. I don’t dare touch any of it, because I know you are watching.

The days pass quickly – and silently, when I am alone. I talk to you often, out of habit and because, well, just because.

It’s time to turn in now. I think of you all the time, and I wish you were here.


Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Franks and Beans Frederick

Here’s a great recipe for all you food fans. You might think I don’t know much about cooking, seeing as I’ve been at it for only a few weeks, but I have always been a quick study. Anyhow, the results are what count, and this is really a meal fit for a king.

Here’s what you do: First, get a pot and put it on the stove. I use a small green pot with a black inside. Then you open a can of baked beans. I use the smallest size can, since I want only one serving, and if I opened a large can the unused beans would be a problem. I use Bush beans, because I like the design on the can.

Then you take two Kayem frankfurters out of a package you’ll find in the freezer. The package will have six or eight frankfurters in it, and if it’s been in the freezer a while, you may find that they’re all stuck together. If a knife won’t pry them apart, I find that a chisel and hammer work fine.

Find a small frying pan and put it on the stove. Then put a piece of butter in the pan so that it will melt when it heats. Then put two frankfurters in the pan. As you see, this is a fairly simple recipe, which I personally prefer.

The next part is slightly tricky. You want the frankfurters and the beans to be ready at about the same time, but the beans will cook faster than the frankfurters, which are frozen. So you turn the burner under the frankfurters to LOW, and wait 10 minutes before turning the beans on to, oh, 4 or 5.

I almost forgot the brown bread. If you have two pieces of brown bread in the fridge, put them in the microwave for about 30 seconds. Mine were wrapped in tinfoil, which MUST be removed before you put the brown bread in the microwave.

After another 5 or 10 minutes, you will have a delicious dinner. Garnish to taste, with ketchup, mustard, and relish. A good cabernet sauvignon will complement this entrée nicely.

Bon appetit!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Music of My Life

If there is anyone out there who has been reading these posts for the past few years, he or she knows that my wife was an exceptional person. You have read about the way she befriended a Russian youngster on the streets of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), how she shrugged off being attacked and bitten by a 700-pound sea lion in Argentina, how she concocted the most delicious crab bisque known to man (this man, anyway). But what you don’t know about was her musical talent, because that’s not the kind of thing that translates well into a blog. Well, let me now try.

Jill had an unworldly knack of picking out the right notes and the right chords for anything that anyone could hum. She read music, of course, but at a family get-together she never needed to. She would just sit at the piano (after being coaxed, usually) and noodle around songs like “Crazy,” “Edelweiss,” “A Small World After All,” seamlessly segueing from one to the next. The arrangements were her own, with flights of fanciful fingerwork that defy description. And that touch! Her fingers didn’t maul the keys, they strummed them.

She had perfect pitch, verified by an audio engineer long ago, and, more impressively, a unerring knowledge of chord structure that left me (a klutzy piano player) speechless. “How did you know,” I would ask her, “that an E seventh chord belonged there?”

“I don’t know,” she would answer, “it just had an E seventhness about it.”

If it all sounds ad lib, it wasn’t. Underneath it all was a solid musical foundation that enabled her to direct college productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, arrange music for the Crocodillos, a Harvard singing group, and work with the Handel and Haydn Society. “She was the most talented person I ever knew,” says a classmate of hers through high school and college. But she kept that talent well hidden, because she saw her mission in life to be, not a musical whiz, but the best wife and mother possible. In this she succeeded brilliantly.

Jill died on May 24.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Pilot Error

A few months ago, we were all thrilled by the incredible airmanship of Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, who put an Airbus down on the frigid Hudson River so skillfully, so professionally, that not a single life was lost.

Compare that heroic feat with the emerging story of a commuter jet that crashed in February in Buffalo. The jet was apparently being flown by two pilots who had never experienced severe icing in flight. Now, you might think the chances of severe icing in Buffalo are pretty good, especially in February, and you might think that only an ice-savvy pilot would be assigned that route. I remember flying into the old Hong Kong airport, the one where a normal glide path was impossible because of an inconveniently placed mountain, so you had to bank sharply to make your final approach. A 747 pilot landing at that airport had to be not only 747-qualified, but Kai-Tak qualified. The problem with Buffalo is not its airport, but its weather. A pilot who has landed 50 or 60 times in severe icing will not be spooked. He or she will not try to fight a stall by raising the nose, as the pilot of the commuter jet allegedly did, sealing the fate of 49 people on the aircraft.

I thought of that tragedy while listening to analysts debating the merits of President Obama’s plan to fight a stalled economy. The President has decided to raise taxes directly on the high earners and indirectly (through “cap and trade” energy costs) on everyone else. He also wants to implement universal health insurance, rescue the banks and the automobile industry (and any other domestic industry with a large, unionized work force), and ramp up the war in Afghanistan.

I don’t think he can pull it off, any more than a pilot can correct a stall by pulling up on the nose. He has to lower the nose to increase airspeed, just as President Obama has to lower taxes to increase consumer spending. Because the deficit is huge, that will mean deferring the health plan. (That’s not a bad idea anyway. Adding 50 million people to the insurance rolls sounds like a noble idea until you try to figure out where we’re going to get all those extra doctors, nurses, hospital beds, etc.)

I have admired the President’s oratory, his political skills, and his natural leadership ability. Most of all, I liked his boast that he would subordinate ideology to “what works.” But attacks on Chrysler bondholders, executive salaries, and corporate jets are all born of ideology, not pragmatism. Alas, he is sounding more like a politician and less like a pilot every day. But now we are in a terrible ice storm, and his other gifts aren’t much help. Experience does count. The worst of it is, we are all passengers in the plane Captain Obama is flying.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Day That Changed History

Few days can be said to have changed history. Most of the really important shifts have come over a period of years and decades or even centuries. But every so often, there comes along one solitary day that, in retrospect, is a total game-changer. Such a day was September 11, 2001.

Think of it: If Mohammed Atta and his friends hadn’t embarked on their mission of death that morning, there would have been no invasion of Iraq, no Abu Ghraib, no Guantanamo. The President of the United States, who had been solidly reelected less than a year before, would not have become so despised that his party’s ouster in 2008 was all but guaranteed. Secret wiretaps, waterboarding, Blackwater, the Mission Accomplished banner – none of it would have happened.

It is true that the neo-cons in government – Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle – were looking for any excuse to defang Iraq, a potential threat to Israel, but without the attack on the World Trade Center they would have lacked the casus belli. Even with Bush and Cheney rattling sabers, there were enough Congressional skeptics to hold them off. And Secretary of State Colin Powell, a grown-up among children, would certainly have been a voice for reason.

It is hard to imagine what the United States would be like today had not 9-11 happened. The Republicans would probably have held Congress, because the polls show that the nation leans to the right. Would the stock market have crashed? Probably, for that’s what stock markets do from time to time. House prices would have tumbled, because too many people were living beyond their means. The ensuing recession would have been painful, but without the trillion-dollar war tab we might have handled it. President Bush, without the poisonous publicity from Iraq, might have held the support of the American people.

Today we would probably have in the White House a President Giuliani, or a President Huckabee, or even a President McCain. Barack Obama would be known as an interesting senator and a politician with a future. Instead, he rode the tide of public’s revulsion that all stemmed from the event of September 11, 2001.

FDR called December 7, 1941 “a day that will live in infamy.” And so it was, because it turned a European war into the world war that decisively altered history. The assassinations of Julius Caesar (15 March 44), Abraham Lincoln (April 15, 1865), John F. Kennedy (November 23, 1963) are remembered because the men involved were icons, not because their deaths changed history.

One wonders whether Osama Bin Laden appreciated what he was unleashing on that unforgettable morning. To him, the United States was the Evil Empire. Today, if he is still alive, he must know that the Empire has been roundly discredited. Capitalism is in tatters. The nation’s biggest banks and its biggest industries are now wards of the State. Most depressingly, our military adventures in the wake of 9-11 have made things worse, not better, with the Middle East still in turmoil, nuclear Pakistan out of control, and no end in sight.

Now we are all caught up in the whirlwind, like scraps of debris soaring aimlessly in the sky after a tornado has blown through. People are worried, not just because they have lost their houses or their jobs, but because they fear the country has lost its way. They feel that Barack Obama is a good man, but they know he’s a rookie. They hope he’s a messiah, but it’s possible he’s just another scrap of debris, caught in the vortex of 9-11.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


For the past few years a section of Goose Rocks Beach, where I live, has been roped off as a preserve for piping plovers, small birds whose population has dwindled down to numbers that have set off extinction alarms among preservationists. The ropes have been accompanied by stern signs warning people (and any of their pets that can read) to stay away from the birds. Thus we and the plovers have settled into an uneasy truce: You stay on your side of the ropes, we’ll stay on our side, and we’ll all get along.

This year the truce was broken. The birds’ advocates, seeing that the plover count continues to wane, declared war on animals they deemed predators. Raccoons, foxes, and skunks were among those targeted. We have to act quickly, said a fish and wildlife biologist, because “once a predation act occurs, it is too late.” The overseers of the nearby Rachel Carson Wildlife Preserve, having declared raccoons, foxes, and skunks an Axis of Predation, were stymied by their lack of weaponry, so they subcontracted the job to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and soon a USDA truck was seen roaming Goose Rocks, loaded with traps. “What happens to the animals you trap?” asked one local. The USDA hired gun answered that they “euthanize” them. He also acknowledged that they sometimes shoot them.

The story was front-page news in the local paper, and Plovergate was born. Many Goose Rocks residents were outraged that their tax dollars were being used to kill animals whose only sin was trying to feed their young. I was one of the outraged. A few weeks ago a family of foxes took up residence in sand dunes near my house. Papa fox, mama fox, and three tiny kits. Foxes lived in the same foxhole last year, and my children and grandchildren loved to watch them. (The photo above was taken by one of my daughters.) We looked forward to having the new family as neighbors this year. But then, one night a week or two ago, a volley of shots rang out, and the foxes haven’t been seen since.

The piping plover, as even its supporters admit, is not a genius among birds, and it is easy prey for all manner of predators that roam this area. In time the bird will probably become extinct, a prospect that appalls the fish and wildlife folks. But species do become extinct, because that is the way things are in nature. If the fish and wildlife crowd wants to prolong the plovers’ existence, then they should build a plover preserve (Ploverville?) somewhere far away from humans, their pets, and all the other animals that somehow get along without Government assistance.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Tale of Two Pension Funds

New York State’s pension fund manages $122 billion, which, in the world’s center of creative financing, offers lots of opportunities for wheeling and dealing. According to the New York Times, this pension fund, controlled not by a board or a committee but by a single individual, awarded some of that pension money to an investment firm known as Quadrangle Group, which then arranged to help finance a low-budget movie called “Chooch.”

The trail is just now starting to unwind, and various threads of the story involve the State Comptroller, a former comptroller, the Chairman of the State’s Liberal Party, and the man who now heads the President’s automobile industry task force. Most of these people have not been charged with anything more than bad judgment, but the point is: How in the world did even a dollar of the New York State pension money wind up financing a movie named “Chooch”?

Now let’s cross the pond to the Netherlands. There we find a huge pension fund called ABP making another investment in the entertainment business. For an undisclosed price (rumored to be less than $200 million), the Dutch pensioners acquired the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which gives them licensing rights to Oklahoma, South Pacific, Carousel, The Sound of Music, The King and I, and the rest of the R&H canon. But that’s not all. The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization also controls the rights to 100 musicals, including those written by Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, and Jerome Kern, 500 concert works, and 12,000 songs. So, with a stroke of the pen and the writing of a check that seems very modest, the Dutch pension fund has walked off with much of the American songbook, arguably one of this country’s most valuable artistic treasures. They also acquired the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization itself, one of the world’s leading entertainment powerhouses. Give them credit; the Netherlands pension fund was very canny indeed, and, since the music they own is as close to immortal as you can get, its clients will reap the benefits of that investment long after we are all dead and gone.

And New York, the place where all that music was born? Its pensioners got a movie called “Chooch.”

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Allegro - The New Recording

…..But enough about politics. Let’s turn our attention to weightier matters, like the thrilling new recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ALLEGRO. This musical, following on the heels of OKLAHOMA and CAROUSEL, was so eagerly awaited (it had the largest advance sale in history) it just had to disappoint. And disappoint it did, for reasons that people still argue about today. In my opinion it was by far the best of the R&H flops and the one most deserving of another chance. If you would like to learn more about my thoughts on the original ALLEGRO (which I saw, incidentally, back in 1947), you’ll find it in a blog posting dated April 28, 2006.

But today I would like to rave about the new, “first complete recording” of ALLEGRO. It is wonderful, thanks to the dedicated efforts of Ted Chapin of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, R&H Music Director Bruce Pohamac, conductor Larry Blank, David Lai of Sony, and a few other colleagues. And a dream cast, including Audra McDonald, Laura Benanti, Nathan Gunn, and Liz Callaway. And a talented group of musicians in Bratislava.

Bratislava? Well, yes, because a Slovakian orchestra was looking for work, schooled in the romantic tradition, and available. So off Chapin and buddies went to Bratislava, where they gave the orchestra the magnificent Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations, rehearsed, and recorded – just the orchestra. Then, the audio tracks safely stowed, they flew back to the U.S., recorded the chorus, then the soloists, then a final recording session to add some neat touches, like the voice of Oscar Hammerstein. When you hear the final product, you will think all 70 cast members and the Istropolis Philharmonic Orchestra were gathered together in a huge recording hall, but you will be wrong, because we are living in the age where little children have learned to ask “Is it real, daddy?”

But all the audio razzle-dazzle would have been wasted without sure-fire casting and without one of Rodgers’s most melodic scores to work with. Whatever the faults of ALLEGRO, the score is not among them. If you are old enough, you may remember A Fellow Needs a Girl or So Far. If you are also tuned in to show music, you may even recall You Are Never Away or The Gentleman is a Dope. But my own favorites are I Know It Can Happen Again, Winters Go By, Wish Them Well, and Come Home, Joe, sung by Audra McDonald. Hearing Audra wrap her glorious voice around that one song is worth the cost of the entire two-disc set.

The play tells the story of Joseph Taylor, Jr., son of a country doctor and destined to become a doctor himself. It begins with Junior’s birth, follows him through school, medical school, romance, marriage, and his fateful encounter with the decision of his life: whether to climb the medical escalator in the big Chicago hospital or return to join his dad in his home town. This being a Hammerstein book, you’d expect Joe to chuck the high life in favor of the honest labors of the country doctor, and you’d be right. But, in a most un-Hammersteinly twist, the girl he married, his childhood sweetheart, turns out to be seduced by the glitter (and by a wealthy hospital benefactor), and Joe goes home without her – but with nurse Emily, who, it is assumed, will marry him once the legalities are sorted out.

In the original, Emily was played by Lisa Kirk, and a highlight was her The Gentleman is a Dope. Lisa came off as a sadder but wiser nurse, who knows the score, even though the gentleman doesn’t. In the new recording, Emily is sung by Liz Callaway, a much sweeter proposition with a less torchy reading of the lyric. The casting apparently surprised a few people, but the producers asked themselves who would be more likely to leave the big city and follow her fellow back to the sticks – Elaine Stritch or Julie Andrews?

There is a lot of music on these two discs, and it is not, I must say, all gold. A few songs – Yatata Yatata, Money Isn’t Everything, and the title song – are clunkers, because their irony places them more in Sondheimland than in the world of R&H. In fact, it is worth noting that Stephen Sondheim was a gofer for the original ALLEGRO, just as Ted Chapin was a gofer, much later, for Sondheim’s FOLLIES.

These few shortcomings aside, the new recording of ALLEGRO deserves a place in the collection of anyone who loves Broadway music and musicals. I also have the original cast recording of the show, but I doubt that I’ll listen to it any more; the new one seems destined to be, for the foreseeable future, the definitive recording of this fine, underrated musical.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Is There a Statesman in the House?

A lot of people are very angry about the bonuses paid to AIG employees, as they should be. But should that fact serve as a signal for members of Congress to form a lynch mob? Should we expect better of our representatives, or must we accept the fact that a politician will never pass up the chance to play the demagogue, especially when the TV cameras are present?

The most shameful exhibitionist of them all was Senator Grassley of Iowa, who said that the AIG people should contemplate suicide, Japanese style. In interviews later, he passed that off as "rhetoric." I pass it off as despicable.

Today a Massachusetts congressman had his turn to vent. Badgering the AIG CEO (who just came on the scene, had no culpability whatsoever, and works for a dollar a year), the Congressman lashed out at the hapless executive, and when the victim said he "took offense" at the Congressman's remarks, the Bay State politician shouted that the offense was intended. That exchange, the Congressman no doubt figured, was worth at least 1000 votes in the next election.

As bad as George Bush's poll numbers were, Congress's were worse, deservedly. Yes, there are venal businesspeople, but there are venal Congressmen, too. The difference is that the businesspeople never get the chance to call Congressional crooks crooks, at least not while the cameras are running.

Then there is the matter of a new tax, narrowly configured to snare only the high-income employees of firms accepting TARP money over a certain, Congressionally mandated, threshold. No matter how much we dislike the much publicized AIG bonuses, it is monstrous for Congress to retaliate in this way. Once we cede Congress the power to impose confiscatory tax rates on any group of people the public hates, we are not much better than the good Massachusetts folks in 17th century Salem.

All this Congressional foaming at the mouth gives President Obama a wonderful opportunity to rise above it and act the statesman, vetoing the most outrageously vindictive bills. Just as Candidate Obama made a wonderful, historic speech about race during the campaign, President Obama now has the chance to remind everyone that class warfare is just as insidious and just as destructive as race warfare. Do we have a statesman or a politician in the White House? We will see.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Rhetoric Trap

The problem is our rhetoric. Our politicians constantly tell us that our workers are the smartest, most innovative, most creative, and hardest-working in the world. It follows, then, that we deserve the most comfortable lifestyle, ensured by entitlement programs that have expanded beyond reason (and beyond our ability to pay for them). We are told by advertisers that every American deserves the good life ("You deserve the very best” or "You owe it yourself..."). American exceptionalism has been proclaimed for so long and so emphatically that we have come to believe it. If other countries are starting to creep up on us economically, it must be because they cheat, manipulating their currencies, subsidizing their industries, and free-loading off our world-wide defense forces.

There’s an ounce of truth in all this. The American brand of free-market capitalism has proved itself superior to centralized planning, and for the past century we have achieved amazing things. But the jingoism is wearing thin these days. After all, we can’t very well bash China while we’re borrowing more a billion dollars a day from them, can we? If we’re so much smarter than they are, shouldn’t they be borrowing from us?

The rhetoric trap brings me to President Obama and his national budget. I don’t quite know what to make of it or of the bellicose rhetoric that accompanied its unveiling. If the President really believes that we can mend our broken economy by redistributing wealth, that’s one thing. But if his budget is based not on pragmatism but on political theater, that’s another.

It is easy to characterize the big Wall Street bonuses and the private jets and the parties at Las Vegas as excesses. And it’s not fair, as Warren Buffett says, for a top executive to be taxed at the same rate as his secretary. But then, Lenin and others have attacked capitalism on fairness grounds, too. Capitalism is arguably unfair. Life is unfair. You can’t win a logic contest judged on fairness. So if you hold the reins of power, you try to find a system that works for most people, and screw the fairness or unfairness.

My faith in Barack Obama has been based on my belief that he is, ultimately, a pragmatist. Indeed he has said as much, repeatedly using the term “what works” as a mantra. But now I fear that he is giving in to other principles. The “buy America” provision in pending legislation is suspect under “what works” thinking, as any Wal-Mart shopper can tell you.

The promise to arrange the tax code so that “the affluent” are defined as those making more than $250,000 is equally spurious. In a different era, I remember House Speaker Tip O’Neill being asked where he drew the dividing line between haves and have-nots. “$50,000 a year,” he answered. Later, the Alternative Minimum Tax was packaged and sold as a means of catching the idle rich. Alas, neither Tip O’Neill’s dividing line nor the AMT was indexed for inflation, and President Obama has not mentioned a word about indexing his proposed tax plan. Given the outlook for the dollar, it is quite possible that most members of the middle class will soon be earning $250,000 a year – and be taxed accordingly. That’s how governments from time immemorial have solved their financial problems.

John McCain and Barack Obama, in the presidential campaign, both championed “straight talk,” while both were giving us, not straight talk, but political talk. No wonder folks are so cynical. And I am afraid President Obama has not lost the appetite for political talk. He is acting and talking as if his victory was a mandate for a lurch to the left, when in fact it was simply a repudiation of George Bush and the Republicans. There’s a difference.

So let’s please have an end to the political talk, Mister President, and the beginning of some real straight talk. Something like this:

My fellow Americans. Globalism is neither bad nor good, but it is a fact, and we must accept that. Americans are good workers, but so are the Chinese and the Indians and the Japanese and the Brazilians. We are smart, but so are they. We can’t build fences around the United States, and we can no longer dictate how other people live. Once we start believing that we are entitled to more just because we are Americans, we are in for a hard time, because the other 95 percent of the world’s population won’t accept that.

And we cannot succeed by attacking each other. Just as we have fought battles against discrimination on the basis of race and creed, we must be careful not to hate people because they have more money or a bigger house or a newer car. Any economic system produces winners, and our job is to see that we have more winners, not fewer. The more winners we have, the fewer losers there will be.

I wish I could promise you all a satisfying career and a comfortable retirement, based simply on the fact that you were born in this country. I can’t. No President can, although many have tried. In the final analysis, you must rely on your own skills and enterprise and work ethic, fortified by the love and compassion of your family and friends. Your country can create a helpful environment, but you must do the heavy lifting.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thoughts on Stimulating the Economy

Democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.
Thomas Jefferson

Abraham Lincoln serves as an inspiration for our new president, as he does for millions of people who credit him with saving the Republic and freeing the slaves. Lincoln was indeed a great man, who left enough of a paper trail to document his greatness. But our founding fathers – Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton – were arguably even greater, for it was they who created a republic worth saving.

Rick Santelli, a CNBC regular at the Chicago trading pit, takes a straw poll on the justice of bailing out people who added a new bathroom in a house they couldn’t afford in the first place. In the pit, the response is unanimously negative. The chorus of raspberries reflects a growing sentiment among people who play by the rules that they should not be forced to rescue those who knowingly took on more debt than their income could handle.

Those who think it is right to bail out borrowers who are over their heads say that the borrowers were victimized by villainous banks, that they didn’t fully understand adjustable-rate mortgages, that they were simply chasing the American dream, home ownership.

They have a point. Many if not most mortgagees didn’t understand the terms they agree to. Their parents never told them, as mine did, that you shouldn’t pay more than a week's wages for a month's rent. More’s the pity, they never learned that in school, either, because you never learn even rudimentary economics in school.

We are a nation of economic illiterates. What’s worse, most of our Congressional representatives, judging by their televised comments during recent hearings, don’t know a thing about derivatives, CDOs, LIBOR, option spreads, ETFs, etc. So, instead of asking intelligent questions of the witnesses, they rail against private jets, golden parachutes, and bonuses. There’s nothing like righteous indignation to show the folks back home how tough you are on the fat cats.

If you’ve been reading these blogs for a while, you know that I have been a stock-market bear for the last two years. Alas, today I am just as bearish as ever. There is no bottom in sight, despite the cheer-leading from the CNBC die-hards. Their arguments are all based on history: Recessions and bear markets last x months on average, the stock market always turns up six months before the economy turns, if you wait until you see the economy pick up you’ll miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime, blah, blah, blah.

Much as I appreciate history, in this case it is of no value. In previous recessions we were not in hock to China. In previous recessions we were not being impoverished by runaway entitlements. In previous recessions we had a world-class manufacturing base. In previous recessions we weren’t fighting an expensive war that had no end in sight.

President Obama, who deserves more support than he is getting these days, will soon start getting blamed, unjustly, for the spreading misery. He began his presidency with the nation in a sharp red-blue divide, and whatever he does to address the economic collapse is sure to enrage either the reds or the blues. Enraging the left is probably a safer course, because he has a deep reservoir of support there, but that would go against his instincts.

What should he do? Despite the popular shibboleth that “Main Street is more important than Wall Street,” the stock market is our best barometer of the national confidence in the economy. Consumer confidence has been destroyed, and as the consumer goes, so goes 70 percent of our economy. And the consumer is now seeing his or her 401-K and the dream of a comfortable retirement go down the drain with the stock market.
Like it or not, Main Street cannot recover unless Wall Street recovers.

Here’s an idea: Declare a moratorium on capital-gains taxes. Maybe a year, maybe two. There aren’t any gains anyway, so it won’t cost the Treasury much unless the stock market takes off. And if it does take off, it will be because risk capital has begun flowing again, and the risks have started paying off. As it is, the risk capital is all in Treasury bonds and mattresses, and that doesn’t help.

Cutting the capital-gains tax rate to zero, even for one year, would be controversial, but it would in keeping with Obama’s stated appetite for thinking outside the box. As for Congress, he could charm the Democrats, and the Republicans wouldn’t dare complain.

While the stock market would be a primary target of such a move, the elimination of capital-gains taxes might also invigorate the real estate market.

There’s a risk that the moratorium would ignite the stock market for a short-term rally with no economic follow-through. But I think the risk-taking current runs deep in this country, and that, once the flow is restarted, the economy would heal itself.

It won’t happen. For this president, eliminating the capital gains tax would be, not just outside the box, but outside the galaxy. Thus the economy and the stock market will continue south. I remain a bear.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Obama Presidency - Chapter Two

Dice are rolling, the knives are out
Would be presidents are all around
I don’t say they mean harm, but they’d each give an arm
To see us six feet under ground.
- from “Evita” lyric by Tim Rice

So it must seem to President Obama this week. The nightly television talk, especially that carried by cable, is filled with carping. The editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, which are given over to Karl Rove, John Bolton, and the neocons in exile, tell us daily how badly the new President is screwing up on foreign policy, on the financial rescue programs, and on just about everything on his plate. And the man has been in office barely a month! It doesn’t seem fair.

All right, some criticism is justified, especially on errant cabinet appointments. But that’s not the loudest beef. What really ticks off the hard right is his promise to talk with Iran, his determination to close Gitmo, and his obvious preference for diplomacy over confrontation. Real men choose confrontation, the hawks seem to be saying. Pie-in-the-sky Obama just doesn’t get it.

The most dangerous situation facing us is what’s brewing in Pakistan. As someone said, Afghanistan is irrelevant; the real game is in Pakistan, a big country, a poor country, and a country filled with weapons, including the nuclear kind. As is so often the case these days, we get along (barely) with the leaders but the people don’t like us. What should the President do about Pakistan? The neocons would say “get tough.” The doves would say, “pull out.” Neither approach makes sense. It’s not that simple. The problem calls for patient, thoughtful diplomacy. Above all, it calls for working the global room, schmoozing with China, Russia, and other Asian neighbors. Obama seems to recognize this, and the critics should at least give him credit for his recent overtures to Russia, whose help would be invaluable in Asia. But they won’t, because some of them are still fighting the cold war.

The polls suggest that the natterers are having little effect on public opinion, as Obama’s honeymoon continues. Of course, the kind of decisions he will have to make soon, especially on the financial front, are sure to cost a lot of people a lot of money, and that will take points off his approval rating. Will the public blame the President, or will it blame the forces that created the problem? Reason says the latter, but I am not so sure. A wild card in all this is Congress, which seems intent on pulling Obama to the left, a chancy move in a country that is still somewhat to the right of center politically.

This week the President took the gloves off, so to speak, in addressing the Republican opposition to his financial bailout, reminding them pointedly that it was the Democrats, after all, who won the election. Fine; there is nothing wrong with showing a little spine in politics. But one hopes he will be equally tough on the Congressional Democrats who try to yank him off the reservation, because it seems to me that they will turn out to be his real problem in Washington. The Republicans, for all their bluster, are, like Afghanistan, irrelevant. If you want to know where the dice are rolling and the knives are out, look in the direction of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Einstein's Dreams

Have you ever wondered about the nature of time? Of course you have. I have. We all have, including Einstein, who wondered about time a great deal and finally came to grips with it in 1905, when he published four remarkable treatises, including one setting out his theory of relativity.

The possibility of time travel has excited fiction-writers for many years, and even though I have seen The Time Machine often, I never tire of watching Weena and her simple-minded Eloi friends escape the Morlocks. Countless other time-travel tales engage us, even though we know the basic premise is impossible.

Or is it?

Last night I read a little book called Einstein’s Dreams. It was written in 1993 by an MIT professor named Alan Lightman, and it is one of those books you can’t put down. The subject matter is the hook, but the fact that Lightman is a world-class writer is the grabber.

The book, which runs a mere 179 pages, explores the possibilities attached to various theories about the nature of time, some well known, some not so. Maybe time is a repetitive phenomenon. Maybe time does not exist outside our perception. Maybe, since time is related to mass, it passes more slowly the farther you are from the earth’s core. Maybe there are two kinds of time: mechanical time and body time. Maybe, because time passes more slowly for people in motion, those who travel at high speed gain time.

The book is organized as a series of vignettes, dated throughout 1905 and separated by “interludes” in which Einstein chats with his friend Besso in Berne. But Einstein’s fantasies of various time-altered “worlds” are the attraction here, along with the metaphysical points they make. Take this picture of a world in which everyone travels at high velocity to gain time:

"A man or a woman suddenly thrust into this world would have to dodge houses and buildings. For all is in motion. Houses and apartments, mounted on wheels, go careening through Bahnhofplatz and race through the narrows of Marktgasse, their occupants shouting from second-floor windows. The post office doesn’t remain on Postgasse, but flies through the city on rails, like a train. ….Everywhere the air whines and roars with the sound of motors and locomotion. When a person comes out of his front door at sunrise, he hits the ground running, catches up with his office building, hurries up and down flights of stairs, works at a desk propelled in circles, gallops home at the end of the day…..No one is still.”

The book was widely praised when it was first published, but it took me a while to discover the small volume, which has been sitting in my library, unnoticed, for at least 10 years. What made me decide to pick it up last night? Why did Einstein have his “annus mirabilis” the same year my mother was born, the year her father died? Why did I choose to quote the paragraph above, only noting afterward that it was dated May 29, my birthday?

Tonight, still in my own private time warp, I read the short story “Germelshausen,” by Friedrich Gerstäcker, which takes place in a small German village that comes to life for one day every hundred years. I remember reading it in German when I was in high school, but then I knew it as “Das Geheimnisvollen Dorf” (the full-of-mystery village). It’s a lovely tale, used as the basis for Brigadoon. And further proof that, no matter how surely we are prisoners of mechanical time, the idea of breaking free of those chains is endlessly fascinating.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Brideshead Regurgitated

In 1947 MGM invited Evelyn Waugh to Hollywood to discuss the sale of the film rights to Brideshead Revisited. Soon after talks began, it was clear to Waugh that MGM wanted, not his masterpiece, but a Hollywood version of the story. So the talks broke down. But Waugh made the most of his trip, visiting Forest Lawn Cemetery, which inspired him to write the satirical The Loved One. This one was sold to MGM, many years later, with sorry results. Waugh hated it and probably felt relieved that he had at least kept Brideshead out of MGM’s clutches. Coincidentally, Waugh died shortly after The Loved One was released.

(Actually, Waugh didn’t sell the film rights to The Loved One to Hollywood. His agent sold them to a Mexican on the assurance that it would never be produced but would allow Waugh and Alec Guinness to enjoy a Mexican holiday together. The Mexican later sold the rights to Hollywood, infuriating Waugh.)

As a matter of fact, Waugh’s stylish prose does not translate well to film, the towering exception being the 1981 television production of Brideshead Revisited, about which more later. Sword of Honor, based on Waugh’s wartime trilogy, was made into a passable TV film, and A Handful of Dust was more than passable, but Scoop, Vile Bodies (Bright Young Things), and The Loved One were dreadful. Once the screenwriter decides to “improve” or “modernize” Waugh, the die is cast: After you remove Waugh’s brilliant prose, there is nothing left, because Evelyn Waugh wrote novels, not film treatments. (Graham Greene, on the other hand, wrote with the camera in mind, which is why The Third Man, The Heart of the Matter, Our Man in Havana, and other Greene titles were as successful as movies as they were as books.)

Writer John Mortimer, who wrote the screenplay for the widely and justly praised Brideshead Revisited miniseries (and who died only a few weeks ago) was rigorously faithful to Waugh’s novel, and this fact, plus a solid gold cast, made that production what is, in the minds of many (including me), the best piece of dramatic fiction ever put on film. Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom were Lord and Lady Marchmain, Jeremy Irons (in his breakthrough role) was Charles Ryder, John Gielgud played his father, and Anthony Andrews was Sebastian Flyte. The supporting actors, notably Simon Jones as Brideshead and Phoebe Nicholls as Cordelia Flyte, were all excellent. But the lion’s share of the credit is due John Mortimer for capturing not only the language but the spirit of the novel.

That brings me to the 2008 movie version of Brideshead Revisited. I was not expecting a production to rival the 1981 TV classic; that would be asking too much. But the lead screenwriter was Andrew Davies, well known and respected for his many Masterpiece Theater scripts, so I was not expecting a total disaster either. But that is what I got. If I had viewed the “Making Of” featurette in the bonus material, I would have been warned. “We wanted to do a contemporary reading of the novel,” said someone. Oh-oh. Translation: The producers said to the writers, “Look, Waugh leaves the relationship between Charles and Sebastian ambiguous. Let’s make them conspicuously gay, maybe have them kiss. And Waugh’s Lady Marchmain is a sympathetic if over-zealous matriarch. Bo-ring. Let’s make her a sort of a Catholic dragon lady, with a hint of Lady Macbeth."

The movie is constrained by its length (a little over two hours), so Anthony Blanche, Cordelia, Samgrass, and Boy Mulcaster are reduced to walk-ons. That’s forgivable, but not the jettisoning of the spiritual story at the heart of the novel.

For the miniseries, Mortimer was wise enough to have Charles Ryder deliver voice-overs, with the distinctive voice of Jeremy Irons intoning the elegant sentences of Waugh. Thus, when Ryder, a wartime soldier, returns to the majestic Brideshead mansion he recalls:

“I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool’s-parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendor, such as our climate affords once or twice a year, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the beauty of God; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.”

Matthew Goode, who plays Charles in the new film, looks and sounds a bit like Irons, and several other members of the cast look eerily like their earlier counterparts, with similar hairdos and costumes. And Castle Howard in Yorkshire, which became a tourist magnet a quarter century ago after it gained word-wide fame as Brideshead, is again pressed into service for the film. But these surface similarities only remind viewers who have seen the miniseries what a gulf in quality separates the two versions.

The real losers are those whose first exposure to Brideshead Revisited is the 2008 film – those who have never read the novel or seen the 1981 television production. They are to be pitied, for they will have seen a movie that is pretty lame, and they will wonder, “Why has so much been made of this very ordinary story about very unhappy people?”

In fact, the new film is probably the very film that MGM moguls wanted to make when they welcomed Evelyn Waugh to Hollywood in 1947. They might have cast Cary Grant as Charles, Jimmy Stewart as Sebastian, and Vivien Leigh as Julia. The 1947 movie would have been chaste, of course, but it would have been as soul-less as the newest version. Waugh saw it coming and fled. Too bad his estate didn’t have his good taste.

Oh, well. At least it hasn’t been made into an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Obama Presidency - Chapter One

We are scarcely one week into the Obama presidency, and the carping has begun, from both the right and the left. From the right, the beef is that he is socializing the country. The left is sore that he is not moving faster to socialize the country. With a sky-high approval rating, the President can afford to ignore the snipers on the fringes, but it is harder to ignore the extremists in Congress.

Meanwhile, “W” has gone back to the ranch, to the accompaniment of a stirring “Ave Atque Vale” from Karl Rove, who says that Bush’s unforgivable sin, in the eyes of his detractors, is that he won in Iraq. I must have missed that news bulletin. The fact is that the country is worse off, by a mile, than it was eight years ago, and, though not all of the problems were of his making, too many were. To those who quibble about the WMD deception, the hawks shift gears, insisting that “the world is a safer place with Saddam Hussein gone.” But the world, in the eyes of many, is a safer place with Cheney, Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle et al gone. As for Bush 43, he will lie low for a while, remembered by the public much as Bill Buckner was remembered in Boston.

Obama’s problem is not the sniping, but the economy. The country will have to deleverage big time, and the process will take years and be painful. Although deflation is the immediate threat, eventually Government will react the way Governments always react to economic collapses: They debase the currency. China, holding a ton of our IOUs, watches anxiously, and one wonders what on earth possessed Timothy Geithner to yank China’s chain by accusing it of currency manipulation. One expects Senator Schumer to bash the Chinese, as demagogues are wont to do, but the incoming Treasury Secretary?

Of course, when you publicly insist that the yuan is too cheap and should appreciate, what you are really saying is that the dollar is too high and should depreciate. But you can’t say that, so instead, if you are the Secretary of the Treasury, you keep blathering that a strong dollar is in the national interest.

President Obama is a smart man who no doubt is going down the presidential learning curve very fast. Here is what I suspect he has already learned:

Much as the public is fed up with bank bail-outs, there is no way to avoid more of them. Like it or not, the banking system is the ship carrying the economy, and if the ship sinks, we all sink.

China and the U.S. are now joined at the hip. Their economy needs our markets, and our economy needs their financial support. But we need them more than they need us, because their people can endure hardship better than we can. Put another way, the last thing Obama needs on his plate is a flare-up in U.S. – China tensions. (BO to TG: Cool it.)

Much of the Arab world is aghast at what Israel has done to Gaza, but that was to be expected. The reaction in Europe is another matter. The fact is that Israel has only one real supporter of substance in the world: us. None of the other major players on the world scene – not China, nor Japan, nor Europe, nor India – is interested in cosponsoring Israel. So in the community of nations, not only is Israel isolated, but on this matter we are, too. Even more dangerous, Israel may believe that it can count on our support if it strikes Iran preemptively. The chances of such a strike will increase after February 10, when the hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu will likely become Israel’s Prime Minister. “Peace is purchased from strength,” writes Netanyahu in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, overlooking the fact that Israel has enjoyed overwhelming military superiority for decades, with no peace to show for it.

Obama has already made it abundantly clear that, whatever the truculent instincts of other countries and tribes, his preference is to cool off the hot spots with diplomacy. That is a hopeful sign. Besides, what’s the alternative? Shock and awe?

Our new President also faces tough choices in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, North Korea, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and even neighboring Mexico, where drug wars infest the streets of Tijuana and Juarez. England’s economy is crumbling, and continental Europe is rethinking the wisdom of a common currency. In fact, few parts of the world do not have major problems. Why would anyone in his right mind want to be President at a time like this?

It’s the audacity of hope. The whole world is looking to the U.S. cavalry to ride to the rescue. Foreigners don’t like to admit it, but they really believe we are their only hope. That is why billions watched the inauguration on TV so hopefully. They saw more than 2 million Americans on the mall in Washington, being civil, no, friendly to each other. The week before, they saw more than 100 people standing on the wings of a half-submerged airplane in the Hudson River, as calmly as if they were waiting for a taxi at Grand Central. No pushing and shoving, no climbing over each other to get a seat on the ferry. Only in America, the world thought.

And the world was right.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


It is time, the always readable Peggy Noonan writes, to suspend disbelief. Barack Obama is really happening. What’s more, this unbelievable event gives us all a chance, a sliver of a chance, to reshape our country, to put aside the rancor, the meanness that has infected our dialogue for too long. Yes, coming together is the bromide of every political campaign, but Barack Obama really believes it. He is the most sincere, most genuine, most persuasive president-elect I have ever seen. He is either the real McCoy or the greatest con artist this country has ever seen. I vote for McCoy, because it is also time to suspend cynicism.

It is also time to pray. The country is in great trouble. It doesn’t look that way at first glance. Bread lines or soup kitchens are hardly a common sight, as they were in the Great Depression. But Wall Street has seen a few suicides, and millions of people are out of work. Mortgage foreclosures are epidemic, and other shoes (commercial real estate, credit cards, car loans) have yet to fall. The patient’s condition is serious, and we need a seriously capable leader, and I think we may have one starting Tuesday.

Much is made of Franklin Roosevelt’s heroics in the 1930s, and he does deserve full credit for making people think they were better off while the unemployment rate kept climbing. My parents, life-long Democrats, believed in FDR and bought into the New Deal and the WPA and all the rest. Today it’s easy to be cynical about Roosevelt, but consider this: Let’s say that nothing he could have done would have pulled us out of the Depression in the 30s (my view, as it happens). Now, would the public have been any happier without all those fireside chats and soaring speeches? Or would revolution have been in the air? There is much to be said for an inspirational leader. If the leader is also wise (like, say, Washington or Lincoln or Churchill), so much the better.

There is also much to be said for a leader who is unflappable in a crisis. We need a president who will deal with a global financial meltdown the way Captain Sullenberger dealt with losing both engines of his A320 – calmly, professionally. Barack Obama is one cool cat, as they used to say ages ago, and it is impossible to imagine him losing his composure when it is most needed.

I am also naturally drawn to Obama because he is a man of words, a gifted writer and orator. When was the last time we had a president who treated the language with respect, who delivered sentences and phrases and whole paragraphs as if they were music? Yes, he has a speechwriter, but Obama will be the master of the Oval Office rhetoric, and he will craft the structure and vocabulary and cadence of what he delivers.

So, Peggy, I will gladly suspend disbelief Tuesday. More than that, I will watch the pageantry with a sense of awe and a prayer that, no matter how high the expectations surrounding Barack Obama, he will exceed them.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Sitting on my night table is a remote digital thermometer, which receives signals from an outside sensor and converts them into temperature readings so that each morning when I wake up I can see what I am store for (this time of year in Maine, the news is usually bad). As far as I can tell, it is accurate, and the digits are big enough so that I don’t need my glasses, so I am generally a happy customer. But the thermometer also includes an alarm function, so that every day at noon it chimes for two minutes. Or, to quote my wife, “it goes ding-ding. Fred, it is going ding-ding. Why is it going ding-ding?”

I have read every word of the instruction sheet, and I have concluded that there is no way to turn off the ding-ding. It is a software bug. Either that or Taylor Instrument has forgotten to tell users how to shut the damn thing up.

If this were an isolated instance of digital mischief, I could understand. But I am afraid it is worse than that. All the digital devices in the house have mounted a mutiny, which has grown worse since the protracted power outage caused by an ice storm a few weeks ago. The microwave oven goes berserk almost every day. One minute it works fine, the next minute it quits, and no amount of poking the controls will produce any response. Then, an hour or two later, it comes back to life. Unplugging it, as the manual suggests, doesn’t cure the problem. Nor does the addition of a surge protector. It works when it jolly well feels like working.

A digital picture frame also has a mind of its own, firing up at odd times without human intervention. A possible explanation, according to the manufacturer’s on-line service technician, is that it speaks PC, and I speak Mac when I load pictures from iPhoto. Then there is my wife’s computer-controlled sewing machine, which, after years of faithful service, decided that buttonholing was something it just didn’t want to do any more.

My wife talked darkly of mischievous “little men” inside these digital devices. I used to laugh at this; now I am not so sure.

Next month, we are all forewarned, analog television signals will go the way of 45-rpm records, and a new day of digital bliss will dawn. Digital signals, the FCC and the consumer electronics industry tell us, will give us better picture quality and open up lots of ancillary services. (Most of all, they don’t tell us, they will resuscitate sagging sales at Best Buy and Radio Shack.)

The other day I played an old tape cassette on a good tape deck into a very good analog amplifier, which fed a pair of very good old speakers. It was a tape of Melissa Manchester singing old classics, starting with “Over The Rainbow.” And I heard sound I have never heard from my CD collection or my iHome player or any of the digital wonders that bedeck my entertainment center. The timber, the bass, the color were beyond anything the digital equipment could emulate. It was beautiful.

I will go along with the digital revolution, because I have to. Analog computers lost the battle a long time ago, and if we want all the benefits of the computer age we must be willing to put up with the occasional mutiny and the ding-dings. But I will keep my old analog gear, my old tape cassettes, and my old original cast albums on LP records, so that every so often I can listen to full-bodied music and not just digital slices.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Wanted: 10,000 Entrepreneurs

Barack Obama, who will become our President next week, puts his economic philosophy this way: “It depends on whether you want to reward wealth or reward the workers who create wealth.” That’s a standard Democratic mantra, for which he can be forgiven. But there is another subset of the population that is overlooked in both the Democratic and Republican catechisms. It is a tiny subset, but it is the subset we must depend on if we are to extract ourselves from a recession that could become a depression.

I am talking about the people who have the vision, knowledge, and leadership skills to create dynamic new companies.

Vision: Some people have a sixth sense that tells them where the markets are headed and what responses will best exploit the coming trends. These people are not infallible, and sometimes they get it wrong, but when they do they cut their losses and start again, because it’s in their DNA. Of course, to act on their vision they need

Knowledge: If the vision involves electronics, they must know electronics. If it involves pharmaceuticals, they must know medicine. Because we are talking about business opportunities, they must know the nuts and bolts of business, including finance and sales and, probably, manufacturing. Then, to give their new company critical mass, they need

Leadership skills. All the vision and knowledge in the world are useless without the ability to find, engage, motivate, and retain a work force that understands the dream and is inspired by it. We are talking now about communication skills, plus the indefinable quality that a platoon leader shows when he tells his troops “Follow me!” – and they do.

It is clear that we are talking about a rare combination of qualities. In many cases the visionary lacks one of the essentials, so a partner is found. Thus Dave Packard joined Bill Hewlett to found H-P, Larry Page joined Sergey Brin to found Google, Bob Noyce joined Gordon Moore to found Intel. Exceptional people all, and it is often impossible to know exactly which qualities were contributed by each member of the team.

Such people are a rare breed, much rarer than most people realize. (I worked for such a person for 27 years, so I know whereof I speak.) My guess is that in the whole United States there are no more than 10,000 people (and that's a generous estimate) who have the potential to create (or co-create) companies of substance. A few can create industries, and these are the rarest of the rare.

So, President-Elect Obama, don’t worry about rewarding capital or labor. That’s yesterday’s story. Concentrate on finding and motivating the 10,000 people who have the magic touch that can create a Google or an Intel or a Microsoft (or, for that matter, a Wal-Mart). You may say that education is the key, so we must have better schools. But that process takes years, and we need solutions now. The 10,000 are out there. Some have founded small companies and failed. Their next venture may be the next “new thing.” Some may be looking for the right partner. Some may need funding, just when the venture capitalists have gone missing. You can help, maybe. You could, for a start, sit down with someone like Steve Jobs or Larry Page for a brainstorming session on the subject of entrepreneurism. You need – we need - those 10,000 people in a hurry.