July 29, 2014
A laugh-out-loud moment
I am very much enjoying Charles Moore's biography of Margaret Thatcher, extremely well-written and full of detail that reminds me of Britain as it was when I went there in 1973 for what turned out to be 25 years. After she was elected to Parliament, Labour won an election in 1964, which meant that Maggie became a shadow spokesman instead of an influence. Moore quotes her:
Living in Britain during the entire Thatcher period was a terrific education. I remain a Democrat, a liberal and a union member, but I will define the terms, if you please: I know what words like "liberal", "conservative", "socialist" etc are supposed to mean. (Which is why I try to remember to write "American so-called conservative" when I write about certain of my fellows.) I didn't particularly like Mrs Thatcher; she seemed to be a rather shrill Philistine, and in the end she made foolish mistakes, but it was easy to see that she was what Britain needed at the time.
Moore's book is a marvellous read, and when he was editor of the Spectator, that was a golden age too.
July 29, 2014
Antonio Villaraigosa, the former mayor of Los Angeles, is a Democrat, a supporter of labor unions, and all that good stuff. On July 21 he published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal called "Why Are Teachers Unions So Opposed to Change?" in which he seemed to say that teachers are hired and paid and laid off just like factory workers.
I was happy and proud to belong to the United Auto Workers during the 1960s, when I worked in Mitt Romney's father's car factory. For years I worked on assembly lines, doing the same repetitive task over and over, sometimes above ground (installing the headlights) and sometimes in the pit (starting the nut that held the steering linkage onto the end of the steering column, then tightening it up with a huge air-powered wrench). It was not soul-destroying work, either, I hasten to add; one laughed and joked and talked with one's co-workers: I remember telling one kid dozens of stories I had read, finally realizing that the reason he enjoyed this so much was that he was illiterate, and had never read stories for himself. But the point is that anybody can be taught to do these repetitive tasks. We needed a union like the UAW to look out for us proles, balancing the power of Wall Street and big corporations in one corner, and the government in another. It all worked fine for decades in the USA.
Then I accidentally heard some good lectures, and decided that that I needed to leave the car factory and go to college after all, a so-called "mature student" (ha!). I had to choose a field of study, and decided to major in education, for several reasons: it is an important area; it might have qualified me for a job if I wanted to teach, and I was curious to find out why education in Kenosha had basically bored my pants off in the 1950s. In the end I obtained an honors degree, which meant I had a very good grade-point average, having got a few A grades for the first time in my life, basically for reading books that I wanted to read anyway.
But I did not teach, except for a small amount of student teaching, and two weeks in the London Borough of Mitcham and Morden, as I think it was then called. (Again, Charles Moore's book about Margaret Thatcher brings it all back: she was Minister of Education under Ted Heath just as the British were raising the school-leaving age and allowing comprehensives [American-style high schools] to take over from the time-honored grammar-school system, probably a mistake of which Thatcher did not entirely approve.] It was apparent to me that I was not cut out to be a teacher. Oh, I could have done very well with a small class of kids who needed remedial reading, but that kind of job was not on offer, and there was no way I could ride herd on a roomful of 30 or 40 kids whose parents in some cases didn't care whether they went to school at all. Before I went to Britain, in a wonderful suburban middle school in Madison WIsconsin, and then in Hope near Wrexham, a village in North Wales, and then in South London, I saw very good dedicated teachers, and I was old enough to know that I was not one of them.
The point is that teachers are not like factory workers, and if their unions insist that they are employed that way -- last in last out, seniority rules, everyone paid the same whether they are any good at their jobs or not -- then the unions need to be brought up short. That would be a necessary part of the solution to the problem of education in the USA in the 21st century.
July 22, 2014
The criminal regime in Russia
The criminal Russian regime steals its own people blind and ships the money out of the country, buying penthouses in Manhattan, football teams, yachts, whatever; we know which banks are laundering the money, but we do nothing about it.
The criminal Russian regime bombs Grozny flat, creating a generation of hopeless young people who think nothing of bombing a marathon in Boston, but we do nothing about it. The regime murders its perceived enemies, businessmen, journalists, whistle-blowers and so on, and even murders them on foreign soil, and we do nothing about it. The regime enables thugs and hoodlums to destabilize other sovereign nations, and we do nothing about it. Now they have shot down a civilian airliner, murdering 298 innocent people, and we do nothing about it.
Many Russians evidently believe what they are told by their tightly-controlled television; there are independent voices in Russia, to say nothing of the Internet, but like most people, Russians believe whatever they see on a screen. Russia is half in and half out of the modern western world; the criminal regime depends on its oil and gas to keep it afloat, but that isn't going to last forever; Russia wants to do business with the West, and it would be easy to put the pinch on them and make them behave without a single boot on the ground, but we continue to cooperate with a criminal regime.
I saw President Obama on TV, and remembered why I voted for him. Twice. He speaks well. But I am now remembering the words of Milton in his Areopagitica:
July 19, 2014
The French economist Thomas Piketty has published a best-seller -- imagine a 645-page book about economics becoming a best-seller! -- called Capital In The Twenty-FIrst Century. He has examined statistics going back to the French revolution, able to go back that far because that's when France began keeping meticulous records, and he seems to demonstrate something that Marx probably already knew: if capitalism is unregulated, the value of capital will increase faster than the value of labor.
That's why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The 20th century was disfigured by two terrible world wars, the worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s and much else, but now that things are getting back to what passes for normal, we are seeing increasing economic inequality, as we were seeing it a hundred years ago.
Needless to say, the so-called American "conservatives" don't like the news. A couple of weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal, somebody from the Cato Institute cried that Piketty's statistics are wrong, at least as far as the USA is concerned, because something or other wasn't taxed 40 years ago, but is now, and something else was taxed 40 years ago, but isn't now. As so often, the Times Literary Supplement is more reliable. in its June 27 issue, a long, fascinating review of Piketty's book by Duncan Kelly includes this:
Just so. The middle class in the USA is losing confidence in its own country and there simply aren't enough decent jobs for ordinary folks, no matter what sort of blinders some people choose to wear.
July 19, 2014
The beasts who fired the missile
It is clear that the Russians have supplied anti-aircraft missiles to the thugs and criminals who are causing all the trouble in eastern Ukraine, and that they have shot down a civilian airliner, killing nearly 300 people. Fritz Plous has a good idea:
Ah, but that would take a president with some guts. Once again I wish I could vote for Harry Truman. Does anyone remember the Berlin airlift?
July 17, 2014
Fame at last
Anton Garcia-Fernandez, a professor of Spanish at the University of Tennessee at Martin, is also a music fan. He has been interviewing me about my biography of Frank Sinatra for his website, and I think it's turning out rather well. You can see it here.
July 17, 2014
We've just spent a week in Kansas City with our pals John and Nancy McGee, and we are more than ever convinced that we'd like to live there. We visited the Truman library in Independence, and had lots of good eats and drinks. Boulevard's Double-Wide IPA is about as good a beer as I have ever had out of a bottle, and Q39 (on 39th Street in Kansas City Missouri) serves the best BBQ we have had since leaving Texas.
July 9, 2014
Back in the early 1990s, browsing in a bookstore in Washington DC with a pal, Larry Miller, he pointed out David McCullough's biography of Harry Truman, then a recent best-seller, and told me what a good book it was. I've been intending to read it ever since -- over 20 years! -- and recently, visiting another friend, David Seeler, on Long Island, David gave me his copy. (Like me, David has too many books.)
Well, it's almost 1,000 pages long, not counting the index, and I've just finished it. I wasn't been able to put it down. Here is one of the most striking parts, from Truman's last State of the Union address, before he left the White House in 1952:
What a man he was, and what a great American! A bright farm boy from Missouri who loved to read, and especially loved history, he served memorably in the First World War, became part of the Pendergast political machine in Kansas City without being tarnished by it, and ended up President of the United States almost by accident, winning a tremendous upset victory in 1948, and serving almost two full terms.
He knew what the Cold War was going to be about from the beginning. He knew that we had to go into Korea -- to keep our guard up -- and also that we had to keep each "police action" from exploding into a world war. And he knew that Soviet Communism was a house of cards, yet when it eventually collapsed, Ronald Reagan got the credit. And he might not have cared who got the credit.
Would that we had such leaders today.
July 8, 2014
One of the things the papers are flapping about is the Export-Import Bank, a GSE (Government Sponsored Enterprise) that helps companies trying to export goods and services: should its charter be renewed or should it be abolished? The myopic Tea Party types are screaming corporate welfare! which is yet more evidence that they live in la-la land, where the playing fields are equal. One correspondent in the Wall Street Journal writes,
A James McDevitt had written an op-ed about his business, much smaller that Boeing: "My Company Depends on the Ex-Im Bank". Another letter-writer composes several long paragraphs questioning why banks don't step up to help Mr. McDevitt if his product is in demand overseas:
That's because there isn't any logic. The banks are sitting on trillions of dollars that they are not investing. They are not creating anything, let alone jobs, because they want bigger and faster returns than they can get from investing in solid American businesses, even if their bigger and faster returns soon turn to ashes and smoke, like bundles of toxic mortgages. The banks are not your friend. The banks are very very stupid.
July 8, 2014
Way back around 1950 Walter Reuther and the auto manufacturers invented the modern version of the group health insurance plan for members of the United Auto Workers. Reuther saw that if you had a large enough group to insure, with (mostly older) people who go to the doctor a lot and (younger) people who rarely go to the doctor, the insurance premiums could be lower for everybody. He wanted a group plan to cover all his members, but the car companies wouldn't go for it, afraid that saving everybody money would give the union too much power, so there had to be separate group plans for Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Nash, Hudson, Studebaker etc etc. Even so, group plans worked well for decades, and should have been a model for a national insurance plan for the whole country. But the USA was and still is too obnoxious to do the sensible thing.
There was no cherry-picking: each group plan had to be the same for everybody, otherwise it wouldn't have worked. Now we have a ragbag called the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, which nobody likes, because we can't get what we want, which is a national group plan. But my grandson, who is diabetic, has health insurance for the first time in his life, so Obamacare is an improvement over nothing. I guess Obamacare provides group plans for employers, perhaps depending on how many employees they have; I don't know the details; but now the idiots on the Supreme Court have enabled cherry-picking for the obnoxious among us.
Someone called Davis, who runs a chain of shops called Hobby Lobby, objected to some of the provision for birth control advice that could be supplied to his employees, believing that the "morning after" pill and the intrauterine device amount to abortion of a fertilized egg. Doctors and scientists say that these methods are in fact intended to prevent fertilization, not to abort anything, but the (deeply divided) Supremes decided that Davis's religious beliefs, if "sincerely held", whether they are right or wrong, entitled him to cherry-pick the new health insurance provision. Never mind that none of his employees would have been forced to accept any sort of birth control advice whatsoever, or that some of his employees might have wished to do so.
I seem to remember people disapproving of the Vietnam War refusing to pay taxes to support it, on account of their sincerely held religious belief that "Thou shalt not kill". I can't think of anything more fundamental than the Ten Commandments, but it didn't work back then. Maybe we are becoming stupider by the decade.
July 8, 2014
Yesterday I had a rant from an old friend about what he reads in the papers:
I agree with him absolutely, which is probably why I do not blog every day. What is the point? Why bother? Some children in Syria were shot at for painting graffiti on walls; locals objected, and Bashar could have solved the problem very easily with some generous local diplomacy. Instead he enabled a civil war which has costs tens of thousands of lives and destabilized the whole Middle East. He's a doctor for heaven's sake, and he couldn't pour water out of a boot if it had the instructions on the heel.
After several wonderful years at Rodale in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, as editor-in-chief of Organic Gardening magazine, winning awards from the industry every year for her work, Ethne has been bounced. As she says, it was a "business decision", full stop. The upside is that we don't have to live in Pennsylvania any longer, which has nuisance taxes, silly alcohol laws, a legislature which is even more expensive than that of California, where there are three times as many people, and where our favorite supermarket doesn't even know what a doughnut is. (They call them friedcakes, and make them with sour cream.) So we are off to Kansas City for a week, where we have lots of friends, to have a look around. We are Midwesterners, and I guess we just can't stay away, since we can't afford California.
Meanwhile I am still beavering away at loading up my computer with music so I can get rid of some CDs and a lot of vinyl (there will be less stuff to move). In the last week I have filled up a playlist with the work of Robert Parker, an Australian who was one of the first back in the 1980s to use digital methods to clean up old 78s, then bestowing his own "digital stereo" effect. He had a BBC radio program and the Beeb put out quite a lot of his work on vinyl, CDs and cassettes. Some of it was exquisite: I think of Paul Whiteman's "San" (1928), which had little to do with Whiteman; the pianist and arranger was the wonderful Bill Challis, and the tentet included Bix Beiderbeck, Jimmy Dorsey and Frank Trumbauer. Then Barney Bigard and his Jazzopators, a Duke Ellington small group, recorded the delightful "Frolic Sam" in 1936: both of these came up sounding like they were recorded last week.
But on a sampler CD, Parker introduced his own work with the classic duet "Weather Bird", by Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines (1928). First he played a bit of an old 78, which sounded like an old 78; then he played his cleaned-up version, which sounded splendid, and then he played his stereoized version, laying on his electronic gimmick with a trowel: it was completely ruined with bags of echo.
But I cherry-picked my Parker LPs, and saved the best one for last: a compilation called Kansas City. I hadn't looked at it for some time, and it was a big disappointment. For one thing, ten of the 18 tracks are by Bennie Moten's band, which would be fine, except that Moten is pretty easy to find. Then there was one track by Walter Page's Blue Devils, a classic tentet that contained the nucleus of what later became the Count Basie band; it only made two recordings: why couldn't Parker have given us both sides of the record? The legendary George E. Lee and his Orchestra made six sides in 1929; the pianist and arranger was the very talented Jesse Stone, who had a fascinating career, ending up 25 years later calling himself Charles Calhoun and writing stuff like "Shake Rattle And Roll" at Atlantic Records. But of George E. Lee we get only one track, "Passeo Strut", which is the same one we always get. There is no Julia Lee, George's sister, whose career of double-entendre R&B lasted until well into the 1950s; there's no Harlan Leonard and his Rockets, who recorded for RCA in 1940...
And worst of all, the whole thing is drenched in echo, making all the tracks sound like they were recorded from a distance in an empty hangar at a disused airport. Oh, well... If I become a late-night radio host in Kansas City I'll just have to search the rest of my collection.
June 27, 2014
Eli Wallach RIP
The great American actor Eli Wallach has died, aged 98. Some of the obits pointed out that he was already famous on Broadway before he made his first film. But nobody mentioned the fact that Wallach had been in the running for the part of Maggio in From Here To Eternity in 1953. Hollywood thought that Wallach's screen test was the best, but Frank Sinatra has his friends and his then-wife Ava Gardner rooting for him; he got the part and won an Oscar for it, and it was the beginning of the best comeback in show-business history.
Wallach himself said, “In the theater, I’m the little man or the irritated man, the misunderstood man,” while in films, “I do seem to keep getting cast as the bad guys.” His real home was on the stage, but his most famous film role was as the bad in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, the famous spaghetti western, and he was also a baddie in The Magnificent Seven. Maggio was a sympathetic character who was beaten to death by a bully; Wallach's first film was Baby Doll, in 1956, a Tennessee Williams screenplay awash with sleaze.
If Wallach had got the part of Maggio, both his and Sinatra's careers might have been very different.
June 26, 2014
The Russian democracy
Tribune Newspapers reports:
So the Russian parliament does whatever Putin tells it to do, and he doesn't even bother to get its permission to send Russian troops into another sovereign nation until after he's done it. Who does he think he's fooling, and do the members of parliament bother to show up for work, or do they just phone it in?
June 25, 2014
The ever-present State
I remember reading some years ago about a concert pianist who shipped an antique piano around with her. It was French, I think, the best part of 200 years old, and finally on one occasion when she was bringing it back into the USA, customs wanted to confiscate it and destroy it, because it had ivory keys. I don't know how that turned out.
Tomorrow, according to yesterday's Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will ban the sale, trade, import or export of anything made of ivory. All antiques, musical instruments, any objects made of or decorated with ivory, in public or private collections, collectively worth hundred of millions of dollars, will become worthless. Ethne has an ivory letter-opener which she acquired from an aunt in England, and which she brought to this country in 1998; if she gives it to a cousin or sells it at a flea market she will be breaking the law. Yesterday the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs was supposed to discuss this nonsense; we can hope against hope that they put the kibosh on it.
But the sheer amount of unaccountable regulatory overreach in this country is reaching disastrous proportions. In today's paper, Nelson Obus has written an op-ed about the Securities and Exchange Commission trying to browbeat his Wynnefield Capital into settling a case of insider trading, which would have effectively admitted guilt; on May 30th a jury in a federal courtroom in Manhattan finally found him, his investment company and his co-defendants innocent of any wrongdoing. Wynnefield is small as such companies go, but it took 12 years and more than $12 million to get a government agency off their backs.
It remains to be seen whether the entire country will seize up before Congress comes to its senses and starts doing its job. I'm not holding my breath. Meanwhile, a great many of the tea-party people may be bird-brains, but I'm having more and more sympathy for them.
June 24, 2014
The Baffler No. 25
Maybe capitalism has finally reached the stage of self-parody, unblushingly celebrating a house-of-cards as its highest achievement.