Monday, November 30, 2009

Making Obama Right - Or Not

For months now I’ve been troubled by what Obama has done – or not done. I know there are plenty of culprits I can use to get Obama off the hook:


Conservative Zealots


Foreign Governments


The Economy

Wall Street


The Media

Etc., Etc., Etc.

The list is endless.

But it hasn’t worked. I continue to be troubled/annoyed/pissed off/disappointed. I can blame myself for having an expectation that Obama would be the catalyst who would really turn things around. I felt hopeful. Hopeful in the face of my skepticism and cynicism about anyone’s ability to fundamentally change a system that is self-serving and broken.

As a society, the last time common interest trumped self-interest was during World War II. Most of today’s Americans weren’t even born. It is natural to think “What’s in it for me?” That’s not the problem. Our leaders have been selfish. Our elected representatives have been more interested in preserving and perpetuating their positions than in serving the people. Our business leaders, pillars of the capitalism that makes us swell with pride, have behaved the same way. How can anyone be surprised to see that Wall St. cares little about Main St.?

The system is broken because there’s no way we can fix it. Money rules. No one in power has the guts to challenge the status quo. Election districts are gerrymandered to guarantee reelection, so the evil has a life of its own. We are held hostage to special interests. It’s the rule of the minority. You’ve got a cause? Great, run with it. Doesn’t matter what it is. Another endless list: Abortion, taxes, Israel, deficits, regulation, the bogeyman of socialism, religion, unions, etc., etc., etc.

Okay. Back to the point. Even with all the roadblocks and circumstances over which he has no control I’m not willing to let Obama off the hook. He needs to be held to account for the promises he made. Yes, I’m responsible for the expectations I personally created, but he has to walk the talk, his own talk. That’s his job.

I’ve rationalized the incomplete nature of his tenure so far by thinking maybe he knows better. He’s been cool in the past in the face of a clamor that he be different. Maybe he can pull off some wizardry, some Zen-like solution the rest of us didn’t see. I still hope that’s going to happen. But I, like so many others, are no longer willing to accept it on faith. I don’t worry about the 20% or so of Americans who will oppose and dislike Obama no matter what he does. I am concerned about the loss of support from Independents and disillusioned Democrats. The more of us who leave the fold the more difficult it will be for Obama to get anything done.

Recently I’ve become concerned about attitudes outside the U.S. I was under the impression that he was still held in high esteem overseas. The other day I saw that his approval rating among Israelis was 4%. I thought it must be a typo. Maybe they meant 40%. Nope. It was 4%. That’s probably less than the margin of error in the poll. Today I saw that while Obama may still be liked in the Muslim world, America isn’t. Approval ratings are in the toilet. It’s a trend that we’re seeing more and more wherever we look.

Henry Kissinger said that Obama is playing about six chess matches all at the same time, and it would be good if he could finish one of them. Tomorrow he’ll tell us his plans for Afghanistan. I’d like to see him persuade me he’s taking the right course of action, but I think the odds are small. And that’s really the proof of what I’m saying here. A few months ago my expectation would have been that he was going to tell me something I’d favor.

I hope my disappointment is short-lived. I really do.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Black Friday

I don’t know when people began calling the day after Thanksgiving Black Friday.

Wikipedia has several opinions on the subject, none of which helps much. Some say it refers to a financial crisis dating back to 1869. Others tell us the term was first used in 1965 to describe a horrendous traffic jam in Philadelphia the day after Thanksgiving. In 1975, also from Philadelphia, bus drivers report hordes of shoppers were causing traffic congestion on the day between Thanksgiving and the Army-Navy game on Saturday. All these explanations are ridiculous.

A more plausible explanation is that one year, contrary to expectations, sales the day after Thanksgiving were very good. This put retailers in the black and led to a profitable Xmas shopping season. Thus “Black Friday.” The trouble with this theory is that when most people hear Black Friday, they think it means something negative.

Okay. So much for getting to the bottom of it. Do I care? No, not at all. I rarely buy things in large stores. I go out of my way to avoid crowds of shoppers. I don’t salivate at the thought of big savings. The prospect of competing with overweight women in narrow aisles hell-bent on snagging the hottest fad for their little darlings has all the allure of bouncing between Dante’s Fourth Circle of Hell (Avarice) and his Seventh Circle (Violence). Arrghhh!!

One of the great gifts of the 21st Century is Internet shopping. I sit in the quiet of my office. At my own pace I search for what I want. I can compare quality and price from sellers around the country – or even around the world. A few clicks later and my job is done. A few days later the doorbell rings and my package is here.

And I can do it all on Black Friday if I want. Now that’s Nirvana.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Marsh Week

We just completed the 36th Annual Marsh Week – an extended celebration of Ms Sandra Marsh’s birthday. It didn’t take me long after we met back in 1974 to realize how much attention she has on November 18. Clearly, a single event celebration would be insufficient. So I created Marsh Week, a series of special activities to mark the occasion. The details were a secret. She would only be told what time we’d begin and how I thought she should dress.

We’ve had many wonderful Marsh Weeks. (She returned the favor by setting up Miller Fest around my birthday in February.) When we were in New York we’d often include visits to the theater or ballet. In San Francisco we’ve focused on food, wine and special friends. As an added bonus I’ll do chores that we normally share. And if, for example, we are going to watch something on TV, instead of agreeing on what it’s going to be, the person being honored gets to choose.

In what is a counterintuitive result, I’ve found I feel a sense of freedom when I just let her have her way. I don’t need to expend any energy by being part of the decision-making process. When I asked her if she too felt this sense of freedom she said it isn’t quite the experience she has when the role is reversed. Oh, well . . .

Leading up to her birthday this year Sandra told me that this was a particularly meaningful one. It was #70. For her this was a really big deal. Well, thought I, I need to rise to the occasion. I’d begin by lengthening Marsh Week to ten days – a week bookended by two weekends. There would be three major events – 1) a dinner I’d prepare here at the house for Sandra and four special friends, 2) a dinner at Manresa, a restaurant she loves but I resist going to because it is in Los Gatos, about 60 miles away, and 3) a dinner again here at home where the guests would be her mother and siblings.

Day 1 and Day 10 would again revolve around dinner. She loves having steak and great wine from our cellar, usually a cab followed by French cheese and sauterne. I bar-b-q the steak. So that’s what we did to begin and end the festivities. On Day 1 we drank a ’95 Colgin cab and finished with a ’75 Y’Quem. It doesn’t get any better than that. On Day 10 we had a ‘95 Araujo cab and an ‘83 Rayne Vigneau. Wonderful.

Sandra was generous in letting me know how much she enjoyed and appreciated Marsh Week 36. I loved it as much as she did.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Confluence of Conflicting Confusion

Disagreements are common. Most of us most of the time line up with one side or the other. We usually agree with the view that most closely matches our view. We don’t spend much time trying to find a reason to disprove what we already think.

Yes, we could search for opposing points of view on the 24/7 TV shows that are really yelling contests masquerading as news. But they generate more heat than light and are boring. Once in a while, though, and usually by accident, I find intelligent people looking at the same facts and reaching diametrically opposed conclusions. I nod approvingly as I read what one has to say and I nod approvingly as I read what the other has to say.

It happened this morning. A couple of inches apart on the same Op-Ed page Paul Krugman and David Brooks addressed what is fundamentally the same subject. I knew beforehand that they see the world through different lenses, so I wasn’t surprised at what they wrote. While I often don’t agree with them I find that they’re both worth reading. I usually learn something in the process.

Later in my morning reading I found a tag line for these two columns. On the front page of the Wall St. Journal is a picture of a stern Tim Geithner during a Congressional hearing yesterday with the following caption: Treasury chief Geithner faced a House Republican who told him, ‘The public has lost all confidence in your ability to do the job.’ He shot back: ‘What I can’t take responsibility for is the legacy of crises you’ve bequeathed this country.’

Read these columns and you’ll see what I mean.

November 20, 2009


The Big Squander


Earlier this week, the inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a k a, the bank bailout fund, released his report on the 2008 rescue of the American International Group, the insurer. The gist of the report is that government officials made no serious attempt to extract concessions from bankers, even though these bankers received huge benefits from the rescue. And more than money was lost. By making what was in effect a multibillion-dollar gift to Wall Street, policy makers undermined their own credibility — and put the broader economy at risk.

For the A.I.G. rescue was part of a pattern: Throughout the financial crisis key officials — most notably Timothy Geithner, who was president of the New York Fed in 2008 and is now Treasury secretary — have shied away from doing anything that might rattle Wall Street. And the bitter paradox is that this play-it-safe approach has ended up undermining prospects for economic recovery. For the job of fixing the broken economy is far from done — yet finishing the job has become nearly impossible now that the public has lost faith in the government’s efforts, viewing them as little more than handouts to the people who got us into this mess.

About the A.I.G. affair: During the bubble years, many financial companies created the illusion of financial soundness by buying credit-default swaps from A.I.G. — basically, insurance policies in which A.I.G. promised to make up the difference if borrowers defaulted on their debts. It was an illusion because the insurer didn’t have remotely enough money to make good on its promises if things went bad. And sure enough, things went bad.

So why protect bankers from the consequences of their errors? Well, by the time A.I.G.’s hollowness became apparent, the world financial system was on the edge of collapse and officials judged — probably correctly — that letting A.I.G. go bankrupt would push the financial system over that edge. So A.I.G. was effectively nationalized; its promises became taxpayer liabilities.

But was there any way to limit those liabilities? After all, banks would have suffered huge losses if A.I.G. had been allowed to fail. So it seemed only fair for them to bear part of the cost of the bailout, which they could have done by accepting a “haircut” on the amounts A.I.G. owed them. Indeed, the government asked them to do just that. But they said no — and that was the end of the story. Taxpayers not only ended up honoring foolish promises made by other people, they ended up doing so at 100 cents on the dollar.

Could things have been different? Some commentators argue that government officials had no way to force the banks to accept a haircut — either they let A.I.G. go bankrupt, which they weren’t ready to do, or they had to honor its contracts as written.

But this seems like a naïve view of how Wall Street works. Major financial firms are a small club, with a shared interest in sustaining the system; ever since the days of J.P. Morgan, it has been common in times of crisis to call on the big players to forgo short-term profits for the industry’s common good. Back in 1998, it was a consortium of private bankers — not the government — that put up the funds to rescue the hedge fund Long Term Capital Management.

Furthermore, big financial firms have a long-term relationship, both with the government and with each other, and can pay a price if they act selfishly in times of crisis. Bear Stearns, the investment bank, earned itself a lot of ill will by refusing to participate in that 1998 rescue, and it’s widely believed that this ill will played a major factor in the demise of Bear Stearns itself, 10 years later.

So officials could have called on bankers to offer a better deal, for their own sake, and simultaneously threatened to name and shame those who balked. It was their choice not to do that, just as it was their choice not to push for more control over bailed-out banks in early 2009.

And, as I said, these seemingly safe choices have now placed the economy in grave danger.

For the economy is still in deep trouble and needs much more government help. Unemployment is in double-digits; we desperately need more government spending on job creation. Banks are still weak, and credit is still tight; we desperately need more government aid to the financial sector. But try to talk to an ordinary voter about this, and the response you’re likely to get is: “No way. All they’ll do is hand out more money to Wall Street.”

So here’s the real tragedy of the botched bailout: Government officials, perhaps influenced by spending too much time with bankers, forgot that if you want to govern effectively you have retain the trust of the people. And by treating the financial industry — which got us into this mess in the first place — with kid gloves, they have squandered that trust.

November 20, 2009


What Geithner Got Right


It’s amazing to go back and read what people were saying about Timothy Geithner in the spring. Many people said he looked terrified as the Treasury secretary, like Bambi in the headlights. The New Republic ran an essay called “The Geithner Disaster.” Portfolio magazine ran a brutal, zeitgeist-capturing profile that concluded by comparing Geithner to Robert Redford’s hollow man character in “The Candidate.”

The criticism of his plan to stabilize the financial system came from all directions. House Republicans called it radical. Many liberal economists thought the plan was the product of hapless, zombie thinking and argued that only full bank nationalization would end the crisis. The Wall Street Journal asked 49 economists to grade Geithner. They gave him an F.

Well, the evidence of the past eight months suggests that Geithner was mostly right and his critics were mostly wrong. The financial sector is in much better shape than it was then. TARP money is being repaid, and the debate now is what to do with the billions that were never needed. It now seems clear that nationalization would have been an unnecessary mistake — potentially expensive and dangerously disruptive.

The course of events has vindicated the administration’s handling of its first big challenge. Obama could have flinched when the torrent of criticism was at its peak. But the president’s support for Geithner never wavered. Geithner never lost confidence in his policy. Rahm Emanuel mobilized to improve the presentation of the policy. The political team worked hard to deflect criticism from Geithner onto themselves.

In retrospect, their performance during this trial was impressive.

Events also vindicate Geithner’s basic policy instincts. The criticism back then was that Geithner was neither bold nor visionary. He was too cautious, too much the insider and bureaucrat.

But this prudence was the key to his effectiveness. In interviews and testimony, Geithner uses the word “balance” a lot. He talks about finding the right balance point between competing priorities. He also talks like a historian who sees common tendencies in certain contexts, not a philosopher who seeks clear general principles that apply across contexts.

This mentality makes it hard for him to project bold conviction, but it makes him flexible in the face of specific problems. When financial confidence is cratering, Geithner concluded, government should generally be as aggressive as possible, as early as possible. At the same time, it should try not to do things that the market does better, like set prices or run companies.

Geithner’s path was a middling one, but it helped the country muddle toward recovery.

If you wanted to step back and define Geithner’s philosophy, you’d probably say that he starts with a set of fairly conservative instincts about the role of government, which put him on the centrist edge of the Democratic Party.

In an interview on Wednesday, for example, I asked Geithner what government could do to help promote innovation. Usually when I ask leaders that, they reel off some cool technologies that government should promote — windmills, nanotechnology, etc. Often they sound like children trying to play at being entrepreneurs. Geithner didn’t do that. He said that government’s limited job was to get the underlying incentives right so the market could figure out what innovations work best. That suggests a pretty constrained view of government’s role.

On the other hand, you would also have to say that Geithner, like many top members of the Obama economic team, is extremely context-sensitive. He’s less defined by any preset political doctrine than by the situation he happens to find himself in.

In the next few months, Geithner will be confronted with a cross-cutting set of pressures. First, the need to reduce the deficits, which is uppermost on his mind. Second, the rising populism in Congress, which has to be battled sometimes and appeased sometimes by an administration that hopes to get things passed. Third, intense public cynicism about government, which means that every debate is washed in negativity.

Most important, there’s the jobs situation. If job growth returns, that will be a sign that the recovery is normal and Geithner and the administration can return to a more moderate path. If employment does not rebound or the economy double dips, that will be a sign of systemic problems. Geithner and his colleagues will probably adopt a much more activist posture and have to throw their lot in with the left.

I hate to rely on the most overused categories in punditry, but they really do apply here. Some administrations are staffed by hedgehogs, who are guided by a few core principles. But this one is staffed by foxes, who respond flexibly to situations. In the administration’s first big test, that sort of pragmatism paid off.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Award Hell

Have you ever tried to use your airline miles for award travel? It can be done. All it takes is creativity, persistence and luck. Oops, almost forgot. It also takes a lot of patience.

I traveled extensively when I was working and accumulated many miles (more than a million), mostly on United. To be fair I have to admit that I’ve managed to use them for some great award trips. But I gotta tell ya, either I’ve lost my touch or I have less patience, (or both) because every year it becomes more difficult.

One other thing I have to admit – I’m spoiled. I want what I want when I want it. Specifically, this means I want business class seats, non-stop flights and my first choice dates. Obviously that makes the job much more difficult.

During this past week I’ve begun setting up a trip to Greece and Sicily next fall. So I’ve been banging my head against the award seats wall big time. I want to fly on Lufthansa, not United. Why? Their business class seats go flat for sleeping. United’s seats suck. United and Lufthansa are Star Alliance partners, so I can use United miles for the trip. At least theoretically.

After hours online and multiple phone calls to both airlines I found:

1. Using miles to book business class seats on non-stops from San Francisco to Frankfurt (for a connection to Athens) is impossible on both Lufthansa and United. They are obviously holding the seats for paying customers.

2. Using miles to book business class seats on more circuitous routes is also impossible, for the same reason.

3. Buying a coach ticket and upgrading to business is possible if you purchase an expensive coach ticket, like three times more expensive than non-upgradeable coach tickets.

4. Even with an upgradeable coach ticket there is no guarantee an upgrade will be available. So to cover yourself you need a refundable coach ticket, which is even more expensive.

5. I can avoid most of these issues if I am willing to take what United is offering – inconvenient, uncomfortable flights at off peak hours. No thank you. I’ve beaten the system before and I’ll do it again.

6. But not yet. I bit the bullet, bought upgradeable, refundable coach tickets and called to close the deal by confirming the upgrades. Sorry, I was told by Mahesh or Rajan or whatever his name was in wherever his call center was, no upgrades are available. Call back in a couple of weeks.

7. P.S. Every Lufthansa person I talked with was knowledgeable, easy-to-understand and helpful. The United customer service people were none of the above.

To be continued . . .

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

In Case You Missed It

The Postal Service reported a loss of $3.8 billion for this past year. It appears their financial performance is on a par with their customer service.

Two crates of Scotch whiskey left frozen in Antarctic ice a hundred years ago by the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton have been found and will be retrieved by specialists from New Zealand.

Two men were granted a marriage license in Buenos Aires and are planning the first legal same-sex wedding in Latin America. They won the right to marry when a judge ruled that a ban on same-sex marriage violated Argentina’s Constitution.

Yesterday you needed to pay $1.50 to buy 1 Euro.

In Rome, 200 women answered a modeling agency’s call for tall, attractive party guests. Turns out there was no party. Instead of hors d’oeuvres the host, Libyan leader Muammar el-Quddafi, offered them copies of the Koran and urged them to convert to Islam. I don’t know if he had any takers.

86% of Chinese believe their country is headed in the right direction. In the U.S. 37% of us feel that way.

Paul Volcker says that a proposal to give banking regulators authority to block accounting standards is “a terrible idea.” An independent agency should do it. It will shock you to hear that the bankers association disagrees with him.

Isabella Rossellini is in town to talk about her new project, “Green Porno.” It’s an environmentally friendly series of short films and a book about the peculiar mating habits of bugs and sea creatures. Examples: Anchovies like orgies. Garden snails are sadomasochists. Earthworms are hermaphrodites. You want more? Buy the book.

That’s it for this morning.

Monday, November 16, 2009


If you’ve been following this blog you know I am a lover of Sumo. This past weekend the year’s final 15-day tournament (called a Basho) began. Thanks to the magic of satellite TV I’m able to record and watch each day’s top division fights. The November Basho is always held in Fukuoka (on the island of Kyushu), where I worked for one week each month from 1994 to 1998. I attended the Kyushu Basho twice and feel a personal connection with the event and the setting. Nostalgia is the emotion I feel as I watch.

I became a Sumo fan shortly after I arrived in Fukuoka, so I’ve been following the sport closely for 15 years. Sumo is easily spoofed. Big fat guys wearing diapers rolling around on a small sand platform. For me it is ancient tradition and ritual combined with physical skills (speed, agility, balance,) martial arts strategy and, above all, concentration and mental toughness. Together they offer a compelling spectacle.

According to legend, 2,500 years ago a sumo match between two gods determined possession of the Japanese islands. Myth aside, the recorded history of Sumo spans many centuries. My acquaintance with it, therefore, covers a small sliver of time. Even so, in these past few years I’ve seen many changes in Sumo, most not for the better.

Match-fixing charges have been leveled at the sport. Brutal hazing of young wrestlers has led to injuries and even death (those responsible are in prison.) Several wrestlers have been banned because of drug use. Some top performers (mostly foreign-born) have been publicly rebuked for breaking Sumo Association rules and/or for behavior offensive to Japanese cultural norms.

But most troublesome for the average Japanese fan is the fact that in recent years no Japanese wrestlers have risen to the top spot in the rankings. The last Japanese Grand Champion (Yokozuna) retired in January 2003. Since then no Japanese has come close to promotion to Yokozuna. Indeed, only once in the last 33 Bashos (there are six a year) has a Japanese wrestler won a tournament championship.

This is a disgrace. After all, Sumo is the national sport of Japan. “Face” is important in that part of the world. And face has been lost. The top ranks of Sumo are dominated by Mongolians. When I began watching there were no Mongolians in the top two divisions. (Two Americans held the rank of Yokozuna, but the last retired in 2003.) Today there are two Yokozunas and both are Mongolians. The best of the younger wrestlers are Mongolian. Also, several good wrestlers are from Eastern Europe, a new phenomenon.

The result: Sumo is far less popular in Japan than it used to be. Frequently the arenas are not full, especially on weekdays. In fact, when I watched Day 1 of the Kyushu Basho yesterday I noticed that the Kokusai Center in Fukuoka was not full. Special flags fly when all seats are sold, and there were no special flags on display. Day 1, always a Sunday, is always sold out. Always. For every Basho. But not yesterday. I have no memory of this happening before.

The people that do show up to watch Sumo are, to be straight, old. The stands are filled with middle aged and older spectators. There are a few younger people, sure, but they are very much in the minority. Not a good sign.

Finally, Sumo is not attracting young Japanese recruits like it used to. The Sumo lifestyle and training is rigid and rigorous. Financial rewards don’t compare well with other sports. Today’s teenagers are bombarded with different ways to spend their time, most more fun than Sumo. So the pipeline is drying up. Should this continue it would only exacerbate what is already a negative trend. And people like me will be the losers.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Trial of the Shaikh

Kalid Shaikh Mohammed and four others are going to be tried in a federal civilian court in New York. That’s good – I guess. Better a group of citizens sits in open court to pass judgment rather than a closed military tribunal.

He’s already bragged that he is the mastermind who pulled off the 9/11 attacks, so there may not be much question about his guilt. I assume his lawyers will argue otherwise, but really, who’s going to listen?

Come to think of it, they’ll probably also argue for a change of venue. Does anyone in his right mind think a dozen open-minded, unbiased jurors can be found almost right next door to where the World Trade Center used to be? And if the circumstances were different they’d likely get a change of venue. But in this case, the symmetry is too perfect to warrant a change.

Many around the world will say the cards are stacked against these guys. So we won’t get full credit for putting them in the gentle arms of our criminal justice system. Many here at home will say they don’t deserve to be tried by civilians. They’re wrong. That’s exactly who should try them.

In the end they’ll be convicted and put to death. Will that bring closure? No. Will any of the dead come back to life? No. Will vengeance be sweet? For a few, yes; for most, no. It’ll just mean that we now have room in our limited attention span for another story to replace this one.

Am I cynical about the process? Take a guess.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

New Project

One of my 2009 projects was to organize and catalog all the books we have in our library – about 1,500 in all. (There are probably another thousand in the basement, but that’ll be a project for another day.) I found some software called Book Collector that enabled me to enter each book and sort them by location or author or subject. So if I want to know what’s on, say, shelf D-8 I can do that. Or if I want to know which books I have written by David Halberstam and where they are I can quickly find them.

I completed the project in September. To get the job done obviously I needed to pick up and look at each and every book we have. In that process I realized we are blessed with some fabulous volumes that I haven’t looked at in years or even decades. Many I’d forgotten were here. We have dozens of art books from all over the world, books with extraordinary photographs, catalogs from museum exhibitions we loved, and more. Some are very old.

I was inspired to want to sit down and look at them closely. And so another project was born that I’m beginning now and will continue through next year. I have much to look at and some have a lot of text as well as pictures. I’m not sure how much I’ll read – that I’ll play by ear. But I am sure I’ll look at each and every image. I’m really excited at the prospect.

Just now I decided to begin with a shelf that has 30 books. The titles include:


Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya

Great Cathedrals

Islamic Art & Architecture

The Complete Michelangelo

Rabindranath Tagore

This is like finding a long-lost hidden treasure.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Gloomy Tuesday

I think it’s supposed to be Gloomy Monday, so I’m a day late. Fact is, I thought about writing this yesterday but it didn’t get done. No problem. I can resurrect the gloom.

Some crazy guy killed and hurt a lot of people at Fort Hood.

Another crazy guy killed and hurt a lot of people in Peshawar. (There’s a crazy a day in that part of the world.)

I hear that this one killed his family, that one killed his ex-boss, another one buried 11 women who didn’t die of natural causes in his house, a girl was gang raped in Richmond, and on and on it goes.

A health care bill passed in the House after the leadership caved into demands from abortion haters and the Catholic Church to put more restrictions in place.

The chance that the Israelis and Palestinians will get it together anytime soon is in the toilet. Now that I think about it maybe someone flushed the toilet and I should say it’s in the sewer. That’s on the assumption they have a flush toilet and sewer.

One of these days Obama will say we’ve got a strategy for Afghanistan and it’ll take x thousands more troops to implement it. But don’t worry, we’ll make sure we watch the situation closely with the help of our man Karzai and his thugs.

The promise to regulate financial institutions is going nowhere. So is the promise to deal with energy and global warming. Wall Street is behaving like last year didn’t happen. Unemployment and underemployment are up. So is the market, so someone’s making money. You might say that’s good news, unless you’re one of the people who’s lost your home or can’t pay your bills.

That’s enough. You get the message. Gloomy Tuesday.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Big Game

It was Chelsea against Manchester United in West London today. The Premier League’s current #1 vs #2. The two teams that have been English champions for the past five years. Chelsea owned by a Russian oligarch. Man U owned by a rich American. One coached by an Italian; the other by a Scot. The Blues playing the Reds.

The game wasn’t beautiful. It was tough and rough, hard-fought and scoreless until the 76th minute, when the Chelsea captain, John Terry, gave Chelsea a 1-0 lead with a header. That was it. The shoving and pushing and hard tackling continued until the end, but no more balls ended up in the back of the net.

As usual Alex Ferguson complained about the referee. As usual Carlo Ancelotti was measured in his response to the game. We’re told the two managers shared a bottle of Brunello after the game. I doubt any of the players went out for a beer with someone from the other team.

Arsenal and United are both five points behind Chelsea, but Arsenal has a game in hand. I’m more impressed with how Arsenal is playing than any of the others. Arsene Wenger has done a fabulous job of molding a group of mostly young players together into a cohesive and effective unit. And he’s done it without spending hundreds of millions of pounds/euros/dollars. Good for him.

I’m happy that the fortune spent by the new Manchester City owners from Abu Dhabi hasn’t yielded results yet. They’re now in sixth place, 10 points behind Chelsea, and have settled for a draw in their last five games. It’s kind of like Real Madrid and the NY Yankees – trying to buy a championship. Unhappily, sometimes it works. Arggghh!

If I were a Manchester United supporter I’d be acutely conscious of just how much they miss Cristiano Ronaldo. I think he’d have them on top at this point if he were still around. Double Arggghh!

Thursday, November 05, 2009


Everybody’s got an opinion about Tuesday’s elections – mostly validating the opinion they had before Tuesday’s elections. So:

1. Republicans are trumpeting a turnaround in their fortunes because they won governorships in Virginia and New Jersey.

2. Democrats are crowing about taking a NY Congressional seat they haven’t held since Ulysses S. Grant was president.

3. Republicans are saying it’s a referendum on Obama and people don’t like what he’s doing.

4. Dems are saying the issues are local and it doesn’t have anything to do with Obama.

Etc., etc., ad nauseum.

So what do I think? Glad you asked.

I’ll comment on the country as a whole, not individual races or issues and personalities that were in play on Tuesday. The economy still sucks. People know that and they’re not happy about it. It’s easier to blame the guys in charge. So the argument that Obama inherited a mess won’t help much.

Obama hasn’t provided a compelling story that people can understand and relate to. He was elected because millions responded viscerally to his story in 2008, me included. He needs to rekindle his ability to connect and inspire.

I wrote the other day about some important accomplishments that haven’t received a lot of attention. The trouble is that they aren’t game changers. Health care is. Energy and climate change are. A demonstrable economic turnaround would be. A major foreign policy accomplishment would be. Obama needs a big win to change the momentum. That would give him room to maneuver and give people the feeling that there is reason to believe we’re headed in the right direction.

In his favor is his capacity to be cool and come up with winning strategies. I think/hope he’ll do that. My preference is that it be sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


I’m going to a funeral on Friday. I hate funerals!

Hating them has nothing to do with the person who has passed or the survivors. Even if I loved the person very much and shared the grief of those left behind I would not want to attend. Why?

Almost always they are pro forma rituals having more to do with the beliefs of the church under whose auspices the ceremony is being performed than about the person who we should be honoring and remembering.

I acknowledge that for people who share these beliefs this is all meaningful. But I’m not one of them. So attending a funeral service is an uncomfortable experience that I’d like to be finished as soon as possible.

So why go? If the funeral is for a family member, and this one is, I’ll go because I respect the importance of the occasion for other family members. There is no point in disrespecting them. I’ll behave myself and keep my opinions to myself. If the funeral is for a friend whose memory I want to honor and there will be no other opportunity to honor him/her, I’ll go. But I’d much prefer a secular memorial service.

That’s what I’d like for myself. Cremate me and follow the instructions I’ve left for disposing of my ashes. Then later have a big celebration where I can be remembered. And please, no hocus pocus, mumbo jumbo stuff about going to a better place.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

"The Vagrants"

I just finished reading “The Vagrants” by Yiyun Li. It is an incredibly powerful book that defies easy description. Pico Iyer’s review in the NY Times is much better than anything I could write:

“The Vagrants” begins on March 21, 1979 — the spring equinox — which is this careful writer’s way of telling us that a long winter of privation and darkness may be giving way, at last, to the blossomings of spring. It is set in one of the new nowhere towns of Mao Zedong’s China, 700 miles from Beijing, a bare, rationed place of small factories and overcrowded shacks laid out in anonymous rows. Eighty thousand people live in Muddy River, essentially migrants from the countryside, and, almost in the manner of a documentary filmmaker, shooting in black and white, Li homes in on a few typical souls whose names alone give you something of the settlement’s flavor: Old Hua, Teacher Gu, a dog called Ear, a deformed 12-year-old girl called Nini and a teenage boy as brutish and unassimilated as the name he brandishes, “Bashi.” All are victims of a crippled society that has effectively outlawed humanity and made innocence a crime.

Everyone in this broken world is trying to get by on scraps. Old men forage through trash for bits of paper, a kind elderly couple pick up a series of abandoned baby girls to raise, a child with five sisters goes out every morning to collect the coal deliberately “dropped” by workers. The very foundation of traditional Chinese society — the family — has been torn to shreds: boys steal money from their own mother to buy sunglasses. Nini’s mother says she wishes she had killed the girl at birth (a common wish in Li’s fiction), and twisted boys look for children’s bodies to make perverse use of. Strangers show up on doorsteps, asking to be taken in as children. The Fatherland, even after the end of the Cultural Revolution, when people are streaming back into cities after enforced rustication, is a society of orphans.

The day the novel opens, however, is as festive as Thanksgiving — workers and students are singing songs and waving colorful banners — because it is the day on which a 28-year-old woman is due to be executed; and people are let off school and work so they can attend the execution and one of the six “denunciation ceremonies” that precede it. Gu Shan had been a Red Guard zealot when she was only 14, kicking the belly of a woman eight months pregnant. But then, much like her country, she turned her fury in the opposite direction, only to be betrayed at 18 by a boyfriend eager for a post in the army. Her public killing brings great shame to her parents, of course, a mother who had been sold off at first to a man 40 years her senior — one of his five wives — and a father who once founded the first Western-style high school in the province and now is an expert at lying low: “Seeing is not as good as staying blind,” he quotes from an ancient poem. Shan’s parents are almost relieved at her death, however, because after 10 years in prison, their daughter has gone mad.

Anyone who doubts that the deranged girl stands in part for the country around her has only to read about how her body is cut apart: her vocal cords are severed before the execution so she cannot cut loose with a final counterrevolutionary cry; her kidneys are extracted while she is still alive, for a transplant to an aging army man; and after her death, her private parts and breasts are cut out by a pervert who keeps them in formaldehyde. The government in faraway Beijing remains as faceless and remote on the page as it must have been in life — Deng Xiaoping, the new leader, is never mentioned — as the citizens of Muddy River, many of them illiterate, scheme and steal to stay alive, talking of cooking rats or eating the paste off fliers. “The eastern sky had taken on a hue of bluish white,” Li writes, in a rare moment of lyricism, “like that of an upturned fish belly.”

Li pans across this field of suffering with quiet, undistracted patience, assembling, in effect, an anthology of horror stories. Her interest is not in the system itself, but in the costs and consequences of a society gone mad, one in which capitulation is regarded as the highest virtue and compassion is treated as a vice. Everything in this world is compromised or corrupted by politics, so that no act is without larger implications. Though Li’s fleshing out of the details of life in her home country might sound like “One Season in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’s Chinese Comrades,” the book’s texture is more akin to neorealist films like “The Bicycle Thief” or to unrelieved portraits of daily life in a dictatorship like the recent Romanian movie “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” We see the “red plastic clothesline” and the “aging 10-watt bulb” that are all these people have in their shacks — some use tree stumps for tables — and we feel what it is like for a 7-year-old boy to hear from his father, “If your heart is hard enough to eat your mother and your wife, nothing can beat you in life.”

Either you keep your head down in this world and try to get by, or you stand up to the system and most likely die. The only way to survive is through crime of some kind — a man steals copper wiring from an electrical factory to get money for stamps, a schoolboy learns he can protect his father only by informing on innocents. The twisted logic of the system decrees that each person’s well-being depends on the suffering of someone else: survival essentially means self-protection, and protecting yourself means putting your neighbor down. The result is a world in which mothers hope their children will not be educated, because education means thought and thought means trouble. As the wisest soul in the book writes to his first wife: “What marks our era . . . is the moaning of our bones crushed beneath the weight of empty words. There is no beauty in this crushing, and there is, alas, no escape for us now, or ever.”

The central action of “The Vagrants” turns around the spring that follows the execution, when suddenly leaflets begin to circulate, heretically, asking why independent thinkers like Gu Shan should be killed, and word comes from Beijing that a “democratic wall” is allowing regular people to air their grievances for the first time. As Li puts it, always meticulous in her details, “In the period of indecision and uncertainty, old winter-weary snow began to melt.” We read how hedgehogs, if artificially frozen, can be unfrozen again and think they’re emerging from hibernation. More and more brave citizens, mostly mothers, try to galvanize their terrified neighbors — “A thousand grains of sand can make a tower” — and the crowds that had earlier marched past to watch the execution now march along the same road to heed a dissident call to arms. Yet the power of Li’s book is to show us how integrity itself can be a form of cruelty in this upside­-down universe: a brave woman who speaks out against the system only brings misery and humiliation down upon her mother and poisons her younger sister’s prospects. The novel ends, by no coincidence, with the Communist celebration of May Day, 40 days after its beginning.

Though Li was only a child in 1979, you can feel how much she has been formed by the savagery she describes, even if her humanist stories of sorrow and occasional kindness are turned in the opposite direction. In place of the Communist vision of “heroism” and “self-sacrifice,” she offers her own counterrevolutionary models: the attractive young woman who gives up her comfortable life to speak the truth, the tubercular young man who will risk everything because he has not much longer to live. In a way, her brand of social realism is as straightforward and unyielding as that which it despises; one character who grew up forced to sing of how a Communist martyr’s blood would make azaleas bloom in the spring now hears from her disillusioned father, “Life is a war, and one rests only when death comes to fetch him.”

If “The Vagrants” sounds like a grim and lightless book, though heart-rending at every turn, it is. Steadily collecting atrocities and amassing paragraphs with the solidity of bricks, it replaces the tender ease and range of some of Li’s earlier stories with a much more focused, imprisoned rage. It can seem, in fact, less like a novel — since movement and plot are fairly sparing — than a counter-document of sorts, a private, unsanctioned portrait of those interiors (in every sense) that are always left out of the grand official picture. It is an individual’s response to a collectivist madness, and since that individual is a novelist, it goes into precisely those places, psychological and emotional, that five-year plans try to deny or idealize out of existence.

Li’s novel is not easy or enjoyable to read, but what it has to do and say is serious business, not unlike the business of counting the dead and burying the bodies. “The Vagrants” reminds us of all the uncounted, unnamed bodies that lie in the soil only a few feet beneath the latest flood of bright and celebratory billboards (these days done up in neon) proclaiming the achievements of the latest, 21st-­century Chinese revolution, which shrewdly chooses to dress up its predations in Armani and Calvin Klein.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Fine Print

An article in the Journal today got my attention. Printing it probably annoyed the paper’s ideologues, and maybe they figured that by letting people know what’s going on they could stop more of it from happening, but in any event there it was.

While the headlines have focused on whether Obama will be successful in getting his major legislative initiatives passed, there has been a series of relatively quiet accomplishments that up until now the Republicans have been able to stop or delay. And these are not minor items. For example, new measures that have been signed into law this year include:

1. Workers now have more time to sue employers for wage discrimination. This will mostly affect women who want to sue for equal pay.

2. Federal hate-crime laws now apply to sexual orientation and gender identification. This is a big deal, especially for the LGBT community.

3. Millions of acres of federal land have been designated as wilderness, which puts it off-limits to oil and natural-gas development.

4. The FDA now has the power to regulate tobacco products and raise tobacco taxes to expand health insurance for children.

5. The children’s health insurance program has been renewed for 4½ years and expanded to include 4 million more children.

6. The new defense-policy bill killed unnecessary weapons programs that had survived earlier attempts at termination.

Those are just a few of the changes that have become reality. It’s fair to hold Obama and his congressional allies accountable for all their promises, but we shouldn’t get so focused on the high visibility items that we forget the many accomplishments that are often lost in the fine print.

Sunday, November 01, 2009


Windows 7 has been released. Do I care? Nope.

They say Windows 7 is a lot better than Vista. Do I care? Nope.

They also say Windows XP users can upgrade to Windows 7, but it’s a big job. Do I care? Nope.

It’s been a year since I switched, since I converted from my untrustworthy Dell with its untrustworthy Windows OS to my beautiful 24” iMac. The whole things sits in front of me in one piece. No more crawling around on the floor to get access to the badly designed tower. No more freezes and crashes. No more security problems. It’s easy to (almost) forget how much of a pain in the ass Windows was. Almost, but not completely.

The new iMac has a 27” monitor. Should I? Nah, I’m fine for now. And I’ve got a new OS too. I recently upgraded from Leopard to Snow Leopard. Cost me $29. Painless. Everything works well. I’m a happy iMac guy. Pass it on!