Monday, May 28, 2012

Strictly Personal

The volume of email I’ve sent since becoming semi computer literate has included as little as necessary about me. I consider people who talk about themselves bores and those who talk of others as at worst gossips. Give me a gossip any time. So please excuse this self centered dissertation on the role my early years have had on the nature of these letters.   I was raised in what was by any standard considerable wealth. My father, Barney Balaban, was President of Paramount Pictures for twenty nine years. At that time typical CEO salaries were forty times those of their employees. If that number had been four hundred or so, as it is today, some of us would probably now be hanging out at the latest version of Eddie Condon’s.   In 1936 our family moved to New York City from Chicago when my father, then President of the major Midwest theater chain of Balaban & Katz, was picked by Adolph Zukor, founder of Paramount, and the Board of Directors to head the Depression ridden company. For the next five years we wintered in Zukor’s lavish duplex apartment at the Savoy Plaza Hotel at 59th St. and 5th Avenue, the site of what is now the Ford Building. My elementary schooling was at the “progressive” Ethical Culture School.   I was anything but proud of being raised in wealth. One classmate who took a particular dislike to me, ridiculed me in front of other students as “Savoy Plaza in person.” My birthdays were spent with friends at the Paramount Theater where we saw the current film and stage show. Each year I would plead with my father, without success, to go through the motions of buying tickets inconspicuously like others rather than walking in the side door free of charge like privileged people. On rainy days I was driven to school by a chauffeur and insisted on being let out a block or two away.    After elementary school my parents bought an eighteen room house with eleven acres on the waterfront in Mamaroneck, N.Y. They always had more than a handful of servants. My embarrassment at these surrounding diminished with time. But as late as my freshman year at Dartmouth I still felt special respect for the students who worked in the commons where we ate, to help pay for their tuition.   At voting age, which was then twenty one, I was politically non partisan, although in retrospect it was inevitable on which side of the fence I’d land. While neither political party has impressed me with its ethical purity, our flawed system won’t allow it and the line between public need and individual greed is often blurred. But I see pure greed as far more obviously prevalent among Republicans, particularly in recent years, which is why today I’m an unadulterated Democrat.   So much for introspection! Next time it’ll be all gossip.              

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

NY Times Letter To the Editor

My how times have changed! In Edna Ferber's Showboat, and the plays and films based on it, the singer Julie had to leave the Cotton Blossom because she had a drop of "colored" blood. Today Elizabeth Warren is under fire for claiming to be 1/32 Native American, five generations removed by my calculation. It makes one marvel at the gullibility of the media in accepting the validity of the "Mayflower Madame," unless there is a strain of pilgrims that has kept its lineage unadulterated since Plymouth Rock, a period that had to span many more than five generations?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Another Fine Mess

The presidential candidates and the issues that divide them now are well defined. Social issues appear to favor Obama, with the possible exception of gay marriage. According to polls the big one, the economy, favors Romney. On matters such as immigration and contraception he has been simply playing to the Tea Party to win the nomination. As president my guess he would be at least as apt to renege on his promises as Obama has on some of his. In Romney’s case they were of no concern to him to begin with.

The only subject on which Romney’s words and beliefs have been consistent is the economy. They also happen to benefit him personally. We can expect him to do what he can to reduce taxes on the richest Americans and benefits for the rest. This is of no material benefit to the Tea Party whose votes he needs to be elected. But Ma and Pa Kettle don’t know or care about supply side economics as long as the government spends less money on things such as food stamps, particularly for you know who.  

The fundamentals of what feels like perpetual Republican economic orthodoxy are that richer Americans deserve the lion’s share of the wealth because they produce the bulk of the jobs, a reasonable assumption as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough. Jobs exist to produce goods or services for people to buy. The less the public can afford the less it can buy, hence the fewer the jobs. It’s all quite simple.

At first glance this might cause problems for the people with the big money. But many of them were born to great wealth and don’t have a problem supporting the life style to which they’ve become accustomed. Those who feel compelled to enlarge their already existing fortunes have their own super sized Les Vegas on Wall Street. But with much better odds!

You can win or lose at either. But on Wall Street, if you are too big to cover your losses without bringing an entire nation down the government comes in and saves you as it did four years ago. I for one felt it had to. Support for such a mission was mixed even at the time. An encore would meet with more resistance and could likely lead to a national financial Armageddon.

Since the most frequent argument for a Romney Presidency is his presumed business experience I’d like to close by citing a president with probably stronger credentials in the world of finance than any in our history. Among the many achievements in his early years included running a company that had mining interests in every continent in the world. After the First World War he supervised the rehabilitation of many of the distressed European nations. Later he served as Secretary of Commerce for eight years. The president’s name: Herbert Hoover.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Big Bad "Gumint"

“Government is the enemy.” This statement is attributed to Ronald Reagan. It’s not listed as such on the internet, but he’s been quoted as saying the same thing in different words many times. In any case it has since become the mantra of the right wing or Republicans, take your pick.

As a card carrying Democrat I tend to take issue with almost anything these folks say. But on this one I must admit they have a good point. Take the government of Arizona please. Its recently passed immigration law is obviously inimical to anyone with a swarthy complexion who looks Mexican, particularly if the person is driving. The government of Virginia was stopped just in time by cooler heads from requiring all women planning abortions to view the fetus, even if it’s the product of her being raped. Michigan has passed a law allowing a complete takeover by the state of cities in financial distress.

Local government is no shining light either. Remember the New York City law that confiscated on the spot the car of anyone accused of driving under the influence of alcohol, with due process to follow at some later date? Its current stop and frisk law is outrageous. Most of us have a laundry list of local laws that range from jokes to atrocities.

In parts of the nation local government rests with the county, rather than its cities. I know of some which can make for good fun, the county in the Florida Panhandle where I spent the first fifteen years of my adult life for one. It was dry, but in name only. I could get a bottle of bonded liquor at any hour by waking up one of several bootleggers, and at a price cheaper than liquor stores charged after the county voted wet. Many a family was nourished by the proceeds from the production of “white lightning.” As you might expect the most important elective office was sheriff.

Polk County, in a populated area near Tampa, was an interesting case.  It stayed dry for years, which probably didn’t please the locals, other than those who had been paid for their votes.* Of course it was a bonanza to the owners of the many liquor stores that surrounded the county.

OK.  I know The Great Communicator and his acolytes had federal government in mind. Some awful laws and decisions have come from Washington, all the wars in the last fifty years, including the one on drugs for openers. But I’ve seen some doozies from Hartford and West Haven too. Whether we’re talking national, state or local, there have to be rules. The “Wild West” is long gone, NRA rumblings to the contrary. Making and enforcing these rules is done by government. When there is conflict over jurisdiction, the Constitution gives primacy to the federal branch, a good thing if the federal and Arizona immigration laws are any indication. I’m sorry righties. If you’re going to get all worked up about government you can’t be picky, choosy and logical at the same time.

*The going price in our small county was a pair of shoes.
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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Enough Is Too Much

In a 1996 televised debate between the two contenders for the vacant seat of Oregon Senator Packwood who had just resigned over sexual misconduct charges, the Democratic candidate, Ron Wyden, stressed the threat of terrorism, a subject that had yet to receive much public attention. This wasn’t a partisan effort since President Clinton was from his party.  His opponent Gordon Smith said, in words that could have been from the handbook of the Republicans’ 1994 “Contract with America,” that the threat of terrorism was minuscule compared to our fiscal problems.

What’s remarkable is that a mere eight years later George W. Bush was reelected on the perception that terrorism was our greatest threat and that he was best able to protect is from it, the economy be damned. Of course he was helped in part by the Democrats clinging to an antiquated document known as the Constitution. What made this such a remarkable piece of political legerdemain was that the greatest act of domestic violence in our history had just taken place on his watch. This feat may be at least equaled if the current presumptive Republican nominee can convince enough voters that the economic policies that drove the economy into the ditch are just perfect for getting us out of it.   

Mitt Romney has been labeled a “flip flopper” correctly, but ad nauseum. His current stand on the issues by itself supplies plenty of fodder. But the flip flopping by the entire Republican Party is a phenomenon has gone unnoticed. In the sixteen years since the Oregon debate, which can be reduced to the eight years between 2001 and 2009, the party’s PR apparatus has shifted from the economy to security and back to the economy to suit the circumstances.

It seems to me that Republicans should stick to juggling these two balls. The wedge issues they’ve added are of questionable value today and figure to work badly in the not too long run. For instance adopting immigration policies ranging from harsh to draconian may be made to order for xenophobes. But these votes are already in their pocket. The immigrant votes, particularly of Hispanics, Florida Cubans excepted, are solidifying against them. Most important, this group is growing.  Homophobia appeals to the same crowd. But the public is becoming increasingly skeptical of the claim that same sex relationships, formal or otherwise, are a threat to traditional marriage. However one refers to the “war on women” it won’t take long for it to backfire, I’d say roughly six months.

Season this dish with a dash of the Ryan Budget and a pinch of NRA rants and you have a surefire recipe for a Republican disaster. All these ingredients appeal to the party’s base. But a citizen can only vote once. Even if 2012 isn’t the year these chickens come home to roost, we still shouldn’t have too long a wait long for our omelets.