Monday, November 16, 2009

Farewell Breaker

Edward Woodward died yesterday at the age of 79.

Best known as Robert McCall on the hit 80s crime show The Equalizer, Mr. Woodward played the title role of Harry "Breaker" Morant in the breakthrough Australian film Breaker Morant and turned in an exceptional performance as the Ghost of Christmas Present in the George C. Scott television version of A Christmas Carol.

In what is one of the most powerful scenes in all of English literature, Edward Woodward gave the Spirit an aura humanity tinged with excruciating dread.

'Spirit. are they yours.' Scrooge could say no more.

'They are Man's,' said the Spirit, looking down upon them. 'And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.

This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.

Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.' cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. 'Slander those who tell it ye.

Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.'

'Have they no refuge or resource.' cried Scrooge.

'Are there no prisons.' said the Spirit, turning on him
for the last time with his own words. 'Are there no workhouses.'"

In the same way, he brought Robert McCall to life. A disillusioned retired intelligence operative of independent means, he was a true-to-life James Bond. Instead of fighting evil geniuses, he took arms against a sea of trouble caused by the random acts of violence that were so common in the New York City of the 1980s. The Equalizer was a great show with great supporting players, great locales--shot on the streets of New York--and great, great music by Stewart Copeland.

The Equalizer tapped into the undercurrent of fear that was pervasive in pre-Giuliani New York City. They couldn't make that show today with its dark and foreboding atmosphere.

I never liked Rudy, but you cannot dispute the fact that he transformed New York.

Requiem in Pacis Mr. Woodward.

Coffee, Coffee Everywhere!

Just got a new Keurig Platinum coffee maker. Only problem is that I have this visceral aversion to buying trendy convenience stuff like those chic little K Cups filled with serving-sized portions of designer coffee.

Then I stumbled upon this little gem that lets you re-use K-cups, filled with your own favorite Java.

The site is here: Reuse your Keurig K-Cups!

I'm gonna give it a try.

Besides, those designer coffees always smell better than they taste.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

All Rangel-ed Up

Rarely does a single piece of mail cause one's heart to flutter, face to flush and knees to buckle.

But, then again, rarely does a piece of mail arrive with the dreaded return address:

Department of the Treasury
Internal Revenue Service

That's the "Welcome Home" that greeted me this past Tuesday as I dragged myself through the front door after a rough day of earning a living, playing golf and ferrying adolescent infants from one suburban soiree to another. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I owed our esteemed and infallible federal government... $11,589.22!

Holy smoke. What did I do this time?

Now look, I'm not the Secretary of the Treasury.

I'm not the chairman of the Federal Reserve.

I'm not a New York Times columnist who also consulted for Enron.

I'm not even a graduate of the Harvard Business School, a Fortune 500 CEO, a wheeler dealer in foreign exchange arbitrage or the chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee.

The tax code, for me, is not all that complicated.

I don't have income from esoteric foreign sources, like Timothy Geithner.

I don't keep piles of cash in my freezer like Rep. William Jefferson of New Orleans.

And I didn't make billions selling collateralized debt obligations to individual investors and pension funds while also making private wagers on the collapse of the mortgage market, like Goldman-Sachs.

It's also very difficult for me to make HONEST mistakes about rental income from condos in Puerto Rico, villas in the Dominican Republic and sublets from multiple rent-controlled New York apartments.

Unlike Charles Rangel I don't have those kinds of investments.

Most of us don't and if we did, we'd be evicted, audited, harassed, terrorized and waterboarded before being prosecuted.

No, my life and my income streams are exceedingly boring.

So, what was my transgression?


How on earth can I un-report? My life, again, like most of our lives, is an open book.

The federal government knows who I am, where I live, what I do and how much money I make.

It's all documented by the gigantic legion of American businesses, large and small, who, in addition to struggling to earn a profit also have to serve as government tax collectors.

Every year these businesses send out millions of W-2s, 1099s and a wide variety of related tax documents that make it impossible for ordinary citizens to claim complexity or honest mistakes when confronted by a jack-booted stormtrooper carrying a Treasury Department ID card.

But, there it is in horrifying black and white on official Department of the Treasury stationery.

Non-employee compensation: $17,000
Capital Gains from the sale of stocks and bonds: $17,225

With penalties and interest... I owe $11,589.22!!!!

Quick, let's go to the videotape.

In this case, the TurboTax file for the year in question.

Click the "Income" button. Scroll down a few lines...

There it is, right on my Schedule C: Non-Employee Compensation, $17,000.

Whew, that's a relief.

Scroll down a few more lines to Investment Income and presto... under Capital Gain...

Proceeds from Sale = $17,255
Cost Basis = $15,900

Capital Gain = $1,355

Whew... relieved again.

Not very complicated. Not much wiggle room to claim an honest mistake. Every penny documented and reported to the powers that be in our nation's capitol.

But very quickly, my sense of relief turned to anger and outrage.

How can a dedicated public servant waste time and resources generating a 26 page document that seeks to explain why I owe back taxes on income that I have already been taxed on?

What's more frustrating is this: How can this Mensa member suggest that my capital gain on the sale of stock is exactly equal to the proceeds of the sale?

Does she believe that I PAID ZERO DOLLARS?

I'm not Hillary Clinton.

Stock certificates, cattle futures contracts and mansions in Chappaqua do not appear, as if by magic, in my Christmas stocking every December 25th.

So now I'm on the seventh draft of my reply letter. I've taken out the references to Cossacks and Brown Shirts. I've even removed my description of this particular bungling bureaucrat as Her Highness, the Twittering Twat of the Treasury. That one hurt. I like the alliteration.

But if we cannot expect the people that write the tax laws and collect the taxes to understand the complexities and requirements of the tax code, the very least we can hope for is that the people who have the power to terrorize us through the mail system should be able to read a simple--a very simple--tax return.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Feelin' Groovy?

In his landmark book, Future Shock, Alvin Toffler postulated that it was not the nature of change that would cause the downfall of modern civilization, but the speed of change.

Poor Alvin.

How could he have envisioned the world we inhabit today?

On the surface, it would seem that the pace of modern life is accelerating exponentially. There's never enough time. We're always rushing. A short delay in the daily sprint causes road rage, high blood pressure and hemorrhoids.

Poor, poor us.

So it was with a combination of curiosity and skepticism that I picked up "In Praise of Slowness" by Carl Honoré. The sub-title, "How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed," provides some insight into the author's preconceptions, i.e. that speed, in and of itself, is the culprit.

I respectfully disagree.

Historically, when we look at the proponents of the simpler, slower life many have a unique and irritating trait in common: they have already made or inherited their millions.

Short of that, they have a comfortable social hammock (Thoreau for example) woven of friends and family willing to indulge their indolence.

Invariably, those who can afford to contemplate their navels while seated in a half lotus position are already rich or they are counting on someone else to pay the rent.

Many times the dichotomy is comical.

On a movie set, the action is frenetic. Time is money. An afternoon rain shower causes a delay that cascades throughout the shooting schedule. The producer is screaming about time and money. The star is apoplectic because she has to be in Aspen by Friday. The director is curled up behind the camera in a fetal position. And the writer is giving an interview on E! telling the reporter that his masterpiece is all about how the pace of modern life is killing us all.

Did you ever wonder why Paul Simon didn't think of slowin' down or kickin' down the cobblestones until he had a dozen top-ten hits under his belt?

He was too busy doing the important, creative work that made him his millions in the first place!

My modest proposal: Don't slow down, make the rest of the world slow down.

Superstar athletes know the secret. Chess grandmasters know it too.

It was said that Wayne Gretzky could envision patterns on the ice five seconds ahead of real time. For him, the game slowed down and he was always in the right place at precisely the right time. The Great One was able to see that lightning-fast game unfold before his eyes in super slow motion.

Bobby Fisher could see the chess board several moves ahead of his opponent. He didn't speed up his calculations. Instead, he eliminated extraneous variables and the game slowed down for him while it sped up for his competitors. A chess computer may be able to calculate every conceivable move with lightning speed, but a world-class grandmaster is able to zero in on the perfect move in every situation.

For us it's easier. We're not playing NHL hockey or competing against the world's finest chess masters.

For the overwhelming majority of normal, sentient beings the task at hand is to eschew the trivial pursuits that squander time, destroy productivity and make it seem as if we're all hurtling toward a black hole.

Step back for a moment. Look and listen. Today, those that complain loudest about their lives spinning out of control never eliminate extraneous variables.

In fact, triviality is their religion.

Just take an objective look at what sort of information makes the rounds on any of the cyber versions of the Foro Romano.

"Herman Fruschnick is waiting at the Dunkin' Donuts Drive Thru."

"Tippi Canavari wants Benno Blimpy to win The Biggest Loser."

So rather than demonizing the Cult of Speed, perhaps Mr. Honoré should revisit the topic to find what's really ailing us.

Is it velocity, or is it volume? Are we rushing toward oblivion at the speed of light; or are being being buried under an avalanche of text messages, emails and tweets?

I suspect that after chipping away at the superficial patina of modern life he may discover that while speed kills, banality numbs.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Do the Math

A personal story illustrates very clearly why the attraction of a single-payer health care care system is irresistible. When our first child was born my wife and I decided that we would both share the child-care responsibilities. Since I had been freelancing for nearly a decade, it was easy for me to arrange my schedule and still hold up my end of the bargain.

For Maureen the decision was far more complex. She was entitled to child-care leave, but with the associated loss of income and benefits we would have to arrange our life in ways that reflected our new circumstances.

It turned out to be easier than we had anticipated.

Spurred on by the external motivation of having our income halved and the arrival of our second child, my career flourished. And fueled by the internet revolution the ranks of independent contractors and consultants swelled, leading also to an expansion of services and benefit plans aimed at freelancers.

In the area of health care we were faced with a choice. We could cover our family's medical risks with a comprehensive COBRA plan priced at $650 per month or we could design our own plan from the menu of offerings available through the major insurance providers.

We chose the latter option at a price of $196 per month.

Here are the details.

Under the COBRA plan all of our medical expenses would be covered, minus deductibles and co-pays.

Under our plan each family member was subject to a $2,000 deductible with a family deductible of $4,000. After we reached those thresholds all of our medical expenses would be covered.

So let's make a quick cocktail napkin analysis.

Under our plan, the most we could be on the hook for in a worst-case scenario was the $2,352 premium payment plus the $4,000 out of pocket deductible for a grand total of $6,352. In reality, we wrote a check whenever Matt saw the pediatrician and our expenses for that first year topped out at less than $2,800.

Compare this to the best-case scenario under the COBRA. Let's say that none of us got sick or had to go to the doctor. Our premium payments alone would have amounted to $7,800. Add to this the deductibles and co-pays involved had we incurred the hypothetical $4,000 in medical expenses and the total would have topped $9,000.

Our choice was easy and many other New York freelancers made similar choices.

But here in the Empire State CHOICE is a four-letter word, except in a very narrow context. Empire Blue Cross/Blue Shield along with the civil service unions and public policy advocates went in front of our state legislature and LIED, LIED, LIED!

Challenged by an aggressive new group of competitors and facing massive market-share erosion most businesses would seek ways to upgrade their offering, improve their service and reduce their costs.

But no. Empire Blue Cross and other non-profit insurers went crying to the government.

They misrepresented their finances with bogus financial documents.

Civil service unions predicted that New Yorkers would die in emergency rooms if non-profits were forced to compete with the more flexible benefit plans.

Public policy experts described holders of high-deductible plans, like ours, as the growing number of under-insured, forced into inferior plans by dire circumstances or duped by unscrupulous insurance salesmen.

Once again the experts contended that Americans were simply too stupid to make their own decisions.

If given a state-sanctioned monopoly, the non-profits promised to provide better coverage at lower premiums.

So, with no other choice, we were forced into a comprehensive benefits plan. The premium by this time ballooned to more than $700 per month and by the time Maureen went back to work four years later we were paying $980 each month for comprehensive benefits we didn't want and didn't need. So much for promises.

When it became clear that the New York State legislature had formulated their new regulations based on lies, deceit and corruption, I asked our State Senator if there was any possibility that the state would revisit the issue.

"No chance," came his reply.

Graft has momentum and the fruits of graft are so great that individual liberty stands little chance against a stampeding herd of parasites. But there's another dynamic in play. One that's far more insidious: Willful ignorance and the voluntary surrender to constant, relentless propaganda. When describing our chosen medical plan to friends and relatives, they were horrified.

"You mean... you have to pay to go to the doctor?"

"Well, yes, but we only pay $196 per month and if anyone gets seriously ill we don't have to worry about being bankrupted by medical bills."

"Yeah, but, you have to pay to go to the doctor!"

And that's the attraction of a single-payer health care system: Nobody has to pay to go to the doctor.

You can do the math. Run the numbers. Explain the pros and cons, but it's useless because for the vast majority of today's citizens the Canadian model is perfect.

Put simply, in Canada nobody has to go through the humiliation of paying for a doctor's visit, but seriously ill Canadians wait eight months or more for cancer surgery.

So when Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, Barack Obama or the simpleton who chooses to pay for Starbuck's coffee while waiting for someone else to pick up the tab for health insurance speaks of universal coverage ask this question:

Coverage for what?

The truth is that when health-care bureaucrats and public policy experts refer to cost containment what they really they mean is rationing of the most expensive medical treatments and procedures.

Just as in Canada, the bureaucrats will be happy to provide low-cost services for people who aren't sick, then ration acute care so that by the time the patient's treatment is approved, they're already dead.

That's what I call compassion.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Health Versus Healthcare

Nearly thirty years ago, as a Fortune 500 employee, I attended a seminar on health care finance. Newly hired and full of enthusiasm I volunteered for every "extra curricular" I could fit into my schedule. This one was very revealing and ominously prescient.

To my great good fortune I arrived in my new position just as the Nixon-Ford-Carter wage and price controls were lapsing so my income increased by about 40% on my starting day.

Other effects of the 1970's economic policies were more pernicious and far reaching. Prohibited from raising salaries beyond the government limit, employers sought alternative ways to attract new employees and retain current ones. As a result, non-salary benefit packages were expanded.

Health care benefits, which were referred to as "Hospitalization" in prior generations now became more comprehensive, adding layer upon additional layer of services that benefit plans would cover.

One member of the panel predicted that the current system of medical insurance was in danger of becoming a bureaucratic third-party payment plan for routine doctor visits.

As with all third-party payment plans, he warned, health-care costs were sure to skyrocket as administrative costs spiked up and consumer choices spiraled down. That was in 1981.

Now, three decades later, we are mired in another self-inflicted catastrophe which the ruling class has termed:The Health Care Crisis!

We can debate the merits of one health policy proposal versus another, but thoughtful discussion of any complex issue requires precise definitions, common lexicon and the agreement among all parties to refrain from personalizing policy disagreements.

In the current climate, thoughtful discussion is impossible.

Those on the left claim that those who oppose national single-payer health care want to see people die in the streets. Those on the right, myself included, brand national health care advocates as communists. Whether they are true believers or merely useful idiots is yet to be determined.

At the heart of the crisis, though, is the mind-set (predicted long ago at that seminar) that reaching into your wallet for routine medical treatment was an ordeal that no American should have to endure.

This is where precise definitions are critical.

Insurance versus third-party payment.

Health care versus medicine.

Most important, the definition of good health and how to achieve it.

This last element has been uniquely damaging. Over the years the term "preventive medicine" has become the Holy Grail of the health industry. While the prevention philosophy is well established, a collective mythology has emerged which equates good health with more trips to the doctor.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Today, advocates for coercive universal, single-payer health care claim, rightly, that insurance is about spreading the risk. What they fail to accept is that insurance is also about pricing risk. This is the paradox:

How can our national government devise an equitable medical insurance paradigm when the leading causes of disease and premature death are self-inflicted?

The short answer is that they can't.

While very few would advocate for a universal single-payer automobile insurance system that allows a motorist with five drunk driving violations to pay the same premium as another with a clean driving record, this is exactly what the single-payer health care advocates demand.

Moreover, while we all pay auto insurance premiums to protect against large property and liability risks, we don't dip our government-issued insurance cards into the gas pump every time we fill up.

If we did, we should not be surprised when regular unleaded jumps to $8 a gallon.

Once again, as with nearly all social and personal crises, the fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bloated Idiots

In the Dashiell Hammet classic The Maltese Falcon, Casper Gutman discovers that the black bird he has been chasing for nearly two decades is nothing more than a crude fake.

Joel Cairo, unable to contain his disappointment cries:

"You imbecile. You bloated idiot. You and your stupid attempts to buy it!"

Yes. Yes. Crude attempts at gaining what you covet intensely very often result in disappointment. Today, the devotees of Daily Kos and Democratic Underground are consumed by two separate and conflicting desires.

The first is retribution.

George W. Bush trashed our Constitution, lied us into war and authorized an illegal and useless torture program for no other reason than, well, he's bad guy--a stupid guy--who did dumb things and enjoyed inflicting pain.

Today's rabble won't be satisfied until the former president is burned at the stake, paraded to the guillotine in an oxcart or left in a cell with a pistol and a cyanide capsule.

Through all of this, our esteemed Speaker, Lady Robespierre, has been playing a very perilous game, i.e. fanning the flames of wingnut revenge just enough to keep the embers glowing but not so much that they singe her pubic hairs.

It has been a delicate and dangerous dance indeed and she has proven not to be particularly adept at this version of the two-step.

To hear our current national leadership speak, you would think that they had spent the last eight years in a sensory-deprivation chamber.

Silly me, I thought that members of the Intelligence Committee attended briefings on intelligence.

It seems they were as attentive as were members of the Banking Committee and the Financial Services Committee, or so they say.

Funny thing, though, about the goings on in government.

The people who run these fandangos like to keep very detailed records and they keep them for a very long time.

This is a common trait among bureaucrats.

Records of the Nazi Holocaust list names, dates and precise hours of the day for every atrocity they committed in pursuit of a more perfect world. But I digress. Written, contemporaneous accounts of each and every briefing indicate that unless our leaders in Washington were all suffering from somnambulism, they had to have some knowledge of enhanced interrogation methods.

In fact, records indicate that when informed of the details of waterboarding, the Speaker-to-Be asked:

"Are you sure that's enough?"

So now Pelosi, Murtha, are being waterboarded by their own words and they don't like it one little bit.

To add to the irony, Frau Facelift's former patron and mentor, current CIA Director Leon Panetta, issued a scathing memo excoriating those who would cast doubt upon his department and its brave men and women.

Et tu, Leon.

So if Curious George deserves the guillotine, doesn't Nancy at least merit a little nip and tuck with a chain saw?

Which brings us to that other all-consuming craving of the left, i.e. implementing every hare-brained scheme cooked up by Ivy League eggheads and Saul Alinksy acolytes over the last fifty years.

Alas, the distraction of "What Did Nancy Know and When Did She Know It" threatens to divert political energy from more important Democratic Party objectives, such as eroding our freedoms, confiscating our wealth and dismantling free enterprise.

It won't be long now. As their dreams of a Euro-socialist Utopia quickly fade the witless parasites, misfits, and malcontents of the left will soon turn on their own heroes, screaming...

You imbeciles. You bloated idiots!

Migliore fortuna la volta prossima.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Intellectual Misuserisms

During a conversation on politics with an old friend I offered the hope that all his faith in our new president:

"Ain't been in vain fer nuthin'."

With that he reared up and replied to my comment by saying:

"You always ridicule with clever solipsisms."

Far be it from me to be solipsistic, so I pointed out that he probably meant solecism.

Mistake 1: Never quote Lina Lamont at a New York City cocktail party. They won't know what you're talking about.

Mistake 2: Never attempt to correct the tortured misuse of the English language by New York intellectuals who pride themselves on their rhetorical skills. Especially New York intellectuals who took such great glee in equating our former president's acyrologia-laden speech with a simian level of intelligence.

Far be it from me to defend George W. Bush's tortured misuse of English. I confess that I still hold the bigoted view that fuzzy syntax indicates fuzzy thinking.

Then, just last week, during an interview with Wolf Blitzer Senator Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco took a shot at political opponents who would rather keep suicide bombers locked up in Guantanamo instead of halfway houses in Ashtabula.

"And, so, this shibboleth, which is largely used by Republicans, to say, oh, the Democrats want terrorists in your -- in your neighborhood, in your community, that is a lot of baloney. That is not true. And that's the message that is being pushed, because it frightens people."

Far be it from me to to lecture Sen. Feinstein on the Old Testament.

Rather than shibboleth, meaning password in Hebrew, she could have used canard, or misrepresentation, or prevarication or even baloney--which she did use later in her statement. But no, shibboleth has that certain intellectual panache that fuzzy-headed liberals love so dearly.

Never mind that it's incorrect to the point of idiocy.

This week, our Commissar in Chief was asked about his preferences in movies. In addition to calling the White House "my house" he also told of his admiration for the old Star Trek series.

"It turns out we got this nice theater on the ground floor of my house … So Star Trek, we saw this weekend, which I thought was good.

I used to love Star Trek. You know, Star Trek was ahead of its time. There was a whole–the special effects weren’t real good, but the storylines were always evocative, you know, there was a little commentary and a little pop philosophy for a 10-year-old to absorb."

Far be it from me to remind Mr. Obama that he is living in the people's house.

But should I expect the leader of the free world to understand the difference between evocative and provocative? Apparently not. Actually, for a man who had visited all 57 states during his presidential campaign and is now making personnel decisions for the Fortune 500 what's a little misusery now and then.

There I go again. Another clever solipsism.

So now I have had my bigotry reaffirmed. Yes, I do believe that fuzzy usage is an indicator of fuzzy thinking, regardless of how seemingly well-spoken or articulate.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Before Their Time

In the hierarchy of human misfortune, nothing comes close to the tragedy of mothers and fathers attending the funerals of their children. As a Christian I understand that death is the beginning of eternal life in the presence of God, but as much as I try to reconcile faith and fact I still cannot accept a death that occurs out of sequential order. In the past few months I have listened to homilies delivered by sincere, loving and compassionate ministers of God, but still I ache--my heart has a void at its center.

Many years ago in Peru, we would observe the almost daily ritual of funeral processions with grieving fathers holding the tiny coffins of their infant children. And almost daily we would bow our heads and choke back a tear for babies we did not know and parents who should not have to go through this heart-wrenching ordeal. It's a distant land without modern services and they deserve better.

Almost two decades have past, but rarely does a week go by that I don't visualize those solemn processions.

Then a few weeks ago the word came: a young boy from our community who had been battling leukemia for several years finally lost his long fight.

A few days later, the teen-aged son of close friends was killed while engaging in a bizarre ritual that's become all the rage with kids these days.

And last week, the infant daughter of a friend--born prematurely--could not overcome the stresses of her birth. Forever I will retain the image of a young father holding the ashes of his infant daughter in his trembling hands.

During this period I also got word that my oldest friend had been killed in an accident caused by his own recklessness. He was not an infant or a teenager, but his mother and father still had to attend the funeral for their son and, for them, it was a tragedy.

The circumstances surrounding his death are unimportant. What happened was a reflection of the way he lived his life. He never gave the slightest thought for the consequences of his actions, either on himself or others. In his personal life he ran roughshod over the people who loved him. In his professional life he took advantage of our innate desire for deals that are too good to be true. As result, life savings were wiped out and lives were ruined. The victims were all strangers, of course, but it mattered little.

His death, caused by his own reckless disregard, was a final poke in the eye to the people who cared for him.

Four funerals. Eight grieving parents.

In the first three cases the tragedy involves lives cut short, aspirations unfulfilled and talents left untapped.

In the last instance the tragedy was not in how he died or even that he died. No, in this case the tragedy was in how he lived his life and the trail of wreckage he left in his wake.

Into the Fire

A business colleague once told me that rewriting your life story line by line and chapter by chapter is a futile exercise. "If you want a new life," she said, "you have to throw your old life into the fire."

It's not a new idea.

From the legend of the Phoenix to Götterdämmerung to 2001, A Space Odyssey destruction and renewal have been integral to human mythology.

Frustrated by incremental improvements followed by regression, those who seek perfection look to conflagration as the pathway to a better life and a better world. They're probably correct in their thinking.

Evolution takes time, effort and commitment. Destruction provides instant gratification.

On a macro level, we may be living through the final death scene of American freedom and democracy. In 1787 Scottish historian Alexander Tyler observed:

"A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government.

A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury.

From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship.

The average age of the worlds greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years,these nations always progressed through the following sequence:

From bondage to spiritual faith;
From spiritual faith to great courage;
From courage to liberty;
From liberty to abundance;
From abundance to complacency;
From complacency to apathy;
From apathy to dependence;
From dependence back into bondage."

Can anyone doubt that we Americans have learned how to vote ourselves goodies from the public treasury? More alarmingly, the evidence is clear that we are now in the apathy/dependence phase of the American death spiral.

On the personal level, the Émile Coué de Châtaigneraie mantra gives millions of adherents daily inspiration and a faint glimmer of hope that tomorrow may be better than yesterday.

In reality, when looking back at the illusion of getting better and better, few can claim that daily incremental improvements have resulted in dramatic lifetime transformations.

For most, every day and in every way we descend more deeply into conformity, boredom and despair.

Bejeebers, this is depressing, pessimistic even nihilist. No it isn't.

Every crossroad provides the pathway to a better more rewarding life.

As a nation, throwing our old ideas about governance and civic responsibility into the fire may lead to a better society if we choose the right path.

For me, eliminating negative influences, tearing off self-imposed shackles and pursuing a new life story--in effect, throwing my past life into the fire--can and will lead to a happier, more productive and far more rewarding life.

Today, I've resolved to begin the next phase of my of life with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and creative energy.

I'm also very confident that generations to come will create a better world out of the ashes of our collective selfishness and profligacy and that I will see that better world in my lifetime.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Teamwork Trap

Where are the leaders when we need them?

Where is Teddy Roosevelt?

Where is Robert Moses?

Where is Lee Iacocca?

To our great misfortune they are long gone. Some dead, some retired but all long gone. Even Bob Lutz has had enough and announced his retirement from General Motors leaving the future of the American car industry to Harvard Business School imbeciles like Rick Wagoner.

When America's westward growth and emergence as a world power depended on a reliable seaway connecting the east coast with the west coast, Teddy Roosevelt went into action, unilaterally. Rather than let Congress debate the merits of the project he simply went ahead and built it.

"Should I let them debate this issue endlessly or go ahead with it and let them debate Teddy Roosevelt. They can debate me for the next four years and when they get tired of talking the canal will have already been built."

President Roosevelt didn't build consensus. He didn't appoint a commission. He didn't invite the leaders of the House and Senate into the Oval Office for tea or make speeches about bipartisan teamwork. He built the Panama Canal--under budget and ahead of schedule.

When Robert Moses received millions of federal dollars under the WPA he could have easily used it to pay off political cronies.

After all, that's what the power brokers from other states did with the money. Instead, Moses built a state parks system that still endures, providing recreational opportunities and state revenues for nearly eighty years.

Moses also realized that the automobile was the engine that would drive economic expansion and built highways and bridges.

In addition to building them, Robert Moses protected these massive infrastructure projects from the political hacks and parasites who would use the revenues not for the maintenance and expansion of the system, but to create political patronage and fuel corruption on a massive scale.

Of course, since his death this is precisely what has happened. Today, with a round trip on the Verrazano Bridge costing $10 (with $9 going to the MTA) the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is still teetering on the brink of insolvency.

Left to a commission or the state legislature we would still be debating the merits of a two-lane highway between Spring Valley and Albany or an upgrade of ferry service between Brooklyn and Staten Island.

When Lee Iacocca took over a troubled Chrysler Motors he went to Congress with a personal pledge to turn the company around.

He made himself personally accountable and through the power of his leadership and his keen insights into the American car market he succeeded.

It wasn't a management committee that brought Chrysler back from the dead, it was the leadership of Lee Iacocca.

The Chrysler bailout was still a bad idea because it now provides the rationale for every conceivable use of taxpayer money to rescue banks, car companies and securities firms without any reasonable expectation that they can survive past next month.

Can anyone who has witnessed the pathetic spectacle of the auto and financial executives appearing before Congrees honestly say that there's a Lee Iacocca among this gaggle of dimwits?

And what has consensus building, bipartisanship and teamwork gotten us?

For starters there's a stimulus bill with virtually no stimulus. President Obama let Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, Bernie Sanders and Harry Reid write the bill and he has signed it into law without even pretending that this has anything to do with reviving the economy. And while our President speaks so eloquently about getting this economy going again immediately, unsurprisingly most of the Porkulus spending goes into effect next year when the best legislators money can buy are all up for reelection.


So while America's leaders are using our grandchildren's money to pay off today's political debts, the Chinese--yes the Red Chinese--are using their trade surplus to build roads, bridges, nuclear power plants and their own worlwide automobile manufacturing industry.

The Tiger Champ, designed and engineered in China, will be assembled in Oklahoma for sale in America and throughout the world. No doubt this is just the beginning.

I wonder how home prices are faring in Guangzhou?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The 67% Solution

Update! Update! Update! Update!

With the predictability of a lunar eclipse, the New York Times today features a front-page report headlined:

Stimulus Plan Would Provide Flood of Aid to Education

So now the taxpayers--US--will be coerced into partnership with failed and corrupt banks, failed, corrupt and stupid carmakers, and a failed, corrupt, stupid and arrogant education industry. The Times article is excerpted here.

The proposed emergency expenditures on nearly every realm of education, including school renovation, special education, Head Start and grants to needy college students, would amount to the largest increase in federal aid since Washington began to spend significantly on education after World War II.

Critics and supporters alike said that by its sheer scope, the measure could profoundly change the federal government’s role in education, which has traditionally been the responsibility of state and local government.

In this euphoric run-up to the ascension of The Oba-Messiah, all the usual suspects are lumbering toward the trough in order to slobber up the Fool's Gold now being minted by our leaders in Washington.

Consistently neglected in boom years, INFRASTRUCTURE is now the Golden Calf of the 21st Century New Deal, worshipped by one and all in every level of government.

Who can argue with it? Don't these worthy projects need funding? And aren't these the same public servants that have served us so well in good times and bad?

In recent years here in New York City the tax dollars fueled by Wall Street profits cascaded into the city treasury and--as in boom times past--roads, bridges and transit systems deteriorated.

Did any of our political leaders wail about our crumbling infrastructure?

"Sorry, bridges don't vote" came the reply from the political class as they shoveled money to voting blocs and interest groups for the express purpose of remaining in office so they could shovel more money.

Remember the gas tax? How about the bridge tolls that were supposed to benefit mass transit? Money, money, money with nothing to show. So now that stimulus is our government's most critical responsibility, the Fed is cranking up the printing presses.

Their mission: inflate the money supply to pay workers to dig holes in the ground.

Ten years from now when the next crisis hits we'll be treated to another round of bleating from those who advocate a commitment to infrastructure and we will have all forgotten about the previous roads and bridges scam.

This should come as no surprise.

Wasting money is what governments do and infrastructure is traditionally the way they do it. Nothing new here.

But what of social welfare, healthcare and education? Surely these are noble endeavors worthy of national mobilization and they figure prominently in the new administration's stimulus plans.

Useless infrastructure projects simply produce "Big Digs" and "Bridges to Nowhere" that impoverish our grandchildren. National commitments to worthy social and educational crusades typically result in stunted human development in the here and now. As an added kick in the ass, they prolong and entrench the delusions of the social engineers and educrats so that effective reform becomes impossible.

As an example, let's take issue with a government initiative that is beyond reproach: Project Headstart. Headstart was born in 1965 during America's Great Society frenzy. Its mission and vision, to promote greater school readiness among under served children, was self-evidently noble. Predictably, as the Headstart Medusa spread its reptilian ganglia from city to city, suburb to suburb and state to state, community action groups sprang up, taking proactive steps to keep the federal dollars flowing. Also predictably, advocacy groups such as the National Headstart Association resisted all efforts to provide accountability and financial transparency.

Instead, public money was poured into a black hole while self-serving measurements designed to assess the "SKILLS" promoted by the early education movement showed that these skills developed at a more rapid rate.

In effect, industry studies demonstrated convincingly that two-year-old children who were taught to place "A" blocks next to "B" blocks performed this valuable task better than two year olds who had not been conditioned like trained seals. More than forty years later, the beat goes on without a whisper of protest from those who know better but fear being branded as heartless.

Year after year, independent studies designed to measure long-term educational efficacy consistently demonstrate that when tracked through the four stages of cognitive development, children enrolled in Headstart programs show no greater proficiency in formal operational thinking than children who have started school as late as seven years old.

Jean Piaget, the Swiss biologist, philospher and epistemologist first identified the four stages-- sensory/motor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational--more than seventy years ago.

He also observed that by the end of secondary education about one third of all high school graduates were capable of formal operational thinking. Today, throughout the industrialized world, one third of all high school graduates demonstrate formal operational thinking.

Does this mean that the decline in public education is only an illusion?

I think not. It's true that the proportion of students capable of abstract thinking and symbolic logic has remained constant. However, the academic performance of the remaining 67% of high school graduates has declined precipitously. These are the
students who in past generations achieved a level of functional literacy which has all but disappeared.

Who is advocating for the great two thirds?

Who will campaign for functional literacy?

Moreover, will anyone have the courage to admit that America's continued prosperity depends on Americans who can operate a CNC lathe at least as much as it depends on Americans who can design a CNC lathe?

In a matter of weeks the Fed will start pouring buckets of depreciating Greenbacks into the feeding trough.

And you can be certain that the Early Education Pimps will be there, cheek-to-jowl with the porcine infrastructurists, their snouts buried deep in the stimulative slop. So take heart. There will be new roads and gleaming bridges and modern transit systems to speed Americans to work in this grand new epoch of 21st Century jobs. But traffic will be much lighter than normal if there aren't enough qualified Americans to fill these dream jobs.

For today, though, the skies are brighter and the air is fresher and a brave new world is just beyond the horizon. God help the 67% who will be left behind.

Orfeo ed Euridice... or... I've Just Gone Through Hell for This Chick and She Still Won't Do What I Tell Her

We went to see Orfeo again last week at the Met. We don't usually attend a performance a second time, especially so soon, but this is a breakthrough production so here goes.

Proving once again that there's nothing new under the Sun, the Metropolitan Opera wound down its 2006/2007 season with a spectacular production of Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Orpheus myth, here's a quick synopsis:

Orfeo is mourning the death of his young wife, Euridice. But he sends everyone away because his grief is so overwhelming even their sincere and heartfelt support sinks him deeper into despair.

Then along comes Cupid, yeah Cupid, suspended from a wire no less, who tells him that all he has to do is follow his beloved's spirit into the underworld and bring her back.

But, she orders, he cannot look at her, or tell her why he can't look at her, until they're back home or she will die. And this time, for keepsies.

Yada, yada, yada... he descends into Hell, gets past the Furies, finds his wife and they start home.

"But why won't you look at me?," she asks, "Am I no longer beautiful?"

"Just shut up and follow me." implores Orfeo, but she's relentless.

"Is it because this dress makes me look fat?"

"Have you found someone else? It's that little tart from Thessalonika, isn't it?"

At this point the Missus turned to me and said "What a wimp. Why doesn't he just grab her by the scruff of the neck, tell to STFU and drag her out of there?"

Why not indeed? But this is an opera.

Finally, when he can't take her nagging anymore, he turns and looks her straight in the eyes and she promptly drops dead... again.

At that point poor Orfeo collapses to his knees and wails: "Che faro senza Euridice" (what shall I do without Euridice). Well lets see... for starters I'll play golf, go fishing and drink as much beer as I want anytime I want.

But no.

All Orfeo has to do is threaten suicide and Cupid returns to snatch the dagger from his hand. Touched by his devotion Cupid brings Euridice back to life and she immediately starts nagging him to finish mowing the lawn. What oh what shall I do without Euridice? What oh what shall any of us do?

Well, they live happily every after, have five kids and Orfeo gets a job playing in the house band at Euridice's father's catering hall. They are Greek, after all.

And we can only speculate as to how Orfeo's life would have turned out if he had passed on Cupid's "descend into Hell" offer and just looked around for a younger woman. After a respectable mourning period, of course.

But this is pure fiction. For the happily married among us, thankfully, Orfeo's tragedy is a prospect that few of us (gentlemen) will have to confront. All you have to do is glance at the obituary page or take a walk past your local assisted living center to recognize that we're not going to outlive our wives. It brings back memories of the old Alan King routine, "Survived by his wife." In fact, I'm sure that if we followed the Orpheus legend to its conclusion we'd find Euridice sitting in a beach chair in Boca Raton cashing Orfeo's pension checks from the Amalgamated Greek Lyre Players Union.

Face it, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

So when you're tempted to blurt out, "Why can't you do what I tell for once?", understand that this is a male/female dynamic that's been going on since there have been males and females. Just swallow those words before they jump out and get you into trouble because the odds that she'll do what you say are roughly equivalent to the chances that Alex Rodriguez will hit a bases-loaded homer with two out in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game of the World Series while still wearing a Yankee uniform.

It ain't happenin'.

Next week: Wotan, the King of the Gods, chides his teenage daughter Brunnhilde for her disobediance. "You're grounded, young lady!", he shouts. Then he places her on a rock surrounded by a ring of fire for all eternity. Would that it were...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

I'm, Like Ya Know, Available

Caroline Kennedy is breaking hearts again.

Forced by personal reasons to inform Governor David Paterson that she is unable to serve her state and her country in the Senate, Princess Caroline will now retreat to her Eastside townhouse and suffer in private.

Unlike that other paragon of the New York City conspicuous-charity scene, Bernard Madoff, Ms. Kennedy will not be required to wear an electronic ankle bracelet.

Her voluntary confinement, however, will be no less unplatable or reflective than that of Bunko Bernie, 21st Century Ponzi.

Perhaps, however, now is the time for the rest of us to reflect on how shabbily Her Grace was treated. How dare we question her motives, her qualifications, her resolve, her... like, ya know... experientials, and most of all her... like, ya know... wantingness for the job.

Poor dear. I suppose that she can go back to writing books, but I'm told that a member of the vast-right-wing conspiracy hid her box of Crayolas.

Shame on us.

But enough about the Lady from Hyannis.

Let's get down to business.

You're in a bind, Governor. The recent high-jinx in Illinois make it nearly impossible for you to sell this position at anywhere near what it's worth. Appointing another high-profile Democrat risks roiling the wrath of the House of Kennedy, especially that despicable ex-cousin in law. For the same reason, likely candidates are hiding under the couch in fear.

So Governor, since there's so little time and so few potential takers...

I'm available.

Here are the reasons why I am the perfect choice.

I have no relevant experience.

I have no appropriate training or education.

My interpersonal and communication skills are, to be blunt, crude and a little creepy.

Since I'm likely to be impeached or indicted before the next election you'll soon be able to sell the seat at the current market price. By next year that Blay-Go-Jevich stuff will have been long forgotten.

And lastly, my father is a very jolly, very likable fellow.

Oh, and did I mention... after paying my New York State tax bill I really, really, really need the money.

So call now. This offer won't last forever.

Yours truly,

Rufus T. Firefly
Soon-to-be-Former President
Democratic Republic of Freedonia

Oh yeah... Thanks JetBlue

Balancing the demands of shameless and brutal commerce with the impossible dreams of the preservationists, JetBlue has restored a measure of sanity into this cruel and sterile world. JetBlue resisted the temptation to raze Eero Saarinen's iconic Terminal 5 to make way for their new JFK complex. Just as significant, they also pushed back attempts to preserve the site as an obsolete museum piece.

The new JetBlue JFK terminal complex places Saarinen's masterpiece at the center of a beautiful, functional and, environmentally-friendly facility.

Nearly 50 years ago, after the concrete was poured, Saarinen and his chief engineer stood underneath the structure as the scaffolding was being removed.

When the last support was dismantled the architect paused for a moment, turned to his colleague and said:

"If this whole thing came came crashing down on my head right now, I would die a happy man."

It didn't. Firmitas, utilitas, venustas.

Vitruvius would be proud.

Bravo JetBlue.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Monuments & Anti-Monuments: The Death of Artistic Vision

I was confronted by three strands of cultural connective tissue this week which portend the death of artistic expression. No, it has nothing to do with the First Amendment or government suppression. It has everything to do with the tearing down of greatness and the worship of mediocrity by the dominant cultural elite.

First, Terminal 5 at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Second, the Zurich Opera's production of Richard Wagner's Parsifal.

And third, that gaping hole in the ground where New York's World Trade Center once stood.

Terminal 5 was and is an architectural wonder.

Designed by Eero Saarinen nearly 50 years ago it stands as a soaring monument to flight and mankind's unquenchable desire to reach for the heavens.

Unfortunately, Terminal 5 was also the site and the title of an ill-fated "Art Exhibit" in 2005.

Organized by the Generation Y nouveau dilettante Rachel K. Ward, Terminal 5 featured works of quackery that spoke directly to those to whom they speak directly--folks who would not know a work of art from a hole in the ground.

In fact, these imbeciles often worship holes in the ground as breakthrough works of art.

Case in point, Vanessa Beecroft whose naked narcissism is hailed far and wide by adoring acolytes who admire naked narcissism.

In addition to the Beecroft masterpiece, which was never shown, there was a square carpet made of padlocks, a red carpet leading nowhere, and a breathtaking message board with nothing on it.

Look out Michelangelo, the giants of 21st Century art have you in their sights.

Bottom Line: The opening night gala turned out to be a closing night disaster.


Because the scions of the New York art scene descended upon Kennedy Airport, got drunk, trashed the terminal, vomited on the floor and added their own personal artistic touches--in the form of spray painted graffiti--to Terminal 5's iconic white curved walls.

Then there's Parsifal. Now, I must confess that I am a theater throwback. When I buy a ticket and take my seat I willingly suspend my disbelief. Same thing at home when I pop the NetFlix DVD into the player. So if I'm watching a story that's supposed to take place in a forest in the Pyrenees I don't mind if the trees are made of papier mache and the rocks wobble a bit at the slightest touch.


Not today. No, now we're treated to theater pieces designed and produced by people who hate theater.

So the clearing in the forest becomes a minimalist classroom with abstract furniture.

The Grail Knights are now represented by a professor in dusty frock coat and his slobbering pupils.

The wounded King is a pathetic wimp in a bloody white leisure suit being wheeled around on a stand-up hospital gurney.

Thankfully, as with Robert Wilson's putrid interpretation of Lohengrin, there's always the music. Close your eyes, drink in the monumental score and let your imagination run wild. It's better than watching the visual atrocity on the stage.

Which brings us to the hole in the ground in downtown New York.

As it stands, or more accurately as it doesn't stand, the World Trade Center site is an Al Qaeda victory monument. Every day that the site stands vacant is an expression to the world that Osama bin Laden has won the battle. Politicians debate. Interests groups demand a seat at the negotiating table. Construction workers and heavy equipment lay idle. And the overwhelming majority of Americans wonder...


There was great hope that the completion of the Calatrava Transit Hub would be the impetus to get the project moving.

Now, even this beautiful, functional and environmentally innovative project has hit a logjam.

Superstar architect Santiago Calatrava, who has a reputation for being able to exceed an unlimited budget, has created a magnificent structure that actually pays homage to Saarinen and adds 21st century technological innovations that will make it the greenest facility of its kind in the world.

However, cost overruns along with the anti-monument thinking of small-minded bureaucrats have conspired to halt construction.

The excuse du jour is the cost, but modifications to the mechanics of the facility can bring the budget in line without changing the integrity of the design. It's much more likely that the design will be trashed in favor of a transit hub that looks less expensive and costs twice as much. This isn't a unique paradox. I cannot count the times that a client has told me to design an event that "doesn't look expensive."

On his home-building blog Tedd Benson recently invoked Vitruvius, the Roman architect.

A building, said Vitruvius, must be strong, it must be functional and it must be beautiful--firmitas, utilitas, venustas.

Strong is easy. Functional is a bit more challenging. Beautiful? Artistic? Inspiring? These are qualities that are, today, all but impossible.

Today, the anti-monumentalist, anti-artistry movement represented by Ward, Beecroft, Wilson, et. al. worships the puny, the plain, the unimaginative.

In this day and age the Philistines no longer have to tear down the shrines.

They have simply enshrined mediocrity.

As was stated so clearly and so cynically by Ellsworth Monkton Toohey in The Fountainhead:

"A man more able than his brothers insults them by implication."

Heaven forbid that great thinkers, artists and builders insult those with small intellect, small imagination and small ambitions.

Is this the death of artistic expression in everyday life?

Maybe not, but it's definitely on life support.