Friday, October 29, 2004

Goodbye Bedford Falls?

Every December America sits down together in front of the television to celebrate the passing of the old and the ringing in of the new. I might be talking about New Year’s Eve, or about the election. I’m also talking about a movie called It’s A Wonderful Life, which is as much a national ritual as voting or turkey. It shows America as it likes to see itself, as it was and as it is, as it would like to be. But futures turn on hinges, and this election is a hinge, just like the plot twist in the middle of the movie. What kind of Christmas will we be celebrating this year? Who will be celebrating? The Haves or the Would-Haves? It’s only late October now, we’ll have to wait and see. Late October isn’t a bad time to start thinking about what Christmas is going to be like.

When I was a kid the meaning of Christmas was taught to us by Charlie Brown and a cute stop-action Rudolph. Christmas meant finding our inner misfit. It meant rescuing crummy little Christmas trees and misfit toys nobody else wanted. We were all for the underdog in the Sixties. So the time was exactly ripe in around 1978 when a forgotten James Stewart movie began appearing at odd hours on local TV stations, and found the audience it had never reached in 1948. We watched it alone late at night on TV in the kind of low-rent apartments lived in by recent Liberal Arts graduates with lousy jobs. Sometimes we saw it twice in a December. And then, when we drove home to Mom and Dad’s for the holidays, we asked them about it. Most of them didn’t remember ever seeing it. Most of our parents preferred Bing Crosby movies about song and dance men rescuing cozy resort hotels to George Bailey and Bedford Falls. Christmas wasn’t a good time of year for complex messages.

We were a thoroughly cynical generation, hung over from the riots and assassinations, a war we probably shouldn’t have fought, and the armies of homeless men left over from it, and the hearings and the scandals that embodied the decade before. We were tired of fighting. Come December we didn’t want to serve soup to the poor or spend hours at the Mall, we wanted to curl up under a blanket and pray for snow. We wished for a snowy Christmas, but more often we wished for a nicer place to live, a better world, a decent job so we could afford to have a family of our own. Many of us wished we’d never been born. There was something about this forgotten movie that reminded us of what the world was like when neighbors looked out for each other, and what could happen if they didn’t. Wasn’t looking out for each other the whole idea of Christmas--at least the idea of Christmas in America?

George Bailey, the nice guy James Stewart plays in the movie, did his duty by everyone he knew. Was he a fool for putting everybody else first? In a Harvard Businesss School sense he was. He took over the family Building & Loan his dad had founded, even though he had the smarts to go off and become a millionaire somewhere else. He did it because he saw his duty there. Profits were small because the Building & Loan was just that; it wasn’t a gold mine, it wasn’t about taking and keeping, it was about building and loaning, helping neighbors to live a better life. Even though he was sorely tempted, George Bailey never fired the loyal, befuddled Uncle Billy, and he never would, because he was loyal to his employees. He didn’t sell out to old man Potter, either, because he knew Potter only meant to shut the office down, consolidate, fire people, eliminate the competition and raise prices afterwards. If Potter had his way, nobody in town would own his own home; Potter would own everything.

Then, in his dark night of the soul, which every good Christmas Story since Dickens has in it, George Bailey sees his world falling apart around him. In a mixture of foolish accident and malice, a sum of money goes missing. Ruin stares him in the face. He wishes he’d never been born. And he gets his wish. He gets to see what the world would be like without him. He gets to see all the small favors he had done all his life, undone. Bedford Falls wasn’t Bedford Falls anymore; it was Pottersville. People didn’t own their own homes, the bank did. Potter’s bank. The sharpies, or the one sharpie-in-chief, had taken over the town and renamed it after himself. Everybody else had to scrape and scramble to make ends meet. People were so busy looking out for themselves they didn’t have time to look out for each other. You could see the suspicion and the worry in every eye. Pottersville is an ugly place to live. Fewer libraries; more casinos. Bigger mansions and bigger cars for the boss and his cronies; crowded quarters and low pay for the average Joe. It is pure, hard Capitalism, and devil take the hindmost.

I have George Bailey’s dreams often these days. I worry that I will wake up in a world where, in the words of Leona Helmsley, “Only the little people pay taxes.” Where the fewer and richer prosper from what they own, and the rest of us work harder and harder for less and less. Where security belongs to the few who can accumulate their advantages. Where the comfortable classes send the striving classes to fight their wars for them, and still manage to impugn the patriotism of the war veterans who stand up to disagree. Where the lucky few get their faces lifted while the unlucky cannot afford their chronic pain medicine. Where the rules are written by the small club of players who own the game. Our Pottersville is a place where Mr. Potter tells us to jump and we ask “How high?” And then we are told to feel proud for how high we can jump.

In a few days will it be goodbye Bedford Falls?

I know it’s only a movie, and none of us gets the chance to see what life would be like if things came out differently. It’s too bad Christmas comes two months after an election, instead of coming a week before. How differently would we behave in the voting booth if we were thinking of our neighbors, especially the less fortunate ones, when we pulled that lever? Or should we be voting to please our masters? Should we remember the lesson learned by the everyman George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life? Was George Bailey a complete fool, or did he know something we've forgotten? Would the world be a better place if we voted the way he would?


Monday, October 25, 2004

Sell The Red Car

Four years ago you bought a car. Red is your favorite color. The car was red and cute and you fell in love with it. The blue car was sensible and boring, so you bought the red one instead. Ever since then it has pulled dangerously to the right. You’ve gone into the ditch several times. You’ve hit pedestrians. Maybe some of them should have been more careful, but that’s hardly the point. Now everybody runs when they see you coming. You maybe don’t notice it, but people are beginning to laugh. You tell yourself none of that matters; it’s your car after all. But it does matter.

What matters, is that the car doesn’t work the way you were told it would. The way it drives is making it very expensive to insure. People won’t ride with you. That should matter to you. Some of the features they sold you on were never actually in the car. They say they’re going to install these things, but have they? The features that are there have never worked the way they’re supposed to. This is important, too. There’s no left hand turn signal. You say that’s O.K., because the car won’t turn left anyway, but shouldn’t a car be able to turn left now and then, just to keep you on the road? Shouldn’t you have that choice? You can’t believe the fuel gauge. The car keeps stalling in traffic, which is embarrassing. There are no brakes. The AC is worthless. The heater only works in the summer. The car burns oil and guzzles gas. (Do we need to make a list?) Wherever you go you trail a poisonous blue cloud behind you, which can’t be very good for your health, or your neighbors’. Because it’s so unreliable, it’s making you unreliable too. Your job is in jeopardy. You bought it because it was cheap, but the repairs and hidden costs are bankrupting you. Other people are getting rich at your expense. Still, it’s red, which is your favorite color, and you love it. What should you do?

It may embarrass you. It might make you look like a flip-flopper. But I think you should sell the red car. Get rid of it. That would be the smart thing to do. Being patient, sticking with something no matter what, sometimes makes you look like a stubborn fool, which you’re not. This car is a real lemon. I think it sounds dangerous. Believing in this car isn’t going to make it run any better. (The only people who still believe in the red car are the ones who sold it to you in the first place. Think about that.) Love shouldn’t blind you to a car’s shortcomings. Sell it. You don’t need to tell anyone about it. Is it anyone else’s business? If people ask, you can just say someone stole it out of your driveway. You can laugh about that. Sell the darn thing. The next car you buy may not be perfect, it may not be red, it might even be blue, but it’s sure to run a heck of a lot better than this one.

(There's very little time left. Copy, paste and send this to anyone who might still be persuaded, and let's turn this country back to true blue. Pasquino)

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Story Problem

Jerry is paid 15 million dollars a year, not including unexercised stock options. Bob earns $12 an hour and works 40 hours a week, which really means 45 hours counting the unpaid hours he spends working off the clock. If Bob works 50 weeks a year and Jerry works 40 weeks a year, how many hours does it take Jerry to earn Bob’s annual salary?

(Answer: Divide 15 million by 40 and you find that Jerry makes $375,000 per week. If he works real hard, say 50 hours a week, he makes $7500 an hour. Getting paid for 40 hours, Bob makes $480 a week; times 50 weeks a year that equals $24,000 a year. So, it takes Jerry three hours and ten minutes to earn what Bob earns in a year.)

Next weeks assignment: If he puts aside 5% of his salary every fifteen minutes, how long does it take Jerry to own Bob?

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

If Red Wins In November

In 1945 the Red Army drew a line across Europe. Everything east of the line suddenly belonged to the Soviets. They only took the things they could use. Widows and orphans, the lame, individuals driven insane by years of allied bombing, all stayed behind; rocket scientists, pretty girls, museums full of old master paintings and entire factories (those not buried under the rubble) were shipped east. Some of the best things wound up in the offices and dachas of top people. They came, they saw, they took. Some would say they were entitled. If the Soviets didn’t invent the hostile takeover, they certainly perfected it, and their lessons are still being learned today.

It is not hard to tell who the winners and losers are in the New America. It isn’t the people sleeping on the heating grates outside your building. Do you ever wonder what happened to those grand, palatial state hospitals set in spacious park-like grounds? They were a quaint statement of an old-fashioned society that was proud to look after its less fortunate, but they were very expensive, some were downright awful inside and most of the people who lived there weren’t getting any better. Could they have been improved and reformed? Yes, but it would have cost even more money, which made it hard to justify. Goodness knows state hospitals don’t generate a lot of revenue. So about twenty years ago President Reagan set all of those people free, most of them anyway. And now they wander free on America’s streets and sleep under a canopy of stars.

Public good was the first thing to go in the New America. Why spend a lot of money on public things when private spending is so much more efficient? Public places are the most noticeable culprits. Public parks, public pools, sidewalks, libraries, schools. Who benefits when taxes pay for things that generate no money at all? Who needs a sidewalk when any responsible person can and should own a car? You could even say sidewalks are a disincentive to buy a car. What kind of a car dealer would I be if I were in favor of that? Why have public pools when it only dissuades people from putting a pool in their own backyard? Why have parks when anybody who works hard can fence and water and fertilize their own acre of bright green grass? It seems almost un-American to talk about these things. Don’t get me started on libraries and schools.

Private enterprise isn’t shirking its responsibilities either. Big companies used to squander thousands of dollars on public spaces. Have you been inside a bank lately? I mean who goes to banks anymore now that true patriots bank in the Bahamas? Those big, inefficient lobbies that used to be full of art and nice furniture and overpaid employees waiting to serve you are now tighter, less attractive, more cramped and much more efficient. Much of this can be disguised by dim lighting, which is cool because electricity doesn’t grow on trees. Attractive spaces invite people to look around and waste time, and time is money. Ugly buildings mean business. It’s as true for stores as it is for banks. People move in and out. They don’t look around. They get things done and that means more money on the bottom line.

Where does all that bottom line money go? You’ll be glad to know that not much of it is being wasted on you. Many of those dollars that used to pay more company employees to manufacture things or serve the customer now pay the housecleaners and the lawn and pool men who lovingly tend the large estates of major executives of thrifty companies. Twenty thousand dollars that used to pay a department store clerk or a bank teller for a year is spent efficiently and all at once on a tennis bracelet for the wife of the owner of the store or the bank who was wise enough to save the money instead of wasting it on wages. Art that used to decorate big wasteful lobbies now fits perfectly over the sofa in the large but efficient living room of the C.E.O. Pilots who used to consume thousands of gallons of scarce fossil fuels flying middle class vacationers to Hawaii and France are learning to fly the more fuel-efficient Gulfstream V tailored to serve the newer, smaller elite class of people who really earn their vacations and own their own private islands. Those private islands are also nearer to where they bank, and that’s part of being an efficient executive too.

It’s an exciting new world we live in, where the many (but not nearly as many as before) work more hours to satisfy the wants and needs of the few, where insecurity motivates people to better serve their masters. Productivity is up and complaining is down. This means fewer grocers but more caterers, fewer clerks in stores but more personal shoppers for a few lucky people who are too busy relaxing over a long lunch to run errands, fewer teachers but more jewelers and couturiers and furriers and decorators and tennis pros. There will be fewer jobs for museum guards because there will be fewer museums to guard with more of those paintings going into larger, more efficient executive mansions where technology and guard dogs will look after them practically for free. Why give expensive paintings to public museums when there are no tax savings in it? Private is good; public is bad.

With everybody working super hard pretty soon we won’t need any Government Programs or any Government at all. We’ll be too busy to demand it, too busy to vote, too poor to buy the stamp to write our congressman. We’ll beg our employers to pay our Congressmen for us. We’ll be on our own, which is the American way. We’ll have nobody to blame but ourselves. People who get terminally ill and lose their jobs or simply go crazy and become a burden to their families should put money aside beforehand and not complain to the rest of us.

So what exactly is Government good for? Mostly it’s a nuisance. Government regulations cost private businesses billions of dollars a year to evade, and even more for those really big private companies we’ve never heard of to pay the kind of lawyers we can’t afford. Whole offices of lawyers who work for pitiful salaries in government jobs regulating business to death could be put to better use in the lean, efficient ranks of corporate lobbyists. Clean water? Safe products? Fair markets where you won’t get cheated out of your life savings? Who are you kidding? Protections we used to enjoy and take for granted are probably too good for us anyway. What made us think we were entitled?

Things with the word Public on them should be thought of as valuable resources simply waiting to be cashed out and given away to the more deserving. Public lands? Drill them. Mine them. Except for the pretty ones--sell them. Parks can be sold too. What American C.E.O. wouldn’t love to have a ranch the size of Yellowstone? Libraries? Just an extravagance lavished on people too cheap to pay retail. And who has time to read in the New America? Who can afford to pay people to teach people to read? Workers who have wastefully catered to the selfish needs of the poor, the old, the young, the sick, the people with bad coping skills or bad financial advice will be grateful to do anything for the individuals who have money to pay them even if it means cleaning bathrooms, and they’ll be bathrooms twice the size of their own house. Teachers? Wouldn’t you rather be a governess to the darling children of a baron in a big mansion on a lake in the mountains just like in Rodgers and Hammerstein? It’s much more picturesque than public school.

If we’re lucky, the New America will be just like Merry Olde England, or Merry Olde France, where happy people lived in cozy, picturesque cottages provided almost for free by the kind, tastefully attired people who lived in the enormous and well-decorated house inside the gates in exchange for lifetime servitude. Or dear old Dixie, where the nights were filled with the sounds of banjos strumming and voices lifted in grateful song. Or Imperial Russia where the serfs all dressed in those neat tunics and toiled long years under the lash in the fields of the nobles, wisely redirecting their class grudges in periodic pogroms against the Jews. Before the Soviets came in and ruined everything. But that was just careful redistribution of resources, wasn’t it? Close scrutiny of the Kremlin files has revealed that the Soviets weren’t really Communists at all! They were hardheaded businessmen of the old new school, complete with yachts and jaunty nautical costumes. Stalin practically invented downsizing; ask the kulaks. And the most brilliant formulation of all was the one that won the war. It goes something like this: fewer jobs means lower wages, lower wages means more money for me and my friends, more money for me and my friends means fancier dachas, fancier dachas mean less time spent where you can smell the lower classes at work. But most importantly, fewer jobs also means more soldiers to fire out of the cannons of the proletariat. This is the kind of class warfare the Republicans can actually embrace. Because more than anything the New America needs an obedient people, people who know how to work or if they don’t are at least afraid to not work, people who are glad to spend their working lives feathering other peoples’ nests.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Pants Theory

A Conservative always believes the pants he has on are better than the ones in the catalog or the store window. It doesn’t matter how worn out they are. Conservatives like to be comfortable with things and tend to know what they like. I knew this already when I was a boy only I applied it to tennis shoes. Nobody can trust a kid in white sneakers. Gray is the color of trustworthiness.

Someone who thinks he’s funny will say that Conservatives prefer the pants they have on because they fear having them off. But this is true. Nixon slept with his pants on, the same pair, all through his time in Congress. Pat complained about it to close friends, but she never had to worry about Dick.

Conservatives are faithful to their wives because they are unimaginative and inclined to be risk-averse. Gingrich, Livingston and Hyde, the Robespierres of the Clinton scandals, were never Conservatives, they were opportunists and closer to Radicals (besides being philanderers themselves). I often like to point out that Clinton was and is more Conservative than Nixon (and only a fraction as sneaky, despite the monkeyshines). I say this to be provocative, but you will notice that he and Hillary are still married. Thick-and-thin marriage is as Conservative as a country song. Bedrock stuff.

So it is possible to be Conservative and Liberal at the same time. Actually, after a half-century of the Good Life built upon Liberal, New Deal institutions (the middle-class wage-earner, the factory worker who can afford the car he makes, secure retirement, good public education paid for by the taxes paid on good wages and salaries, clean air and water protected by enforceable laws, honest businesses kept honest by fair regulation, sound banking practices watched over by the government, public parks, safe workplaces, affordable healthcare, affordable houses that people own themselves) any decent Conservative had better be a Liberal. It’s his job, it’s his sacred duty, to uphold and defend what works, as if it were a good pair of pants. Liberalism, no matter what Gingrich and his radical disciples like to say, has worked well. The Radicals would like to throw it all out the window.

Usually what these wingnuts are complaining about is taxes (and it’s their own taxes they hate, not yours or mine). I don’t like taxes much either. Nobody likes doing them. Everybody hates paying them. But there was a time, not long ago, a time Conservatives ought to remember fondly, when paying your taxes was a point of pride. It was part of being an American. It was patriotic. It was what responsible people did. It showed everybody you weren’t taking a free ride. People wouldn’t have thought of renting a mailbox in the Bahamas to avoid being a responsible American. I like to think of taxes as the belt that holds the pants up. I feel half dressed without a belt on. Conservatives, especially the neo kind, wear their pants a bit tight, so they stay up by themselves; being a Liberal kind of Conservative I don’t like that. If the pants are really comfortable, like these I’ve got on, with the kind of room around the waist I like when I sit down, they’d fall down when I stood up if I wasn’t wearing a belt. (Some people prefer suspenders, and that analogy works just as well.)

Message? The group we have in charge right now call themselves Conservatives but they’re not, they’re just trying to take away your pants. A population that doesn’t have any pants is much easier to control. The belts get taken away first, the pants come next. If you like your pants hold onto them. Don’t let them take them away. Fashion is a bellweather. Keep your eyes open. There are already a lot of people whose pants are down around their knees. No true Conservative should consider that a good thing.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Political Baseball

(This article was written during the last week of the baseball season that has just ended.)

By moving the Expos to Washington, Bud Selig has created more U.S. jobs in a slow week than George W. Bush has created in four years. And they are high paying jobs. The fact that Selig holds a job the President once coveted makes the accomplishment even more poignant. If an accomplishment could ever be called poignant, this one can. We are filled with mixed emotions, and dreams of what might have been. What would the world be like if their roles were reversed? Bud Selig would never have invaded Iraq because he doesn’t know how to cook intelligence. (Nor would he ever have thought to phone South Carolina voters and imply that John McCain had a black love-child.) George Bush, despite the fact that he has perfected the concept with regard to millions of U.S. jobs, would never in a million years have threatened to contract Major League Baseball. Differences between the two men abound. Unlike Bud Selig, George Bush does not scowl while singing the National Anthem. Many say that George W. Bush would have been a better baseball commissioner than Bud Selig; unfortunately no-one named Bud has or ever will be elected President. It is pointless to wish.

The implication that will be engrossing the Congress this week is why, if it is unsafe to re-import prescription drugs into this country, is it all right to re-import baseball players? Like cocaine, many of the best ballplayers in the game are developed in South America. How can diverting them through Canada make Americans safer? This is a complex issue, and will probably result in a blue ribbon panel driving to Camden Yards this afternoon. Would that the season were longer, permitting more serious study.

The more crucial trade issue, the one people are failing to see because they are so focused on the Nation’s capital, is that a Japanese import is about to obliterate George Sisler’s 74 year-old record for most hits in a season. Ichiro Suzuki (no relation to the manufacturer of motorcycles and violin instruction) is only three hits away from tying Nimisila Creek, Ohio native Sisler’s total of 257 hits in a season, set in 1920. (Sisler hit .407 for the season for which he earned around $400 a month; Ichiro is batting .372 and is being paid in excess of $6 million for the season, or about $4000 an inning.)

This sacred American batting record, beloved by millions, will be crated up and shipped off to Japan unless the President intervenes. He has the power to do so, but will he? Will he travel to Seattle? Will George W. Bush once again eat peanuts in the expensive seats? (This was his main occupation when he was the front man for the owners of the Texas Rangers. Those who accuse him of trading Sammy Sosa misunderstand the “weak owner” system Bush served under.) If President Bush does go to Seattle, as Eisenhower promised to go to Korea, will he exercise charm or threaten force? Will he follow the Eisenhower model and finesse the situation? Or will he borrow a tactic from his father, George Sr., and try to put Ichiro off his stride? Will he vomit on him? This may be the President’s only option. (It is worth observing that, in the decade since George Bush Sr. vomited on the Japanese Prime Minister, Japan has suffered through a prolonged economic recession. Was there a cause and effect? If there is one way to determine who won it is this: Bush Sr. has a library in Texas and nobody remembers the name of the Prime Minister he vomited on.) If the vomit-maneuver has its desired effect, keeping the single season hit record in American hands, it might swing the November election, losing Bush the state of Washington but securing Sisler’s home state of Ohio with its greater Electoral vote total. Bud Selig refused to be interviewed for this article.

(© Pasquino 2004)