Archive for the Money Category

FROM THE FRIENDLY WHITE HOUSE TO YOUR HOUSE

If you were alive in January of 2001, you may recall that George W. Bush ascended to the Presidency of this country. He got there by virtue of the ugly fact that the Supreme Court was counting the ballots. At the conclusion of the ballot count, Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia issued his ruling that George W. Bush was the supreme leader of this sweet-smelling country and was free to proceed to his inauguration. He also stipulated that this ruling would not be a precedent for future rulings. This is preposterous because the Supreme Court issues rulings that are supposed to be precedents for every case that follows. But not in this case which led to George W. Bush assuming the presidency of this country.

Shortly after George W. Bush assumed the Presidency, he discovered much to his horror that there was a surplus in the Treasury of this country. This mortified Mr. Bush. He instructed the Treasury Secretary and the rest of his Cabinet that such a situation was intolerable, and that the surplus in the Treasury was to be pissed away at the earliest opportunity. So the tax rates of this country were immediately reduced with the provision that in ten years’ time they would revert to the levels under the Clinton administration and the Bush tax decrease would go away. That was the proposition. It was to be a temporary tax decrease resulting in less money coming into the Treasury for a period of ten years.

To do his part in disposing of the Treasury surplus, Mr. Bush first declared war in Afghanistan and secondly, he decided that it was time to invade Iraq. So here we were, early in the last decade, with two wars on our hands and all of this was to be accomplished with the decreased revenue from the income tax. As Mr. Bush correctly concluded, at the end of ten years, this matter would have to be settled by his successor, thereby leaving Mr. Bush largely blameless.

In December of 2010, the Bush tax cuts were set to expire. At that point, Mr. Obama was our President. Because of the great depression that had occurred in this country starting in 2008, Mr. Obama did not want to impose any new taxes on the middle class. Accordingly, he proposed that those with incomes of $250,000 or less could keep the Bush tax rates. For those with incomes in excess of $250,000, the tax rates would simply revert to the tax structure that applied under Mr. Bush’s predecessor, Mr. Clinton.

But the Republicans claimed that this was a tax increase on the millionaires and proceeded to fight Mr. Obama. There was even a proposal put forward by Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York that the Clinton tax rates would apply only to those with incomes of $1 million or more. That of course was unsatisfactory to the Republicans. As everyone knows, there are a lot more middle- and lower-income people in this country than there are those who have incomes of $1 million or more. But as we are finding out, much to our dismay, Mr. Obama had no wish to take on these wealthy Republicans. The proper term for Mr. Obama was that he caved. In spite of the lost revenue that should have been collected from those in the upper brackets, Mr. Obama let the millionaires keep their lower Bush tax rates and he threw in a sweetener. The estate tax exclusion would change from $2 million to $5 million, which means that wealthy individuals can pass on more of their wealth to their heirs.

The developments on the tax rate structure set my heart aflutter. I thought that Obama had the right instincts when he proposed that people with incomes of $250,000 or less could keep the Bush tax rates and that those with larger incomes would simply revert to the tax rates that applied during the Clinton administration. This would have been a pushover because there are so many more middle- and lower-income people than there are millionaires. But Obama did not wish to take on this fight which could have been so easily won. As I said earlier, Obama caved.

On December 9, 2010, I managed to still my heart flutters and compose a letter to Mr. Obama which was delivered by email. I had chosen email because it is faster than the so-called “snail mail.” I made all of the arguments as to why Obama should have fought this one out, and I concluded with the phrase, “Mr. Obama, in view of your capitulation, it would seem appropriate for you to resign.” I thought that by asking for Obama’s resignation, I would arouse a bit of interest in White House circles. But it didn’t even cause a ripple.

The email was sent on December 9 and I heard nothing for three months. Finally, on March 16, a gap of three months, an email arrived at our house which constituted a reply to my letter. The email from Washington that addressed me as “Dear Friend” rather than “Dear Mr. Carr,” thanked me for writing. There was a statement about why Mr. Obama had chosen this course of action and the kicker was that in the year 2012, Mr. Obama would make a valiant effort to re-establish the tax rates that applied during the Clinton years. That, of course, is unadulterated hogwash. In a Presidential election year, which would be 2012, I will be astounded if Obama ever approaches this subject of restoring the Clinton tax rates. But the main thing that I took away from the beginning and the body of the letter had to do with people in Washington referring to me as “Dear Friend” and saying, “Thank you for writing.”

But now we come to the most interesting part. Instead of including a complimentary close at the end of the letter, the letter was simply signed, “Sincerely, The White House.”

Since my retirement more than a quarter of a century ago, I have been absent from the business world. I was astounded to find that so many changes had taken place during my absence. During my long years in the telephone business, I was careful to address answers to the person who had written to me. That no longer seems to be desirable. In this case the words “Dear Friend” seem to suffice. What if I were a tea party type who hated the Democratic Party and all that it stands for? Do you think those people in Washington would have replied to me calling me a dear friend? But I was most impressed by the fact that at the end of the letter it said, “Sincerely, The White House.”

From this time forward, I intend to imitate what the White House has taught me. My next letter, if there is one, may be addressed to “Dear Friends in the White House.” This will save me from trying to determine which person is currently the President.

Now, when it comes to the complimentary close, it is my intention to sign the letter, “Yours truly, from The Blue-Gray House on Long Hill Drive.” As you can see, those people in Washington have taught me a brilliant lesson about letter-writing. How out-of-date it would be to sign my future correspondence, “Yours truly, Ed Carr.” The proper form, as I now understand it, is to say, “Yours truly, The Blue-Gray House on Long Hill Drive.”

Corresponding with the President, it would be presumptuous of me to refer to him as a “dear friend.” If the administration sends a letter that ends with the complimentary close of “Sincerely, The White House” I am obliged to use that form of address in future correspondence. Any future correspondence from me will be addressed to the White House rather than to an individual. I now know that addressing a letter to an individual is completely out of date. Now if I were to take the “Dear Friends” quote seriously, I might find the form of address that suggested a great friendship. In formal correspondence, I might refer to “Dear White House.” Once the dear friendship had been established and matured, I might forget the “House” part and refer to those in Washington as “White” or, better still, “Dear Whitey.” I suspect that the latter point leaves much to be desired.

But I am enamored with the idea of signing my letters, “Yours truly, The Blue-Gray House on Long Hill Drive.” If those people in Washington can sign their correspondence as “Sincerely, The White House,” I see no reason why I should not adopt that form of complimentary close. As a means of identifying the house from which the letter originated, I could say, “Sincerely, from the Blue Gray House on Long Hill Drive, right next to the house that was advertised on the For Sale sign as ‘I’m gorgeous inside’.” As a further means of identifying the house that originated this letter, for the last year I might also have specified that it came “From the house across the street from the Johnny-on-the-Spot in the front yard.” I offer these geographic references so that there is no mistake about the house that originated the letter.

So you see that a gristled old reprobate like myself can really learn something at this late stage in my life. I had not realized that I was so far out of compliance with basic standards in letter writing. But there are some things that must be taken into account as I become more accustomed to the new rules.

Suppose that love should strike my heart and I were to write a love letter to a young woman of 75 or so. I could not address her as “Dear Friend” nor could I use the complimentary close as dictated by the White House of “Sincerely, The Blue-Gray House on Long Hill Drive.” So you see, there are many things to be worked out but I am confident that they can be overcome. I am deeply grateful for this discovery of the “Dear Friends” and “Sincerely, The White House” lessons that have come to my attention before I cash in all my chips. So boys and girls, always remember you’re never too old to learn a little something.

E. E. CARR
March 19, 2011

~~~

The point is taken, but I’m not sure there’s any better way for them to have signed it. Clearly Barack wasn’t responding himself, and he’s the one you wrote the letter to. They could have signed it “Doug Smith, Mail Room Staff” or even “Form Letter G” but I think “The White House” is a better alternative. By same token, “yours truly, The Blue-Gray House on Long Hill Drive” is a perfectly acceptable closure and should be leveraged frequently, even if that particular house is no longer in play.

Many people often confuse national debt and the budget deficit. Clinton was running surpluses to budget, which of course Bush vigorously reversed. Occasionally people hear about that and think that somehow under Clinton, the USA didn’t owe any other countries any money, which naturally wasn’t the case; I’m positive Pop knew this, but future readers might not, so it seems like it’s worth clarifying.

Also odd: I could SWEAR I’ve already published this one. But all my searches for terms it in don’t turn up any results. Somehow if both WordPress and Google’s searches are failing me, apologies for the double post. More likely I just read it but never published, but man. Feels strange.

THE FOLLIES OF SECRETARY PAULSON

Readers of this essay should be warned that the author is completely at sea when it comes to understanding what is taking place in Washington on the so-called bailout or now called the rescue package. I have no clue as to how the bailout package should work but there is consolation in the fact that neither does anyone else. That of course includes the President of the United States who long ago has taken his hands off the wheel as this country is proceeding down the freeway at breakneck speeds. Be that as it may, perhaps it is well to recite a few facts that have to do with the financial stability of all of us.

Henry Paulson is alleged to be the Secretary of the Treasury in this formerly grand country of ours. We can hardly call it a grand country anymore with the till in the back room showing zero and the ledger sheets showing minus zero. Mr. Paulson came to be Secretary of the Treasury after he had served as Chairman of Goldman Sachs, the mammoth investment firm. It is alleged that Paulson’s private fortune comes to somewhere in excess of five hundred million dollars. That is substantially more than essayists’ bank accounts reflect.

Sometime around September 15, Secretary Paulson’s hair caught on fire and he ran to the Congress to warn that the banking system in this country was about to be bankrupt. There was a great urgency in what Secretary Paulson had to say to the leaders of the Congress as well as to members of the Bush Cabinet, for whom Paulson produced a three-page memo that he wished to turn into a bill from Congress. That bill said that Secretary Paulson should be given $700 billion of your tax dollars and, interestingly, one provision in the little memo stated that there should be no oversight whatsoever. In effect, Secretary Paulson was to be given $700 billion to use as he saw fit. You may recall that the memo was turned into a bill of several hundred pages which was initially turned down. After adding some pork to the bill, it was passed.

The theory in Secretary Paulson’s view was that there were mortgages which he called toxic, which were clogging the system. His theory was that once these mortgages were removed, using his $700 billion kitty, the financial system would return quickly to normal, with the banks being able to lend to each other as well as to grant loans to individual borrowers and businesses. The key to Secretary Paulson’s idea was to remove these toxic mortgages, which were poisoning the whole system.

To help Secretary Paulson with his work, he brought in young man from Goldman Sachs named Neel Kashkari, who would do the financial wheeling and dealing. Mr. Kashkari may be a brilliant fellow as far as Mr. Paulson is concerned, but no one else has yet to find that out. In any case, we are told that Mr. Kashkari, who is in his early 30s and has the grand total of six years’ experience in the financial business, was given the direction to use the $700 billion to buy these toxic mortgages. This is an extraordinarily heavy responsibility for a man who has only six years experience in the financial community.

When the so-called toxic mortgages stayed in place and presumably continued to block the drainage system in our financial structure, Mr. Kashkari and Mr. Paulson seemed to turn to other devices to work their magic. Apparently the toxic mortgages were forgotten. Somewhere along the line, nine favored banks were given something like $50 billion on the theory that they would then begin to make loans not only to other banks but also to consumers. As it turns out, the banks took the billions of dollars and promptly refused to lend to other banks or consumers but instead set out to buy other banks. At this point, Secretary Paulson,
Mr. Kashkari, and President Bush should have said, “What the hell is going on here?” It is not clear in my mind that the favored banks, who were given the billions of dollars, even thanked the administration and Secretary Paulson.

It is now about two months since Secretary Paulson sounded the frantic alarm about the banking system and, if anything, we stand infinitely poorer than we were when Mr. Paulson’s hair was on fire. The stock market is down some 3,000 points and the joke is being heard that the 401(k)s are now 201(k)s. There is no humor in this situation in that lifetime savings are evaporating on a daily basis.

On Friday, November 14th, Mr. Paulson changed his mind about the toxic mortgages and announced a new proposition where he would loan money to various entities such as the credit card companies. He conceded under questioning that he apparently no longer wishes to deal with the so-called toxic mortgages but instead is casting about for some other means of solving this crisis. Mr. Kashkari appeared before the House committee and was totally eviscerated by such stalwarts as Dennis Kucinich, the former Mayor of Cleveland and former Presidential contender. Mr. Kashkari was told by Dennis Kucinich that it was clear that he knew nothing about what was going on. Neel Kashkari did not join in that assessment but objective observers agree that Kucinich’s view was precisely on point.

At the same time Secretary Paulson appeared on Jim Lehrer’s NewsHour program and was so fouled up in what he was trying to enunciate that even Jim Lehrer, the most moderate of questioners, became impatient with Paulson. Those who know Lehrer will tell you that his questioning of the Secretary would lead to the belief that he was telling the Secretary that he [Paulson] was out in left field and knew nothing about what was taking place.

It is at this point that I am attempting to dictate this essay and I hope that you are as confused as I am in trying to figure what our bailout package is supposed to do. I am told that the word “bailout” is out of style and should be replaced by the phrase “rescue package.” That really makes no difference because it is so confusing because Secretary Paulson and Mr. Kashkari simply are, as we used to say, “lost balls in tall grass.”

There is one other parallel that might fit this situation. During the Second World War, the term “snafu” came into general use. That was an acronym and it signified “Situation Normal All Fouled Up.” As you may imagine, soldiers such as myself used the “f” word instead of “fouled” but my seminary training would not permit me to put that horrid word in print. In assessing where we stand at this moment, I would say that snafu is much too mild a term. There was a second acronym that, in the latter stages of the war, was used not only by American troops but also by our British friends. That term was “fubar.” It stands for “Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition.” My case rests on the belief that with respect to our financial condition, fubar clearly applies. I can think of no other word that aptly describes where we are.

And so it is that Paulson’s follies really have turned into a burlesque. The crowning act in that burlesque has to do with twenty nations from around the world coming to Washington this weekend to have a dinner with George Bush and get the word directly from him as to how this is to be fixed. Anyone who believes that George Bush knows how to fix this financial situation is on a fool’s errand. In a speech earlier this week, our beloved President told us that the problem was not in government oversight of the market but that, in effect, the market should be ready to operate as it saw fit and would become self-correcting. This is a lot like his view on the war in Iraq, where we are told that the only way to attack that problem is to “stay the course.”

I know that this has been a confusing essay to read, just as it has been a confusing essay to write. But the facts are the facts and, as an old soldier, I am forced to tell you that the only applicable term for the follies of Secretary Paulson is fubar a thousand times over.

E. E. CARR
November 15, 2008

~~~

Yeah, I dunno. Seems like an okay initial thought with some poor follow-through. Normally the idea with stimulus packages is that if the government spends a lot of money, that money goes into the pockets of the citizenry, who turn around and spend it or save it or whatever. If they spend it, it’s going into the pockets of other citizens, and if they save it then banks get to lend it out to people. This sort of primes the pump for the normal cycle of spending and lending which keeps the economy growing but in 2008 that wasn’t really enough.

ATTENTION: FALL OUT | Meditations Chapter 15: Verses Clayton, Mo. Through Crawdaddy, Texas

In Chapter 13 of these sacred Meditations, there was a reference to one of the basic principles of the American Army. If the Army possessed a stone tablet reflecting the Ten Army Commandment, high on that list would be the injunction about not thinking. Simply put, soldiers would be warned that they don’t get paid to think. Thinking in the Army is done at great peril to one’s own body, brain and career.

Thinking about the sinfulness of Army thinking has led me to other examples of screw-ups in the Army establishment which may or may not involve the wickedness of thinking. Here are three examples which precede the merciful thoughts of General Omar Bradley, a learned gentleman from Missouri, of all places.

Verse 1: General Casey Trying to Bat
It is quite clear that there are factions at the White House which have fundamentally different agendas. Last week, General George Casey, the commander of forces in Iraq, got caught in the middle. His failure to speak truthfully about the troop situation in Iraq, earned him knots on both sides of his head.

Some of the people at the White House understand the public pressure for some sign of American forces leaving Iraq. Apparently, they told Casey that he should recognize this political response. So Casey called a press conference to announce that if the political situation in Iraq stabilized, if the Iraqi elections worked out well together with some other caveats, Casey hoped to reduce the American forces in Iraq by about 30,000 perhaps next spring of summer.

Listening to Casey’s announcement was an exercise in “If everything works out.” Casey hoped to please his political White House bosses by suggesting that if everything fell into place, we could reduce our forces by about 30,000 troops. He emphasized that everything had to fall into place, which in a war rarely happens. But to please his White House political shot callers, he suggested that sometime in 2006, some of the troops could start home.

Please remember General Casey made this semi-good pseudo announcement in person. No anonymous sources at all.

This must have angered the other faction in the White House who demands that “we stay the course.” So they over-rode the “feel good” faction and told Casey in effect, that there would be no reduction in American forces in the foreseeable future. Bush came down on this side.

One sentence from Tom Oliphant’s report in the Boston Globe says it all.

“This formulation angered many of Bush’s conservative supporters which produced fresh instructions to poor Casey to switch to a say-the-course pessimism. The result was a story in the Washington Post quoting a senior military official in Baghdad as saying no way Iraq’s ‘leaders’ would be ready to lead some operations against the insurgency until next summer, if not later. The anonymous official was the same General Casey.”

Two things emerge from this continuing fiasco. The first is that when there is some sort of good news to announce, the principals wave their arms and take several bows. When the news is less than superb, those same officials hide behind “anonymous sources.” This, of course, is the essence of the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame by Bush’s brain, Karl Rove.

The second fact to emerge is that when military people start to play a political game, the soldiers will almost always be the losers.

There is no full blown sorrow in this quarter for General Casey. He was simply following orders from two opposing camps in the White House. If Casey feels used, he could resign. He won’t do that. After all, he has four stars on his uniform. But soldiers don’t get paid for thinking. Those that do usually get burned. The mighty Casey seems to have struck out.

Verse 2: Base Closing May or May Not Save Billions
Recently, the Pentagon’s Base Closing Commission announced the proposed closing of a high number of military bases. Some of the more famous military bases were on the list to be shut down. The Groton Submarine Base and the Ellsworth Air Force Base were among the more famous bases which the U.S. military said were no longer needed.

Closing bases would have devastating effects on the economy of the surrounding towns. Politicians of all sorts have now banded together to save the bases in their territory. It seems that the politicians have an ally in Anthony J. Principi, who had been the Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs and is now Chairman of the Base Closing Committee.

When Principi and his helpers analyzed the list of base closings, they concluded that the Pentagon had inflated the savings of closing the bases by a factor of 50%. Simply put, the Pentagon lied and were caught in it by Chairman Principi.

Since the Principi group made its counter claim of the reduced savings that would flow from base closings, the Pentagon has been mysteriously quiet. It is reasonable to expect that the Pentagon will be back gnawing on the same old bone at a later date, but getting caught in a lie will not help them to make their case.

Verse 3: Anyone in Favor of a Draft?
The Army has done about everything to encourage people to enlist. Education and age limits have been expanded to make less well educated and those up to nearly age 40 eligible to enlist. Bonuses are enticing, and yet, recruitment goals have been missed repeatedly. The answer is, of course, that young men and women are not eager to be blown apart in Iraq or some similar place.

There are commentators who suggest a draft for the military. They argue a draft imposes an equal obligation on everyone to serve. The current all-volunteer Army is peopled often by young men who are not equipped educationally to compete in the job markets of the 21st century. Joining the Army is viewed in many quarters as a respectable job where if things work right, the Army experience may lead to opportunities in education and future civilian employment. Maybe so, but not many students are eager to become freshmen at age 23-27 years and not many employers are eager to hire new workers whose main talent is shooting a machine gun. So the volunteer army becomes an army of “lifers” who have no other employment opportunities.

Now if we are ever to spread the responsibility among a much larger pool of Americans, it appears a draft would be one way to do it. There are many reasons to support a draft because it imposes an obligation on all young men. But curiously, the chicken war hawk factions particularly in the Republican Party either say nothing or they oppose any idea of a draft.

George Bush, Tom DeLay, Richard Chaney and Bill Frist have nothing to say about equal opportunity to get killed in Iraq. Nothing to say. But when the ghouls gathered to prolong Terri Schiavo’s misery, they were all leading the parade. Bush even flew back from Texas using hundreds of gallons of aviation fuel to sign the unconstitutional bill to extend the misery of Ms. Schiavo. But not a word about a draft for which he has two daughters who seem to be going nowhere.

A draft is fine for poor people, but certainly not for kids of the country club set.

Verse 4: Omar Bradley’s Thoughts
For those who do not know of Omar Bradley, he was in many minds the most successful General of World War II. Bradley’s credentials are too long to summarize here, but he led Army forces in North Africa and in Europe in the 1942-1945 period. Your ancient author became aware of Bradley in early 1943 when he had a leading part in directing allied forces in the Battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia which led to the surrender of Rommel’s Afrika Korps a short time later.

Bob Herbert, a columnist for the New York Times has a new book called “Promises Betrayed.” It is largely a collection of his essays. It is very worthwhile reading, particularly if you abhor war.

On page 306, Bob Herbert cites a quotation from a speech made in Boston 57 years ago. Herbert quotes a news release on a paragraph of Bradley’s speech.

“General Omar Bradley , a hero of World War II, delivered a speech in Boston in 1948 that is remarkably appropriate for the violent and chaotic world of today. ‘The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom,’ he said, ‘power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical midgets. We know more about war than we know of peace, more about killing than we know about living.”

For me, there is nothing whatsoever to add to Omar Bradley’s speech except to state that he came from the hills of Missouri, home of Howard Davis and Harry Truman.

E. E. CARR
August 20, 2005

~~~

I feel like Bradley does a good job of summarizing why we don’t need bases OR a draft; the U.S. should endeavor to do less occupying and killing in general. Aiming to have fewer bases and fewer troops, regardless of the cost savings associated by closing them, is a great goal. I’d agree that the socioeconomic component to the army is frustrating, though. It obviously shouldn’t be the poorest Americans that have to be the first to die. But even more obviously, no Americans should be dying overseas in the first place when there’s no real war to be waged, and we’re just trying to control oil interests.

MAYBE BEING POOR AIN’T ALL BAD

This essay offers the thought that being poor financially, may have its merits. Obviously, its drawbacks are well known. The conventional wisdom these days runs against being poor, but being one step away from financial disaster is in communion with the philosophy of a country woman who claimed Lusk, Illinois as her birth place.

Country women are accustomed to hard work and to plain speaking. This lady was fairly tall and raw boned, if that term can be used for a church going female. Her use of the English language reflected her educational accomplishments which had to do with completion of the third grade McGuffy Reader. Double negatives in one sentence were common place. The British Broadcasting Company would have been aghast at her spoken English, but as an Irishwoman, she had no use for the BBC or for the royal family. Her views on life continue to make eminent sense 44 years after her death.

Often, she spoke in aphorisms. She believed, for example, that being poor – which she often was – did not prevent a person from being honest. If a debt was owed to someone, it should be paid as fully and as promptly as possible.

Being rich or poor provided no excuse for avoiding service to your country. Her brothers and her son all volunteered for Army service in the First and Second World Wars. Awaiting the call from the draft board was sort of second tier patriotism to her. Avoiding service, for able-bodied men, was considered scandalous by the Lusk philosopher.

Being poor was no excuse whatsoever for not washing ones self. While your clothes may be worn, they should always be clean.

Being poor should not prevent one from looking for work. If a job developed, honesty demanded that the employee get to work on time and stay until quitting time.

Being poor did not entitle one to give up and to whimper about life’s unfairness. That Lusk woman didn’t demand miracles, but she did demand that those around her do the best they could do. Her exhortations and aphorisms were sometimes delivered with Bible verses such as, “The wages of sin is death.” Her demands were not couched in proper English grammar, but those around her always got the message.

It seems to me that people coming from those depression era circumstances are often better able to understand events that take place in our daily lives and in the life of this country. Let’s take the 2004 presidential election. In that contest, the man who had the most money had a clear advantage. George Bush and John Kerry had never been poor in their entire lives. Bush made preposterous claims for example, about the success of the war in Iraq. Poor people who saw their children become soldiers as a means of making a living knew not to believe such political propaganda. They simply watched the casualty figures mount and concluded that they were being lied to.

For his part, John Kerry picked a crucial time in the campaign to display his wealth and athletic skills. He visited one of his many homes and he was photographed wind surfing. That was a colossal blunder. If the idea was to show that he was physically fit, it was drowned out by the horse laughs from farmers and miners and other folks who have to work for a living. When a farmer is harvesting wheat in any Midwestern state, he would not be favorably moved by a rich man wind surfing in an elite setting on Cape Cod.

Bush and Kerry were always politicians of inherited wealth. Men from more modest circumstances would not have operated the campaigns as the well heeled candidates conducted them in 2004. They would have known to stick to provable facts and to avoid wind surfing on Cape Cod at all costs. Being poor is no excuse for running a dumb campaign.

Now that the campaign is finally finished, a candidate of modest means would know better than to star in a $40 million inaugural extravaganza. Candidates who have survived diminished backgrounds would think first of the military vehicles in Iraq which have inadequate armor. Such a candidate might think also about the victims of the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia. A man who had to work his way through school might conclude that $40 million would buy some armor for combat vehicles or it might help a fisherman from Sri Lanka to replace his tsunami destroyed boat. Or it might provide shelter for homeless people here who have barely enough to eat.

First things first. Extravagant $40 million inaugural bashes probably would not even make the “To Do” list of a candidate who was raised by parents who lived from one paycheck to another or from a no-paycheck to another week or month without a job.

In the January 11, 2005 edition of the New York Times, there is a full page devoted to “What The First Lady Will Wear.” On Inauguration Day, Laura Bush will wear a gown designed by Oscar de la Renta. The gown will have to match her hair and her accessories. “Mrs. Bush has acknowledged that she is taking style cues from her 22 year old twin daughters,” says the Times. They will have to also wear ball gowns from designers to the wealthy.

While poor people with inadequate food and shelter are with us, the expenses devoted to the Inauguration including the ball gowns, is nothing less than an abomination. While soldiers are dying from lack of vehicle armor, the money spent to dress the first lady and her daughters must be regarded as loathsome.

Soldiers and poor people can read. They will view the inaugural activities with detestation. All of these descriptions will have been richly earned by the Bush family and the Inaugural Committee.

If one wishes to understand what women and men of modest means endure everyday, it helps to have been born in poor or less affluent circumstances. For example, if anyone seeks to understand people working in dead end jobs, it would help if the inquirer had worked for a time on the bottom rung of the labor ladder. To understand financial despair, it would help to have been broke once. If one wishes to understand sick people without health insurance, it might be well to have been sick in that same circumstance. To comprehend despair among soldiers, it would be well to have served as a private in combat situations. And if your bank or your landlord takes away your housing or your car, it may be well to have experienced that dread.

It may be that no one wishes to understand all of the travails that befall ordinary working and retired Americans. That may be the case particularly among the more affluent. On the other hand, if one wishes to understand the dynamics of the American people, there are those American citizens who worry about not having enough to eat, or worry about the rent or are concerned about being sick without insurance. Those things are part and parcel of American life in 2005. Discerning citizens would be well advised to understand that. Being poor or coming from deprived or modest backgrounds might be helpful in understanding those situations.

If we turn from the individual citizens to the American influence on world affairs, it seems to me that there is a verse from the King James version of the Bible, that may offer some wisdom. In Proverbs 16:18 we are warned that, “Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Quoting from Proverbs doesn’t make me a Bible scholar, but those words have meaning to the more affluent among us who proclaim that America leads the world in nearly every category.

Take automobiles, for example. In affluent neighborhoods and suburbs, finding an American car in the parking lot of a market will take a bit of searching. The well-to-do and those who aspire to be well-to-do drive foreign cars. It is de rigueur to own a Volvo or an Infiniti or a Lexus. Less well off citizens drive Fords and Chevies and Chrysler products.

In 2004, Toyoto sold 2,000,000 cars in this country. They seem to have passed Chrysler and are threatening Ford for total sales in the United States. Whereas two decades or so ago, the world looked to American car manufacturers for innovative leadership, those laurels have now passed to the Japanese and to the Germans. Close behind them are the Koreans.

For 45 or 50 years following World War II, American cars set the standard for the world to follow. American manufacturers were slow to recognize that less affluent buyers were buying Volkswagens, Hondas and Subarus rather than Fords or Chevies. By the time American car companies woke up, the luxury market included Lexus’s and Infinities fighting it out with Cadillacs and Lincolns which now find favor largely with limousine companies.

By paying attention to Toyota, Nissan, Honda, VW and the Korean manufacturers, we might have learned something to prevent the rapid drop in the sale of American cars. Poor people could have told Detroit something worthwhile – if Detroit had asked and had paid attention.

In the field of education, poor people could point out some other shortcomings. The cost for tuition, board and room at well regarded universities now exceeds $40,000 for one year. Travel to and from the school and incidental expenses are additional expenses to be borne by the student or his family. And Americans thought their educational institutions were without parallel.

Simply put, $40,000 puts attendance at a first rate school out of the question for children of poor people or even those of modest means. To anyone who claims that American higher education leads the world, there are some sobering thoughts. One of the first is that many soldiers being killed or wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq, joined the military primarily or solely because they could use military pay to afford a college education. The main thrust of the American military is aimed at enlistments among high schoolers who come from modest or poor backgrounds. Recruiting shows and exhibits do not bother with well-to-do high schools. Their aim is at deprived schools in run down neighborhoods.

Enlisting is sort of a chimera. Recently, the Army has instituted its “Stop Loss” program which means that the soldier is kept in the military, at the end of his enlistment, whether he likes it or not. When he finally completes his enlistment, the soldier is probably 22 or 23 years of age which is not a prime time to become a college freshman. Having been away from academic pursuits for at least three years is a primary reason for abandoning a college career. With re-enlistment bonuses of several thousand dollars, many young men will opt for more soldiering. Students from well-to-do families can embrace a college career directly after high school. At age 22 or 23 years, these youngsters are set to start their life’s work. Poor people know that the educational cards are stacked against them. They are smart enough to know that, but not smart enough to make a level playing field for everyone who aspires to attend a university. On top of everything else, the U.S. Government has now announced a cut in Pell Grants which means that there will be even fewer resources for worthy students who come from poor circumstances.

My reading of educational facts in continental Europe leads me to conclude that many governments encourage students to succeed regardless of financial circumstances. This is not the American way. A case in point is a young Czech man who spent a summer in New Jersey working for a farmer who sold his produce in local farmer’s markets. That fellow is now a PhD candidate at the Economics University of Prague. The fellow who sold us tomatoes and cabbages came from a family of modest means, yet he will soon be addressed as “Doctor” or “Professor.” Could a student of similar means achieve that in this country? The chances are that it would take considerable financial resources that poor people don’t have and have no prospects for achieving.

In leaving the field of education as it relates to students of lesser means, there are two sobering thoughts. American government officials have imposed a series of immigration rules that have caused a deadening effect on foreign students studying in this country. This is absolutely counter-productive because those students, in later life, will have no understanding of how things work in the United States. Ignorance may well mean hostility.

Secondly, the Chief Executive of the United States government has told us that layoffs and outsourcing of jobs is sort of a blessing. He says the obvious answer is to find a nearby junior college and to study to learn a new career.

Unfortunately, many of the layoffs and outsourcing have happened to people who hold more than one advanced university degree. And when the Chief Executive speaks about the opportunities offered by junior colleges, my mind turns to a 50 year old laid off coal miner who started to work at age 16, not long after completing the eighth grade in a country school. What are his chances of becoming a nuclear physicist, if that is his next planned career move? Maybe the Commander in Chief has some ideas. The rest of us do not. But he has been a rich man all his life. Do you think he has a plan for 50 year old miners? There is also the person holding down three jobs already to make ends meet. How will she or he find time to attend career-changing classes at a local junior college.

There is one circumstance where being poor has some great advantages. That circumstance is music. The poor people who have been oppressed and denied opportunity to succeed, have often turned to music. Does anyone who knows anything about music deny the power of the spiritual? Hearing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” or “Look Down Look Down That Lonesome Road” will tell any listener that poor people have constructed magnificent pieces of music. If the spirituals are sung by the likes of Leontyne Price or Paul Robeson, for example, the results are electrifying.

Jews have been pushed and ground down for centuries. Still they have produced sterling song writers such as Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin. Broadway and the music world would have been much poorer had it not been for Jewish composers, lyricists and performers.

And finally, there are the Celts who produced, among other songs, “Danny Boy,” “The Minstrel Boy,” “Scotland the Brave” and the Welsh song “Ar Hyd Y Nos” which we know in English as “All Through the Night.” Are there more expressive lyrics than “Sleep my child, may peace attend thee, all through the night?” When Russian choirs sing, their hearts are in their music. All of these people, the Africans, the Jews, the Celts, the Poles and the Russians will grab your attention when they perform – and they may make you cry a bit. Generally speaking, poor people, engulfed by tragedy, will often put their thoughts into song.

The foregoing list of music by poor people is something that comes to mind as we close “Maybe Being Poor Ain’t All Bad.” Obviously, there are other people who have turned their poverty into music. Failure to include them is a function of space and time, and not one of deliberate omission.

By this time, this ancient essayist hopes his point about poor people has been made. Being born to royalty does not prevent some utterly miserable things to take place such as Britain’s Prince Harry appearing at a party dressed as a Nazi Afrika Corps trooper with a swastika armband. Ho boy – no poor Cockney would have ever made that mistake – right mate? Being born poor may mean that the person of lesser means may possess brain power that greatly exceeds the ruling class. And so, old essayists who came of age during the Great Depression may have a point when it is claimed that maybe being poor ain’t necessarily all that bad.

Now a concluding word or two about the Lusk philosopher. She was, of course, Lillie Carr, my mother. When she wanted to upgrade her background, she would claim that she came from Golconda, the seat of Pope County, about 20 miles away. She would contend that while no one knew where Lusk was, “ever’body knows about Golconda.” Maybe so, because around Golconda, they had “hard roads” (meaning paved ones). Lusk had only one-car trails that had no street or highway designation. Those unpaved roads were identified by naming some of the farmers who lived along the right-of-way for the roads. “Go by the Brown place and turn right on the road to the Jones place” is the way that directions were given.

The Lusk native, who moved to St. Louis in 1904, had eight children. Three of them died at an early age. When her youngest child went to join the American Army in 1942, his departure was marked by a blunder of colossal proportions. To put it mildly, Lillie harbored active and smoldering ill feelings toward England as she was an Irish nationalist.

When it was time for me to leave to catch the Kirkwood-Ferguson street car which would start my journey to Jefferson Barracks south of
St. Louis, she said to be careful. It was at this point that she needed re-assurance. The soon-to-be-soldier told Lillie that there would be plenty of help. She always liked the Poles because they were hard workers at the farm superintended by my parents in Clayton, Missouri. She was told about the Poles, the French and the Russian troops. Lots of help there. Inexplicably, Lillie’s son said that British troops would also be prominent in the fight against Hitler.

Immediately, it became clear from Lillie’s expression that her youngest child was in the throes of a gigantic mistake that would have been avoided had he shut up before including the Brits.

Lillie said, “Do you mean the English?” My shoulders shrugged in affirmation. The last words that reached my ears came from Lillie saying, “In that case Son, you do the best you can.” It was a long ride on that street car.

For whatever differences we may have had on religion, she taught me that being poor was no excuse at all for not doing my best in every case. It goes without saying that Lillie of Lusk has my eternal gratitude for demonstrating that being poor has many merits.

There are those who say, “I have been rich and I have been poor. Rich is better.” But on balance, there are times when being poor teaches you some valuable lessons. In the end, it seems to me, that maybe being poor ain’t all that bad. For those who disagree, my understanding is always available.

E. E. CARR
January 13, 2005

~~~

I think the real lesson is “if you’re going to be poor, try to be born in Western Europe.” There are definitely some things in the US that get around the pitfalls that Pop mentioned — for example, for high-achieving poor students, the most prestigious universities usually are also the cheapest options — but overall the safety nets that we have are not of a very high quality. It doesn’t help that they come under direct fire from Republican politicians at every opportunity.

WHAT WILL THE CHILDREN SAY?

Wars have an interesting way of stirring cynicism as time passes. The entry of the United States in the First World War was described by Woodrow Wilson, the president at the time, as the war to end wars. In other quotes, the war was termed an effort to make the world safe for democracy.

It doesn’t take much effort to hear the Bush administration making much the same claim as attached to a war that started nearly 87 years ago. According to the Bushies, this alleged war is being fought to end terrorism forever and to bring democracy to the Middle East where dictators have always ruled.

World War I is ridiculed and dismissed these days because far from wiping war out of the human condition, we still have the plague of armed combat.

World War II is treated much more kindly because Hitler in Germany and Tojo in Japan had clear plans to subdue the United States. The main comment about the Second World War is the inordinate casualties sustained by all combatants. In one week in the Battle of the Bulge, 19,000 American soldiers lost their lives in combat with the Axis Powers. Included were my St. Louis AT&T boss, Ashby Vaughn. Two others who sat next to me in that office, Bernie Wheeler and Dave Weiss, Jr., were killed the Pacific Theater of Operations. Don Meier lost his life in 1944 on Iwo Jima. Don was the first passenger in my car as we drove to work everyday – and he was the last person to leave my car in the evening. Losing those four men nearly 60 years ago made a strong impression on me then, as it does now.

The list of American dead from the Second World War always seems lost in government statistics. By my recollection, the dead exceeded 400,000. Much later, the Pentagon said that total is too high, but an accounting is still unavailable.

The Russian losses must have been at least 5,000,000. The German losses must have been equally as great. No one knows now about Japanese losses.

When losses like these are viewed from a remove of 60 years, there must be an obvious question: why?

Harry Truman termed the Korean War a “Police Action,” Before it was done, General Douglas MacArthur was fired and 54,246 American men were killed during that war. To this day, we still have about 35,000 troops protecting South Korea.

That war has a memorial in Washington, D. C. which attracts few visitors. The memorial has an Infantry platoon of American soldiers, worn out from combat and marching and from the bitter cold. The memorial graphically portrays how bone weary war can make a man. It deserves to be seen. That war should have an honored place in the history of the United States, but it is often forgotten.

The war in Vietnam is now judged to be a complete disaster. 58,229 Americans were lost in that war. In the end, Americans were forced to flee Saigon by whatever means became available.

Two thoughts about the Vietnamese War. Richard Nixon proclaimed – and his administration proclaimed – that a corner had been turned and indeed, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Any resemblance to similar proclamations coming from the Bush administration about Iraq is strictly coincidental. The war hawks, Bush and Chaney, saw to it that they were engaged elsewhere during the war in Vietnam.

There is a striking memorial to American war dead in Washington, D. C. by Maya Lin. It deserves to be visited. There is no record of Bush or Cheney visiting the Vietnam or the Korean Memorials. What a colossal pity.

Now we have the conflict in Iraq. Most students of warfare – if they have no political axe to grind – will tell you that the United States is involved in a quagmire. Even the war hawk Rumsfeld says it will be a “long, hard slog.” The Army is stretched to the breaking point. Any talk of the U. S. being able to fight two different wars in two different theaters, is no longer heard.

Field grade officers, Colonels and Generals, are anxious to have their tickets punched in Iraq so that they may qualify for promotion. Bush contends everything is hunky dory, but Bush has absolutely no military experience. Cheney, who is blamed for getting the United States into this war, has nothing to say about his forecast that the Iraqis would throw rose petals at the feet of our troops. The rose petals have bombs attached.

As this is being written, the number of American dead from combat is now at 500 or 501. According to the Army, combat wounded soldiers total about 2700. Both these numbers come from the U. S. Army. As such, it is my belief that these numbers are unreliable due to the Pentagon’s desire to minimize casualties. Some observers claim that American wounded is close to 11,000. So far, 21 soldiers have committed suicide in Iraq. Most of the deaths have come after Bush’s premature announcement on the carrier Abraham Lincoln that combat was finished and we had accomplished our mission. The families of the wounded and dead may want to ask Bush which “Mission Accomplished” he had in mind.

The steady stream of deaths shows no sign of diminishing. They will go on as long as U. S. forces are perceived as illegal occupiers of Iraq. If the situation were reversed with Arab troops occupying this country, it would be expected that every effort would be made to kill them and to evict them. Why should we expect any other conduct from the Iraqis.

The original premise for undertaking a pre-emptive war was the supposed existence of weapons of mass destruction. That has been abandoned because thousands of men have been unable to find any such weapons. Bush told a television interviewer Diane Sawyer, that is made no difference to him. It was now a matter of no consequence. Just 500 men killed and hundred billions of dollars is a trivial matter to the alleged Commander in Chief.

When the weapons of mass destruction excuse began to wear thin, Bush claimed he wanted now to bring democracy to Iraq. That was a belated claim. For years, there have been oppressive dictators ruling Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, two of American’s allies. Do you think that Bush aims to demand democracy in those countries or in Egypt in addition to Iraq. Don’t hold your breath.

The war in Iraq started in March, 2003. By the beginning of 2004, 500 American soldiers had lost their lives. There has been the expenditure of at least $250 Billion dollars so far. The last Bush request from Congress was $87 Billion. Bush promised there would be more such requests to follow.

With the cost of the war and with the Bush tax cuts, our children are going to ask when their taxes are raised, “What the hell went on here?” In the long, hard slog of Iraq, more deaths and more extraordinary expenses will have to be met. It is our children who will be forced to pay for Bush’s gifts to wealthy people through his tax cuts. And it will be our children who must pay for this unnecessary and unwise war. This is suicide for this country. If our kids say, “What the hell went on here?”, there will be no logical answer that can be offered. Our children are entitled to feel betrayed and to be mad as Hell – and no one can blame them.

PRO PATRIA MORI

It seems to this old soldier that the First World War took a heavy toll of talented poets. Every American school child starting in 1916, learned the poem Trees:

“I think that I shall never see,
A poem as lovely as a tree…..”

The author was New Jersey’s own Joyce Kilmer. This may be the most widely shared poem among all of American’s children. Joyce Kilmer was killed in France in 1918 at the age of 31, which is an advanced age for a rifleman.

Kilmer’s counterpart was a British poet named Wilfred Owen. Owen traced his ancestry to Welsh and English roots. Like Kilmer, he belonged to an infantry company called the Artist’s Rifles. He was also killed in France by a German machine gun only seven days before the Armistice ended the butchery. The church bells were ringing to celebrate the war’s end in his hometown of Oswestry in the west of England. During the celebration, Owen’s parents answered the door to find a telegram from the British War Department telling them of their loss. Wilfred Owens was 25 years old.

His most well known work was a dark poem called Strange Meeting. Shortly before he died he wrote in a separate work about the incivility of war. He said:

“If in some smothering dream you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth–corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est
Pro Patria Mori.”

Wilfred Owen has stated the truth about battlefield deaths. They are rarely surgically performed. They involve agony for the wounded and for the surviving soldiers and for his family.

In the final two sentences of Wilfred Owen’s untitled poem, the Latin reads that the old Lie is “It is sweet and honorable to die for your country.”

It is suspected that every man and woman serving in the Armed Forces in Iraq in combat might agree wholeheartedly with the thoughts expressed in the Wilfred Owen poem. Men from the Second World War would also endorse his views about war.

There were no children to mourn the loss of Joyce Kilmer and Wilfred Owen, so we will never know what they might have thought.

E. E. CARR
January 15, 2004

~~~

Heavy one. Even after getting a degree in economics, it still feels pretty weird that the government spends about half a trillion dollars per year in money that it doesn’t have. I know all the reasons that this nominally okay, but I just keep thinking of that old saying: “if you owe your bank $100 dollars, you have a problem. If you owe the bank $100 million dollars, the bank has a problem.” I feel like “if you owe the world $13 trillion dollars, your taxpayers have a problem.” Obama certainly didn’t help things, debt-wise. God knows what Trump will do with his wall and his tax cuts.

Birthday Post!

July 24, 2003

My dear Spockling Churchwallop:

As you can see, I began to prepare for your birthday back on February 15, 2003. Since that time, you have changed your name and it seems that an English accent has come over you. You are going to be referred to in newspapers as Churchwallop – nee Kevin Shepherd. That “nee” business has to do with high class females who take a second name or a second or third husband.

Now before we get into the currency, I have a map of Africa from a Hammond Atlas and the Foreign Exchange lists published in the New York Times. Now on the map, you will notice that every country in Africa was under domination by a European power. The map is wrong on one point, as Egypt was a British possession. When I arrived in Dakar in French West Africa in February, 1943, this was the layout of countries. Incidentally, Dakar is now in Senegal, a free nation.

The money issued by the various government entities reflected the ownership of the country by European governments. Nearly every country has now won its freedom.

I traveled all over Africa and Italy and into the Indian sub-continent. In all those travels, I never set out to collect money as souvenirs. At the end of a trip, money left over would be put aside with the thought that the money could be used on my next trip to that location. When I finally came home in July of 1945, this is the money left over. And now it is yours.

Now for a little arithmetic lesson. In every case today, except for Britain, the Euro and Special Drawing Rights (SDR), the dollar is worth more than the foreign currency. The British pound used to be worth around $4.50 to $5.00. I ought to know because I got paid in pounds for a long time. Now the pound is down to about $1.70 which is a long way from $5 when Great Britain was riding high.

The Euro is a currency invented only two or three years ago in Europe. Not every European country subscribes to the Euro. As you can see, the English have kept their pound, Sweden has kept its krona and Norway has kept its krone. In the beginning, the governments in Europe wanted to keep the Euro even with the dollar, but as you can see, it has edged 15c or 18c ahead of the dollar.

The SDR (Special Drawing Rights) has to do with governments taking money out of the system. Let’s don’t mess with it here.

Using the “Foreign Exchange” from July 16, 2003 from the New York Times, let’s have a little arithmetic lesson. If I were going to Canada, I would go to the foreign desk of my bank which is the Chase Manhattan Bank, and I would give the bank $100 U. S. currency. For that, the bank should give me $139.53 in Canadian currency. On the other hand, if a Canadian wanted to visit the U. S., he would have to plunk down $139 in Canadian currency to get $100 in U. S. dollars.

Are you with me so far?

Now if I wanted some English currency to go to London, my bank would take my $100 in U. S. money and would bring me 62 pounds and 72 pence.

If it fell to me to go to South Korea, my $100 U. S. dollars would bring me 117,855 South Korean won. So stay away from countries where their currency is less than a penny in American dollars.

If you want to do some more arithmetic, perhaps your Dad can help. Don’t let him say that he has something urgent to do just because he can’t figure out all these numbers.

Spockling, these bills are so old that nearly all of the countries have been replaced so there is no published rate for conversation to dollars. Basically, this is the money I used as a soldier about 60 years ago.

Also, you will find some current dollars for your use in purchasing cigars or ear and nose rings for your birthday. We like big, fat, Italian stogies. Judy and I say “HAPPY BIRTHDAY”. Also, Nick the Chipmunk, and the birds at the feeder all wish you a VERY HAPPY BIRTHDAY.

I want to thank you for your letter when I was being a patient for the Pacemaker insertion. It was good to get your letter which told me to get well. Now as you can see, I got well just as you said. My identification bracelet from the hospital is enclosed to show you I am finished.

When you have had a chance to look at these bills, perhaps you could write us a letter and tell us how you are going to keep them. Do you plan, for example, to show them at school? Or when you go to Sunday school, do you want to display them? If you get a chance to preach, can you say that this currency comes from wicked countries? That’s what I would say.

Well, Kevin (Mr. Churchwallop), That’s about it for a teenage birthday. Judy and I wish you well because we think you are a nice fellow who can write (very) decent letters. Write to us.

So stay strong always,

*Pop’s signature*

~~~

I got this letter from Pop when I turned thirteen, and I’m posting it on my twenty-sixth birthday. I remember reading this letter the first time and then opening the box it came with, which contained dozens of little bags filled with the pocket change of defunct countries and currencies. Getting that box was eye-opening for me — I knew that Pop had been in the war, but I had no idea that during the war and his AT&T years afterward, Pop had been to more countries than I’d been to cities. “Well-traveled” didn’t even begin to cover it. It made me more interested in his stories, his essays, and all the artifacts that went along with them. I consider myself very lucky to have been the grandkid who he chose to give so much of his these amazing things to, and it’s entirely possible that this site indirectly exists due to the increased curiosity in Pop’s life that this box precipitated.

I have no real explanation for “Spockling Churchwallop,” a name that I chose when signing up for my first hotmail address. I’m glad we all kinda just let that die, and that subsequent letters didn’t carry on the moniker.

Unrelated: Isn’t it cool that this letter is also from 2003, which means it fits right in alongside the other 2003 essays I’ve been doing! So convenient. Thanks very much to you, Judy, for sending it to me again today.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK PART 10 – SHOW BIZNESS

When I started out to write about life in New York, it seemed to me that four or five essays would do the trick. Admittedly, I never won a Rhodes Scholarship for my excellence in mathematics. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Part 10 of the New York series is now being prepared to spring on an unsuspecting public.

The reason for this latest piece is that no series of stories about New York would be complete without a reference to the theater, or as it is often called, Show Bizness. Show Bizness belongs exclusively to New York. It would be the utmost silliness to include such a piece when writing about Kansas City or Prairie Village, Kansas or East Flat Rock, North Carolina or Nacogdaches, Texas or Bayou LaBatre, Louisiana or Golconda, Illinois. And just to make sure this is an All American piece, it is to be noted that “theater” is spelled properly, not in the waspy, limp-wristed tradition of Mother England’s “theatres.”

Just so we are all in step, I am talking about live productions which are to be performed eight times a week in a theater that sells seats for those performances. We are not talking about television programs or commercials. This has to do with performances eight times a week before a live audience. If you flub a line, it won’t be erased. The actors will have to overcome the mistake. If you miss a cue, there are no retakes. The actors will have to deal with it. My point is that legitimate theater is not television. Amen for that.

If someone ever told you that Show Bizness was a way to make a lot of money in a hurry, please tell them that they should invest their earnings in some robust New York Stock Exchange stocks such as Enron, Arthur Andersen, Tyco, Global Crossing, WorldCom, Quest, Halliburton and that paragon of financial virtue, Harken Energy.

On the other hand, if someone told you that Show Bizness was a way to have some fun while losing a few dollars, then go for it. The best advice that this branch of the Carr/Chicka family can offer, is to invest only what you can lose. If you can’t pay the electric bill at the end of the month, you’d be a complete fool to invest in a Broadway production. However, if you had a few bucks gathering dust in an often forgotten savings account paying you 3% interest, think about the theater. Seeing a new production mounted is a better way to spend your time as opposed to waiting for Investors Savings to tell you that their interest rate has been again reduced. But remember, invest only what you can afford to lose.

Good and honest producers will ask potential backers of the shows for a statement of their financial position. If they sense that the investor is on shaky ground, honest producers will turn down such investors. I suppose dishonest producers will be interested only in what they can squeeze out of an investor or backer. Fortunately, the three men in the plays where we were backers were honest people.

Well intentioned producers, however honest they may be, will ordinarily not tell you that backers of the show will be the last paid – if there is anything left to be paid. And unscrupulous producers will often require backers to produce more cash if the show runs into a dry spell. Clearly, investing in a New York theater production is often a risky business. The only guarantee is that you will probably lose money and that you may enjoy the experience.

This whole venture into the uncharted waters of Show Bizness started in January, 1991 when I got an unsolicited letter from Steven Baruch, a producer of plays for the theater. At the time, we were subscribers to plays offered by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. I suspect that the Paper Mill may have lent Steve Baruch their list of subscribers.

Baruch was associated with Tom Viertel and Richard Frankel in the production of Broadway productions. In his letter, Baruch cited certain hits such as “Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Cocktail Hour,” “Love Letters” and “Penn and Teller” which he and his partners had produced. Because we follow the theater, we were aware of those successes.

Baruch’s letter was the antithesis of pushiness. He more or less said that if you should care to explore the idea of investing in a future show, his production team would like to discuss our interest. He also said, “Our investors to date have had a great deal of fun – and have done well financially.” That sounded interesting as did the attachment to his letter. Now remember, this was a January, 1991 letter well before Bill Clinton ever had anything to do with the Federal Government, George Herbert Walker Bush was in charge and Alan Greenspan had not yet identified those companies that he would accuse of “irrational exuberance” when it came to industry finances.

Here is the investment return sheet that purports to show that backers of the Baruch shows enjoyed financial successes.

Once more, I will claim that in the field of mathematics, I have been called a Neanderthal, but I would say that the return on “Penn and Teller,” for example, was 180% rather than 280%. But Judy and I were interested in how Broadway productions are mounted and we were content to let Greenspan argue with professors of finance as to whether the total return is 280% or something less.

When we said we might have an interest in seeing a little more about Show Bizness, Steve Baruch replied by saying that the next production would be “Song of Singapore.” Also included was a tape of some of the songs from the show and an invitation to attend a preliminary performance where we could hear the music and have a simplified telling of the story of “Song of Singapore.”

You may recall that in the early 1980’s, the producers of “Cats,” a major hit, took over a theater in midtown New York and remodeled the interior to suit their production. To a large extent, that is what Baruch, Viertel and Frankel had done to a large building at the corner of Irving Place and 15th Street in the general vicinity of Gramercy Park in New York. The building which had been called “Irving Plaza,” was for many years, the home of the Polish Army Veteran’s Association.

So early in March, we attended the preliminary performance. We all sat in chairs without arms around tables, arranged cabaret style. At the front of the room were a piano, a guitar and drums and the performers, part of whom were in the band. All of this took place in the old ballroom of the Polish Veteran’s Association. The story line held together very nicely and the songs held a lot of promise. So in spite of the Spartan surroundings at this preliminary hearing, we were impressed. Steve Baruch said in a letter at about this time, “We intend for the show to be a major ‘happening.’ In addition to what we think will be a wonderful piece of theater, we expect to drench the audience in atmosphere —from incense and chimes as they enter to waitresses, cigarette girls and coat check people in costume. I personally think it’s the most commercial piece we’ve ever done.”

Aside from incense and chimes, the audience would not be seated in row after row of seats as in a usual production. The three producers envisioned a ballroom of tables with immaculate linens. As Steve Baruch said, it was much more like a “happening” rather than a staid theater performance. Those costumed waitresses would be available to bring you drinks like the “Frank Sumatra” or the “Shirley Temple of Doom.” (see menu attached) Food had an oriental flavor in keeping with the theme of Song of Singapore. When a customer had all the booze he needed and had eaten the Pad Thai and Shu Mai, he could top it off with “Key Sublime Pie.”

The food and drinks were to be served before the performances and during intermissions, but experiences showed that some patrons got wine at $22 per bottle or champagne ranging from $25 to $65 and they drank it while the show took place. All of this was perfectly in keeping with the idea that patrons were to have some fun as they saw “Song of Singapore.” On top of that, the investors and producers were sponsoring the sale of food and drinks which helped the bottom line. This was an unusual way to mount a play, but we agreed with the three producers that Song of Singapore should be an evening of fun and perhaps, it might even turn a profit.

In addition to the food and wine, the producers had tee shirts, jackets and drinking glasses for sale. Maybe patrons who consumed enough champagne and wine would buy some glasses or a jacket, all contributing to the financial success of the show.

When we saw that the building at Irving Place and 15th Street in New York was really being remodeled with a new name, Song of Singapore Building, Judy and I put down our money and said count us as investors or backers. As investors, we joined perhaps 100 to 150 other people who were also backers of the show. Before all that happened, the producers gave our finances a close look and decided that we were good risks. When they presented the contracts to be signed, I declined to show them to a lawyer because I knew that any lawyer worth his salt would tell us not to sign the papers. I guess we acted as our own attorneys which is contrary to every piece of advice I ever got from a lawyer. So now all we had to do was wait for opening night.

Song of Singapore was set in early December, 1941. The story of the play makes reference to the attempt of aviatrix Amelia Earhart to fly her Lockheed Electra around the world in 1937. People who were alive in the 1930’s will recall that newspapers and radio broadcasts followed her progress as best they could. Some of the places she stopped were so far off the beaten track that it was difficult to put together progress reports of her flights. On top of all that, Amelia Earhart’s navigator had a reputation for heavy drinking.

In any event, Ms. Earhart and Fred Noonan, her navigator, were lost in 1937. From time to time, explorers report from the South Pacific that they have found natives who claim to have known about the “big bird from the sky” falling in the jungle. Her plane went down between New Guinea and Howland Island. In point of fact, for 65 years, there have been no reliable reports of finding Ms. Earhart or her airplane. As the Columbia Encyclopedia says, “Her fate remains a mystery.” Song of Singapore more or less suggests that she and her navigator were wandering around unrecognized, writing songs and drinking outrageous concoctions of drinks and food in the South Pacific such as the Frank Sumatra cocktail or Singapore style food. Literary license? Yes. Sure.

We watched as work on the show and the theater progressed. At the end of May 1991, Song of Singapore was ready to open. And so it did.

You may remember that earlier I told you that the audience was seated at tables of four rather than in long rows as you might find in an ordinary theater. Opening night was a sell out with critics from all the papers and magazines. They were interested in seeing if Song of Singapore represented a major innovation in handling an audience. Everyone was seated and the waitresses brought drinks to everyone who needed one. Judy and I were waiting for the two remaining seats at our table to be filled. We didn’t have to wait long as the theater critic from the New York Times, David Richards, and his female assistant joined us at out table. Obviously, the critic from the Times could write a review that would make or break the show.

Judy and I were cordial to Richards and his helper without seeming to be obsequious. Richards sat at our table until intermission at which time he asked to be moved to the balcony. He wasn’t displeased with us; he just wanted to see what the show looked like from the balcony. Richards himself was glum and did not seem to be enjoying himself. Based upon what we saw at our table, there did not seem much hope that he would produce a favorable review. We were wrong. Richards produced a good review. According to a letter we received from the three producers, “The most important reviews were raves, though we certainly did have some mixed notices from a number of critics. Audience reactions are uniformly ecstatic…” So, Song of Singapore was off to a very favorable start.

Naturally, we followed the show closely. What we were to learn was that all kinds of extraneous factors affect theater attendance. First there was the summer vacation period and then there was the Labor Day fall off. The show seemed to be doing well up to the New Year’s holiday at the end of 1991. Then there were what show people called “The January-February Doldrums”.

The long and the short of it is that the producers had to ask for more money to keep the show running. At the end of 1991, the star of the show, Donna Murphy, left to take a role in a different production. Donna was discovered in Song of Singapore and went on to star in productions such as The King and I on Broadway and London’s West End. As it turned out, Donna Murphy came pretty close to being irreplaceable. We all anteed up more money, but the heavy payroll and less than stellar attendance finally closed the show in May, 1992 after almost a year on the boards. We had enjoyed seeing Song of Singapore come to life, but the economic facts of life have to be faced.

Now I get to a point made earlier in this story which said that backers or investors will realize some gain only if there is some money left over after all the dozens of other people get their cut. And believe me there were many people who got paid before any thought was given to the investors. When the accounting statements were sent out, we learned how many people were lined up before the backers.

To start with, the three producers and their staffs produced the show “In association with Allen Spivak and Larry Magid.” That’s two we did not know about. Then there was A. J. Antoon who directed the performance. All those people had to be taken care of. The book was written by Allan Katz and four other authors. The music and lyrics were the work of four people. They had a major piece of the action.

Then there were people who were not seen by the audience. For example, there was set design, costume design, lighting design and sound design. Then we had separate people in charge of musical supervision, orchestrations, vocal arrangements, casting, production supervision, the press representative, the production manager as well as the associate producer. And finally, there was a “Jazzaturg.” This person was Paula Lockheart who had been with the show from its inception. She wrote part of the book as well as some of the music and lyrics. And before the show got to New York, she had the female lead. When the producers were able to get Donna Murphy for the lead, Paula became the “Jazzaturg” which meant she shared billing in the Playbill which every one seeing Song of Singapore received. I suppose Paula was compensated for helping to write the book as well as for the music and lyrics so she had to be taken care of from the proceeds of the show. The other four, who created the show along with Paula, remained in the band and participated in the songs and dialog. Wisely, they never quit their day jobs.

Under the production supervisor, a Ron Nash, there were seven people reporting to him. Miriam Shapiro, the production manager, had 13 people that she directed. I suppose all of those folks had to be paid every week.

Now that leaves the wardrobe people and make up artists. I lost count when I tried to figure out how many people were backstage.

Well, there is no point in beating a dead horse. The fact is that the proceeds from the audience were somewhere between being not enough to cover the costs of running the show or barely enough. In any case, there were no profits flowing to the poor old investors, namely us.

So you see my admonition that if you can’t pay the electric bill at the end of the month, stay away from Show Bizness. Good advice. In the meantime, we enjoyed the parties and the excitement about producing the show. And in the end, while there were no profits declared, after a time, the production resulted in a tax write-off so we had our fun and it all came out pretty close to even. And in the bargain, we wound up with a few glasses with the Song of Singapore symbol of a large dragon on them and somehow Nicole Miller, a prominent designer was engaged to produce some ancillary products. Judy wound up with a scarf and I have a flashy handkerchief to put in a suit pocket. Of course, all have the dragon symbol playing a trumpet, the signature of Song of Singapore. When the show closed after almost a year on the boards, we felt we had enough fun to justify the expense. Not a bad tradeoff in any case.

Two thoughts in closing the door on Song of Singapore before we go on to Marvin’s Room which was our next investment. The building at Irving Place and 15th Street is now used for concerts due largely to the interior changes made by Song of Singapore. I read that Dolly Parton, the country artist, had a concert there early in July, 2002. I have no idea of whether the Polish Army Veterans Association still uses the place.

David Richards, the critic of the New York Times who sat at our table on opening night, appears stymied in his career. Apparently, he left the New York Times and took a job with The Washington Post. Now he is described as the “former drama critic” of the Times and the Post. The last effort we are aware of is a foreword he composed to go with “Plays from Woolly Mammoth,” a play anthology. Our limited exposure to David Richards led us to believe that he is not the happiest person in the world. This came as no surprise to Judy who thought Richards was a loser on opening night of Song of Singapore.

Marvin’s Room might be called a peculiar work to be presented as a comedy to New York audiences. Nonetheless, we made an investment on February 12, 1992 on the strength of tryouts in Hartford, Chicago and an off-Broadway presentation in New York which seemed to be huge successes.

Marvin’s Room had very little music so there was no overhead for a big band or for the writers of original music or lyrics. The cast was essentially three women backed up by five people who had lesser roles to play. The show seemed to have succeeded before in three tryouts in 1990 and 1991. While the usual collection of workers was required to get the play produced, it seemed to us that the overhead was substantially less than in our original investment in Song of Singapore.

The play opened on March 5, 1992 at the Minetta Lane Theater in Greenwich Village in New York. Minetta Lane Theater is considered to be an Off-Broadway house. The play is set in the present. The place is shown as “Various locations in Florida and a mental institution in Ohio.” How’s that for a comedy?

Scott McPherson, the author of Marvin’s Room died late in 1991 from AIDS. He never saw the opening of his show in New York. Marvin is never plainly seen. He has been dying slowly from cancer for decades. One never sees the old man except for an outline behind a glass brick wall, where he liked to watch colors from a bedside lamp bounce around the room. See, I told you this was a comedy.

Bessie and Lee are Marvin’s daughters. Before the play ends, Bessie learns that she has leukemia. Lee, the other daughter, is a “self-centered, totally neurotic bossy woman.” That’s what William Raidy, a prominent critic, had to say. And Ruth, Marvin’s sister, is described as “out of it. Her brain has been wired to shut out pain,” we are told. I told you this was a comedy. Now do you believe me?

Marvin’s Room got accolades from the newspapers, from Variety, from Entertainment/Arts, as well as some serious pieces which said that the play promises to “Banish defeat with goodness.” (Frank Rich, New York Times.) Frank Rich also said, “Is there any chance you will believe me when I tell you that Marvin’s Room …..is one of the funniest plays of the year as well as one of the wisest and most moving?” Rich is a fine writer, but perhaps he was carried away when he wrote those lines.

I thought Marvin’s Room was a pleasant evening at the theater – and not much more. But all the critics said it was great stuff. Today I reviewed 15 or 20 reports from newspapers and magazines from the opening night. Uniformly, the critics said the play was funny and moving. So I said if the critics are impressed, how about paying audiences? This was an investment for us so we were dismissing much of what the critics had to say. Will people pay to see a comedy with cancer, leukemia and a neurotic woman?

Well, curiously they did. After a time, we began to get payment checks which reflected some profits from the show. Before long, we had recovered 73% of our investment. Marvin’s Room was licensed to other producers such as colleges and local theater groups. All of those license fees were distributed to the investors. The Minetta Lane Theater production lasted for nearly two years. It was produced by licensees for at least five years after that. When Marvin’s Room had run its course over a six or seven year period, Judy and I came out fairly close to even. We never expected to make a killing by backing theater productions. It is a good thing that we did not expect wealth to accumulate to the size that Ken Lay of Enron might envy. But we had more fun than Ken Lay ever had.

Marvin’s Room was not nearly as much fun as Song of Singapore, but it returned most of our investment. We achieved exactly what we had set out to do. We had seen how theater plays are put together and we enjoyed the process. And, in the end, all that fun did not cost very much. That’s a pretty good bargain. But we had had enough of theater investment. Knowing when to fold ‘em came after two shows and we have no hankering to back another play.

Investing in plays is a sort of an extravagance, but do you think that investors in WorldCom, Enron, Tyco, Global Crossing, Arthur Andersen, Halliburton or Harken Energy enjoyed their experience as much as we did with Song of Singapore and Marvin’s Room? We can laugh about our losses in the theater business; I suspect that WorldCom, Enron, etc, investors may be looking for a bridge to jump off of.

E. E. CARR
July 22, 2002

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I can’t help but compare the startups of 2016 to the companies that form to create plays. The majority of them exist only briefly and never turn a profit, but some prove to be runaway successes that go on and on. They take money from wherever they can get it, and pay out salaries and incremental expenses before investors ever see a dime.

Song of Singapore reminds me of an Austin-based movie theater franchise called the “Alamo Drafthouse,” wherein patrons can order food directly to their tables as they watch movies. The Drafthouse also features a large stage and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if live plays were sometimes preformed there. It’s an excellent establishment and I bet Pop would have liked it, had he gone back in the day.

ESTHER REZOAGLI AND THE MERITS OF BEING BORN UNWEALTHY

Rodney Dangerfield was a comedian who during his lifetime claimed that he “got no respect.” Dangerfield was a happy comedian who coined a maxim or two. One of his maxims was, “I’ve been rich, I’ve been poor, and believe me, rich is better.” In this essay, I will contend that there is merit in being born unwealthy.

There is much to recommend in Dangerfield’s philosophy about being rich. On the other hand, it seems to me that being born poor has its merits also unless it is accompanied by the deadly sin of envy or by the equally deadly sin of self-pity.

My childhood coincided with the Great American Depression. The Depression was so painful that to this day, 75 years later, I find that I am often unable to write about it. But as poor as the Carr family was during the Depression, there was an underclass less fortunate than we were.

Clayton, Missouri is the county seat of St. Louis County. Great wealth used to flow to Clayton from the prosperous farms to its west and by prominent St. Louis businessmen and professionals who maintained residences in that town. During the depths of the Depression in the mid nineteen thirties, St. Louis County operated a home in Clayton for orphan boys. For some families, the economic circumstances became so tight that they were forced to give up their boys and place them in the orphans’ home where they were cared for after a fashion.

The Clayton, Missouri public schools reflected the wealth of the physicians, lawyers, and business people who sent their children to that school system. At the bottom tier in that student social structure came the orphans’ home boys. These children knew of the circumstances that had brought them to be wards of St. Louis County. They had every reason to be angry and to pity themselves. I had many long talks with the boys from the orphans’ home who seemed to say to me that somewhere down the road things will get better. The orphans’ home boys ate their lunches from a paper bag, not being able to afford the prices at the school cafeteria. I joined them in that circumstance and was also required to return the paper bag to my mother at the end of the day. The orphan’s home boys attended no student social events because the price of admission was much beyond their means. Yet in retrospect, thinking today, I did not detect any measurable sign of envy and certainly I did not notice any degree of self-pity.

The boys from the orphans’ home grew up knowing what tough times really were. I suspect that everything they received later in life was greatly appreciated. There was never a sense of self-entitlement. Anne Richards said of George H.W. Bush that he woke up on third base and thought he had hit a triple. His eldest son is called out on strikes and expects to be carried off the field by adoring fans. This situation would never occur to the orphans’ home boys. None of them ever attended college but rather went to work at age 15 or 16 years. Their tussle with poverty during the Depression, in my estimation, made them much stronger people. They expected no entitlements and believed that it was necessary to work for everything that was given to them. And so the orphans’ home boys avoided the great sins of envy and of wringing the hands in self-pity.

And all of that brings me to another case where a woman has avoided the sin of envy and the degrading thought of self-pity. When I returned to New York from Washington in 1969, I was given an office on the 25th floor at 32 Sixth Avenue in New York. In that row of private offices were other men working for the Long Lines Department of AT&T and who also held the title of director. Outside our offices was stationed a secretary for each one of us. There were three married women among the secretaries. They were Audrey Weidenheimer, Lois Reda, and Rosemary Bies Bannon. Rosemary was later succeeded by Dorothy Giovi Campbell. There was also one unmarried woman who was edging into spinsterhood. Her name was Virginia Dunne. And then there was Esther Rezoagli (pronounced Rez-wali).

Esther was a woman in what I suspect were her early fifties. She was what my parents would have called a “widow woman.” I know that “widow woman” is a tautology but my parents considered that term a form of respect. Esther was the daughter of Italian immigrants who was born in Greenwich Village and still lived there. From time to time, I would sit in the chair next to Esther’s desk and talk to her because I knew that she was of Italian parentage and she knew that I had spent a large part of my military career in Italy. As I remember it, her parents spoke little English and her father held laborer’s jobs. Esther and her family qualified as one of those of us who were born unwealthy. My conversations with Esther took place in the early 1970s and for one reason or another I could never bring myself to ask her when her husband had died. She described him as a man who had her complete devotion and it would seem inappropriate to ask for the date of his death. So I let that matter pass.

The point that is significant in this case is that Esther had been married for 25 years or thereabouts and had lost the love of her life. There were no children. Esther’s husband was the focus of her attentions during all those years. In our conversations, Esther said she was never tempted by envy of other peoples’ situations. She said in effect, “ I remember what I had and that is enough to carry me forward.”

Esther expressed no envy of the three married secretaries who were her colleagues and, from what I could gather, she had hoped that the unmarried secretary would some day find a husband so that she could enjoy the pleasures of being married. Esther was born poor and worked her way up the secretarial ranks at AT&T. She worked for everything she got and she was thankful that, at that time, the New York city public schools offered a good education. Being born poor and later losing the love of her life never caused Esther to wallow in self-pity. She said, on the question of envy, that “my marriage was a very happy one and that is good enough for me.”

I have not seen Esther since 1974 and I regret that. Esther was a good, courageous woman who held no envy of others in more fortunate circumstances. And above all, Esther spent no time that I could discern in self pity.

Because we have been apart so long, my language skills in Italian have deteriorated immensely. It would give me great pleasure to speak a few words in Italian with Esther even though I know she would correct me. In any language, men would have a lot to learn from people as courageous as Esther Rezoagli. The daughter of immigrant parents who was born in poor circumstances rose to make a success of herself. She suffered a string of misfortunes along the way including the death of her husband. Esther symbolizes strength and decency. I regret that I have lost touch with her and hope that the marvels of the computer will locate her. In any event, I simply wanted to tell Esther that she resides in an honored place in my alleged mind.

Rosemary Bannon was my secretary for a time. Eight to ten years later, after she assumed positions in other departments, Rosemary was murdered by Lonnie Bannon, her husband, also an AT&T employee. Following Rosemary’s murder, Lonnie committed suicide. It was a sad ending to a young woman who looked forward to many years of happiness. Rosemary deserved much more than what she got with Lonnie Bannon.

Life was not fair to the orphan’s home boys. It treated Rosemary Bannon in a disastrous way. And life has not been kind to Esther Rezoagli, but I suppose it demonstrates the thought that we must all play the hand that we are dealt. Even Rodney Dangerfield, a former poor man who wound up wealthy, would agree to that proposition.

E. E. CARR
March 8, 2007
Essay 240
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Kevin’s commentary: Well that one sure took an unexpected turn at the end. Poor woman. In my work experience, as limited as though it may be, Pop’s thoughts hold true — the people who came from the poorest backgrounds tend to work the hardest.

“YOU AIN’T TORE YOUR BRITCHES YET” – BILL KNAPP, CIRCA 1950

In the hills and bogs of this great country, there is a language spoken which is a derivative of the English language. That derivative is called “country speak.” If, for example, you follow the announcements of Richard Shelby, the U.S. Senator from Alabama, you will notice that he pronounces the word “can’t” as “caint.” This is a good start on speaking country speak. If you were to use the term “hisself” rather than “himself,” that would practically make you a full practitioner of this language.

In the past week, there were two events that collided in my brain. One had to do with a friendly evaluation by Bill Knapp, who was one of my supervisors in 1950, and the other has to do with the precipitous drop in the price of crude oil by the barrel. I will do my best to make some sense out of this cerebral collision.

The subject at hand here today is the garment that men wear on the lower half of their bodies. In country speak, that garment is usually referred to as “britches.” When country speakers become contaminated by exposure to city folk, they ordinarily begin to call britches by the urban term of “pants.” If one were to use the term “trousers” instead of britches, I suspect that the country speaker would either profess ignorance or say that you would be too uppity for his taste. And so today this essay will have to do with the unadorned term “britches.”

In 1950, I was an employee of the AT&T Company in its plant department in St. Louis. For a time I reported to Bill Knapp, a Texan who often used country speak to convey his messages. For many of us, including myself, Bill Knapp could do no wrong. Bill had been an Army Captain in the Second World War, which set him apart from all of the other supervisors in St. Louis. He was a down-to-earth man whose observations made eminent sense to all of us. Obviously, I liked Bill Knapp but his bosses, specifically including a man named Bill Heywood, did not care for Bill Knapp.

Before this essay is finished, I hope to get to Mr. Heywood. But in any case, the local union in St. Louis in the Long Lines Department of AT&T had been dominated for many years by craftsmen working in the test room three or four miles from the division administrative offices. Those of us who worked in the administrative offices thought that the administration of the union was taking us in the wrong direction and so we mounted a vigorous campaign to oust the current leadership. The campaign was successful and in 1950 I became the President of Local 6350 of the Communications Workers of America.

My desk was immediately in front of Bill Knapp so that he could see nearly every move I made. In the corner office a few feet forward sat Mr. Heywood at a walnut desk which came with a secretary and minions to answer the phone whenever his secretary was away to eat lunch. The bosses in the administrative offices were much aware of my efforts to become President of the local, because of its high publicity. Not long after my having become President of Local 6350, Bill Knapp said to me about my work for the union that “You ain’t tore your britches yet.” Bill meant this as a compliment and as a speaker of country speak, I understood it perfectly. His message was, “Try not to get your britches torn while you take care of your company duties and its natural protagonist, the union.”

Now as to Mr. Heywood. During this period I came into possession of a letter that Heywood had written to Bill Knapp’s boss. In the letter, Heywood complained that Bill Knapp’s performance was not making a positive contribution towards Heywood’s career. I suspect that the letter was leaked to me by one of the secretaries but I said nothing. To the extent, that if I buddied up with Bill Knapp, it would give Mr. Heywood more ammunition to contend that such action did not contribute toward his advancement. As things finally turned out, Bill Heywood got into a discussion with Henry Killingsworth, the boss of the whole Long Lines Department, and seemed to have insulted Killingsworth. Within a year or so, when the Long Lines Department was reorganized and a new office was established in Kansas City, Mr. Heywood found that he had been clearly demoted. The walnut desk was gone, to be replaced by a metal desk. The secretary was gone, to be replaced by no one. I was a low-level supervisor by that time in Kansas City and had much to do with furnishing the office needs for Mr. Heywood. He took his come-down extremely hard and, rather than saying “It serves you right,” I was moved to sympathize with him because I thought Killingsworth was a colossal bastard. Within 18 months, Heywood died of congestive heart failure which, in my humble opinion, was largely attributable to his come-down with his view of himself and his career with AT&T.

It might be argued that Mr. Heywood had gotten too big for his britches and that the bosses in New York had cut him off at the knees. I fully agree that Heywood had gotten a bit too big for his britches but his demotion and ultimate death were a bit more than I could understand. At this point, it might be observed that I witnessed Heywood’s come-down because the company had selected me for a management position and had promoted me. So I suspect that Bill Knapp’s evaluation of “You ain’t tore your britches yet” may have been on point.

Now we come to another case of people getting too big for their britches. For the past two or three years, the world has watched as the price of crude oil has advanced inexorably toward new limits. Gasoline, of course, is made from crude oil, and as the cost of gasoline increased, people were forced to look for other means of transportation. But the oil-producing states simply said that that is the new reality. The oil producers said that in a short time, consumers would have to accommodate the desires of the Indians and the Chinese for great amounts of oil and so it has become quite dear to everybody.

The Russians have produced a good bit of oil recently and, with the rise in prices, they could envision Russian hegemony over much of Europe and perhaps the rest of the world. To a large measure, the Russians were saying to the United States that “Now we have the upper hand and you must get acquainted with becoming the second fiddle.”

Saudi Arabia is the world’s leading producer of crude oil and on two occasions the United States dispatched, first, Vice President Cheney and then President Bush to go to the Saudis, hat in hand, to ask them to increase their production so that the price would drop. In both cases, the President and the Vice President of this country were told to kindly get lost.

I suspect that the other countries that were producers of oil could envision taking their earnings from oil sales and turning them into a caliphate which would convert Christians into Muslims. In Venezuela Hugo Chavez started to nationalize other industries in that country and patronize the United States by sending us cut-rate crude so that people in such places as the Bronx in New York were able to heat their homes this winter. It may be that Chavez was the man who was probably the leading contender for being too big for his britches.

The Nigerians, who draw “sweet oil” from the earth, which is highly desirable, cannot seem to agree on anything and their efforts to cash in on the world market were thwarted by their antagonism toward each other.

The Iranians who had all of this crude oil to offer on the world market have very few refineries of their own and, as a result, their drivers are often forced to wait in long lines at stations that offer them petroleum products. Unfortunately, the United States and Western Europe are not producers of great amounts of crude oil and, for some time, it appeared that the whip handle was in someone else’s hands. We were either going to pay the price, exorbitant as it was, or we would be forced to walk or take the trolley or the bus.

But then some events took place that mystified all of us. As it turned out, the Chinese had some financial woes of their own and the thought that they were going to require perhaps a billion cars disappeared. The same happened to the Indians who had pinned their hopes on small-engined cars to take them out of their rickshaws and put them in automobiles. For the United States, which is the leading consumer of oil products, the price had gotten to staggering proportions and our fellow Americans were forced to resort to public transportation and, for vacations, to stay at home. May I suggest that this isn’t all bad?

In any event, it is reasonably clear that the oil producers had grown much too big for their own britches. On July 11, 2008 the cost of a barrel of crude oil was $147.27. In the next five months, a spigot in that barrel of oil must have come loose and the price has dropped in the first week of December to something on the order of $42. That is a loss of 72%, which is even greater than the losses that some of us have encountered in the American stock market. On top of this, there are forecasters who contend that the price of crude oil will continue to drop and will not settle until it reaches the $30 level. One commentator said it would drop to $20. I don’t believe that commentator. So as you see, it is obvious that the producers of crude oil have grown much too big for their own britches and no one sympathizes with them now that they are forced to undergo a form of poverty.

A passing thought in that the Saudis have a tanker that is longer than three football fields loaded with oil that has been hijacked by pirates from Somalia. In the length of time that the pirates have held the ship hostage, the cost of the oil has dropped from about $140 a barrel to around $40 a barrel. If the Saudis hold out a little longer, it may be that the pirates from Somalia will give up and return the ship to the Saudis, and say, “Good riddance.”

Well, there you have three cases of britches that comprise the burden of this essay. The oil producers clearly have grown too big for their britches and I applaud their come-down. Then in Bill Heywood’s case, because of my dislike for Henry Killingsworth, the big boss of the Long Lines Department of AT&T, my sympathies were always with Bill Heywood as difficult as it was to love him.

And let’s not forget Bill Knapp’s admonition to me about “You ain’t tore your britches yet”. It was welcome advice. I took that to mean that I should not seek out instances where my britches might be torn.

The final thought is that I hope the term britches makes a comeback into common usage because those of us who understand country speak continue to believe that “trousers” is an effeminate term. And so I say, “Up with britches and down with trousers!” I challenge my fellow Americans to produce a better slogan which has as much sentiment and pathos as this one.

E. E. CARR
December 6, 2008
Essay 351
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Kevin’s commentary: I very rarely hear the word “britches” outside of the context of being too big for them. Accordingly I think that telling someone that his britches are intact is definitely a clever way of saying that that person keeps his ego in check.

A CASE OF ELEMENTARY FAIRNESS

In September of the current year, the Secretary of the Treasury came to believe that the American economy and its banking system were on the verge of complete failure. Secretary Paulson persuaded other members of the current administration and the Congress that indeed the sky was falling on the American economy. There are any number of reasons why this has happened but it seems that, finally, profligate spending, our tax cuts of several years ago, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have finally caught up with us. But no matter how you cut it, it appears that the American banking system and its economy were ready to fall off the cliff.

At that moment, the Bush administration decided that the way to fix this enormous problem was to throw money at it. I am not an economist but if they said that was the way to fix it, I said, “Let’s have at it.” Brighter minds than mine, such as Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, said that the problem was dire and maybe throwing money at it was our only hope. And so trainloads of money poured from the American Treasury and were distributed with very little oversight.

First came Wall Street with Lehman Brothers leading the way. Unfortunately, Paulson had not gotten there in time, and as a result, they went bankrupt. Next came another investment house called Bear Sterns, which asked to be saved, and the United States Treasury made an accommodation with some banks to buy out Bear Sterns. Then we were told that the giant insurance company, AIG, had to be saved or, if it failed, the results would be catastrophic to the American economy and the world’s economy. And so trainloads of cash were unloaded on AIG, which it used among other things to sponsor a trip by its executives to a spa where they lolled in pleasure for several days at the taxpayers’ expense.

The AIG disaster was followed by nine banks, which Secretary Paulson specified the leading banks in the country. He loaded a trainload of cash to take to the nine favored banks and insisted that they take $25 billion each, with the hope that they would use it to lend to other banks. Unfortunately the banks, including Chase the one that I patronize, simply did not lend the money to other banks, but rather used it to acquire failing banks in the neighborhood. And so at this point we were in the same pickle financially that we had started out from.

Then came the case of Citibank. Citibank also contended that, if it failed, other banks would also fail and the American banking system would be shot to pieces. And so Mr. Paulson made arrangements for Citibank to get large infusions of capital. When there was an inquiry about why Citibank still wanted to pay the New York Mets $400 million to have their name on the new stadium, we were told that the name would remain the same and the financial condition would not be altered. All of the foregoing deficiencies were alleviated by throwing taxpayer cash at the problem but there was no insistence that the United States government would have a deciding vote in the way the banks were to operate in the future. In effect, the investment houses and the banks and the insurance companies took the money and the taxpayers were left to hold the bag.

All of the foregoing took place in September, October, and early November. In late November and early December, 2008, it developed that the three American manufacturers of automobiles were about to drown in debt. In the case of General Motors it was believed by most people, including the United Automobile Workers, that their money would run out before the end of 2008 and that unless they received some help from the government, bankruptcy would follow. When an automobile company goes bankrupt, it will take a long string of suppliers with it into indebtedness. There are the dealers and the people who manufacture parts for the automobiles. Beyond that, if a company intends to pursue bankruptcy as a means of solving its financial difficulties, the problem that comes to the fore is that no one will buy a car from a bankrupt company.

Whereas Bear Sterns, AIG, the nine favored banks, and Citibank seemed to get their infusion of billions of dollars without problems, the automobile companies were subjected to the fires of Hell from the administration and the Congress. We are told by such stalwarts as Richard Shelby, the Senator from Alabama, and Bob Corker, the new Senator from Tennessee, that the only way to solve GM’s problem was bankruptcy. Their advice comes with a high suspicion of self-interest. In one case, Shelby from Alabama has one of the Japanese auto companies manufacturing in Alabama, which is non-union. Apparently Corker from Tennessee seems to revile unionism in all of its sizes and shapes. A cynic such as myself is only led to conclude that southern Republican Senators like Shelby and Corker are interested in having GM go into bankruptcy because that will take their union, the UAW, with them.

The fact that if the automobile companies go bankrupt, there might be as many as three million jobs lost, seems not to have entered their consciousness. What they are concerned about is their life-long effort to stamp out unionism wherever it pokes its head. I know that I am a cynic with respect to whatever those such as Corker and Shelby have in mind, but it seems to me that it is clear that bankruptcy would take the unions down with such a filing and that would please them endlessly. If I may say so, I would contend that people with that viewpoint have learned nothing. They are also the same people who have opposed granting civil rights to the descendants of slaves. When Lyndon Johnson signed the order that permitted black students to attend classes with white students and did away with segregation in eating facilities and other forms of civic accommodation, Mr. Shelby was among those who deserted the Democratic Party and became a Republican. If you want this country to return to its state prior to 1865 when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, following in the footsteps of Richard Shelby and Corker is the way to go.

I own no stock whatsoever in any of the automobile companies, but it seems to me that they are as entitled to fair treatment as the people who run AIG, Citibank, or Bear Stearns and the rest of the people who profited from the largesse of the American government that has taken place this fall. My argument is that if there is an industry that is too big to allow to fail, it is the automobile industry of this country. When World War II loomed on the horizon, it was the automobile companies that converted their facilities to produce tanks, jeeps, weapons of all sorts, and the bombers that we flew in that war. If the automobile companies go under, that ability to defend ourselves will be lost and all of us will be the poorer therefore.

It seems to me that all the automobile companies are asking for is elementary fairness. If we can not provide elementary fairness for all of our citizens, then it must be concluded that the people who run this government should be replaced by those who share a sense of fairness for everyone.

E. E. CARR
December 7, 2008
Essay 352
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Kevin’s commentary: Part of me wishes that we’d just pulled an Iceland with the banking situation. “Sorry you made bad loans, but that’s not really our problem” would just be so satisfying. Protect savings and checking accounts and let institutions fail when they make bad decisions.