Archive for May, 2015

Waiting For Snow in Havana

May 28, 2015

Unknown-5Carlos Eire was eight, with normal childhood concerns, a love for fireworks and pools, and a loathing for lizards, until Fidel Castro came along and ruined everything. Eire’s memoir, Waiting For Snow in Havana – Confessions of a Cuban Boy, gives a mordant child’s-eye-view of “the Revolution.”

OK, his was an affluent family (his father a judge), with more to lose than most Cubans, for whom the ousted Batista regime sucked. But Eire’s book belies Castro’s “Revolution” being an advancement of social justice, exposing its dark reality.

UnknownThe judge was a peculiar man; believing himself the reincarnation of France’s King Louis XVI, the book always refers to him thusly; his wife was “Marie Antoinette.” He put his shoes on before his pants. He insisted on adopting a quasi-pedophile who tried to molest the judge’s natural sons. And he remained in Cuba with that adoptee after the rest of the family escaped to America, even though from the start he despised “the Revolution.”

I myself was suckered in by its romanticism in 1959’s heady days. Then again, I was only eleven, and soon enough repented. Many on the left never did.

Unknown-3This is a litmus test of one’s political seriousness. The left talks a good game of Enlightenment human values but often falls for empty labels and slogans in place of the real deal, and otherwise readily trashes those values (especially freedom of thought and expression). Thus the enduring idealization of Castro  – a megalomaniacal dictator who cemented his power by imprisoning, torturing, and shooting great numbers of Cubans who did not kiss his feet.*

I am sick of palaver about the wonderfulness of Cuba’s education and health care. Truth is, the regime schools and doctors its serfs sufficiently for them to function at work – for which it pays them a pittance. Thus the economy manages to creak along, just. “The Revolution” was quite good at destroying the wealth of the rich and successful – much simply confiscated – yet the average Cuban is as poor as ever, and in fact, inequality is if anything worse. But don’t ever dare complain.

Social justice? One weeps to think how much better off those poor people would be with a normal government that allowed their enterprise to flourish, rather than crushing it with an oppressive, dysfunctional, crackpot economic model crafted only to perpetuate total societal control by the masters.

Unknown-4The hip political satirist Mort Sahl, asked to name the personage he admired most, said “Fidel Castro.” This was long past the time when any sentient being should have grasped the reality. (We’ve seen the same syndrome with Venezuela and Chavez.)

It’s now been 56 years, but in Cuba, as Carlos Eire put it, everything is still “Revolution this” and “Revolution that.” Seems to me 56 years should have been time enough to complete a revolution (especially with all dissension obliterated) and get on with normal life (not to mention actually making it better). If Cuba did need a revolution in 1959, it needs one far more now. The book’s title is never explained, but that’s probably the “snow in Havana” Carlos Eire has waited for, in vain. He never returned.

* Batista was often called a brutal dictator. True; yet he was toppled with relative ease. Why haven’t the Castros been toppled? Such regimes (and Venezuela’s, Iran’s, etc.) are far more repressive than old style “right wing” dictators ever were, thus far harder to get rid of.

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Fighting the Secret Plot to Make the World Richer*

May 24, 2015

President Obama is battling for “fast track” authority, to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP, a trade deal among 11 big countries) without having it subject to Congressional amending. It’s the only way such a deal could conceivably happen.

Warren

Warren

Most Democrats, led by Elizabeth Warren, oppose this. They say the trade negotiations are being conducted in secret, shaped behind the scenes by corporate interests. (We all know Obama shills for fatcats, right?) As columnist Ruth Marcus points out, this Warren argument is simply bogus. It’s not as though legislators will have to vote on the deal without our knowing what’s in it. In fact, the proposed legislation requires the terms to be made public 60 days before signing – an unprecedented proviso.

Unknown-2But, as Marcus notes, the secrecy argument is a mere excuse, and Warren et al would still oppose this deal if the negotiations were broadcast live on C-SPAN. They paint it as selling out American workers by helping foreigners to compete unfairly against them. This reprises the 1990s NAFTA debate, when Ross Perot warned of a “giant sucking sound” of U.S. jobs going to Mexico. Warren says he was right. But in truth that sound was at most a whisper, with direct U.S. job losses minimal.

Well, free trade does threaten some jobs by exposing them to tougher foreign competition. But this perspective is like viewing the universe through a straw, blind to the bigger picture. Part of that picture is that freer trade lowers prices for consumers. This is huge; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that imports add $10,000 annually to the average American family’s purchasing power. That enables them to spend more, stimulating the economy and generating more jobs – probably way more jobs than the few lost to foreign competition.

Unknown-1By harping on those latter lost jobs while ignoring the benefits to consumers and the economy as a whole, Warrenite Democrats are literally favoring the interests of the few (very few) over the interests of the many. Some populists.

Unknown-4Interestingly, for most of its history, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Democratic party understood perfectly well that freer trade was good for the many while protectionism cosseted the few at their expense. Not a good deal for “everyday Americans.” This was in fact a headline issue for Democrats. But then (perhaps too heavily invested with union interests) Democrats lost their way on the trade issue.

Meantime, even the focus just on America’s economy is too narrow and misses the larger reality. If NAFTA’s impact on U.S. jobs is debatable, its impact on Mexican ones was unarguably huge, making Mexico much more prosperous than it would otherwise have been. And surely a richer neighbor is something in America’s national interest.

imagesIndeed, whatever its effect on any particular job, or industry, or country, freer trade makes the world as a whole richer.** Any serious economist will tell you so. It does this by enabling capital investment to be put to the most economically efficient uses, unhindered by artificial barriers and constraints, which results in production of more goods with fewer inputs of resources and labor. That’s an enlargement of the global economic pie, so more people can get bigger slices. Since WWII, this – an increasingly globalized world, with more and freer trade – has been the prime driver which has raised billions of people out of poverty.

Surely that is something in America’s national interest. A richer world is a less troubled world; and can buy more that U.S. workers produce.

Warrenites cloak themselves as tribunes for those “everyday Americans,” believing that if Democrats sound this trumpet loudly enough they’ll win. Thus they are trying to move the party, and Hillary Clinton, to the left of President Obama – who in fact was just barely not too far left to win – barely. The British Labour party made the same mistake in their recent election, believing the country would embrace pet left-wing themes. It did not; Labour was crushed.

imagesOur next election, with a Democratic candidate tacking left and having big trustworthiness issues besides, will be the Republicans’ to lose. If only they can control their own self-defeating instincts and offer a halfway sensible nominee.

* I cribbed this title from a recent article in The Economist.

** Potentially $220 billion richer annually, from the TPP alone, it’s estimated.

Tufts Graduation – Madeleine Albright and Drinking Urine

May 22, 2015
Photo by Dan Della Penta

Photo by Dan Della Penta

Last weekend we attended our daughter Elizabeth Robinson’s graduation from Tufts University. She got a degree in International Relations and Economics, summa cum laude, and received the prestigious John Gibson prize for her research at Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee Camp.

In June, she will return to Jordan to live; first with another round of intensive Arabic study on a State Department scholarship, and then starting her employment with Questscope, an NGO concentrating on youth empowerment and refugee issues in the Middle East, with which she’s been working.

We’re often asked if we’re unhappy about her going there. To the contrary. From a young age Elizabeth has set for herself a high standard of excellence in preparation for life as a citizen of the world. She is on a worthy mission, and living her dream.

It is customary to say we’re proud of her. But that sort of makes it about us, reflecting credit upon us. However, Elizabeth is more than usually a self-made person; she’s really done all this herself, leaving us as bystanders, holding her coat. More than pride I feel admiration for her, and also much gratitude because she’s made parenting so easy for us.

150517_kdb_tuftsgraduation0002The chief commencement speaker was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In her address she took note of some hallowed Tufts traditions, including picture-taking at the elephant statue, and drinking urine. The latter was news to me, and I was frankly shocked to hear such a thing from such distinguished lips.

At least “drinking urine” was what we all thought we heard Albright say. But Elizabeth speculated she was actually saying, “drinking at The Burren,” which is the name of a popular local bar. It’s also been suggested that The Burren would now do well to add to its menu a new drink: “the Madeleine Albright.”

Photo by Therese Broderick

Photo by Therese Broderick

For a more serious report on Albright’s speech, click here. And for another blog post about imbibing urine, click here.

Police, Blacks, Prisons, Drugs, and Neighborhoods

May 18, 2015

UnknownAmerica – “Land of the Free” – leads the world in locking people up. Yes, our incarceration rates exceed those in the most repressive countries like Russia or China.

Can it be that Americans lead the world in criminality? I think not.

Our over-incarceration is really a case of black over-incarceration. The black percentage of inmates way exceeds their percentage of the general population. It’s a holocaust for black communities and a significant contributor to our gaping socio-economic divide. I’ve written about how single motherhood exacerbates that divide. Over 70% of black children are born to unwed mothers – partly because so many black men’s marriageability is reduced by the criminal justice system. In Milwaukee, over half the black men in their thirties have been in prison.

It’s tempting to say, well, all this does reflect a higher rate of criminal behavior – if blacks didn’t do so many crimes they wouldn’t fill the prisons. But, in partial answer, blacks are more likely than whites to be imprisoned for comparable offenses. And one reason for that is blacks are more targeted by police. Discrimination? Rather, it’s mainly because they live in more crime-ridden areas.

imagesNow we get into a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Citizens in crime-infested neighborhoods need more police attention, for their own protection. And obviously it makes sense for police to deploy resources to locales where crime is concentrated. But on the other hand, if you go looking for something, chances are you will find it – so heavy police attention in black neighborhoods means that a lot of blacks will get caught up in that net, whereas quiet white neighborhoods are lightly policed with consequently fewer arrests.

UnknownThis sounds like a hopeless dilemma. But there’s another big fact: a lot of black arrests and imprisonments are drug-related. This is a huge wound for America that is self-inflicted. Whatever may be the harm of drug use, the harm of the “War on Drugs” is vastly greater. And if decriminalization led to more drug use – very doubtful – the harm of that increase would be vastly outweighed by the societal benefits of stopping the misguided drug war.images-1

Citizens in crime-ridden black neighborhoods do not benefit when police pull out half the males for drug-related offenses. They would benefit, greatly, if police could stop doing that, to concentrate their efforts instead on combating the violent crimes, muggings, burglaries, etc, that plague these neighborhoods. That would go far toward mending the broken relationships between the police and the policed.

Another point: kids growing up in bad neighborhoods tend to do badly, and bad neighborhoods are hard to fix (as half a century of well-intentioned social programs proves). But The Economist recently noted some pilot programs giving people vouchers to move to better neighborhoods. Voilà, their children did better. But, the magazine lamented, giving every poor black family such a “golden ticket” would cost about $30 billion a year. Unknown-1My reaction: Say what? Only $30 billion?! Why, the government loses more than that between its sofa cushions. (Almost literally: it’s estimated the feds make $125 billion in improper payments annually.) Thirty billion is less than 1% of the federal budget. Sounds like a no-brainer bargain to me, surely a better expenditure than all those other social programs mentioned.

“I Want Frida Kahlo’s Face Tattooed on my Ass”

May 13, 2015

images-1We recently attended Albany’s Tulip/Pinkster-fest, with numerous vendor booths. The first modern one was held in 1972, reviving an old festival; I was actually one of its organizers, and I set up myself there, displaying my surrealist paintings. Untitled-1A gal painter had set up next to me, and we wound up going home together. Nice. However, our relationship didn’t get too far, as she was an ex-nun, and I, of course, was not.

Prominent at this year’s fest was soap – booth after booth featuring fancy soaps. Are we developing a Japanese-style cleanliness fetish? One might snigger at the consumerism that makes such a big thing of soap. But actually, though we take it for granted, soap was one of Mankind’s greatest inventions. You might have thought it would put the perfume industry out of business, but no, that still seems to flourish as well. Anyhow, I think it’s absolutely wonderful to be living in a society so affluent that fancy soaps can sustain so many enterprises. If folks enjoy soap, I don’t want some holier-than-thou anti-consumerist scolds telling them they’re wrong.

A snippet of conversation overheard while wending our way through the dense crowds: “I want Frida Kahlo’s face tattooed on my ass.”

images-2Now, I frankly don’t get all this tattooing. I happen to think it messes up the appearance of girls who would otherwise be quite attractive. And for that matter, I don’t get the Frida Kahlo thing either. OK, she was maybe an interesting artist, but was she, like, the female Picasso? I don’t think so. Seems she’s been raised to some kind of iconic pedestal because she was treated like dirt by her more famous artist boyfriend. This is feminism?

Anyhow, hearing “I want Frida Kahlo’s face tattooed on my ass” was the highlight of my Pinksterfest experience. You can’t make up gems like that.

Or maybe I mis-heard it.

Visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum – A Humanist Monument

May 9, 2015

Unknown-1It was a little before 10 AM; I was enjoying the lovely weather, in my comfy lounge chair outdoors, working on a coin catalog, when my wife drove up and, with tears in her eyes, said, “The United States has been attacked!”

Recently on a New York jaunt we visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. It was impressive and moving.

UnknownThe memorial pools have a beautiful grandeur that photos do not convey. The museum too is, of course, a memorial to the 2,977 people lost; and one alcove, displaying all their photos, gives a sobering sense of just how many people that was – real people, not faceless numbers.

But mainly it is actually a memorial to the buildings. Now, we have visited numerous sites and museums with ruins, but this is different. Here are the ruins of buildings that were part of my own life. The PSC where I worked had offices there, and over many years I attended numerous hearings there, sometimes for weeks at a time. Also, the annual international coin show was held there; the last in December 2000.

Unknown-2Yet this is a profoundly humanist monument. In memorializing those buildings, the museum memorializes the people who built them, showing what a stupendous undertaking and achievement this was. The contrast, though unstated, is inevitable, between the soaring ambition and effort of those people, and what can be said of the ones who authored the destruction.

Of them the museum is, fittingly I thought, silent (except for a solitary exhibit case concerning the Abbottabad mission). The destroyers would have said they acted for God, and that was another thing fittingly absent from the museum – the word God. Given America’s pervasive religiosity, the omission reflected remarkable restraint by the museum’s creators, who eschewed all sorts of mawkishness that would have detracted from the solemnity. They seemed instead to follow the principle of res ipsa loquitur – the thing speaks for itself.

Photo by Therese Broderick

Photo by Therese Broderick

I am proud to be part of a society that conceived and built those buildings, as well as this memorial – and the new tower. It’s a better society than the one that spawned the destroyers.

The British Election Mess

May 4, 2015

Time was, Britain ruled the world. Even in later times it “punched above its weight.” But no more. Chastened by perceived failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Brits have been sadly missing in action regarding Syria, Ukraine, and ISIS.

At least they have a record of effective governance, as against America’s dysfunctional gridlock. But that too looks set to change. Here’s a primer on the looming May 7 election disaster:

Blair

Blair

Let’s start with Tony Blair, who heroically dragged the Labour Party into electability by defanging its loony left. But they never forgave him, and used Iraq to make him a pariah after leaving office. His Labour successor, Gordon Brown, lacking Blair’s flair, became a sitting duck at the 2010 election.

Cameron

Cameron

It was won by David Cameron who, Blairlike, had detoxified his own Conservative (Tory) party. But – partly because Britain is effectively gerrymandered to favor Labour – the Tories missed an overall parliamentary majority, so went into a more or less unprecedented coalition with the Liberal Democrat third party, holding the balance of power.

Miliband

Miliband

Then, in the fight for Labour’s leadership, the obvious candidate, David Miliband, was beaten by his own brother, Ed – theretofore a nonentity. Why? Ed played to the party’s unrepentant loony left, tired of politically unsexy moderation. Since then, he’s generally been rated a disaster.

Cameron’s government has done quite a good job cleaning up the fiscal mess Labour left, Britain’s economy is humming nicely, and the Tories have noticeably failed to commit the crimes of Labour’s fevered class-war scaremongering. But many Brits give the government little credit for its economic achievements, and don’t feel much better off. Yet even so, given such a lame Labour alternative, spouting economic quackery, whom no one can seriously picture as prime minister, game over, no?

Well – it’s complicated.

Sturgeon

Sturgeon

One complication, that seemingly cuts against Labour, is Scotland where, despite losing the independence referendum, the Scottish National Party (SNP, with a spiffy new leader, Nicola Sturgeon) is on a tear to annihilate what had been Labour’s solid block of Scottish parliament seats.

But meantime, in England, the Tories’ lunch is being eaten by the UK Independence Party, blokish, anti-EU, and anti-immigrant, also with a quasi-plausible leader in Nigel Farage.

Farage

Farage

UKIP will actually win few seats (Britain does not have proportional representation), but may well drain enough votes to sink the Tories in many constituencies.

What about the Lib-Dems? They were a popular third alternative, a “less loony left,” as long as they could posture virtuously without dirtying their hands with actual governance. Now that bloom is off the rose, and the Lib-Dems are plummeting, likely to lose most of their seats. They’ll be supplanted as the third largest block in parliament by the SNP, whose very raison d’etre is Tory-hatred (the chief impetus behind Scottish independence).

Some other oddball parties will win seats, including Welsh and Northern Irish local outfits, and possibly Greens, making it even harder for any party to get an absolute majority in parliament. The result will be a real mess. But, barring an unlikely outright Tory majority, we’ll probably wind up saying hello to Prime Minister Miliband – with a weak government hostage to a party of regional secessionists having an economic program even dottier than his own. Moreover, whereas in the past an inconclusive result might have meant quick fresh elections, under current rules poor Britain will be stuck with this parliament for a full five year term.

What’s happening here is seen elsewhere in Europe – cranky voters unwilling to go along with responsible, grown-up economic policies, and bedazzled by the allure of shiny objects dangled by political hucksters.

Mayweather & Whoever

Mayweather & Whoever

Ah, democracy. Surely more interesting to follow than pro sports (like that recent thing – I could not care less which of two brutes can batter the other senseless.)

UPDATE MAY 8 — TORIES WIN!!  Confounding pre-election polls showing Labor and Tories about equal, presaging a hung parliament, Cameron’s Conservatives wound up crushing Labour and winning, albeit barely, an overall parliamentary majority. So the Brits (or enough of them) came to their senses in the end — it must have been my blog post that turned it around. Labour was also, as predicted, wiped out in Scotland. Their wretched leader, Ed Miliband, has resigned. So much for the loony left.

Poetry Performance, May 6, Caffe Lena

May 3, 2015

Scan 2My wife, Therese Broderick, and I will be the featured poets at Caffe Lena on Wednesday, May 6 — we’re pleased to appear on such a distinguished stage where the likes of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsburg have preceded us.

Caffe Lena is at 47 Phila Street, Saratoga Springs. There will also be an open mic, sign-up starting at 7 PM; the readings begin at 7:30. Admission $5. The event is sponsored by Northshire Bookstore.