Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Some people have too much money (part 6)

A very wealthy man in Shanghai recently bought this Chinese Ming Dynasty “Chicken Cup” at a Sotheby's auction for a little over $36 million.

OK, I get it, it’s his money, I presume he got rich legally, he has a right to spend it as he chooses. I guess he really, really wanted this piece of 550-year-old Chinese porcelain. It’s 3 inches in diameter.

But, I think it’s fair and it’s important to say that some people have too much money. Some people control too much of the world’s wealth, and that means that too much of the world’s wealth isn’t in circulation to enrich and benefit the people of the world.

What this gent paid for a tiny cup would have bought about 78,800 cows for poor villagers in Africa.

Just as an example.

And, by the way, if you need one of these cups to complete your set, now you know what it’s gonna cost you….
….or maybe you just want to buy some cows….


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

At the fault line….

Here’s a troubling and baffling headline:

“Republicans Are Quietly Trying to Kill No-Fault Divorce”

Suppose the headline was:

“Republicans Are Quietly Trying to Force People Who Don’t Love Each Other Anymore to Stay Together In Potentially Risky Marriages”

Aren’t both headlines more or less saying the same thing? reported that some Republican-controlled state legislatures and some prominent Republicans like Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are working to force folks in troubled or dysfunctional or dangerous marriages to do marriage counseling and endure arbitrary waiting periods before heading for divorce court. In some cases existing no-fault divorce laws are being directly attacked.

OK, I get it, these Republicans don’t like divorce. But where do they get off trying to impose their philosophical or religious convictions on other people?

Aren’t these the same Republicans who crowd our cable channels with chatter and ads attacking “big government,” “government intrusion in our lives,” “laws that limit our freedom,”….

Aren’t these the same Republicans who oppose “excessive government control” and “mindless bureaucratic tampering” and ….

Why don’t we call these folks on it?

If what they mean is, “we’re in favor of intrusive government controls on other people that satisfy our personal views on morality and good behavior,” why don’t they just say it that way?

I wonder how many divorced folks voted for those Republican legislators and high profile politicians?

Monday, April 14, 2014

The rain comes in

The rain comes in, spattering rain,
stains the sand where only sand might be.

Lofting seabirds, lifting, drifting
            through tympanic, clouded sky.

The rain comes in.

Silence….no, merely quiet....
            something is quiet in me.

At Bethany Beach, Delaware
July 8, 1991

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Don’t make your kid go to college

Don’t assume that the college track is the only life path that makes sense for your high school senior.

Try asking your child if she wants to go to college. Try asking your child what kind of career training he’d like to have.

Maybe the answers will surprise you.

Two recent commentaries are worth your time:

Michael Petrilli on   lays it on the line:
“Kid, I’m sorry, but you’re just not college material.”

Valerie Strauss on asks this policy question:
“Who should decide who is college material and who isn’t?

Obviously, parents and their almost-high-school-graduate kids are the folks who need to do the heavy lifting on this issue.

For starters, parents need to stop insisting that their kids must go to college.

Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post takes the trouble to point out that about 70% of real life jobs don’t require a college degree….
and yet, way more than half of high school graduates go to college (of course, not all of them actually get a degree).

In general, college costs way too much for what you get. If you want some amplification on this point, talk to a recent graduate who’s still looking for a job.

And here’s the thing: not everybody is qualified to be successful in college. Notice, I’m not arguing against the “right” of every kid to go to college, I’m just saying that a lot of college freshmen don’t have the skills and mental horsepower to get passing grades and graduate. For example, last year only 43% of the high school students who took the SATs scored high enough to be successful in the college classroom.

Too many college students end their college careers with no degree and lots of student debt, and too many college graduates leave the campus with lots of student debt.

The whole mantra about “every child should go to college” is based on wishful thinking and ignorance or indifference about the real-life certainty that a lot of kids couldn’t possibly succeed on the college campus. Neither their parents nor you and I (i.e., taxpayers) should spend a pile of money to pay for ultimate failure.

As a matter of national policy, let’s decide that every high school graduate should have the opportunity to go on to get suitable training for a job/career that’s compatible with the student’s capabilities and interests.

So somebody can write a column with this headline:
“Kid, good news, you’re gonna get education/training that’s right for you.”

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The art of Mary Oliver (part 2)

Mary Oliver (b. 1935)
She’s an American poet, the way Walt Whitman would mean “American poet.”

Mary Oliver’s poetry stops me from doing other things, while I read her tender words….

I imagine you will find, as I did, that this example makes the sun seem very sufficient.

An excerpt from “The Sun”:

“. . . do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you 

as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world—

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?”

From "The Sun" by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems: Volume One. © Beacon Press, 2004.

Posted on A Year Of Being Here website:

Friday, April 11, 2014

The wisdom of Kevin Phillips

“The Democratic Party
           is history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party.”

Kevin Phillips (b. 1940)
American writer on politics, economics and history

Naahhh, that can’t be right.

Wait a minute….



And then I thought of this sadly hoary gem:

“There is not a dime’s worth of difference
 between the
 Democrat and Republican parties.”
Alabama Gov. George Wallace, presidential candidate in 1968

Now, I’m not in the habit of quoting the late segregationist governor with approval or even respect, but he did say this one thing that makes at least a little bit of sense, at least on the national level. On too many issues, too many Republicans and Democrats see too much common not dealing with global climate change, not tackling sensible gun control, ignoring the need to deal with future Social Security shortfalls, you know the kind of thing I’m talking about….

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Koch Brothers get Obamacare money

Koch Industries has received $1.4 million from the federal government under Obamacare’s Early Retiree Reinsurance Program.

The $5 billion reinsurance program gives subsidies to corporations who provide health insurance to their retirees who are not yet eligible for Medicare.

I wasn’t aware of this provision of Obamacare—it seems like a gratuitous handout to corporations, just one of many, the details of power politics can be ugly….

The other ugly thing is the Koch Brothers taking cash  under the auspices of Obamacare, at the same time as they spend their millions to fight Obamacare and derail the federal government.

The Koch Brothers are powerful and malicious, an ugly warp in the fabric of our politics.

Fewer people are working full-time  says 42.7% of adults are working full-time.

The percentage has been dropping since it hit a peak of 45.7% in late 2012.

Are you surprised? I was. I would have guessed that a solid majority of adults are doing the 9-5, Mon-Fri thing….

Our population is aging. More than 70 million Baby Boomers are starting to retire.

This has economic and fiscal consequences. Fewer workers are paying Social Security taxes, and more folks are collecting Social Security.

Keep in mind that people who are working full-time generally pay more taxes than those who aren’t.

For the record, Gallup counted only people who are working full-time for a paycheck, and did not count adults who are self-employed, working part time, unemployed, or out of the workforce.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Will the real Homo Sapiens please stand up?

This don’t make no sense:

Since September 2007, Microsoft has been telling customers all over the world that its tech support for Windows XP would end in 2014.

It ends today.

As of 1:00 pm this afternoon, Microsoft will no longer publish any patches or upgrades for XP, the 12-year-old program that is currently the second-most widely used operating system in the world.

More than a quarter of the computers on the surface of the planet are still running XP.

And this afternoon every one of them will become a potential target for every hacker and internet-based criminal….because Microsoft is no longer going to fix any newly discovered problems or bugs in XP. says some data suggest that businesses, more so than individuals, have been unwilling to switch over to newer operating systems like Windows 7 or Windows 8. That would cost a few bucks, of course….

Because of ignorance or misunderstanding or indifference or laziness or irresponsibility, hundreds of millions of computer users are going to be exposed to annoyance, danger and loss, starting this afternoon.

Who was the first person who assumed that man acts as a rational being?

Will the real Homo Sapiens please stand up?


Shame on the GOP….

Republican-controlled state legislatures continue to find more and more ways to restrict voter registration and actual voting—it’s an all-too-transparent attempt to prevent or minimize voting by minorities, the poor and disadvantaged folks who might be expected to favor Democratic candidates.

I think the Democrats are missing an important opportunity to tell this story over and over again, and to challenge minorities, the poor and disadvantaged folks to actually exercise their right to vote for the candidates of their choice.

I admit I am profoundly dismayed at the historic and current indifference of many folks, who are being skewered by bad politics and screwed by politicians who represent them in Congress. Why aren’t more of these folks going to the polls?

I’m afraid I know at least part of the answer: they’re discouraged, and they don’t understand or don’t care about the consequences of their indifference.

Shame on the Democrats for failing to educate them, and failing to tell the bald truth.

Monday, April 7, 2014


I stand alone at high tide’s edge.

The slope is firm, and yet, it gives
            my feet a careless, crumbling ledge,
                        a moment more, and I am
            falling to the sea.

I must atone, and I am nearer to the foam,
            the surf-encumbered shore
                  behind me
            and I am swaying,
      almost praying to the sea.


Another step.

That breeching wave surrenders life,
            this gasping wave, in torment, lives….

…it washes me….
            the sea forgives.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Heard this one before?

Think back to Boston in 1767, before the Revolution.

The top 10 per cent of taxpayers in Boston held roughly two-thirds of the city’s taxable wealth.
And 30 per cent of men in Boston had no taxable property, and thus, were not eligible to vote.

Any part of this sound familiar?

Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492- Present (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 65.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Book review: “Literary Life: A Second Memoir”

Book review: Literary Life: A Second Memoir
by Larry McMurtry (b. 1936)
Simon & Schuster, 2009

McMurtry moves me to want more, read more….

It’s incredibly easy to read McMurtry—I’ve read Books: A Memoir, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, and now Literary Life.  It seems, repeatedly, that he writes in an off-hand way; thoughts and scenes and chapters can end very abruptly. Yet, the work seems polished.  The prose is spare, as Larry acknowledges.

I am titillated by his familiar references to so many authors and works. I would love to be a “man of letters,” as McMurtry claims to be. The draw for me is McMurtry’s immersion in books. I would be thrilled to own 200,000 books. Desperately thrilled. Ask me if I would like to die with a book in my hands….

I’m pretty sure that McMurtry’s passionate engagement with books and authors is a believable lifestyle. His many references to re-reading books is a believable commitment.

I have for some time, since I retired a few years ago, envisioned taking the pledge to read the entire oeuvre of an author I like. Now I am moved to read McMurtry’s books. I plan to re-read Books and Literary Life to get clues about how to read them. I may try to contact McMurtry and ask for his advice. I’ll consider reading his works in order by pub date, except for the Lonesome Dove and Berrybender tetralogies, of course.

I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.

Friday, April 4, 2014

This shouldn’t be too hard….

Big companies should go public and declare that they’re innocent.

Every big company is all about providing good customer service and abiding by the law and relying on employee integrity to do the right thing, right?

You’ve probably read the big headlines about the fact that, almost 10 years ago, General Motors’ engineers and managers and executives discovered they were using a faulty ignition switch. At the time, they decided not to start using a new, improved switch because it would have added, literally, about a-dollar-something to the cost of a new GM car. In the meantime, at least 13 people have died in accidents related to the faulty switch.

Now GM is on the hot seat, recalling 2.6 million vehicles and mumbling banal contrition to congressional investigating committees.

Just for the record, I invite every company in the Fortune 500 and the S&P 500 to do this:

Condemn General Motors, and make a public declaration that "our company has never done anything like this in its entire history, and we challenge current and former employees, and the news media, and the cable TV talking heads, to prove otherwise."

I'll be waiting for the first company to go public with this one.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Wealthy people aren’t entitled to excess political clout

The Supreme Court is giving the keys to the ballot box to Sheldon Adelson and immensely wealthy folks like him.

Yesterday conservative justices on the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that our current campaign finance law cannot limit the total amount of cash that a single person can give to political campaigns and PACs. They used a deliberately narrow definition of “corruption” to justify this dangerous change in the law of the land.

Let’s avoid simply saying “it’s not fair” or “it’s a free speech issue” when a very wealthy person can spend millions and millions and millions to change the outcome of an election, whether it’s an election for local sheriff or for president of the United States.

In my mind, the issue is not “fairness” or “free speech.”

The issue is: allowing a single wealthy person to spend tens or hundreds of millions—to buy an election—cannot be a reasonable fundamental principle of the electoral structure of a democracy.

If a single wealthy person can spend as much money as 100,000 or 1,000,000 voters can spend to support the election of their favored candidates, then there can be no reasonable meaning for the bedrock democratic concept of “one man, one vote.”

We need to demand that our state and national legislators take back control of reasonable campaign finance regulations.

Sheldon Adelson and immensely wealthy folks like him should not be able to buy the keys to the ballot box.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

How many colonists actually saw an “Indian”?

As we study American history, “first contact,” and the tectonic engagement of two widely disparate cultures, it seems pertinent to ask: how many European colonists actually came face-to-face with a Native American, and vice versa?

I am fascinated by the demographic details of the experiences of Native Americans and Europeans in colonial North America. I'm interested in knowing more about the consequences of deadly epidemics that repeatedly reduced and devastated Native American populations. Various estimates suggest that up to 90% of the native American population died within a couple generations after the advent of Europeans, with the deaths attributable in small part to armed conflict and mostly to new diseases. Imagine that such a combination would reduce the current population of the United States from 318 million to about 30 million in the next 50 years. Would history books in the late 21st century be focused on any other topic?

My reading suggests that this wholesale reduction of Native American populations is typically noted, and the range of impacts is listed. It is acknowledged that diseases repeatedly eliminated whole families, destroyed kin networks, silenced whole villages, felled elders and chiefs and matriarchs, killed healers and others with special skills, and, most destructive of all, blanked out generational memories of tribal/clan traditions and stories that kept cultural and spiritual values alive. However, there is little reflection on how the philosophies and the world views, and the public and private aspirations, and the nightmares of the few survivors were affected. James Merrell suggests that 60,000 Catawbas were reduced, in merely 100 years, to a remnant population of only 500 in 1759. [1]  Death by disease is not, inter alia, simply a circumstance of history if it kills nearly everyone who lived within the span of memory of the few survivors. 

The magnitude of Native American populations, both before and after diseases took their toll, is a frame of reference in colonial history that I believe should receive more attention. Contemporary students have only limited awareness of the eventual minimal population numbers and sparse population densities of Native Americans throughout North America. For example, the celebrated and powerful Iroquois Confederacy in colonial New York had an estimated  combined population of  less than 22,000 when Europeans made first contact; an unrelenting decline of almost 80% reduced their numbers to only about 4,700 in mid-18th century. [2] In 1775 the largely British inhabitants of the New York colony outnumbered the Haudenosaunee about 8-to-1. [3] Analyses of alliances and the balance of power among Iroquois and Europeans do not typically make reference to these population data; such omission is a detriment to full understanding of military, political, commercial and social dynamics in the colonial era.

Population densities were quite low in colonial times. At the beginning of the 16th century, it's estimated that Northern New England Native American populations had a density of only 41 persons per 100 square miles; for comparison, an equivalent population in modern Massachusetts would be only about 4,328 people—in fact, Massachusetts today has 6.6 million residents. The English population in all of New England after 100 years of colonial settlement was only 93,000. [4] That’s just about the same as the current population of Brockton, MA. One wonders if any Native Americans and colonials seriously considering avoiding all contact with each other. It might have been relatively easy to do so for quite a long time.

I suggest that we too easily think of Native Americans and colonial Europeans as an undifferentiated mass that can be understood by characterizing groups. However, the fact of short life spans in the 16th and 17th and 18th centuries means that we should work hard at probing the evolving intentions and experiences of the relatively rapid succession of individuals who lived their lives and contributed in greater or lesser degrees to the making of "new worlds" on the North American continent. Average life expectancy of Europeans in the American Colonial era may have been under 30 years.[5] We can estimate that eight generations of Native Americans and Europeans lived during the period from initial settlement to the Revolutionary War. Manifestly, the Native Americans who dealt with the British after the close of the Seven Years' War (1763) were not similar to their own ancestors in the early 1600s. They had lived through many successive "new worlds." I think it's an error, for example, to blandly refer to the history, diplomacy and social/cultural dynamics of the Iroquois or the Catawbas without explicitly acknowledging that heterogeneous generations of them played their distinctly different roles in transforming their environment and their ways of life. In some traditional views, the European colonists were uniformly courageous, adventuresome, and hardy pioneers intent on creating the American dream. In fact, many of the European colonists were desperate escapees from Europe; their intentions were less exalted.

I think this is a fascinating question: from initial European settlement through the early years of the American republic, how many Native Americans were personally face-to-face with an Englishman or a Frenchman or a Spaniard, and vice versa? How many Europeans ever saw more than a few Native Americans during their lifetimes, and vice versa? Of course there was extensive trading and ultimately commerce, and there was some intermarriage, and social mixing, military alliances and armed conflict that brought some Native Americans and Europeans together. "New worlds" emerged because people came together, shared ways of survival and experienced mutual, social transformations. Nevertheless, I wonder if the multiple, transformative interactions were at the periphery of the lives of many or most of the individuals who lived during the transformations, but may not have felt much of the kiss, or the sting, of change.

1 - James H. Merrell, "The Indians' New World: The Catawba Experience," The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 41, no. 4 (October 1984): XX.

2 - Dean Snow, The Iroquois (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996), XX.

3 - The Papers of Sir William Johnson, Documents relative to the Colonial History of New York State, vol. 6, 993.

4 - William Cronon, Changes In The Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983), XX.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Finches everywhere

The harbor, in the mind’s eye,
            finches everywhere, hoptoe beggars,
   clouds visiting,
            ice cream boxes with white tops….

Breezes, toujours,
            now zephyr,
   now lamb,
            now colt,
   skimming irresistible airs….

Nearly all is just that far away,
            vaguest sounds,
   l’eau, sur mer, surtout,
            motion, in little speeds….

There are others, chance greetings,
            face to face….

A moment to gaze at you, between us,
            gazing, always,
   hunger, rapture, dream keeping,
            aye, we are dream keepers,
   with books,
            belles livres,
   we arm ourselves for solitude,
            but coolly close them,
               to open for each other….

Toll the hour, careless of the day,
            sounds in seeming silence,
   faint ends of words drift across the bay,
with birdsong raveling out….

The birds sing “today!”
            and we murmur “yesterday,”
   and tomorrow’s languid wing rises up, unseen,
            and sweetly pushes down a twirl,
   one smoothly eddied fan of lightest air,
            to chase the changing shadows
               where we stood awhile….

At Cambridge Beaches, Bermuda