This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When Only Volunteers Pay Taxes

            A friend of mine married a woman from Sweden quite a few years ago, and he was telling me once about one of his first visits with the in-laws. The father-in-law was a successful and prosperous businessman, so by way of making dinner-table conversation, my friend asked if it was true that taxes in Sweden are really high.
            The reply was something like this: Yes, I pay a lot of taxes, but I’m proud to do it. That’s because I’m proud to live in a country where there’s no homelessness or serious poverty; where everyone gets adequate medical care and a good education; and where new mothers can take time off from work to be with their babies. People like me, who have done well for themselves, have an obligation to pay a bit more so that nobody is left completely behind.
            That utterly un-American sentiment came to mind last week when I read in the New York Times that General Electric, in the most recent year for which the figures are available, had paid no federal income tax whatsoever on $14 billion of profit.
            Now I don’t know what a fair tax would be on a large corporation that does business all over the world. There’s something to the argument that we have to be mindful of what other countries are doing in the taxation area and mindful of the effect of taxes on investment.
            Even conceding all that, a company that makes $14 billion in profit should pay at least as much tax as, say, the total paid by the teachers at a large public high school. Call that class warfare if you will, but you can’t deny that the first shot was fired by the company that paid no taxes.
            California has practically been brought to its knees by the insane notion that every tax increase has to be subjected to a vote of the people. That results in every tax cut becoming permanent and any proposed increase becoming a near-impossibility because people always find a way to rationalize saying no to paying taxes. If they could vote on price increases for food and gasoline, they’d reject nearly all of those, too.
            The federal government still has the power to raise taxes, but it’s a phantom power because one of the two principal parties refuses to consider any tax increase whatsoever, regardless of circumstance. This, despite the fact that federal taxes as a percentage of GDP are the lowest they’ve been in 60 years.
            With all the wailing about the deficit “crisis,” there seems to be a collective blackout about what happened in this country the last time the country ran up a huge debt because an administration cut taxes and increased national security spending simultaneously. Handed that mess, Bill Clinton got a modest tax increase through Congress, without a single Republican vote, and seven years later, the debt crisis was a thing of the past. Instead of acting as if drastic cuts to Social Security and Medicare are a necessity, perhaps we should restore the Clinton-era tax rates and require General Electric and its corporate brethren to pay at least something. If cuts are needed after that, they should at least be manageable.
            When I was growing up in a conservative suburb of Los Angeles, the teachers at our public schools drummed it into us that much as we might dislike it and gripe about it, we had an obligation to pay taxes, just as we had an obligation to serve in the military if called. It all seems so Swedish now. We have a volunteer army these days, and it’s increasingly looking as if we have a volunteer tax system as well.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Suits and the Men Who Wore Them

            A few weeks ago, when Hall of Fame ball player Duke Snider died, Sports Illustrated ran a gorgeous black and white photo of him at the Polo Grounds in New York in 1956. This week they printed a letter from Jack Shakely of Rancho Mirage, who looked at the picture and saw what was in the background.
            “That glorious photo,” he wrote, “reveals a great deal about mid-century fans. Nearly half of the men in the picture are in suits and ties. More than a dozen are wearing fedoras. One young lady is even decked out in her prep school blazer. Unlike the fans of today, when people went out to the ball game in ’56, they were dressed to the nines.”
            That’s true. Of course, they played a lot of day games then, so it was not uncommon for businessmen to put in a half-day and catch the game in the afternoon. Cell phones hadn’t been invented, so if somebody called while the boss was at the ball park, the secretary took a message and the call was returned the following morning. I don’t recall anyone ever dying as the result of that arrangement.
            Still, the men had to be wearing a suit to work in order to wear it to the ball game, and that doesn’t happen so much any more. This year marked the 150th anniversary of the invention of the suit, and while no one is predicting its imminent extinction, its place in our culture isn’t what it used to be.
            The business suit is the middle-aged man’s best friend, concealing his butt and paunch and adding a slimming, dignified look. But it looks terrific on a young, thin guy, too.
            Think of the American movies of the 1930s to 1950s, and you think of men in suits. There was a devastatingly confident and handsome Gary Cooper playing a starving artist in Design for Living. Wearing a suit on a train, he looks sharp and prosperous. Only when he removes his jacket, revealing the tattered shirt beneath it, does the truth become clear.
            Humphrey Bogart never looked better than in High Sierra, when his character, just released from prison, is walking through the park in a plain black suit, savoring the fresh air, the freedom, and the garb that brands him as a regular member of society again. In The Philadelphia Story, James Stewart is a $40 a week magazine reporter, but wearing a good suit he fits right in with the highest society.
            Nobody wore a suit like Cary Grant. The lead salesman at the place where I buy most of my suits told me once that if you want to understand how to wear a suit, you should rent any Cary Grant movie from the 1950s, watch how he does it and do the same thing. Good advice for any father to give his son. In North by Northwest, Grant even provides a lesson in how to take care of a suit.
            After being chased through an Illinois cornfield by a murderous crop duster, and having to take several head-first dives into the topsoil and fertilizer, Grant escapes and returns to his Chicago hotel, his only suit much worse for the wear. No problem. He calls room service, asks them to sponge-clean and press the suit within the hour, then, after a shave and shower, puts it on again and goes downstairs to have cocktails with Eva Marie Saint.
            Nobody today could remotely come close to pulling that off.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Bend It Like Reagan

            Ronald Reagan and I never saw eye to eye on much of anything, not that he cared, but I have to get up on my hind legs and applaud him for being a great politician. The reason he was a great politician was that he didn’t let his principles get in the way of his governance.
            He had principles, to be sure, and followed them far enough to move the country to the right during his eight years. But he was savvy enough to stay away from fights he couldn’t win and unembarrassed enough, when circumstances called for it, to change course 180 degrees and act as if nothing had happened.
Critics called him the Teflon president because scandal never stuck to him, but my view is that he was more deserving of the term because he was never held to account, even by his supporters, for failing to enthusiastically pursue his core beliefs. To this day they smile beatifically at the thought of the tax cuts he got through Congress in his first year, all the while experiencing total amnesia when it comes to the half-dozen or so (depending on how you count) tax increases he signed into law the other seven years.
            As the first officially pro-life president, Reagan was wonderful at cooing sympathetically on the evils of abortion to religious and pro-life leaders. He was so good at it that they still haven’t noticed, thirty years later, that he made no serious attempt to overturn Roe v. Wade or that as governor of California, he signed one of the country’s most liberal abortion laws.
            On labor matters, he stood tall and fired the striking air-traffic controllers. Of course that was a small union of government employees with ineffective leadership, calling a strike that would have inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans. It was an easy target. Reagan never boldly took on the AFL-CIO or the United Auto Workers; he needed their members’ votes.
            Nobody talked a better game about deficits and small government, but Reagan signed a succession of budgets that increased both the federal deficit and the size of government. Senator Daniel P. Moynihan of New York appraised the decade of Reagan’s presidency as the time “We borrowed a trillion dollars from Japan and threw a party.”
            Nor did President “Government is the Problem” attempt to roll back the New Deal. When it became obvious, early in his presidency, that Social Security was headed for trouble as the baby boomers got older, Reagan signed into law a bipartisan bill to protect it, largely through higher taxes.
            I hope this recitation of the record isn’t construed as Reagan-bashing, because that’s not its intent. It’s meant as an appreciation. The Tea Party and the legacy of Gingrich Republicanism have made me see Reagan in a warmer and more sympathetic light. There is a great deal to be said for a politician who is willing to compromise his principles somewhat to achieve a result and who has the sense to stay an arm’s length away from nasty ideological battles that can’t possibly be won.
            There are several pernicious myths that warp the American political dialogue, and one of the worst is the notion that we need more politicians of strong principle who will stand up unflinchingly for what they believe. God save us, please, from elected officials who feel their every belief has to be translated into law without compromise. Give us instead some politicians who can bend like Reagan. They’ll accomplish more, and a lucky few may even get airports named after them.

Friday, March 18, 2011

What's on Your Freedom Agenda?

            What does freedom mean to you?
            Is it being able to walk down the street or into a school building carrying a loaded gun?
            Is it being able to ride a motorcycle without a helmet?
            Is it having the government refrain from regulating your commercial business?
            Is it being able to drive at night without fear of encountering a drunk-driving checkpoint?
            Is it talking or texting on your cell phone while you drive?
            All those things have been described at times as freedom issues, but none of them are what I think of as freedom. Neither is the implicit concept of freedom espoused by many conservatives, who seem to believe that freedom means the right to make as much money as you can in any way you can without having to pay much of it out in taxes.
            For some people freedom relates directly to a specific situation. A teenager counting down the days to adulthood has a concept of freedom that I don’t even think about any more because I’ve enjoyed it for so long. Similarly, a resident of a nation that has been occupied or colonized by another has a specific idea of freedom related to throwing off the yoke of the oppressor.
            A good point to begin any discussion about freedom would be Franklin D. Roosevelt’s statement of Four Freedoms, laid out in his 1941 State of the Union address. Roosevelt said everyone should enjoy:
            Freedom of speech and expression.
            Freedom of worship.
            Freedom from want.
            Freedom from fear.
            The first two are right out of our First Amendment and are now taken for granted by all Americans. The latter two are considerably trickier. How, after all, do you precisely define freedom from want? And how, having defined it, do you cause it to happen in a large, complex technological society that relies for its prosperity on vigorous economic competition?
            Those are questions above my pay grade, but I think Roosevelt was right to put them into the equation. Any concept of freedom in modern society has to address these security issues to some extent.
            Certainly most Americans would consider it a basic, if not Constitutionally specified, right to choose a field of work and to advance in it as far as their talents can carry them. It’s a big part of the whole pursuit of happiness thing, and our identities are now so wrapped up in our work that it’s a key part of our sense of self.
            If you have a job with one employer and feel stuck in it, you’re welcome to try to sell your services to another employer. But if you fear that your medical coverage might not be picked up at the new job owing to a pre-existing condition, you’re pretty much stuck. It’s a loss of freedom by any reasonable interpretation of the word, but it’s not a freedom issue that gets much attention.
            From another perspective, we have the freedom to take the risk of starting a business. But if the cost of failure were years in a wretched debtors’ prison, how many people would take the chance? Liberal bankruptcy laws, which give people a greater leeway to take chances, would have to be seen in that light as a freedom issue.
            Freedom, for me, is the ability to believe what I choose and to follow my star in search of reasonable happiness. That happens within a society whose laws, values and traditions lend support to those efforts. I can’t be free alone.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Death Panels in the U.S. Constitution

            When the Founding Fathers rolled out the new Constitution in 1787, it was not entirely a critical success. In fact the debate over the Constitution made the debate over President Obama’s health care bill sound downright civilized by comparison.
            Benjamin Workman, writing as “Philadelphiensis” in the Freeman’s Journal, objected, “Except you are tired of freedom; except you are determined to entail slavery on yourself and your posterity, for God’s sake reject with that dignity becoming freemen that tyrannical system of government, the new constitution. If you adopt it in toto, you will lose everything dear to freemen and receive nothing in return but misery and disgrace.”
            Nor did everyone back then regard our founders as paragons of virtue and wisdom. Samuel Bryan, writing in the Independent Gazetteer of Philadelphia in January of 1788, minced no words as he spoke of the federalists’ continuing reference to George Washington’s support for the new document:
            “This impotent attempt to degrade the brightest ornament of his country to a base level with themselves will be considered as an aggravation of their treason, and an insult on the good sense of the people, who have too much discernment not to make a just discrimination between the honest mistaken zeal of the patriot and the flagitious machinations of an ambitious junto.”
            Flagitious machinations? Bryan was the Spiro T. Agnew of his time. And to save you the trouble of looking it up, flagitious means “marked by outrageous or scandalous crime or vice.”
            In the North Carolina convention, on July 30, 1788, Henry Abbot, a Baptist pastor, questioned the clause against religious tests for public office. “The exclusion of religious tests is thought by many to be dangerous and impolitic. They suppose that if there is to be no religious test required, Pagans, Deists and Mahometans might obtain office among us.”
            James Iredell, who was later appointed by Washington to the U.S. Supreme Court, dispatched that question with brief eloquence. “How is it possible,” he said, “to exclude any set of men without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for? This is the foundation on which persecution has been raised in every part of the world.”
            Iredell went on to address what I would call a “Death Panels” question — one that looked at the letter of the proposed law and read into it the wildest possible paranoid outcome.
            “I met by accident with a pamphlet this morning in which the author states as a very serious danger that the Pope of Rome might be elected president,” he said. “I confess this never struck me before, and if the author had read all the qualifications of a President, perhaps his fears might have been quieted.”
            In order for that to happen, Iredell pointed out, a native-born American who had lived in this country for 14 years would have to go abroad, work his way up through the college of Cardinals, become pope, and be willing to give up that position when his American countrymen, still holding him in high esteem after a long absence, chose him as their president.
            “Sir,“ he said at the convention, still addressing Abbot, “it is impossible to treat such idle fears with any degree of gravity.  Why is it not objected that there is no provision in the Constitution against electing one of the Kings of Europe president? It would be a clause equally rational and judicious.”
            Nasty rhetoric and suspicion of lawmakers have always been with us. The glory of America, so far anyway, has been that we have been able to let the obsessives, paranoids and conspiracy-theorists have their say and still move forward to accomplish reasonable things. Is this a great country, or what?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Slaying the Chain Bookstore Dragon — For Now

            About a decade ago, Borders announced that it was planning to open a bookstore downtown. A lot of people were worried that it would put locally owned Bookshop Santa Cruz out of business, and for a couple of months it seemed like the only story in town.
            At the time, I had been doing public relations for The Home Depot, which also wanted to put a store in our community, and which was also opposed in part by people who felt that it would put locally owned hardware stores and lumber yards out of business.
            Based on what I had learned on the Home Depot campaign, I didn’t feel the local bookstore was in grave danger, provided it responded to the competition and made a few prudent adjustments. In fact, I recall having a conversation with my best friend in which I argued that the real problem for Bookshop Santa Cruz wasn’t Borders; it was and the internet in general.
            Those memories came flooding back this past week as I visited Borders to pick up a few discounted mysteries at their going-out-of-business sale. The Santa Cruz store was one of many being closed because of troubles having to do with failure to compete with and the internet, in the form of digital books. Bookshop Santa Cruz is still in business.
            I’m happy for Bookshop Santa Cruz, but sorry to see Borders go. For those of us who love books, it’s never a good thing to lose a bookstore, even if it’s one of the big chains with not much local connection. Show me a town with more than one bookstore, and I’ll show you a good town.
            When Borders came to Santa Cruz, it did not, as many feared, stick a siphon into the local store and begin sucking out money. Instead, it created a dynamic that made the downtown more appealing and vibrant.
            With the two largest bookstores in the county separated by only a couple of blocks, and with two used bookstores also within easy walking distance, Santa Cruz was the clear destination point for book lovers.
            The presence of the two big stores made it worth a trip to town just to see what was new and to browse. If you were looking for a certain type of book but didn’t know exactly what, you could compare between the two stores. Any time we were planning a trip, it was great to check out the two travel sections and pick the best guidebook or two from between them.
            If I was looking for a specific book, it was great to have two options. Generally, I would go to Bookshop Santa Cruz first, and if they had it, I’d buy there to support the local business. If not, I’d go down to Borders and get it if they had it, which they nearly always did.
            One thing I learned from checking both places was that there seemed to be no truth to the argument, often advanced by the anti-chain advocates, that chain stores stint on serious titles. Over the years there were a number of times when I was searching for a serious novel or nonfiction book and found it at Borders after Bookshop Santa Cruz said sorry.
            And now there is one new-book bookstore in town. I’m happy that Bookshop Santa Cruz is still around and seemingly doing well, but something tells me they’ve merely won the first and easiest skirmish. Best of luck to them in the more serious battles to come.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Nudging the Private Sector to Decency

            In 1965 the University of California opened a new campus in the sleepy beach town of Santa Cruz. One of the unexpected consequences was that a lot of local residents suddenly discovered what they were worth.
            Geographically isolated, its resource extraction economy having expired, Santa Cruz County had become dependent on summer tourism. With its major industry seasonal, there weren’t many full-time, year-round jobs. When people grew up, they tended to move away, and the housing stock was rented to retirees, who could live well on a fixed income.
            Employers could get away with being stingy, and employees who wanted to stay in the area, or were stuck there, got used to it. So when UC-Santa Cruz started hiring people at prevailing University of California wages and benefits, it was an eye opener.
            One single mother I knew had been working at the cosmetics department of the local department store and applied for a job as a library assistant at the university. When she got it, her wages went up 30 percent, and her health and pension plans got better, too.
            At this point in our narrative the free-market true believers are no doubt having an apoplexy, but it’s a good thing. Not the apoplexy (except perhaps in the case of a few individuals I won’t name), but rather the university’s economic influence on the community to which it came.
            I don’t know what economic studies say about situations like this, nor do I really care. They contradict each other so much that you have to parse the issue is through common sense and personal experience.
            For instance, when it comes to the minimum wage, I think about the local car wash. Every time the minimum wage goes up, they post a snarky sign saying that due to the increase in the minimum wage, they regretfully had to increase their rates. This has been going on for thirty years, and every time I drive by on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the line of cars waiting to be washed reaches nearly to the street.
            It would appear that when the minimum wage goes up, it affects their competitors, too. If the car wash is forced to raise the price of a car wash by a buck, so is everyone else. And if that buck is chump change to me, with my 10-year-old car, it’s certainly less than chump change to all the folks taking in the new Mercedes. So I’m highly skeptical if someone tells me that raising the minimum wage kills jobs and businesses. The car wash does not lie.
            Similarly, common sense and what I saw with my own eyes tell me that Santa Cruz became more prosperous when the university arrived. The higher wages on campus may have meant that a local insurance agent had to pay more to get a good receptionist, but there were also more people to whom he could sell policies. Perhaps not everybody won, but everybody had a better chance of winning.
            Rather than being some alien factor, the public sector is in fact simply one more piece of a free market, and an integral one at that. When it influences the market — by setting a minimum wage, requiring a prevailing wage on public projects, paying good wages and benefits to employees, or paying direct benefits such as Social Security and unemployment compensation — it is establishing an economic baseline that benefits nearly all of us. That sounds to me like promoting the general welfare, which the Constitution says, not once but twice, is one of the objects of government. Economic reality may require some downward adjustment to the baseline from time to time, but we should never forget that the adjustment affects us all and is no cause for celebration.           

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Long Love Affair With the Open Road

            In early June of 1982, Linda and I bought a 1977 Volkswagen Camper, yellow-orange, from a couple in San Jose. We took possession, put Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors in the tape deck, and hit the road. It was love.
            The first camping trip was to Hendy Woods State Park, south of Mendocino. A couple of weeks after that, my high school buddy John and I took a long fishing weekend on the east slope of the High Sierra.
            In late July, Linda and I took off on a three-week vacation. Twenty-nine years ago, companies still let you do that. We drove to Seattle, continued through British Columbia, stopped at Jasper, Banff, Waterton Lakes and Glacier National Parks. We had a blast.
            The camper was a great open-road car as long as the wind wasn’t blowing too hard. On that first trip we got blown about as we drove across the prairie from Banff to Waterton, and again after we left Glacier and were headed south through the Salmon River Canyon in Idaho. Knuckles turned white, but nothing bad happened. Closer to home, I learned to dread early morning trips across the Carquinez Bridge north of Oakland, when the wind blew crosswise and the occasional gust would push the camper close to the edge.
            For years, I took the camper, which, by then, we had lovingly named Heap, on fishing trips alone, with Linda or with a friend. With its high clearance and Porsche engine in the rear, it was great for steep dirt roads in the mountains. At the end of the day, there was plenty of room to throw a nine-foot fly rod in the back, drive it to the campsite and take the rod apart there. In an open space on a hot day, you could slide open the side door and get some shade by sitting partially inside.
            A couple of years after our son, Nick, was born, we strapped him into his car seat and took him to Big Sur for his first camping trip. Other trips followed, to Big Sur and the mountains. It was a tight squeeze getting the three of us and all the equipment in, but once we arrived, it was worth it.
            The last camping trip was in 2002, when we spent several days at Jackson Meadows reservoir north of Truckee. I suffered a herniated disk shortly afterward, and gradually my appetite abated for the physical labor of loading and unloading Heap and for setting it up.
            Still we kept it. A few years ago, I took Nick out in it and gave him his first lessons in driving a stick shift. He took a picture of it with his cell phone and made it his wallpaper. When Linda’s mother went into a nursing home and we had to clean out her house to rent it, Heap did yeoman duty on multiple dump runs. But that was making a plow horse out of a thoroughbred.
            I had no intention of selling it even so, but a few months ago, a younger fellow saw it while driving by our house and began making inquiries. Last week he called up unsolicited and made an extremely generous offer. More important than the money was the fact that he said he wanted to take his son camping in it, and that he could keep it garaged, which we couldn’t do, and would provide it with a good home. Sadly, I concluded that selling it to him would be the right thing to do.
            He came by Wednesday afternoon, and it was over in a few minutes. I couldn’t bear to watch him drive it away because I felt that nearly thirty years of memories were going with it. A few hours later I realized that was wrong. As long as I’m sentient, I’ll always have the memories of the trips in Heap, and believe me, I’m damned grateful for them.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Dark Underbelly of Mayberry

                  A dear friend, no longer with us, was telling me once about growing up in small towns during the Great Depression. “It really was true,” he said, “that people were more trusting and nobody locked their doors when they left the house. And do you know why?”
                  He paused for dramatic effect. “It was because nobody had anything worth stealing.”
                  I thought of that recently when AARP, the magazine, ran a story on the cult-like popularity, among audiences of a certain age, of the old Andy Griffith Show, which appeared on CBS for most of the 1960s. In case you’re too young to remember, Griffith played widower Sheriff Andy Taylor, who lived in the small town of Mayberry with his young son Opie and his Aunt Bee. Don Knotts was the incapable assistant, Deputy Barney Fife.
                  It was a well-done comedy, certainly by the standards of the time, but that accounts for only part of its enduring popularity. Many of the people quoted in the article and those who posted comments gushed about how Mayberry captured the essence of small-town life. “There was no crime,” said one. “It really was like that,” wrote another.
                  Well, no.
                  Mayberry was make-believe, every bit as much as Bruce Willis dispatching 20 bad guys in 37 seconds or the cavalry riding to the rescue of the stagecoach. Those things are enjoyable hokum, and when they’re done with flair and imagination, I enjoy them as much as anyone. But we are in bad shape as individuals and as a society when we confuse make-believe with reality. All you need to know about the “reality” of Mayberry is that the town was allegedly located in the American South, yet seemed to have fewer African Americans than Stockholm.
                  By the time Mayberry was invented, real Americans had been fleeing small towns in droves for more than a generation, for good reason. Whatever its virtues, small-town America could be boring, subject to a stifling, narrow-minded conformity, and short on economic opportunity. Following social upheaval, it’s not unusual for people to feel a sense of regret over something valuable lost in the name of progress. As people led lives that were more prosperous, yet sometimes less grounded and connected, small-town nostalgia was inevitable. The Andy Griffith Show played to that, as did The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and Petticoat Junction.
                  The illusion that small towns are more virtuous than big cities has an illustrious tradition in American political history, from Thomas Jefferson to Sarah Palin. The reality is that people are people, and their overall level of moral accomplishment doesn’t vary much by where they live or when they lived. The good old days weren’t all that good, either.
                  Agatha Christie’s detective Miss Marple used to say that no form of depravity or misbehavior could astonish her because she was an old lady who had spent her entire life in a small English village. In the novel A Pocketful of Rye, she was asked if it was a nice village.
                  “Well, I don’t quite know what you would call a nice village, my dear,” Miss Marple replied. “It’s quite a pretty village. There are some nice people living in it and some extremely unpleasant people as well. Very curious things go on there just as in any other village. Human nature is much the same everywhere, is it not?”
                  Even in Mayberry.