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A Light Fickers

Posted by Bob Kohm on September 20, 2013

This has been a week of hopeful words from unexpected sources, words that give succor to the soul but arouse unease in the intellect.

From Pope Francis I we hear words of hope, words that say that the Church has buried itself for far too long in doctrinal small sightedness which has made cynical the flock. A religion founded on the principles so well expounded in the tale of the Samaritan– tolerance for difference, kindness in the face of prejudice, the universality of the human condition and the amelioration of its woes– has submerged itself in fights over the denial of earthly rights and heavenly rewards to people over matters pertaining to their love and its physical expressions. From John Boehner we hear rumblings that the nihilistic campaign being waged by the Tea Party isn’t what is right for America, that being elected to govern does not equate with mothballing the government. From as unlikely a source as the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, we hear words of conciliation and mutual respect in a call to welcome Iran back into the community of nations as a full fledged partner, and end to, as he refers to it, an age of blood feuds.

Three disparate sources, one overarching theme– reconciliation. It is impossible for people of hope not to be at least momentarily inspired by words such as these coming in a time as divisive as the one we now populate. Our minds, those cynicized organs so conditioned by the events of the past quarter century to ignore hope in favor of a darker coalescence of possibilities, for a moment lighten as we glimpse that flickering ember and wonder if it can be kindled into a generator not necessarily of heat but still of  tactile reality. The possibility can’t be denied, if even out of sheer desire for it to be real.

The reasons to think it is not real are, sadly, easy to enumerate. Francis is at the helm of a vast doctrinal bureaucracy heavily invested in the teachings of the previous Pontiff, Benedict, whose march to undo the moderatel influence on the Church of John Paul II and John XXIII became the hallmark of his pontificate.

Like the legendary grey men of the permanent British Civil Service, those doctrinally orthodox Cardinals, Bishops and functionaries understand that they will outlast the temporary leadership of their nominative leader; Benedict’s labors to restock the Curia and its various functional apparatuses with younger men are rewarded in that way. They know that they must publicly toe the line drawn by their Pope, but will they rush to enact his decrees or let them linger under study, under “timely” implementations and half hearted directives to the pastoral network, playing the waiting game in hopes of a new, older direction from the next Pope?

Francis and “His” Curia

I discussed yesterday with an old friend, a man of faith, character and intellect, whether the Pope’s words were actually aimed at the doctrinal staff or rather lower, at the grassroots network of parish priests and the faithful. Upon reflection I believe my friend to be correct, that Francis is trying to do an end run around his governing structure and enact change from the bottom by seeing his message preached from the myriad pulpits, thus forcing the Bishops into acceptance and then the structure all the way back to those supposedly closest to the Pope’s direct control in Rome. It strikes me as a desperate play by Francis, although not a hopeless one– my main hope in it is that he acknowledges that the system is broken and that he cannot fix the damage by decree, but must invest his power in the organizationally powerless and ask them, through faith and numbers, to right what is wrong with the Church.

Mr. Boehner faces a problem similar in theme if different in mechanics. Boehner finds himself the nominal leader of a Republican caucus not only badly divided but acting in a manner that is nearly unprecedented in the leadership structure history of his party, While the Democrats have always been a somewhat fractious coalition, earlier of Northern liberals and Dixiecrat conservatives and later of Blue Dogs, liberals, moderates, fiscal conservative/social liberals and various and sundry other ideologues practicing vaious and sundry different ideologies, the GOP has been a much more rigid, lockstep caucus. In the years since the Eisenhower Administration, with the slight aberration of the Gingrich speakership, the GOP in Congress has existed under the tight control of their Speakers and Minority Leaders with strong and able whipping by the lower leadership. It has reliably supported their core themes (at least in the way they’ve been somewhat misleadingly packaged)– lower taxes, smaller government, fiscal responsibility measures, the curtailment of the social safety net, opposition to abortion and the extension of civil rights, sometimes with the abetment of the fractious Democrats and sometimes without. The “Hastert Rule”, which stated that no bill be brought to the floor unless it met with the approval of the majority of the Caucus, seemed absolute.

The brashness of that lockstep record emboldened the Boehner/Cantor leadership to overplay their hand at the close of the first decade of the new century, legitimizing and deploying the proverbial war elephant of the Tea Party Republicans as a force they hubristically thought they could control and whose dynamism they never fully understood. War elephants, as I’ve written in the past, are funny things from a historic perspective– massive, intimidating juggernauts that can scare the enemy off of the battlefield, yes, but more often than not they proved to be unreliable forces of nature as apt to trample their own lines into dust as they were to scatter an opposing army. The elephantine presence of the Tea Party electees of 2010 has done precisely that to Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor’s leadership in the House and to a slightly lesser extent Mr. McConnell’s leadership in the Senate.

That leads us to the horns of Mr. Boehner’s dilemma this week– a caucus so out of control as to be characterized by its own members as being on a legislative kamikaze mission to hole the hull of our government. Mr Boehner has made a very poor secret of his attempts to rein in the caucus and to get them to focus on governance rather than on the destruction of the same– his sometimes tiresomely bellicose verbiage has moderated to calls for governmental foresight and moderation. Even speaking as someone who shares very little governing philosophy with Mr. Boehner, I respect his desire for moderation and sanity displayed this past week despite the typhoon of immoderation his previous actions have unleashed. I hope that he can somehow restore the genie to the bottle by force of will and backroom deals among the more pragmatic members of his party, but that hope is again, as is the case with Pope Francis’ hope, limited by the empirical evidence before us to the contrary. It is hard to undo a system that is behaving in a manner so optimally that it has subsumed the governors placed to control it.

Last is the letter delivered to the American people and to the world by newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. In a world set reeling by actions coming from the Middle East since the mid 1960s, what words could be more welcome than those calling for a legitimate peace from one of the nations that have so greatly fostered that reeling instability? Rather than suing for peace, President Rouhani asks for something even more intellectually appealing– and end to the “zero sum game” of lingering Cold War thinking, a new compact founded on a return to (or perhaps, truthfully, a novel) respect for the needs of other nations in the pursuit of the “win-win” scenarios that we all know are possible if the principals would moderate their definition of “wins” away from the absolutism of Berlin or the deck of the USS Missouri. An eminently rational appeal from a nation reputed in the West to be the home of irrationality, a land who sacrificed its children in the 1980s as human minesweepers and who has suckled nascent terrorist movements until they were ready to leave the house and wreak havoc internationally has a seductiveness of the mind almost too tantalizing to ignore.

Is this a deliverable promise–  or even premise– from an Iranian President, however? Is it a simple ruse to take advantage of American war weariness to further complicate our effort to deny Iran nuclear weaponry? Is it a truthful statement of Rouhani’s personal desires but ultimately a meaningless gesture as it is the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, in whom all power is really vested by his control of the theocratic infrastructure, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and, especially, the nuclear apparatus?

In Rouhani, again we see the problem of a putative ruler who may have no control over his supposed domain– a rump ruler, a ruler in name only. In the cases of Boehner and Francis I, the issue is those whom they supposedly represent and speak for; in the case of Iran, it is those whom exist on a plane above the public face of the ruler. Same problem, different ladders. Can the conciliatory words of Rouhani, even if they are delivered with sincerity in the man’s heart (an open question), really amount to anything when Khameini’s IRGC and its al-Quds terrorist network are openly waging war in Syria in support of the Assad regime? Is it possible that, like Francis, Rouhani is trying to inspire the Iranian people to see a better path and institute change from below, perchance by a reinstitution of the Green Revolution that we saw in 2009-2010, a revolution that the US didn’t materially support despite our clear interest in doing so? Could Rouhani be seeking US support for its resurgence? A possibility.

We live in a world where institutions are breaking down and a trend towards anarchy is emerging, a problem illustrated, I believe, by this week’s hopeful words. The superficially unifying theme behind them is reconciliation, yes, but perhaps another darker unification emerges upon consideration of them as an interlocked whole rather than as discrete conversations– the recognition by our leaders that their leadership is in jeopardy and with it so too are our societal institutions. Are the leaders calling on the led to, in effect, dispose of the middlemen– the power of the institutions that have gone rogue, the power of the Curia and its apparatus, the Tea Party, the Iranian Supreme Leadership– in an effort to save not only themselves but their societies as they are currently defined? If so, what are the ramifications of these grasps at newly ethereal power?

I’m tempted to see these as the penultimate gestures from leadership– a rational, constructive and coalition based approach to restoration of the societal norms we’ve become accustomed to over the past centuries. Should they fail, the tumult of the ultimate gestures to retain power– gestures we’ve seen throughout history’s darkest times– seem to be likely as the leaders of our institutions all retain executive powers that they will surely try to use to maintain their power.

Are our societies so flawed that we should allow them to go through a period of painful redefinition at the hands of middle men, or should we hope for an enlightened leadership emerging from those who were perhaps responsible for those middle men attaining so much power in the first place? We’ve seen “middle men” take power so many times in so many nations in the personage of the ambitious Colonels, but this is a different scenario; this time it’s not a jumped up military officer looking to take power but maintain the institution, it’s a fundamental dismantling of the institution by the “Colonels” that is sought, perhaps not unlike the tumult of the move from Feudalism to Limited Constitutional Monarchy or Imperialism to Mercantile Democracy.

The world contemplates change subconsciously this week in the guise of hopeful words that hide situations redolent of the loss of faith. A flickering light burns, but whether or not to nourish the ember to fire– and what we feed that fire with– is becoming the central question of our time.

Posted in American Politics, Christianity, CongressCritters, Cultural Phenomena, Economy, Foreign Affairs, History, Iran, Middle East, Religion, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Where Are the Wizards?

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 17, 2009

It has been said that the line between magic and technology is located where the common person can look at a system and have no idea of not just how it functions, but why it functions. I cannot build an internal combustion engine (hell, I can barely change a spark plug), but I can look at one and figure out how it works, at least in broad strokes. Looking at a circuit board, however, isn’t going to provide and spark in my brain that will tell me how the computer I’m writing this on works, how my 46″ big screen is showing Handy Manny at this moment, or how I can talk to someone in Peru or Vietnam by dialing 13 digits into the phone the board may have come from. It is complex beyond my ability to ascertain, and I must simply rely upon it to work, to reply upon others to provide the networks upon which it draws, and to build be a new one when this one fails. Before it was retired in April of 2008, Air Force pilots had to rely upon their computers to make constant adjustments to the flight surfaces of their Stealth Fighters to keep the unaerodynamic Nighthawks in the air. Think about that– is there a higher presumed expert on the science and craft of flying than a trained US Air Force pilot? Even their skills and expertise could not keep an F-117 in the air; they had to rely upon a system with more expertise than they could ever hold. The trust inherent in relying upon these gadgets and systems of gadgets is awesome when you consider it, especially in those cases when even the “experts” are outside of their capacity in understanding and manipulating them, as in the Air Force example.

But is that trust warranted?

Much like my laptop and the Internet (series of tubes…?) themselves, our financial system is complex beyond simple understanding, even by the “experts”. The derivative nightmares that have crashed our economy were not the product of a bunch of execs sitting in a room trying to come up with a better way to make money but rather the end product of extraordinarily complex mathematical formulae that redefined risk in a way so out of keeping with realistic definitions of the concept as to have made these bundled junk loans look like an asset worthy of investment. Take those instruments and throw them into a milieu that sees incredibly complex markets interacting with complex personal decisions and trending, with overseas financial and security needs and philosophies, with complex logistical realities mandated by our “just in time” systems of inventory management amongst a host of other complexities and intangibles. Once you’ve done that, take a look at some of our experts on that overarching economic system– say Alan Greenspan, Paul Krugman, Larry Summers, Zhou Xiaochuan, and Daniel McFadden– and understand that they have wildly divergent opinions of not only how to fix the system but in fact on how the system works and exists at all.

This is a system so complex that, although we rely on it for fundamentals such as food delivery, power generation and medical care, nobody does completely– can completely– understand it. We are assured by many “experts” that they have a handle on this thing, that they can tame and manipulate it to our universal benefit, that they can shield us from its temper tantrums and benefit us from its soaring successes… they think.

The same is true of so many systems in the world in which we live– can the President be expected to understand and process the self-interests of the many nations on the planet when they are all just guessing at their own self-interests? And if we can not hold that expectation, then are we prepared to accept that judgements made on war and peace are made in a manner that must ultimately be accepted as uniformed?

We are at a point in our societal evolution where our artificial systems have merged with natural systems with ultimately unpredictable and uncontrollable outcomes becoming more the norm; it has long been a favored chestnut of science fiction writers, but the reality is truly emerging now into the public consciousness as a result of the financial crisis. What the implication of that will be for the future remains to be seen, but we cannot get to that point until we accept the concept that experts on these systems are not wizards and that while they can make educated guesses, they cannot speak with the authority that an expert on civil engineering can speak on bridge construction; to take anything they say as a firm prediction of probability may be a stretch; taking them as gospel is insanity.

It seems we have extended and expanded our reality right back to the point of trial and error. Welcome to the Nineteenth Century, circa 2009.

Posted in American History, Cultural Phenomena, Economy, education, Mathematics | 3 Comments »

We’re Losing Our Minds

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 17, 2009

Nothing can mess up a marriage like money problems; hell even Billy Joel has popularized that concept in Scenes From an Italian Restaurant. When money becomes an issue, everything else goes on the table– bitterness, greed, jealousy and the real killer, irrationality.

In the marriage between our government and the American people, money has become an issue, and irrationality is raising its head above the swirling currents of anger, frustration, and fear.

Take, for instance, this week’s explosion of craziness over the A.I.G. bonus payments. Yes, on the surface it is maddening– the American taxpayers are floating A.I.G. and they’re busy shipping TARP money overseas or handing it out in bonus checks to the idiots who were the engineers and mechanics of the train wreck that A.I.G has become. While many families struggle through layoffs and while houses are being taken by the banks at rates never before seen, the rich are getting richer; anybody can understand the anger that would generate. The problem is that we’re getting lost in that anger and risk doing serious, lasting damage to our nation as a result of it.

In today’s New York Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin charts a personally dangerous course in his Dealbook column under the headline The Case for Paying Out Bonuses at A.I.G. There’s a case for paying out these bonuses? Really? The man must be insane and be courting a Rushdie-esque fatwa called down upon his head by Imam John Q. Public. In this environment who could ever support dishing out more money to the boobs at A.I.G.?

A very prescient man, that’s who.

The contract is the fundamental building block upon which American business is founded. No matter how onerous a deal may turn out to be in hindsight, a contract is a contract and must be honored short of bankruptcy. Yes, you can always ask the other party to renegotiate a contract for the mutual good, but you can not simply walk away from the provisions of a contract because one party just doesn’t like it anymore– at least not without a lawsuit that will see the walker getting nailed for doing so and ordered to perform. Without that surety, there is no such thing as a credit market– a loan or credit agreement is a contract, of course, assuring the lender that the borrower will repay the loan with interest or else forfeit some valuable property in lieu of cash payment. The contract is as close to a sacred concept as exists in the profane world of business and economics. It’s preservation is paramount to our very existence, and one of the key roles of government is providing the tools in the form of the legal system to enforce and ensure contracts.

And now, out of anger, we’re demanding that the government set a precedent that will hopelessly erode the sanctity of the contract because, well, we’re damned angry and have a right to be. The bonuses that are the object of so much ire right now weren’t concocted last week as a boondoggle to enrich a few financiers; they were the result of employment contracts signed before the wheels came off of the economy between A.I.G. and its employees. Whether or not those employees deserve the bonuses in light of all that’s happened, whether or not we want taxpayer money funding those bonuses, whether or not we’re out of our minds with anger, these bonus payouts are mandated by valid contracts that have to be honored simply because they are valid contracts. To have no less an entity than the Federal Government try to abrogate these contracts because the American taxpayer is angry… well, that’s not an avenue any sane person would seek to go down, is it? The slippery slope is an old argument, but precedent is also one of the underpinnings of our society. If the government can step in and simply toss out the provisions of a series of valid contracts because the Congress doesn’t like them, what is the point of the entire system?

The counterargument most offered by bloggers and commentators to this line of thought– that simply tossing out valid contracts is rank idiocy that will be killed by the Courts as it should be– is that A.I.G. is now largely owned by the taxpayers anyway and would have gone bankrupt had the government not stepped in… and bankruptcy is the ultimate voider of contracts. All well and good, save one tiny flaw– that damnable phrase, “would have”. Yes, the government stepped in and the American taxpayer got the bill… to prevent A.I.G. from going into bankruptcy. We stopped A.I.G. from going bankrupt and collapsing because their existence, as twisted as this might seem, is integral at this point to the economic recovery. When we made that choice– to prevent A.I.G. from going bankrupt by, essentially, buying the company, we bought not only its assets but its liabilities and commitments, as well. We are now a party to the employment contracts that mandate these “retention bonuses”, and as a responsible party that is interested more in the overall health and resurgence of our national economy rather than the sideshow BS of the A.I.G. bonus flap, we must hold back our bile and sign the damned checks. To not do so is unthinkable and, should this hit the courts some day, illegal. You don’t have to have stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night to see that, even if like me you hate the concept of paying out this money.

Ditto the ire over A.I.G. taking bailout money and paying it to European and Asian banks rather than keeping it here int he States. A.I.G. owed debts to those institutions and needed to satisfy them under contractual obligation. We cannot give A.I.G. money with which to save itself and thus prop up our economy and then tell them that they can’t use it to satisfy their liabilities– what else would we be giving it to them for but to kill bad debts and satisfy other liabilities so that it may continue to function as a business entity?

Now, that doesn’t mean that we can’t ask for the money back, that we can’t publicly hammer the employees getting these bonuses in an attempt to shame them into not accepting them… but if they say no and want the money owed them, then it’s up to us to perform up to the terms of the contract.

There are no popular solutions to a financial crisis as deep as the one we’re in– the issues are too complex for the average person, myself included, to understand every intricacy and every interconnection. Moves that make sense may be counter-intuitive, and certainly may be the cause of immediate anger from the population. What me must use as our guide in determining sentiment is a baseline fundamental of common sense– do we want to live with contracts providing no surety? Do we want our employers to unilaterally change our contracts? Do we enjoy seeing products on the shelves of our stores, being able to borrow to buy a home or a car or a boat? Do we want to be sure that when we contract out a job that he job will be done? Of course to all of those, so, too, of course to paying out the bonuses contracted for. We cannot have one without the other.

Money can break up a marriage, but the one between our government and ourselves must be saved. We all need to take a deep breath, accept that there will be things that must be done that might not feel great up front but that must be done, noentheless, to get everyone back safe in their beds at the end of this long, dark day.

Posted in American Politics, Corporate Shenanigans, Cultural Phenomena, Economy | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Blood On the Walls

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 13, 2009

I’m teaching this morning and don’t have the time to write this up– I’ll get to it this afternoon– but just in case you didn’t see Jon Stewart destroy Jim Cramer’s career last night, here’s the feed. The most brutal– dare I say best given that it was conducted by a comedian– interview I have ever seen. Jon, it may be time to drop the “fake news” thing and fill a void that is in very bad need of filling in our society. On the other hand, Jonathan Swift-style satire translated to the 2009 US vernacular probably looks a lot like what Jon Stewart does…

Posted in Corporate Shenanigans, Cultural Phenomena, Economy | 2 Comments »

Shopping and Death on Long Island

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 10, 2009

I have friends, most of them female, sitting shiva in houses across Long Island. They’re losing an old friend, and I feel

The Temple of Shoppig on the Island

The Temple of Shopping on the Island

for them. While they adorn themselves in black designer outfits and pin rended bracelets to their breasts in mourning their husbands are trying to look sad and support them… but they’re all really sneaking downstairs to the family room, smoking cigars and toasting the departure with good whiskey when they say they need to pee.

The object of so much depression is the victim of the recession, not cancer or too much cholesterol. As the recession deepens it has become apparent that even the most sacred of cows is not immune from the abattoir’s knives, and, if you live or ever have lived somewhere between Montauk and Paramus you may have heard the bellowing and bleating coming from the stall in which Fortunoff’s has been dispatched, the dearly departed friend that has called the congregation to mourn together.

How to explain Fortunoff’s to those who haven’t  resided in the NYC Metro area…? OK, imagine a gigantic brownish concrete cube sitting along a road that can only be described as Dante’s Suburban Circle of Hell, then fill its parking lots with Mercedes, with BMWs, with Jaguars and most importantly of all with Cadillacs, lots and lots of Cadillacs, more Cadillacs than you’d see even in Fort Lauderdale around early bird dinner special time in mid-February.

Within the cube, cryptically referred to as “The Source” by its marketing team and by the come-latelies who have only known it as the flagship of “The Source” mall instead of as the stand-alone temple to Long Island taste it was for so many years, are enough high end baubles and textiles to make Martha Stewart not only need to change her foundation garments but to replace them with fine damask panties sewn from materials in the drapery department. Diamond rings available for $5,000 in Manhattan were consumed here like potato chips despite their $8,000 price tags;  sets of china destined to be eaten upon once a year and to otherwise reside in the future dusty basements of affluent newlywed shared floorspace with $3700 espresso machines. If time is money, the watches offered within the tens of yards long display cases cost too much to be bothered with keeping it– anyone who could afford them could surely afford to buy more time when needed.

The floors were packed with ladies, more in Yves St. Laurent or Gucci than in Dolce & Gabbana, ogling multi-carat emeralds, checking the time before their lunch reservation on their Cartier watches. For a store that doesn’t sell clothing but only housewares & jewlery the fashion parade was astounding. On the rare occasion that a man wearing a wedding ring was seen walking the broad aisles alone in any months other than November or December, you could be sure that he had recently been busted with either his secretary or his wife’s best friend; the number of zeroes on the price tag for the bracelet in his sweaty palms was a dead give away as to which.

All that being said, Fortunoff’s was an institution; whether it was so in the tradition of Dix Hills and Bedlam or in the tradition of Harrods is a fairly debated point. It followed the trajectory of New York and ultimately Long Island consumerism– when it started early in the century it was a Mom & Pop cookware store in Brooklyn that grew up and moved to the Island with its clientele (ever wonder how Lynbrook got its name? Reverse the syllables and you have your answer…). With the comfort and affluence that came with suburban life, Fortunoff’s became the much tonier forerunner to the Linens’n’Things that fill the market for housewares today– you wouldn’t dare to think of buying your draperies, your dishes, your bathroom tchotskies anywhere else for fear that Myrna might find a Macy’s label on something when she was rifling your linen closet while ostensibly using the powder room during a fondue party. With the Long Island boom of the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties it became an excuse not to trudge all the way into the Diamond District of the city to buy extraordinarily expensive jewelry, completing the nightmare existence of Fortunoff’s for Long Island’s salary men. In time it came to be the arbiter of social standing– if you didn’t keep your wedding registry at Fortunoff’s it denoted you as someone whose friends couldn’t afford the finer things for sale on Long Island, the kiss of social death and surely the wrong way to start off in married life amongst the doyennes of Garden City or the Five Towns. It simply wouldn’t do, it just wouldn’t do at all.

Now, as Long Island’s unbridled economic consumerism seems as far away as the booms that the Concorde used to shed over its beaches, Fortunoff’s long run as the hub of that consumerism has come to an end, leavign a void to be occupied but never filled by Costco, by Macy’s, by Kay Jewelers down the road at the mall. Fortunoff’s is no more, and if you think I’m overstating the case, you should have seen the obituary given Fortunoff’s by last Sunday’s New York Times Long Island Section, complete with lofty quotes from the mourners beset by woe at the loss of their dear friend.

If Fortunoff’s was a temple to greed, excess, and AMEX Gold Cards during its lifetime, though, it was a 100,000 square foot torture chamber for the unlucky kids dragged from their peaceful WiffleBall and ATARI existences to serve at the altar. As one of the victims of sporadic Saturday trips to the Westbury flagship store, I have but one good memory amongst the pain of debates about draperies on the third floor and the endless circling of the kitchen department on the first– for some reason, one never adequately explained or even hinted at, there was an authentic Japanese pachinko machine set smack in the middle of a sea of Royal Doulton and fine Limoges China. Playing with its silver balls, watching them bounce through the pins, was the one thing that provided solace to the souls of the children called there to witness the acquisitive orgy taking place before the gaze of the twin gods Cuisinart and Patek Phillipe… and, in an exercise in cruelty that was the epitome of Fortunoffs to the nine year old boy, they put the god damned thing in the middle of an acre of breakable, wildly expensive dishes. That little boy wearing a CHIPS t-shirt, ToughSkins jeans, tube socks and Pony sneakers still cries out from within the man– Damn you, Fortunoff’s, damn you to liquidation!

Still, though, the passing of any chapter into history, no matter how cherished nor how silly, deserves respect. To those who will miss Fortunoffs, to my parents and the parents and grandparents of my friends, to my brother and sister-in-law, to the legions of little old ladies who struggle daily under the weight of the jewelry they bought there in better times… wanna head a bit down Old Country Road to Ben’s and toast the old girl with a Doctor Brown’s Black Cherry and a half sour from the relish plate, maybe a pastrami on rye? That much I can do for a store and an era in retailing the likes of which we will likely never see again.

Posted in American History, Cultural Phenomena, Economy | Leave a Comment »

Skivvies and Soundwaves

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 10, 2009

Sometimes the greatest crises start in the silliest ways.

Earlier this week, in what on the surface sounds like a navalized version of the Keystone Kops, Chinese fishing boats and coastal patrol boats surrounded and harassed an unarmed American ocean surveillance ship, the USNS Impeccable, waving large Chinese flags and taunting the crew while generally making life uncomfortable for the much larger ship. When Chinese seamen tried to snag the long sonar cables that Impeccable was towing, the American crew turned high pressure fire hoses on the Chinese… who promptly stripped to their underwear and continued taunting until the American ship departed the area.

It all sounds very juvenile, a slightly higher stakes game of penis waving on the high seas. In reality, it was the largest incident in a week-long series of events that portend major problems for US-PRC relations as Chinese Premier Hu Jintao prepares for his initial meeting with President Obama in two weeks.

USNS Impeccable is, without question, an interesting ship. Operated by the US Military Sealift Command, Impeccable is an “ocean surveillance” ship, whose stated mission is oceanographic research and investigation. It is, of course, in actuality a major intelligence platform, part of the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS) system tasked to gather intelligence on and keep track of enemy submarine forces. Impeccable carries the most sophisticated and sensitive sonar arrays in the American inventory, capable of locating and tracking submarines at ranges of hundreds of miles under the right circumstances and also making recordings which can be enhanced and downloaded to the fleet and by which our submarines and surface combatants can positively identify enemy subs. Given that Impeccable was operating in international waters off of China’s new submarine base at Hainan Island, its mission was clearly tracking the new generation of Chinese subs stationed there.

To understand the Chinese sensitivity to spying on its submarines it is necessary to look back at the 1995-’96 Taiwan Straits Crisis. The Chinese, in the run-ups to the 1996 Taiwanese elections, decided to flex their muscles to dissuade Taiwanese voters for voting for a pro-independence government by conducting a series of “missile tests” that overflew Taiwan and several live fire exercise in the Taiwan Strait. Responding to the Chinese provocations, President Clinton ordered Navy Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs) into the area, with USS Nimitz transiting the Strait in December of 1995 and then again in March 1996 with the USS Kitty Hawk battlegroup. The Chinese got the message—if American CBGs could operate in the Strait, they could destroy China’s economic and military heart, which exists along the Chinese Pacific Coast. This changed China’s entire military development program, causing them to see the Taiwan Strait as the key to their national sovereignty. As it is realistically very difficult to challenge America’s CBGs from the surface or air, China turned to the third attack venue—undersea—to stop America from threatening the Chinese littoral again.

China has spent extraordinary amounts of money over the past decade in developing its attack submarine forces in the hope that swarms of Chinese subs could make entering the restricted waters of the Taiwan Strait too risky for the American carriers, standing them off to the fuel limits of their embarked air wings and thus greatly complicating American participation in any future PRC-Taiwan crisis. The quality of the newer Chinese nuclear subs, however, is extremely questionable—the Chinese are not, to be polite, particularly good at naval development and have suffered many problems in their undersea programs. Their boats are quite noisy, the kiss of death for a sub, and their seaworthiness has not been demonstrated to be adequate for extended operations on a regular schedule. There is a school of thought, however, that suggests the newer Chinese boats coming on line have been relieved of those problems, hence the extreme interest of the United States in learning all that we can about them. Are the boats capable? The Chinese certainly want us to believe so whether they are or not, and they certainly don’t want us to learn enough to make a decision either way.

Enter Impeccable, Chinese sailors in the skivvies, and two incidents earlier in the week in which Chinese military aircraft buzzed American ships and in which a Chinese destroyer cut in front of the bow of a US ship and you have the beginnings of a Chinese power play.

China has long maintained that its economic and security interests are not limited to the twelve mile international waters boundary acknowledged by all nations and they have attempted to exercise that claim on many occasions, the most famous of which was when a Chinese J-8 fighter rammed and forced down a US Navy EP3 surveillance aircraft at… wait for it… Hainan Island in April of 2001, causing a several week long crisis that saw the Chinese first downing the aircraft and then engaging in that most Chinese action, disassembling it to steal its technology.

The Chinese were trying to do something very similar with Impeccable when they got doused with the fire hoses—they were using their boat hooks to try and snag and steal the sonar towed array cables being pulled by the ship while at the same time trying to exercise their claim on waters far beyond those they are entitled to.

Given the timing, with the first meeting between Hu and Obama on the near horizon, it is easy to imagine what the Chinese are up to. With America in financial crisis and with its military distracted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, China is trying to upset the balance of power quickly before America under Obama can regain its footing. It’s hard to blame them—they are in no position to directly challenge an America that can respond at full strength, so why not challenge America while it is still weakened from the misadventures of the previous Admin and under financial pressure that China can make worse? In some ways this is very much like the Soviet provocations that accompanied the beginning of the Kennedy Administration; the question now is whether or not Obama will respond from strength, sending Impeccable and its sister ships back to the waters off of Hainan with a military escort or whether he is too constrained by China’s economic position to do so.

Undoubtedly Hu will come to the meeting with demands that the United States back off in the East Pacific, Yellow and South China Seas or else China will have to consider economic actions detrimental to the United States. The gravity of those threats will be easily determined—if they are made publicly or are allowed to leak very quickly, then China will be placing its prestige and power on the line by directly challenging America, signaling that they think they have a seriously strong hand. If they are made quietly and without fanfare, then they are merely a test of America’s resolve. China has traditionally been hesitant to engage in open confrontation, preferring the subtle maneuver to the exercise of main force. This will be an interesting exercise in power for both sides. Expect to see China take steps on the economic front in the coming ten days, perhaps a Chinese professor giving a “major interview” questioning the continued wisdom of helping the US economy or perhaps a signal from China’s Central Bank that it is considering dumping US Treasuries, to ratchet up the pressure on Obama.

We all know the ancient Chinese curse about living in interesting times. It will be a major test of Obama’s capacity to lead in seeing if he can make China’s life equally interesting.

Posted in China, Economy, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence (and lack thereof), Submarines, Warfare | 2 Comments »

Ecomonic Warfare or Fiscal Porn?

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 10, 2009

But at this particular moment, with the private sector so weakened by this recession, the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back to life. It is only government that can break the vicious cycle where lost jobs lead to people spending less money which leads to even more layoffs. And breaking that cycle is exactly what the plan that’s moving through Congress is designed to do. –Barack Obama

Yesterday, Barack Obama finally got back to doing what he does best– taking his case to the people of our nation and rallying them behind policy positions that previous administrations of both stripes have considered to be “above” them, too complex to understand and thus not worth attempting to explain. Suffice it to say that you never would’ve seen George Bush (pick your iteration…) in front of a large crowd of politically unscreened citizens handed microphones to ask questions after being given a straight assessment of the problems facing our economy and the extraordinary tasks that need to be undertaken to quell them. Yesterday in Indiana and today in Florida, however, that is exactly what we have and will see Barack Obama do. Lest you think that these were randomly chosen locales, recall that Indiana and Florida were two of the toughest Red states that flipped to blue in the election, a clear reminder to the Senate and House of who they’re dealing with, politically.

Some of the questions he received yesterday were extremely critical of him and his administration– one was delivered by a woman who identified herself as “…one of those who think you should have a beer with Sean Hannity”– but they were handled with aplomb and humour as the cost of doing business for a President who knows that he will have to deal with detractors head on to gain the trust of a nation. Like him or not, that’s a refreshing…wait for it… change.

Last night Obama went before reporters for a live prime time presser and again handled everything thrown at him, acquitting himself well and making yet another strong case for his particular vision of a stimulus package and the steps needed to fix the economy.

Obama and his aides are not fools– they understand that despite the losses of the Republican Party and the seeming rejection of its philosophies by the voting public, there is still an aftertaste of the conservative fiscal policies that the Bush Admin and the House Republicans, in particular, have  told America that they were practicing for the better part of the last decade. There is a seductiveness to talking about tax cuts and limiting government while ignoring the larger issues that drive the economy and the nation; it’s fiscal porn. Why talk about having to free the liquidity of the credit markets when you can talk about the bliss of a paycheck less encumbered by taxes or the pleasures of getting government “off of your back”? The GOP has engaged in this quite literal application of bread and circuses and has done so well– give the people some extra bread in their weekly take-home while keeping them diverted with asinine wedge issues like gay marriage and putting the Ten Commandments on public property and they conveniently forget to take a look at what Fannie & Freddie are doing. It’s undeniable– and undeniably sad– that this formula has worked politically so well for so long.

What Barack Obama has been giving us, literally, is the opposite of fiscal porn– it is depressingly honest at times, featuring quotes like the above and a constant reminder that “the party is over” or “this is the worst financial crisis we’ve seen since the Great Depression”. Obama is treating us as adults and partners, not only in the problem but in its solution. Not only is this the right thing to do– our grandparents handled the Germans and the Japanese, I think we can handle Goldman Sachs and sovereign wealth funds– it is also the politically smart thing to do. As noted by David Gergen last night on CNN, last week saw the Admin focus entirely on policy and working the hallways at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. They were effective in doing so, getting a fixable stimulus package through the House and then saving a better bill in the Senate, but they also allowed public support for the bill to erode. They gave people like Jim DeMint, Lindsay Graham and Mitch McConnell the media floor to rally against what they saw (often mistakenly, sometimes correctly) as excesses in the bill passed by the House and attempted to make the bill a referendum whose choices were Nancy Pelosi’s “San Francisco Power Bitchery” or the Debbie Does Taxes myth of Republican fiscal responsibility featuring their promise about going down on taxes and the double penetration of cutting spending while shifting focus to social issues.

When given the choice between someone with a plan, an actual way to move forward on a problem, and someone who tells you that the best thing to do is either nothing or, worse, admits the problem and then tries to hand you another that has the illusion of being easier to solve, the choice is clear. Obama has a proactive plan of attack that he’s willing to talk about and allow scrutiny of; he’s been honest enough to say that his plan will sometimes lead into blind alleys or need to be adjusted along the way, and that pain will be felt by all as we move forward. What he describes and the way he describes it is very much akin to a war; the comparisons to FDR have already been made ad nauseum, but it is impossible to not note here the latter-day Fireside Chat ethos of Obama’s town hall events this week and his general willingness to tell us we’re in for a bad ride for the next few years– but also that there is an end to the ride in sight in the distance. The war that Obama describes isn’t a war in the sense that Mr. Bush forced us to grow accustomed to; the war that Mr. Obama lays out has clearly defined goals, a frank assessment of risks and challenges, and a strategy to overcome them. It is also explained as war without fait accompli as a component– in this war, the enemy will fight back and will even win battles. We start this war much as we did World War Two– under attack, shocked and dazed, with an enemy in the field that will be initially superior to our efforts to fight it. We are also uniquely suited to grow in strength throughout the fight and overwhelm the problems facing us as long as we do so in a progressive (little “p” progressive, note) fashion that has us methodically building a foundation and then laying successes atop it until the overall fight is won. We started World War Two with crappy and far too few airplanes, a Navy that needed to be built from the keel up, and tanks that were ten years out of date but with a strong base from which to fix those problems. We start this war similarly challenged, with a fiscal sector in chaos, with corporations running out of date models, with too few and patently lousy tools to manage Wall Street, but with the ability to fix those problems with some discipline and some reassessment and realignment of our priorities.

Obama is our Roosevelt; Geithner & Summers our Marshall & Eisenhower. The fight will be long, but it is on. If that doesn’t sound like fun, though, Ann Coulter is going down on your tax bill over at FoxNews LateNight. Your choice.

Posted in American History, American Politics, CongressCritters, Economy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Interesting Post at SoundbyteNation

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 9, 2009

Glance over to the blogroll list on the right side of your screen and click on Dan Devereaux’s SoundbyteNation today– he has up a fascinating profile of how the economic recession is reaching deep into places that most of us never think about. Apparently the company that forms the backbone of most network and cable operator’s program delivery systems is in trouble and in danger of going away… with remarkable implications for Digital TV. Well worth the short read.

Posted in Blog Business, Cultural Phenomena, Economy | Leave a Comment »

The Ho-Hum Case Scenario

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 29, 2009

It’s no secret that some Federal officials have an overblown sense of their importance and that of the agency they work at; still, sometimes they manage to surprise.

Take Postmaster General John E. Potter, for example. Holding a title that sounds like something from a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta (He is the very model of a modern Postmaster General…), Mr. Potter is the gentleman currently responsible for upholding that credo we all learned as children about neither rain nor snow nor the attack of 93 foot long wasps with peptic ulcers preventing the brave boys and girls in blue from stuffing our boxes with legacy SPAM.

According to Mr. (Gen?) Potter, the economy is about to do to the mail service what even those ornery mutated insects could not– prevent the delivery of mail on Saturdays to every address in the United States. At least that is what Mr. Potter has described as the “worst case scenario” in testimony before a Senate subcommittee.

The horror.

You see, the economy has caused a downturn in the amount of mail being sent, which is causing the Postal Service to lose not only the usual birthday cards and checks but also roughly three billion dollars last year. Eliminate Saturday delivery and you save somewhere between two and  three billion dollars. This seems like a no-brainer to me– is Saturday delivery really terribly important, Mr. General?

It would seem that to Supreme Mail Commander Potter it is, in fact, critical to the very fabric of our nation. I myself see other things that could be counted as “worst case” scenarios for the Postal Service. How about massive layoffs? Pretty bad. Let’s try on the concept of eliminating door-to-door delivery entirely and dropping mail at central points, a la many of the suburban subdivisions built in the first years of this decade? Not a disaster, but surely more inconvenient than no mail on Saturday. How about the deep discounts for bulk mailers becoming financially untenable, which would set off a vortex effect of loss of demand for the mail service entirely? If that came to pass we wouldn’t just be talking about eliminating needless Saturday deliveries.

What Lord High Admiral of the Post Potter is failing to recognize is that his service is becoming anachronistic. There will of course be a need for the delivery of physical mail for the foreseeable future, but mail is no longer the integral form of communication that it was when the concepts and even the “modernizations” of the system were codified. Looking at the usual population of my own daily mail, advertisements outweigh actual content by about 1.5:1. While the ads are annoying, we must recognize that they keep employed a large number of Americans, from printers to marketers to salespeople and, yes, the good General’s field troops. Still, I do not need them six days a week. When I look at the stew of bills, official docs, greeting cards and the occasional check that make up the balance, I see efficiencies to be made that the market has already started to dictate. Many of us use electronic bill pay and electronic statements for all of our repetitive bills. The Evite has replaced the paper invitation for many people under the age of 50; the greeting card should be headed for the same fate. Electronic transmission of documents is an old story, goign back to the fax of the ’80s through email and now e-signature. Why the DMV, IRS, and other government agencies can’t move to those models and away from legacy paper mystifies me; send me an email when it’s time to renew my car registration and I’m a lot more likely to deal with it than if I receive a piece of paper that the kids will probably grab off of the counter top and draw lions battling clone troopers on.

So, in the end Mr. Postmaster General, I’m pretty sure that the old saw about a crisis for you not translating into a crisis for me applies to your “worst case scenario”. Give me two days without mail rather than just one and I’ll be fine. Give me one day without email and it’s a disaster.

Sound the retreat, Sir.

Posted in American Politics, Cultural Phenomena, Economy | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Playing Chicken With The Train

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 28, 2009

“I’m big and black, clickety clack, and I make the train jump the track like that”–Cowboy Troy…because, hey, how often do you get to open a political post with a Hick-Hop quote, right?

One has to question whether or not John Boehner is clinically stupid. I’m sorry, I know that’s a fairly harsh lede, but really, Mr. Boehner, have you lost not only your mind but your will to lead the House GOP back into a position of at least some authority after the 2010 midterms?

Yesterday saw President Obama’s barreling freight train take a short ride down Pennsylvania Avenue to meet with the House GOP on their own turf, in the Capitol itself. Mr. Obama, who has built a national popular groundswell on the concept of a post-partisan Presidency has also done something a bit more realistic amongst the political cognoscenti– he’s made them understand that as far as the media is concerned that groundswell is at least founded on a sincere effort to work across the aisle.

How– no, why– then would Mr. Boehner try to marshall a lockstep partyline vote ont he Stimulus Package and show his hand before Obama convened the meeting with the House GOP? Is there a worse move that Mr. Boehner could have executed than to put a nation hungry for cooperation and terrified of where the economy is going than to show that he will not even pretend to cooperate and will let the economy burn while he plays politics with our lives?

I understand that there are philosophical differences between President Obama’s vision of how to fix the economy and, say, Jeb Hensarling’s or Jim DeMint’s in the Senate. They are part of a legitimate policy debate and absolutely need to be explored– which is what the President was doing on the Hill yesterday. It’s easy to spout a cynical view of the meeting and say that Obama went to simply break the GOP to his view, but it would also be an incorrect view; if Obama wanted a simple show he would’ve summoned Boehner, Eric Cantor, and a few other GOP Leadership/fiscal conservatives to the Oval for a photo op. He didn’t– in his first week he actually went to the Capitol rather than bringing people to the White House and met with the full GOP Conference. If you aren’t a DC type, what you need to understand is that a President leaving his turf to go to the Hill for something like this is a sign of one of two things– a defeated President or a hell of a lot of respect. Clearly, Obama is no defeated President.

So, in said hungry country, a wildly popular and brand new President humbles himself by going to the Hill as a sign of how willing he is to work with a loyal opposition. What is the media treated to by his hosts? A pre-meeting flurry of press avails featuring GOP leadership and ranking members saying that they are voting against the plan before even hearing what President Obama has to say. Politically, this is madness.

What Minority Leader Boehner is trying to do is clear– he’s trying to carve out a position for the GOP for 2010 by opposing government spending. Forgetting how laughable that is after the last eight years of GOP largess, it is understandable– he’s in a failing and falling minority and his only “traditional” lifeline is to stake out a position diametrically opposed to the Democrats and appeal to his base. By doing this, however, Rep. Boehner ignores a few things. First, America is scared and looking for someone to do something to get the long process of fixing our economy under way and, rightly or wrongly, they are blaming the traditional GOP positions and personalities for creating the crisis. The way for the GOP to start picking up seats is, clearly, not retreating to those positions. Second, Mr. Boehner is courting the tag of being an obstructionist, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not. Either way, it is the absolute wrong tenor for him to be taking– people want an amalgam of Democratic & Republican positions to make up this bill but they’ll settle for a purely Democratic one. Boehner, if he wants to forestall another dramatic loss in 2010 (and another serious internal challenge to his leadership this Spring), needs to get some of his positions into bills like this by cooperating and showing that the GOP is capable of governing at all.

Right now, that capability is seriously in question.

Posted in American Politics, CongressCritters, Economy, Obama Positions | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Hyundai’s Latest Brilliant Move

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 5, 2009

hyundai_logoLet me say right up front that I own two Hyundais– an Azera sedan and an Entourage van– and I like the vehicles and the company. 

With that out of the way, Hyundai just launched what may be the smartest automotive marketing campaign I’ve seen. With American consumers paralyzed by economic terror, the Korean automaker has introduced a program called “Assurance” in which you may return your Hyundai and walk away from your loan within the first year if you lose your job. It’s brilliant– if you were holding off on buying a new car because you were afraid of your employer’s stability, why not go out and buy a high value-per-dollar vehicle that gets great reviews, has good safety features and an outstanding long term warranty now as there’s now no reason not to buy? If worse comes to worst you aren’t going to destroy your credit rating with a repo; you just bite the bullet, make a call and arrange a drop off time with no penalty.

Oh, and the tag line of the commercial? “For once a car company has your back. Isn’t that a nice change?” That’s gotta hurt.

Posted in Economy | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Power Springs From the Muzzle of a Hoe

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 5, 2009

An interesting read in the China Digital Times about Chinese farmers “emigrating” to Africa. China has a shortage of arable land chinese_farmer_silhouette1while Africa has a shortage of food, as the story goes.

One must wonder, however, if China, which has an excess of population, isn’t actually keeping their eye on Africa’s undeveloped land, technologically backwards regimes and militaries holding that land, and mineral wealth beneath that land. As African fertility and population rates tremendously decelerate even from the levels of thirty years ago and as AIDS continues to take its toll on the 14-40 male demographic that also comprises fighting aged men, China must sense an opportunity here. They understand that India and to a lesser extent Indonesia also see that opportunity.

China plays the long, deep game. Today’s “emigrant” farmers bring with them to Africa their Yuan, their technology, their way of life and their willingness to give Africa the pusher’s dram of those commodities; the African people, in the absence of any real ground-level diplomatic efforts from the US or EU, will become addicted to that which the Chinese can supply just as they became addicted to that which the British, French, and Belgians supplied in the 19th Century. China is pursuing the soft victory in the mid-term, which may well lead to the establishment of Chinese rule in nations that harbor these Chinese colonials in the long term.

Even George W. Bush realized that Africa will be the setting for this century’s Great Game, with America finally making some small efforts to improve our lot and standing amongst the Africans. Africa has the mineral wealth that the world so dearly craves, the water and land resources that so many nations are short of, and the effective power vacuum that makes them readily accessible to the nations that dare take them. America stands at a key decision point in Africa– do we continue to prop up failed regimes as we have so often to our strategic and humanistic detriment, or do we forge new relationships and give unstintingly of our medical, technological, commercial and mining resources not for the direct betterment of America’s bottom line but for the betterment of America’s long term standing in the world. We must emulate the Chinese by providing to and for Africa without raping their resources and populations so as to provide actual leadership.

Barack Obama faces a dilemma– it is always hardest to take care of “one’s own” when in high office. Mario Cuomo was a Queens politician who made it to the top rank of America’s governors, but during his tenure in Albany Queens got screwed on almost every count– Cuomo could not send home any bacon to Queens for fear of being shown up as self serving. There are elements of American society who would similarly pillory Obama for placing what they might see as undue interest in sub-Saharan Africa by virtue of his lineage for political gain. Hopefully we can avoid stumbling over so obvious a dodge.

Posted in Africa, China, Economy, Foreign Affairs | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Apparently These Weren’t Built in Detroit

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 3, 2009

meralogoWord from NASA that our two rovers on Mars, Spirit and Opportunity, are still functioning and doing good science at the approach of their fifth anniversaries on Mars.

My Ford Explorer didn’t make it five years in the city that funds NASA. Can we swing just a bit of bailout money, say a billion or three, to the folks who put together the ultimate r/c cars, shot them across the solar system to a frigid, dusty world, and managed to keep them running for five+ years with the nearest Jiffy Lube 120,000,000 miles away? Let them build the damned Chevy Volt, they may even get it right.

Of course, if Congress bitched about the Big Three CEOs showing up in Gulfstream jets, they may not take kindly to these guys popping over to the Hill on the Virgin Atlantic Spaceship 2

Posted in Detroit, Economy, NASA, Space | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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