Sunday, June 05, 2011

A Mule In Red Petticoats Is Still A Mule

And dressing it up in them in the first place is a BAD idea. Just as bad as the idea that PBS is now floating, according to a New York Times newspaper article I read in Friday's Omaha World-Herald, which also reported that the idea was broached last week to PBS member stations.

It's bad enough that (1) the "sponsor blocks" at the beginning and end of each program are looking ever more like broadcast TV ads [and indeed, some of them actually ARE those ads--Ed.]; (2) those "sponsor blocks" are taking up ever more time out of each hour's programming; (3) we have to endure pledge drives that used to run once a year, then twice, and now seemingly every other month. What's worse is that the smooth narrative flow of PBS programs would be hopelessly compromised, thus making PBS indistinguishable from any other network's programming.

Maybe this is an April Fool's Day joke by a procrastinator, though I doubt that. Maybe this is an idea the PBS executives are floating to scare member stations and members into giving more money as a result of the renewed vigor of the Republican Party's push to defund PBS. A more plausible notion, but rather more Machiavellian than I'd hope PBS executives are. Maybe we really ARE at the "end of days" and this is one more sign that the apocalypse is nigh. No . . . that's too paranoid, even for me. Most likely, however, it's the GOP's recognition that what cannot be done directly can be done indirectly. If the GOP cannot neuter PBS by defunding it, it can neuter PBS by making its programming indistinguishable from everyone else's, and further inure us to having microscopically short attention spans, to boot.

Whatever else it may be, however, it is definitely one thing: it's a BAD idea. So much so that, in a beautifully ironic twist, it ought to be the subject of a Geico automobile insurance commercial.

If PBS is going to make me watch sponsors' ads in the middle of PBS programming, I will stop watching and stop contributing to PBS. I'll just wait till PBS sells the programs to cable networks like the Discovery Channel, and watch them there. I can put up with pledge drives. I can put up with commercials. I will NOT put up with both during the same program.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Unbridled Greed

I remember hearing political commentator Lawrence O'Donnell say once that when he was in law school, he and his fellow students bemoaned the fact that all the great civil rights and other social justice issues had been litigated, laws had been passed, and all was now settled . . . to the point that Mr. O'Donnell and his fellow aspiring lawyers wouldn't have the opportunity to make history by helping make America a still "more perfect Union."

I confess to having had that same thought myself while I was in law school. Boy, were we all ever wrong. Despite that fact that there's no argument when only one side (the losing side) keeps yammering about it, law that was long considered settled is suddenly up for review again. [Texas Gov. Rick Perry is one of the worst offenders. He keeps beating the drums of secession, despite the fact that the outcome of the US Civil War made that a moot point. I have two questions for him: (1) if Texas does secede, how long does he seriously think it will last once the federal government pulls out all its resources, from the Johnson Space Center in Houston to all the military bases, to everything else the federal government has there? (2) Doesn't he realize that just because Texas cannot secede, it doesn't mean the rest of us cannot kick Texas out of the Union if we're fed up enough with Texas' behavior?-- But I'll stop beating that poor dead horse . . . for now.--Ed.]

The motivating factor for all this reopening of settled issues seems to be a combination of the need for lawyers (and their support staffs and the other people, goods, and services they use) to have something to do to make more money [which in itself is an expression of greed--Ed.] and the utter rapaciousness greed produces in some people. Alas for the rest of us, the most greedy are often the most powerful and already wealthy among us. Most of us will not benefit from these outbreaks of manifest greediness, but we surely will bear the burden of their consequences.

What has me riled up today is a divorce case in New York. [Please note: in New York, the state Supreme Court is the first appellate court, and the state Court of Appeals is the highest appellate court--you know, the one every other jurisdiction calls its Supreme Court. Do not ask me why New York jurisdictions are set up the way they are. I have no idea.--Ed.]

Bask in 2006, after 33 years of marriage, Steven Simkin and his then-wife, Laura Blank, divorced. Most of their considerable assets were split equitably, including the money they had invested with the infamous Bernie Madoff. Ms. Blank took her part in cash; Mr. Simkin, seeing ever more money to be made, kept his money with Madoff. We all know what happened within the next two years. Once Madoff admitted he was running a Ponzi scheme of epic proportions, Mr. Simkin decided his remedy was to recover what he lost not from Madoff, but from his ex-wife. He telephoned Ms. Blank and demanded a "do-over" of their divorce settlement. She refused. He thereupon sued to get what he wanted.

Most of the time, when a divorce settlement is made, it's done. This is because the law recognizes that certainty in the outcome of litigation has positive social value--it allows people to move on with their lives, instead of living in fear that what had been done and ruled acceptable by the trial judge could be yanked out from underneath the litigants at any time in the future. The law, however, also recognizes that occasional mistakes are mad--not just in divorce settlements, but in all areas of contract law. The law has allowed for this by allowing parties to raise the issue of "mutual mistake." A qualifying "mutual mistake" is one wherein all parties misunderstand something essential about the agreement they initially reached. As the New York Times article I read noted, the most famous example is when two parties agree that one will sell and the other will buy from the seller a Stradivarius violin, but the violin turns out to be NOT a Strad. In such as case, the contract of sale is rescinded; the seller gives back the money and the buyer gives back the violin.

No harm, no foul, in other words. Mr. Simkin is shoehorning this concept onto his divorce settlement, claiming that he and Ms. Blank were mutually mistaken about the nature of the investment with Madoff. The divorce called it "an account." In his filing, Mr. Simkin claims there was no account, only a massive Ponzi scheme. Now, Mr. Simkin is chairman of the real estate department with his firm. [His firm is one of not just New York's, but the nation's, most influential: Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.--Ed.] Ms. Blank is herself a labor lawyer for City University of New York. These are not unsophisticated, uneducated, ignorant people. They are not rubes who were duped by Bernie Madoff's bamboozling them with high-falutin' investment lingo they didn't understand . . . though he did dazzle Mr. Simkin, at least, by the obviously outsized returns he promised and for a long time seemed to deliver. What Mr. Simkin is doing in this case, however, amounts to a pile of linguistic legerdemain, sound and fury signifying nothing.

Mr. Simkin didn't have to leave his money with Madoff under the terms of the settlement. He could have taken his funds and moved them elsewhere, as Ms. Blank did with her part of the settlement. But Mr. Simkin did not. He saw the returns he thought he was getting, and decided he wanted to continue to cash in. That's greed, pure and simple. When Madoff's house of cards finally fell apart and Mr.Simkin realized he'd lost not just his expected returns, but also most of what he'd invested, and knowing as a practical matter that he'd never get even part of his initial investment back from Madoff, he sued his ex-wife. That's greed, unbridled. [You know, they teach the "deep pocket" doctrine in the first week or so of law school. That's the doctrine that says "don't sue the one who done you wrong--sue the one who can pay the most." I thought it was ugly then. I think it's ugly now. I apparently stand more alone in this conviction than I thought.--Ed.]

The trial court rightly threw out his case, but a sharply divided New York Supreme Court ruled 3-2 that the case could proceed. Count me with the appellate court's dissenters on this one. It doesn't matter whether it was "an account" or merely "a Ponzi scheme." Mr. Simkin had the same opportunity to get out that his ex took at the time of their divorce settlement. He just didn't want to, and now, more than two-and-a-half years later, he wants her to pay for his greed.

The New York Times says the legal community is "divided" about Mr. Simkin's legal argument. It cited a professor at George Washington University who claims that "mutual mistake" is a valid argument in this case. I say BULL PUCKEY. Not only is this a blatant attempt by Mr. Simkin to escape the consequences of his own greedy actions, if his claim is allowed, it will inundate an already overburdened court system with dubious appeals by everyone else who thinks he/she got shafted in his/her original divorce. Mr. Simkin's unbridled greed may have an effect on our court systems not unlike the effects much of the country has experienced by the Mississippi and Missouri River floods of this year. That is truly unbridled greed--he wants "his" money back so badly that he's willing to drown the entire court system to get it.

And if he gets his way, we will also be farther along the way than we are now to Stephen Colbert's "America Plus," where those with the real money will extract what little we have from the rest of us; to reap the benefits of being Americans without sharing any of the responsibilities of being Americans--which responsibilities they will dump onto the rest of us so that we can never even hope to catch up to their level of wealth, power, and influence. That is NOT what America was supposed to be. But it's what America is in danger of becoming. I'd be a lot less disturbed about this is the New York appellate court had agreed with the trial court and thrown Mr. Simkin's case out on its utter lack of merit. The fact that ANYONE is entertaining his legal "argument" seriously frightens the heck out of me. Doesn't anyone believe in John Kennedy's "ask not" anymore?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

An Immodest Proposal

(with apologies to Dean Swift.)

The power to tax may well be the power to destroy, but the power to tax unfairly is the power to do worse--it's the power to enslave. With the increasing concentration of the majority of the country's wealth into fewer and fewer hands (2% of the population of this country now holds over 50% of its total wealth, and is moving to amass ever more), America is being turned into a fundamentally unfair economic oligarchy, not the government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" which the Founders envisioned.

Yet we seem paralyzed to do anything about it. Republicans want to keep cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans, claiming that that's what will spur job creation and get the economy moving again, and that spending cuts will balance the budged. Democrats say that continuing to cut vital social programs will place the majority of the burden of government costs on the backs of those who can afford it the least, and that if we're going to cut spending, we must cut in areas like huge contracts to defense contractors, not areas like Head Start.

It is axiomatic that spending cuts alone will not balance the budget. The cuts the GOP wants merely nibble around the edges and are not big enough monetarily to dent the burgeoning interest obligations we have on the debt we've already incurred. Those cuts will, however, cause a great deal of misery for a great number of Americans, who are not looking for a handout, but for a hand, given that while income for the richest 2% of Americans has increased at least 20-fold in the past 15 years or so, income for the other 98% of us has remained stagnant (or even declined, in real terms, once inflation has been adjusted for) for the past 40 years.

Revenues must be considered. Revenues must be increased. But the current US tax code is a virtually impossible labyrinth of exemptions here and deductions there--in short, social engineering run amok. We seem to be at a stand-off. We've been at a stand-off for decades now, and positions are only hardening. People seem less and less willing to give a little to get a little. I include myself in that group, because, frankly, I do believe that "if you give a mouse a cookie, he'll want a glass of milk."

I honor the notion of compromise. I do believe it is the genius of our system and that it is what has made America work for as long as it has. But the problem with compromise is that everyone has to play with the same understanding. If you define "compromise" as "getting 100% of my own way," well, that's not compromise. And alas for us, President Obama has been "compromising" with a GOP which does define "compromise" as "my way or the highway." Yet even he has his limits, and he has shown rather more backbone of late. The GOP, of course, calls that partisanship. Face it: it is impossible to reason with anyone who thinks they should have things 100% of their own way and the rest of us can go hang.

Yet if we don't want the country to collapse into anarchy, we urgently need to move the discussion into productive channels instead of continuing to hash and rehash and re-rehash the same stale, non-productive rhetoric. Hence the following immodest proposal:

Median annual income in this country is now $35,000 per person. Under the new system I propose, that first $35,000 will be entirely exempt from taxes. Every penny above that will be subject to tax at the rate of 1% [or 1/2% even--whatever will increase net revenue without being so high as to be seen by any rational observer as objectionable. Look: we have to have some taxes, just as we have to have some government. Justice Holmes was right. Taxes ARE the price we pay for civilization--Ed.]. No exemptions. No deductions. No subsidies. No exceptions. Corporations would pay the same. They were so insistent on being treated as "people" for purposes of campaign financing, and a bare-bones majority of the US Supreme Court was so accommodating to them in its Citizens United decision, that they have no valid grounds on which to complain. Fifteen to 20 percent of all such revenues will be set aside to fund Social Security and Medicare and will be untouchable by anybody in government for any other reason.

The net result will ripple throughout the government. Without all the subsidy programs, the Dept. of Agriculture can shrink, thus greatly reducing its long-term operating costs. The Internal Revenue Service can shrink, too, as it will no longer need such an extensive enforcement arm as it now maintains. Even the Social Security Administration can reduce its size, as it will no longer need so many people to work in conjunction with the IRS to get and process its revenues in the first place. Individuals and corporations both would still have more than enough income to go about their daily "lives."

There is no downside to this proposal. The only reason for opposition would be greed, plain and simple. But it has the proverbial snowball's chance of getting enacted. For every exemption, deduction, subsidy, or perk in the present system [except for those few still remaining for real, individual people of modest means--Ed.], there's an army of lobbyists in Congress ready and rich enough to defend it to eternity. That's sad, and more than a bit frightening. Why are people so willing to be against their own government but totally pro-big corporate power? With government, at least in our system, you have recourse if you are done wrong. But with a corporation, if it does you wrong, you are essentially SOL . . . unless you have access to a governmental entity with enough teeth to protect you. I surmise that greed rules here, too. Everyone seems to think he's going to become the owner bee and not be a worker bee. Ain't gonna happen, folks. The 2% of the people in this country who hold more than 50% of the total wealth of this country will make sure of that--but they'll dangle the hope of its happening in front of you until you are mesmerized by it and stop paying attention to what they're really up to, which is amassing ever more money and power unto themselves and taking it all away from you.

I am inspired to this day by John F. Kennedy's call to "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." THAT is what America is, and should be, about. And by my "country," I mean my fellow citizens. And if that means "Social Security," great! I'm all for helping the vast majority of us, the 98% of us who wield increasing less power and influence as real money is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. I'm not alone, either. Tom Toles had an editorial cartoon in Friday's Washington Post wherein a 6-lane interstate, under a highway sign saying "what you can do for your country" was totally devoid of cars--while a two-lane exit ramp, labelled "ask not," was jammed to a standstill with cars overfilling both lanes. I'm not the only one who "gets it," as it were. But we seem to be in an infinitesimal minority. Nonetheless, we have to keep trying. For unless we can change the terms of the debate and start offering new solutions, workable solutions--unless everyone is willing, for the sake of the country, to give a little--we are too soon going to be pledging allegiance to the Corporate States of America. And that will mean the end of the American Dream.

Never Teach A Pig To Sing. It Wastes Your Time And Annoys The Pig.

-----Mark Twain

I have been reminded repeatedly of Mr. Twain's great wisdom of late. I've been perusing the posts of a group of people who have banded together on Facebook, allegedly to study the Federalist Papers and other writings by the Founding Fathers. I say "allegedly" because after reading these posts for several months, I have no choice but to come to the conclusion that their real purpose is to cherry-pick quotes, take them out of context (or otherwise misinterpret them), and to bludgeon them into unrecognizable form so that they can justify their own prejudices instead of really learning anything about America's history.

Example the first. While I do not have the exact quote in front of me, one posting from Alexander Hamilton unequivocally stated that the system will work only when everyone realizes that if they are willing to give up a little in some areas, they can get a lot in others. In other words, that compromise is the heart and soul of the system. Yet people posting to this Facebook site deny that that's what Hamilton meant, because for them, "compromise" is a dirty word. This, even though they could not explain to me what Hamilton's words meant if they did not mean that the system was set up to function when everyone involved worked to compromise, or find solutions everyone could live with, even though those solutions may not give anyone 100% of what he wants. They insisted on their "interpretation" in utter contradiction to Hamilton's words, which were plain on their face. And then they denied that that's what they were doing. But they never could or did offer any explanations for their stand--and that's a textbook illustration of prejudice.

Example he second. While they claim that the Founders didn't believe in compromise, they have no explanation for the existence, let alone the significance, of things such as the 3/5ths Clause in the Constitution. That's the clause that agrees, for purposes of determining how many Representatives each state could send to Congress, to count each slave as 3/5 of a person--for purposes of representation only. Southern states wanted to count slaves as entire persons, again for purposes of representation only, which would give them disproportionate representation (and thus power) in Congress; non-slave-holding states didn't want slaves to be counted at all, for purposes of representation or otherwise. The 3/5ths Clause was [oh, horrors!--Ed.] A COMPROMISE. Since the document itself got adopted only after including compromises such as this, it is impossible for the Founders to have been against compromise per se. To claim anything else is to deny fact.

Example the third. The most frequent posters to this Facebook page are all quite fond of quoting Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall's admonition that "the power to tax is the power to destroy." They tend to use it to justify not taxing them, at all, for anything. Ever. Marshall may have been correct, but taking that quote by itself is to take it out of context and also to refuse to recognize that while it may be true as a generality, it does not and cannot justify their unwillingness to pay any taxes. If the Founders did not want taxes at all, they'd not have given Congress the power to tax in the first place. Taxes are necessary. Indeed, as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes noted about a hundred years after Marshall's dictum, "Taxes are the price we pay for civilization."

The people who ignore this are also fond of saying the federal government must be small, limited, and weak, and that that was the Founders' intent. They are forgetting or ignoring the Founders' collective experience under the Articles of Confederation, which was the Founders' first attempt at setting up America's national government. The Founders quickly realized that that government was too weak. It didn't succeed. Thus the impetus for creating the Constitution in the first place. Those same people also do not recognize that the same weaknesses, present in the Confederacy's Constitution, contributed mightily to the Confederacy's having lost the Civil War. Jefferson Davis's government could not compel the individual Confederate states to contribute specific funds to defray the costs of the war, to finance its own operations--in other words, to exist and to be able to defend its existence. Hence, Union victory; hence, "the Second American Revolution," designed to implement what the Founders wanted in the first place but which took a Civil War wherein over 600,000 Americans were killed, to realize.

Also note that the Founders stated the goal of creating a "more perfect Union," which phrase suggests two things: (1) perfection had not been obtained yet; (2) maybe 100% perfection would not be obtainable, but the point was, and is, to keep moving toward that "more perfect" Union. The operative idea being "movement." The Founders plainly did not want some static, stultified, one-size-fits-all-forever structure for the federal government. If they had, they'd never have said "more perfect." They'd have said "perfect." If they had, they'd never have created the process by which the Constitution can be amended. Yet the Constitution may be, and often has been, amended. The notion of "original intent" is important, but it does not slam the door against change, for the provisions for amendment, plus the compromises that were enshrined in the original document (such as the 3/5ths Clause), plus the Founders' behavior in tossing the Articles of Confederation once that document proved ineffectual, all add up to the total that life is what happens, that history changes things, and that the Founders were wise enough to build flexibility into the system so that we could cope several hundred years later.

Further, most of the people who claim they want to "restore" the federal government to what the Founders "intended" are not thinking through the consequences of doing that (allowing, hypothetically, that that presumption were correct, which we've already seen is not), which would be largely to destroy America's primacy and security in the world. It would turn the United States into the Balkans. Yet the people who insist that they want to "restore" America are always claiming America is the best, most powerful, most prosperous, most freedom-embracing place on Earth -- "rah-rah, we're Number One!" They always want America to be first in everything they think is good, but they won't recognize the fact that infant mortality rates in this nation are disgraceful, that high school graduation rates in this country are abysmal, that we are falling behind in the creation of new technology and in the education of our future generations . . . I could go on and on, but in short, that we are increasingly ill-prepared to meet the challenges of the future and thus are at grave risk of losing our presently privileged place on this planet. If they get their way, America will become the ultimate example of The Law of Unintended Consequences, because none of them seem to be able to see what the end result of what they say they want actually will be. [A perfect illustration of my contention that we have to stop trying to teach our children WHAT to think and that we must start teaching them HOW to think, but that topic deserves full exploration in its own post.--Ed.]

The saddest thing of all is that the people who advocate these positions do not seem to realize that if they get their way, they're still going to pay. It may be paying into a different pot, and it may even be more than they are paying now. But they'll be paying, because one way or another, the services their taxes now support will still be in demand, will still be needed for the country to function. Consider this: President Reagan's budget "cuts" were not so much cuts as they were redirecting whence the tax money would come. Infrastructure maintenance comes immediately to mind. The federal government used to provide assistance to the states to maintain our roads, bridges, and other transportation channels. Once Reagan's budget eliminated that assistance, the needs didn't magically go away. Their burden shifted to the states, which varied widely in their ability to take on that burden unassisted. The long-term result? Our bridges and roads are now falling apart, and we're going to have to pay far more to fix them than we would have had we just kept maintaining them with small but regular infusions of federal assistance in the first place. Yet instead of recognizing this and implementing a simple, straightforward plan to do that fixing, we're all pointing fingers and laying blame . . . and the repairs and upgrades we desperately need are not getting done. Maybe the Second Law of Thermodynamics really does apply to human behavior and governmental systems as much as it does to gaseous bodies [you may thank me for that straight line as soon as you use it to make some editorial comment about the Congress.--Ed.]

Unfortunately, recognizing all this does not solve the larger problem. If you consider what many Tea Partiers say about ending government hand-outs to Wall St. banks and protecting Medicare, you'd think those people would be making common cause with Democrats, not Republicans. But the GOP has managed to tie conservatism on social issues so tightly to its financial agenda that there's a knee-jerk reaction in the Tea Party: Democrats = liberalism, liberalism = bad. They are so locked into this way of thinking that they do not see the real facts, which contradict such presumptions. And as long as we're locked into that filtration of facts, we are living in a world much more like George Orwell's 1984 than in the America the Founding Fathers envisioned.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Say It Ain't So, Jo--er, Bob Costas!

Bob Costas, whom I usually admire greatly and without reservation, is flat-out wrong in his stance on the issue of Barry Bonds going into baseball's Hall of Fame despite Bonds' being convicted earlier this week of obstruction of justice in connection with the Balco steroids scandal.

Costas says neither Bonds nor Roger Clemens will get his vote on the first ballot on which they appear, but they will on later ballots because both had established a body of work that is HOF-worthy before they clearly started "juicing" [as the somewhat unfortunate description goes--Ed.].

He then goes on to distinguish that status from players like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmiero, and others whose careers were not particularly distinguished until, as the dramatic improvement in their baseball performance suggests, they started using steroids. Costas has wrongly excluded McGwire from his own nuanced HOF criteria. Mark McGwire set the rookie record for home runs, 49, if memory serves, well before he ever began using androstenedione, and he never kept that use a secret, either. It wasn't illegal or against the rules at the time, and he said it helped him heal faster, not hit the ball farther.

Even if McGwire's defense is not 100% accurate [as Costas has also noted, healing faster means more time playing than otherwise, which is an indirect performance enhancement, at least in terms of career stats--Ed.], however, there is a valid point buried within it, to wit: steroids absolutely cannot make you hit a ball better than you could before. You still have to have the hand-eye coordination to make the fat part of the bat get enough of the ball at the proper angle to propel it on an upward (but not too far or even straight up) trajectory. Otherwise, no matter how strong you are, you're never going to hit the ball over the fences.

This is a bit tangential to my ultimate point, however. Costas is wrong about its being OK to vote Bonds and Clemens in on subsequent ballots because of their well-demonstrated actions. In the interview I saw on MLBTV, Costas pooh-poohed the "morality" aspect of the Hall of Fame, saying that was an indistinct and undefinable standard which can be ignored as easily as it can be enforced. So what? It exists. It's what has kept "Shoeless" Joe Jackson out of the HOF for more than half a century now, and what Jackson did--or didn't do--pales in comparison to the behavior of Bonds and Clemens both. All that Jackson did was keep his mouth shut about the impending Black Sox scandal, and he did that because it was the first time in all the years he'd played for the Sox that anyone else on the team had treated him as if he belonged. His stats from the 1919 World Series prove he didn't do anything to help throw it. Heck, if the White Sox had won, he might well have been the MVP if they'd had such a category then.

But Bonds has now been convicted of obstruction of justice. Even though that's a classic "white collar" crime, and first offenders normally get probation, it's still a criminal conviction. And it's not just a question of keeping one's mouth shut. Bonds has been convicted of actively impeding investigators and interfering with their ability to get to the truth of what they were investigating. This is not something to be taken lightly or to be pooh-poohed, even though it is not murder. It bespeaks of a fundamental lack of character on the order of Pete Rose's betting on baseball while he was a player and manager. It, too, brings disrepute to the game and sullies its unique standing as America's pastime. Hey--that isn't to be taken lightly--it's the legal justification for giving baseball an exemption from most anti-trust laws in this country.

Granted, Clemens hasn't been convicted of anything yet, but the corroborated descriptions of his adventures in moral turpitude are well-established. Not to mention his arrogance and his belligerent behavior when testifying before Congress in connection with this whole steroids mess. He will eventually be convicted of lying to Congress, once the charges are brought. There is not a shred of doubt that he did lie to the Congressional panel which called for his testimony. Joe Jackson's worst sins against baseball pale in comparison.

So, Mr. Costas, if you're going to vote to enshrine Bonds and Clemens in the Hall of Fame, do me one favor. Make sure Joe Jackson gets voted in first. Given that he has the third-highest all-time career batting average (.346, if memory serves), and given that his outfield play was described as so excellent that his glove was where triples went to die, he deserves to be in Cooperstown. [I will also concede that Mark McGwire was never so outstanding a defensive player, so if anything keeps him out of Cooperstown, it ought to be that lack of being the so-called "5-tool player," not his use of androstenedione--Ed.]

Do keep Pete Rose out, however. After he finally admitted the truth about his betting habits, after vociferously denying it for at least a decade, he simply doesn't deserve it, no matter how marvelously he played the game. Actually, since what Bonds and Clemens did also largely comes down to lying, too, maybe you should rethink your intention "someday, eventually" to vote them into the Hall of Fame.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Erin go Bragh

Everyone who knows me knows that St. Patrick's Day is MY holiday--in a traditional, cultural sense. [Green beer is an abomination.--Ed.] It's a time to share great music, traditional and contemporary, good "craic" (sparkling, witty conversation), and great food.

In the interests of spreading the gospel of traditional Irish cooking, and by popular demand, I am going in a different direction today from my usual diatribes. I'm posting some of my favorite Irish recipes, which I've been using for over 30 years now in connection with my St. Patrick's Day celebrations. [I can't believe it's been that long.--Ed.] Enjoy!

Corned Beef and Cabbage

1 corned beef brisket including the pickling spices which come in the package
2 to 3 each carrots, celery stalks, and onions
1 head cabbage, cored and quartered
freshly ground black pepper to taste

Lay the brisket in the bottom of a crock pot or slow cooker. Sprinkle the pickling spices over it. Cut the carrots and celery stalks into manageable pieces (about 3" long each) and strew over the brisket. Halve the onions and stud each cut side with cloves. Add to the pot. Cover with water and cook on high until the water begins to boil. Turn the heat down to low, skim any fat or other unpleasant substances rising to the surface. Cook on low, covered, for hours and hours. The longer, the better. You cannot overdo it. Add water as needed to keep the brisket covered; continue to skim the surface if necessary.

30 minutes before serving, remove the brisket from the water and cover to keep warm (and let the juices settle back into the meat). Turn the temperature back to high and add the cabbage to the water. Boil for approximately 20 minutes or until the cabbage leaves are coming apart from each other and are just tender (if it were pasta, it would be al dente). Discard the carrots, celery stalks, and onions (they're much too salty at this point to be good for anything.) Pick the prettiest, most green leaves and drain them, then arrange them on a serving platter and liberally coat with fresh-ground black pepper. Slice the brisket and arrange the pieces atop the cabbage. Garnish with fresh parsley if you like. Eat until you explode. Note: the leftover beef makes great Reubens when served on light rye bread with stone-ground mustard.

Traditional Irish Stew

I serve this dish for Easter, but some folks like lamb for St. Patrick's Day, so here's a classic:

2-3 lb. leg of lamb, bone removed
2 white onions, thinly sliced.
2 medium to large baking potatoes, thinly sliced
6 new potatoes (red-skinned), scrubbed clean but left whole
1 tsp. thyme, divided
freshly ground black pepper

Another crock pot/slow cooker classic, though this can be made on the stove top in a heavy pot (preferably cast iron).

Put a layer of thinly sliced potatoes in the bottom of the pot. Add a layer of the sliced onions atop the potatoes. Add half the lamb, cut into bite-sized chunks, in as evenly distributed a layer as possible. Sprinkle half the thyme over this, then add liberal quantities of freshly ground black pepper. Repeat. End with one more layer of sliced potatoes, then add more black pepper, then arrange the whole potatoes on top. Pour in about 1 cup of water. Cover, tightly (I use aluminum foil and then the pot's lid), and cook at a medium temperature for at least 2 hours. The thinly sliced potatoes on the bottom should essentially disintegrate and become, with the water, a light sauce for the lamb. Use an immersion blender or a whisk to assist the process (after removing the other contents of the pot when preparing to serve), if needed.

Serve a ladle or two of the stew and one whole potato per person.

Note: NO CARROTS I have it on excellent authority that carrots are to be served as a side with the stew, not part of it. Here are two veggie sides which I use both for St. Patrick's Day and Easter feasting.

Glazed Carrots

3-4 fresh carrots, scrubbed but not peeled
1 TBSP sugar
2 TBSP butter
freshly ground black pepper to taste
fresh parsley, chopped

Cut the carrots into 3" lengths, then quarter the lengths, like a julienne or matchstick, but bigger. For large carrots, the pieces may have to be cut into 8ths to get the right size. In any event, make your pieces as uniformly sized as possible. Place in boiling water for 10 minutes or until just tender. Drain the water. Add the sugar and the butter, put a lid on the pot and shake until the butter melts and the carrots are coated with butter and sugar. Add black pepper and parsley just before serving.

I have never yet tried it, but it occurs to me that you can steam the carrots instead of boiling them, if you prefer.

Garden-Fresh Peas

To make a bag of frozen peas taste as if it just came out of the garden, put the contents of a whole bag into a 1.5 qt. pot. Add 3 TBSP butter; cover. Put the pot over the lowest possible heat, keeping covered, and shake the pot periodically until the butter is melted and evenly coats the peas, which should themselves be just warmed through at this point. Just before serving, add 1 TBSP sugar, 1/2 tsp salt, and liberal amounts of freshly ground black pepper; shake again, and serve. Garnish with more freshly chopped parsley if you have any left.

Here's a potato dish for St. Patrick's Day (obviously not needed with the lamb stew, though some of us--who cannot get enough starchy carbs--cook it for Easter, too, anyway.)

Boiled New Potatoes

1-2 lb. red-skinned new potatoes, bigger than a golf ball, but not so big as your fist (or a baseball)
Freshly chopped chives
Freshly ground black pepper

Scrub the potatoes and peel a ring around the center of each one (this is purely for cosmetic reasons--the white showing amongst the red looks lovely upon presentation). Boil in LIGHTLY salted water until just tender. Drain and return to the pot. Cover the pot with a cloth dishtowel and set back on the burner, with the heat turned off. Let the potatoes dry out under this cover for at least 10 minutes. Add the chives, black pepper, and butter; stir gently until the butter is melted and the potatoes are lightly coated. Add additional chives just before serving.


4 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
1 stick butter
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 eggs, plus enough milk to make 1 cup total liquid

If you have a pastry blender, this is a lot easier--so if you don't have one, go get one! Cut the butter into the flour until you get an even mix of pea-sized flour-coated butter pieces distributed throughout the mix. Add the salt, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and stir. Lightly beat the eggs, add the milk, and then pour this liquid over the dry ingredients. Knead with your hands until the dough coheres and sticks to itself and not to your hands. [Yes, it is messy--but fun!--Ed.]

Roll the dough out to a thickness of approximately one inch. Cut into pleasing shapes, approximately 1.5-2" diameter. I have a shamrock cookie cutter which I use.

Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake at 325°F until lightly golden brown, approximately 20 minutes. You may want to check for doneness starting at the 15-minute mark. The ovens I've used over the decades have varied wildly and widely. The scones can go from being just right to being overdone in a flash, so taking extra care is worth it here.

Serve warm with butter, Damson Plum jam, lemon curd, and/or clotted cream.

Irish Coffee

This doesn't work well if you don't have real Irish Coffee glasses, so I strongly urge you to get some. Anything from inexpensive glass to the finest Waterford crystal works well--it's the shape and size of the glass that matters.

Brew a pot of coffee. I use fresh-ground Irish-creme-flavored decaf, myself. Put 1.5 tsp sugar in the bottom of each glass. Pour in coffee until there's about 3/4" distance from the liquid to the top of the glass. Add 1 jigger Irish Whiskey (I use Jameson's). Stir once, to make sure the sugar is melted. Top with freshly whipped cream, and if you have them, green and orange sugar sprinkles. Sip the coffee through the cream. Slainte!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Egypt and the Lessons of History

The resignation on Friday of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarek confirms at least three of the great lessons of history--and human behavior. Lesson the first: the forces of reaction are often at their most virulent and loudest insistence immediately before they collapse in the face of true popular sentiment. Less than a day before Mubarek officially resigned, he said he wasn't going to go--at least, not before the scheduled elections in September.

This leads directly to point the second: people in the know should keep their mouths shut. CIA Director Leon Panetta told a Congressional committee on Thursday that Mubarek would be leaving on Thursday night. In his speech Thursday night, as has been noted, Mubarek said he was not going. I suspect Mubarek's original plan was to announce his resignation on Thursday night, but once the word got out about Panetta's testimony, Mubarek decided he did not want to leave with even a whiff of a hint that he was going at the behest of the United States. I'm willing to bet (and I do not gamble) that Mubarek would confirm, if asked, that if Panetta had kept his mouth shut, Mubarek would in fact have announced his resignation on Thursday night, instead of denying it Thursday and waiting until Friday to make it. The man held a lot of power for a long time; he has his pride. I do not have to agree with him or with his policies to understand why he'd not want to be seen as jumping instantly on the heels of some American governmental official saying "jump."

Point the third: supporting dictators who are friendly to American foreign policy objectives, just because they are friendly to American foreign policy objectives, is NOT a wise idea. That the "Egyptian Revolution" has so far been mostly peaceful is more a matter of luck than design, for we weren't so much supportive of Mubarek as we were of Egypt's peaceful coexistence with Israel. We've been giving Egypt a lot of foreign and military aid and training (as has much of western Europe) in exchange for Egypt's maintaining the peace treaty with Israel--which came in under Anwar Sadat. Mubarek, of course, took power upon Sadat's assassination, and it's lucky for us that he saw the wisdom in Sadat's having signed the peace treaty in the first place.

To say that this change in Egypt is bad for America is to make many unwarranted assumptions, and even to fly in the face of America's long-term and oft-stated foreign policy goal of making real representative democracy the world-wide norm for governments. One of the things the radical right never seems to grasp is that genuine representative democracy is not ONLY for "people who think like we do and who agree with us." The radical right usually expresses itself on this score by telling capital-D Democrats to "love it or leave it" (or whatever the 21st century equivalent of that sentiment is). What the radial right doesn't seem to understand is that true representative democracy is risky--because it means that there's a real chance that people who DON'T think "just like us" can come to power. The beauty of real, American-style representative democracy is that EVERYBODY involved, even those who don't "think just like us" agrees that the system works, and that even when out of power, those who don't "think like us" still participate, that elections are held regularly, and that transitions of power are peaceful . . . and that the pendulum will swing in both directions as long as we all agree that the system works and that we ALL have a vital interest in maintaining the system. After all, "We the People" ARE the government in this system, and if a genuine majority says it wants something, it should have it.

I wish Egypt well. Recent events there and in Tunisia may mark the beginning of something wonderful for the entire world.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Welcome to the Corporate States of America

The Los Angeles school district, one of the largest and (overall) most cash-strapped in the country, has approved a proposal to allow corporate names to be posted on school buildings, school district vehicles, and other places, possibly including sports fields. Nothing is to be allowed in classrooms, and companies are to be thoroughly vetted so that no age-inappropriate or other unseemly (e.g., alcohol and junk food manufacturers) companies will be approved for participation. The school district spokesperson said that this still would not end the district's financial woes, but it would make it possible to "avoid further cut-backs in services and programs." Nor is Los Angeles alone in this; Milwaukee's school district started a similar program in 2009.

I'm not the only one who sees what's wrong with this picture. At least one of the parents of a Los Angeles school district fourth-grader noted on NPR's "Morning Edition" today that "there's no such thing as free." There will be a quid pro quo.

What is wrong with Americans? We apparently have become so indoctrinated by corporate and right-wing double-talk that we think it's safer to have businesses, each of which has its own agenda, run our school systems than it is to make sure the government has the funds to do what it needs to fulfill one of its most basic missions, to provide high-quality, free, public education to our youth. The right-wing has succeeded in making "taxes" such a dirty word that we have forgotten Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's profound observation that "[t]axes are the price we pay for civilization."

Yes, government can take our money and spend it in ways we do not like--but WE are the government in this country. We have the power to change what we do not like. Besides, government in this country has systems in place to appeal abuses of the system. If a corporation treats you unfairly and there is no law [read that "government"--Ed.] which provides you access to redress, you are SOL.

I absolutely do NOT understand how so many Americans can mistrust their own government so much that they prefer to turn control over much of their lives to businesses whose sole purpose for existing is to maximize their own bottom line--even if that be at the expense of the rest of us.

But at the rate we are abdicating our duty to each other to make sure we have the best government on Earth, it won't be long before our kids begin each school day pledging their allegiance to "The Corporate States of America."