Dancing on the Edge

Sunday, July 24, 2011

If you stumble and just barely avert falling over the precipice, ought you thereafter assume it's okay to dance upon the spot? Yet that exactly what leaders are doing right now with the world's economic system.

The precipice was just two and a half years ago. Lest anyone think I exaggerate, here's the cover of the Economist that week*:

2011 7 24 world on the edge 
 

 
*not to be confused with 'What the the #@%! is Next'

The fear at the edge was palpable. Did George Bush really fret aloud that “this sucker may go down!”? Panicked into doing something....anything...fast, Congress passed legislation infusing massive cash transfers into critical financial institutions, “bailing them out.” Essentially, the government printed more money, to the tune of $17,000 per American, (cumulative amount of all bailouts) using new public debt, the “promise to pay,” as the asset backing it. And after some breathless days.....ah....safety at last! It seemed to work, after a fashion.

But two and a half years later, the edge is back! Another related crisis, with consequences just as dire if its bungled. Come August 2nd, the United States....the world's largest borrower....will default on its debts unless Congress authorizes a higher borrowing limit. They've done this scores of times in the past, but this time they're stuck. How to do it? Cut spending (a lot), increase taxes (a lot), or kick the can down the road to deal with later? Always, the 3rd option has won out, but maybe not this time.

At present, 41 cents of every dollar spent is borrowed money, and credit rating agencies say they'll downgrade the U.S. credit rating in the absence of more financial discipline. They can't be bombed into submission, so it's a mixture of options 1 and 2, and nobody can agree on just what that mixture should be. So Congress and the President have been squabbling and stonewalling down to the present....dancing upon the edge...terms like 'financial Armeggedon' are bandied about in the event they do not succeed. Even to come near the date without an agreement is said to freak out the markets, which have always assumed that somehow these characters will get their act together.

But Friday (July 22nd) there was 'meltdown' in the negotiations and PBS commentators Mark Shields and David Brooks, never at a loss for words about anything, were dumbfounded:

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, what you have just seen is the rupture of the summit.....  And the time is now short. I mean, the grand deal appears to be in shambles. And now the urgency is to raise the debt-ceiling and get it done.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, shambles, a complete meltdown, apparently. I have never seen a presidential press conference with a president so angry in public.....if those [terms of a proposed agreement] are real, then I think it was a pretty good deal. But the president's tone of being the only adult in Washington, everyone else is a child, that he's going to summon people to the White House as if they are kindergartners, well, even if you agree with them on the substance, it's kind of hard to go along with someone who is insulting you all the time.

MARK SHIELDS:
.....And now we're down to the point of, you know, look, we're staring right down the barrel of Aug. 2.

…..JIM LEHRER: Is it conceivable that they will not make a deal, or they will make it in such a way that the government of the United States of America will actually go into default?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I had been going in thinking there was a 10 or 20 percent chance of that. Now I would move that up to 30 or so.......

MARK SHIELDS: I still -- I'm just -- my native optimism just insists that these -- in the final analysis, they're not partisans, they're grownups, they're Americans, and they know how far how grave the consequences are.

JIM LEHRER: But then why are they acting the way they're acting?

MARK SHIELDS: It's -- it -- Jim, it's a question that I don't have the answer for.

 (Greatly abbreviated. Click above for the full transcript)

 

Of course, the public seethes over this and threatens to vote everyone out come next election. But surely that's a tired response. For people haven't been betrayed by their leaders....who are only doing just what one would expect them to do given the dramatically opposed constituencies they represent. This is the classic “iron mixed with clay” of Daniel 2:42-43. They're honorable people, for the most part, doing their best. Looking out for themselves at the same time, no doubt, but who doesn't? Rather, people have been betrayed by an idea....namely, that human rule, in this case government “by the people,”....works, and can solve our ever-deepening woes.

Oh yeah, Tom Sheepandgoats, oh yeah!? Well, if you don't think 'government by the people' works, tell me of some government you like better. Exactly.......I can't. They all have strengths. They all have weaknesses. And in each case, the former is outweighed by the latter. It simply goes to show that human rule itself is the problem, and that “we need the Kingdom”.... that heavenly Kingdom which the Bible speaks of and which Jehovah's Witnesses publicize.

But human self-rule is an article of faith unrivaled among notions today. Nobody likes to throw dirt at it. So instead they throw dirt at the persons involved, thinking they are the problem, and not the system itself. Yet the Congressmen themselves feel betrayed. They give their all to a system, believing as strongly as any religionist that that system will deliver, only to retire disillusioned, though always replaced by someone new who hasn't yet learned the lesson. Said Senator John Danforth, back in 1981: "I have never seen more Senators express discontent with their jobs....I think the major cause is that, deep down in our hearts, we have been accomplices in doing something terrible and unforgivable to our wonderful country. Deep down in our heart, we know that we have given our children a legacy of bankruptcy. We have defrauded our country to get ourselves elected."

 

Partly accounting for government truculence on economic matters is that past solutions have not proven effective. Accordingly, Senator Ron Paul grilled Fed Chief Ben Bernanke on the $17K per American ($5.1 trillion total) given to bail out the banks. Since there's been no discernible economic benefit, he mused, the Fed could have simply given each and every American $17,000.

Consumer spending would have increased, surely. And consumers could catch up on their loans, or even pay them off, so the bank would hardly suffer. And some might pool their allotments together, forming new enterprises and creating new jobs. Instead, the banks were given the $5.1 trillion directly, for their liquidity, while still holding ordinary persons on the hook for the full amount of whatever they might owe.

But Paul rushed his questions and cut off Bernanke's answers. Why? Senate sub-committee rules: he's only allotted 5 minutes! Right! And if it was the end of the world he was speaking about, he'd only have two minutes! But if it was the brand of coffee to be served during breaks, for that maybe he'd have 60 minutes or more. Shades of Parkinson's Law, if ever there existed any.


I tell you, this is absolutely amazing. And it comes right down to the wire. Perhaps the 30% chance of disaster will not occur just now, and will be postponed a bit. But the answer, God's Kingdom, is being steadily proclaimed unitedly the world over. And yet, because it's proclaimed by humble, ordinary people, it's largely ignored. After all, how many Jehovah's Witnesses have gone to Harvard? How many of them are wealthy and influential?

“For the speech about the torture stake [cross] is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is God’s power. For it is written: “I will make the wisdom of the wise [men] perish, and the intelligence of the intellectual [men] I will shove aside.” Where is the wise man? Where the scribe? Where the debater of this system of things? Did not God make the wisdom of the world foolish? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not get to know God, God saw good through the foolishness of what is preached to save those believing.”    Rom 1:18-21

You know, the wisdom of the world does look foolish these days. More foolish all the time. And more disheartening for those who trust in it.

 

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)

Cake, Fruit, and the Limits of Reason

It was irksome when those atheists put up their "Let Reason Prevail" billboard right next to that Illinois State Capitol Nativity Scene - that much was immediately apparent. But putting my finger on just why it was irksome required more effort. Of course, I immediately shouldered the task. Was it the presumption, by the sign's authors, that they held a monopoly on "reason?" Partly. Was it the crassness of plunking it next to the Nativity Scene, as though it, too, offered a message of hope? Closer. In fact, I prematurely declared, that was IT!

However, you don't necessarily express your innermost fears on the internet, to be pawed over by all and sundry.  In truth I was anything but convinced that my answer was IT. Something was still missing. I've tossed and turned each night since. 

Until now. For now I see clearly what was lacking: scientific indication! We all know today that one ought not think anything without first checking with scientists, yet I had done exactly that! Well....no more! Diligently consulting tomes of research, I came across an experiment that blew that silly "Let Reason Prevail" slogan sky-high. Reason cannot prevail among humans. We're not capable of it. We can muster a fair effort when distractions are few. But add in any significant stress, and human reasoning ability goes right to hell. It's hard to come to any other conclusion after pondering the cake-fruit experiment of a few years back. Alas, it's received only the publicity of light fluff news. It deserves more, as it holds unsettling implications for any future based on the veneration of reason.

The cake-fruit experiment unfolded thus: (as discussed on NPR Morning Edition) In 1999, Stanford University professor Baba Shiv enrolled a few dozen undergraduates and gave each a number to memorize. Then, one at a time, they were to leave the room and walk down a corridor to another room, where someone would be waiting to take their number. That's what they were told, anyhow.

On the way down, however, participants were approached by a friendly woman carrying a tray. 'To show our thanks for taking part in our study,' she said, 'we'd like to offer you a snack. You have a choice of two. A nice piece of chocolate cake. Or a delicious fruit salad. Which would you like?'

Now, unbeknownst to each participant, some had been given two-digit numbers to memorize, and some had been given seven-digit numbers. When Shiv tallied up the choices made (for that was the object of the experiment) he found that those students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as those given two digits! Two digits - you choose fruit. Seven digits - you choose cake. What could possibly account for that?

The reason, Shiv theorized, is that once you weed out the occasional oddball, we all like cake more than fruit. It tastes better. But we also all know that fruit is better for us, for cake makes us fat and promotes tooth decay. This is a rational assessment that almost all of us would make. But if our minds are taxed with trying to retain 7 digits instead of a no-brainer 2, rationality goes right out the window, and the emotional "yummy, cake!" wins out! 'The astounding thing here,' said the Wall Street Journal's Jonah Lehrer, reviewing the experiment, 'is not simply that sometimes emotion wins over reason. Its how easily it wins.'

Now, this experiment was not taken very seriously by anyone. When the media covered it at all, they treated it as fluff - a transitional piece going in to or out of more serious news. "Oh, so that's why I pig out after a hard day at work here," giggling HappyNews people would tell each other on TV. But plainly, the experiment holds deeper significance. Aren't world leaders also susceptible to emotion trumping rationality? Daily they grapple to solve the woes afflicting us all. Meanwhile, opponents seek to undermine them and media outlets try dig up dirt on them. If it takes only five extra digits for emotion to overpower reason, do you really think there is the slightest chance that "reason will prevail" among the world's policymakers, immersed in matters much more vexing (and urgent) than choosing between cake and fruit? Has it up till now?

THAT'S what's so irksome about the "Let Reason Prevail." slogan. Reason cannot prevail among imperfect humans! It can occur, but it cannot prevail. Humans are not capable of it.  Five digits is all it takes for our rational facade to crumble!

Now, if there is one thing Jehovah's Witnesses are known for, it's their insistence that humans do not have the ability to govern themselves. Everyone else (among Christendom) accepts the present setup of squabbling nations as a given and prays for God to somehow bless the leaders running it - usually with the proviso that whatever country they're in emerge on top (or at least intact). Doesn't matter too much, though, since said religionists are all heavenbound! Just passing through, you understand. So while one might not like staying in a crummy hotel, you can at least console yourself that it's only for a night or two.

Not so Jehovah's Witnesses. Earth is where God meant us to be, so that is where we focus. Like the psalm says: (115:16) "As regards the heavens, to Jehovah the heavens belong, but the earth he has given to the sons of men."  And our view that humans are incapable of governing the earth is no more than acknowledging the words of Jeremiah:  "I well know, O Jehovah, that to earthling man his way does not belong. It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step." (Jer 10:23) And: "The wise ones have become ashamed. They have become terrified and will be caught. Look! They have rejected the very word of Jehovah, and what wisdom do they have?" (Jer 8:9) In other words, today's calamitous conditions aren't really a surprise to those who've immersed themselves in Bible instruction. It's what they've always expected. They're not stuck with the pathetic hope that voting out the incumbents will somehow bring in a more amenable bunch of politicians among whom "reason can prevail." It's human rule itself that's at fault.

You could almost view it that God himself is conducting an experiment, just like Baba Shiv. Not that it was his purpose, but when humans insisted on setting their own standards of "good and bad," rejecting his sovereignty, he said "Go ahead.....for such-and-such an amount of time see if you can make good on your claim of self-government. When the times runs out, then.....we'll see." Isn't this the meaning of those early Genesis chapters? Isn't the grand experiment of human self-rule ending exactly as the Bible foretold it would? And doesn't it show, as any novice JW will tell you.....sometimes a bit parrotlike, but true nonetheless, that "it just goes to show we need the Kingdom." Announcing this Kingdom, so that people may align themselves with it, is the purpose of the Witnesses' public ministry.....................see also here

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Tom Irregardless and Me   No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)

The Military-Industrial Complex and Jehovah's Witnesses

During the Vietnam war, America's younger generation broke from the older, and broke decisively. Student protesters besieged the White House, chanting "Hey Hey LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?" President Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon, fared no better, since his name suggested the clever, if obscene, "Dick Nixon before he dicks you." Mohammed Ali was drafted into the military and refused to go, famously declaring "no VietCong ever called me nigger." Exactly. What quarrel did he have with people halfway around the globe? Bigger concerns back home. If the 'kings' couldn't get along, how did that become his problem?

Back then, you heard a lot about the military-industrial complex, that cozy relationship between big business, the armed forces, and government, each feeding the other, thus facilitating perpetual war. Young people signaled they resented the manipulation, and would no longer stand for it. But where did that expression come from - military-industrial complex? Probably some long-haired, over-educated peacenik?

In fact, for those who believe in stereotypes, it came from the most unlikely of persons: Dwight D Eisenhower, nicknamed Ike, who served as Supreme Commander of Allied Troops during World War II. Afterwards, a grateful United States elected him President in 1952 and again in 1956. In his 1961 farewell address to the nation, he cautioned of a growing military-industrial complex.

Now....this is not the type of warning you'd normally expect from a general or President. Patton wouldn't have said it. Nor would George Bush, who landed on that aircraft carrier crowing "Mission Accomplished!" Ike's children said Eisenhower originally intended to warn of a military-industrial-congressional complex, but he dropped the last term, for fear of annoying Congress.

But maybe that warning from the President is not so strange, considering Ike's background. Cruise the internet and you will find sites that describe him as the nation's only Jehovah's Witness President. Here, for example. I mean, it's right there on the internet, so it must be so, but could it really be? Jehovah's Witnesses don't usually join the military, let alone become Supreme Commander of Allied Troops. Nor do they enter politics, let alone become President.

As is often true about things pertaining to us on the internet, it's not true, but there's a grain of truth to it. Ike was raised in a Witness home, or at least, his mom was very active in the faith, though apparently not his dad. When Ike was a boy, his home was used for meetings. Ike and his brother left the Witnesses, but his mother remained active until her death. In the mid-seventies, Modern Maturity magazine ran this quote from Melvin Eisenhower, Ike's brother:

Mother and Father knew the Bible from one end to the other. In fact, Mother was her own concordance: Without using one, she could turn to the particular scriptural passage she wanted. . . . We had an ideal home for I never heard an unkind word between Father and Mother. They lived by the cardinal concepts of the Judaic-Christian religion. (as quoted in Awake magazine, 4/22/75)

Yeah, that pretty well fits the profile of an active Witness. They usually know that Bible inside  out.

During the Presidential election campaigns, Ike wanted to win. So did his handlers. Therefore, he played down his Witness connection, which would surely have sunk his campaign. (See Melvin's quote above, where the faith is cryptically referred to as "the cardinal concepts of the Judaic-Christian religion." Don't you think he'd just say "Presyterian, if that's what it was? Doesn't it look as though he's trying to avoid mentioning something?) Ike let on he was raised 'Protestant' - a good catch-all term at the time for anything not Catholic or Jewish. I can't fault him for this. I mean, I can just see those political cartoonists skewering a Witness background....frankly, even I would have enjoyed a crack at it. There would be Ike and his wife standing in front of the White House, holding up the Watchtower.  The emblazoned cover would cry: Can Presidents Bring Peace? Oh, yeah, they'd have had a field day with it!

Come to think of it, doesn't military-industrial-congressional complex sound a lot like the big business, big government, big military triumvirate that Jehovah's Witnesses used to carry on about?  Or was it that big government and big military were combined as one, with the third slot going to big religion? I forget. That terminology (but not the thinking behind it) was dropped decades ago; old-timers still use it, but their numbers are dwindling fast. Ah, well, no matter. Close enough. I'll grant JWs credit for the phrase. As already stated, you'd normally expect a general and President to be cozy with any military-industrial-congressional complex. You wouldn't expect them to warn against it, as if like a prophet.

So maybe that JW background left its mark, after all.

Somehow, this all reminds me of Joel Engardio, another fellow who was raised a Witness, but who left because he wanted to make the world a better place now, rather than want to wait for some intangible God's Kingdom to come around and do it. Mr. Engardio is today a well-respected NPR journalist;  a few years ago, he produced a documentary film about us called Knocking, one of the few fair shakes we've ever had from the media. I wrote about it here. (Another, more modest 'shake', is here.)

Did Eisenhower, too, leave the Witnesses because he wanted to make the world a better place now, and not later? After all, it seemed to most of the free world that civilization was at stake during the 2nd World War. World War I was billed as the war to end all wars. Alright, it hadn't turned out that way, but maybe one more try would do it. Besides, what choice was there? One had to respond to aggressors. Such was popular sentiment.

If so, Ike must, at least sometimes, have had second thoughts about the pathway to a better world. In the wake of the battle of Normandy, wasn't it he who wrote, 'one could walk hundreds of yards and step upon nothing but rotting human flesh'? And from his farewell 'military-industrial complex' address to the nation

Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war -- as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years -- I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.

Yeah, don't we all. Does anyone think, though, that through human efforts, it's any closer in 2009 than it was in 1961?


 

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The Oct 15, 1980 Watchtower tells of a WWII soldier who became one of Jehovah's Witnesses while enlisted. Efforts to speak with his superiors about his new-found neutrality went nowhere. So this fellow wrote Eisenhower's mom! Sometimes you have to do that.

One especially testy exchange turned around quickly:

As I entered the headquarters tent, where all the “top brass” had gathered, I didn’t salute.

One of the officers said: “Don’t you salute your superiors?”

 


“No, Sir.”

 


“Why not?”


Respectfully, I gave my reasons, based on my understanding of the Bible. At that the officer said: “General Eisenhower ought to line you Jehovah’s Witnesses up and shoot you all!”


“Do you think he would shoot his own mother, Sir?” I asked.


“What do you mean by that?” he shot back.


Reaching in my pocket and taking out Sister Eisenhower’s letter, I handed it to him. “I just received this letter from the General’s mother while waiting for you to call me.”


As he read the letter, which you see reproduced on the opposite page, the other officers also gathered around to look at it. Thoughtfully, and with a greatly changed attitude, he handed it back to me. “Get back to ranks,” he said, “I don’t want to get mixed up with the General’s mother.”

 

 

 


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Abilene, Kansas.
                                    August-20-’44.
Mr. Richard Boeckel.

Dear Sir:-
  A friend returning from the United Announcers Convention of Jehovah’s witnesses, informs me of meeting you there. I rejoice with you in  your privilege of attending such convention.
  It has been my good fortune many times in the years gone by to attend these meetings of those faithfully proclaiming the name of Jehovah and his glorious Kingdom which shortly now will pour out its rich blessings over all the earth.
  My friend informs me of your desire to have a word from General Eisenhower’s mother whom you have been told is one of the witnesses of Jehovah. I am indeed such and what a glorious privilege it has been in association with those of the present time and with those on back through the annals of Biblical history even to Abel.
  Generally I have refused such requests because of my desire to avoid all publicity. However, because you are a person of good will towards Jehovah God and his glorious Theocracy I am very happy to write you.
  I have been blessed with seven sons of which five are living, all being very good to their mother and I am constrained to believe are very fine in the eyes of those who have learned to know them.
  It was always my desire and my effort to raise my boys in the knowledge of and to reverence their Creator. My prayer is that they all may anchor their hope in the New World, the central feature of which is the Kingdom for which all good people have been praying the past two thousand years.
  I feel that Dwight my third son will always strive to do his duty with integrity as he sees such duty. I mention him in particular because of your expressed interest in him.
  And so as the mother of General Eisenhower and as a witness of and for the Great Jehovah of Hosts (I have been such the past 49 years) I am pleased to write you and to urge you to faithfulness as a companion of and servant with those who “keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus”.
  There can be no doubt that what is now called the post-war period is the “one hour” mentioned at Revelation chapters 17 and 18. Ten here being a symbol not of just ten nations but rather of the whole number or all of the nations, then if we have a real League of Nations acting efficiently as a super guide to the nations of earth at the close of this war that should be ample proof.
  Surely this portends that very soon the glorious Theocracy, the long promised Kingdom of Jehovah the Great God and of his Son the everlasting King will rule the entire earth and pour out manifold blessings upon all peoples who are of good will towards Him. All others will be removed.
  Again may I urge your ever faithfulness to these the “Higher Powers” and to the New World now so very near.

  Respectfully your in hope of and as a fighter for the New World,

  Ida E. Eisenhower

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Tom Irregardless and Me    No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

 

 

 

 

 

 

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)

Where is Eliot Spitzer When You Need Him?

They cheered on the stock exchange floor the day Eliot Spitzer went down. The past year has been dismal for stocks, but prices soared on that day! The Sheriff of Wall Street was dead! In fact, he was better than dead…..he was disgraced.

Regular folk heehawed and ridiculed. Under pressure, I reluctantly agreed to close out my Eliot Spitzer category (but reneged), yet even then  I stated:

“As NYS Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer took a lot of bad people out of circulation, including some high finance types usually thought untouchable. That should not be taken away from him. New Yorkers can be grateful. Advocates for market fairness say he’s done more to clean up Wall Street than anyone else in decades.”

Eliot’s undoing was sexual misconduct, but it now appears that the financial world could have used 1000 more Spitzers, as opposed to dumping the one they had. Even if every one of them cheated on their spouses. Look, he wasn’t put there to teach Sunday school. His mission was to kick butts.

It now is clear that there were many whose butts needed kicking. More butts than even a thousand Spitzers could have managed, even if he knew which ones to kick and which ones to leave alone (an unclear assumption). As this post is being written, Henry PaulsonBlog_pictures, former Goldman Sachs CEO and now Treasury Secretary, is telling Congress that all the financial world’s wheeling and dealing has gone bust and that (without penalizing the ones who ran it aground!) the taxpayer has to bail them out. It’s a massive bailout he wants, to the tune of $10,000 per American household! On top of debt the public has already assumed from Fannie, Freddie and AIG. Congressmen are taking turns to vent, the way they do, but in the end, we all know the deal will pass, or some close modification, because the apparent alternative is another Great Depression. Once again, the Economist nailed it. Their latest issue’s cover is a portrait of Paulson pointing, just like on those Uncle Sam recruitment posters, saying “I Want Your Money.”

Seeing it all play out in Congress, it’s hard not to think of that description from Micah 7:3.

the ruler demands gifts,
the judge accepts bribes,
the powerful dictate what they desire—
they all conspire together.
         RVS

Or, as the English Standard Version puts it….

the prince and the judge ask for a bribe
and the great man utters the evil desires of his soul
thus they weave it together.
   

The great men, through their greed, have broken the system and look to the public purse to get them funded again. Up to the final months executives were distributing billions in bonuses among themselves, exorbitant rewards for failure! The prince and the judge aren’t happy about it, of course, but they’ve long played ball. They’ve made laws allowing the mess to mushroom. They’ve formed regulatory bodies that have watched it all develop. Some have taken huge lobbyist payments from the great men….can it be said they are they “bought and paid for?“ As Micah says, they all weave it together. (ESV)  Or, as rendered in the Revised Standard Version, they conspire together.

A co-worker of mine spotted two huckster scruffy-type guys on the internet (did he really call them “douchebags?”) who would buy up mortgages and immediately flip them to large institutions. Anything they bought they could sell….no questions asked. So much money was to be made through commissions and inventive accounting that underwriting standards sank lower and lower, and in the end vanished completely. Like a bartender pushing drinks on drunk patrons, the industry pushed mortgages on people who clearly couldn‘t afford them, people who counted solely on the prayer that their property would increase in value. Meanwhile, these two guys blew every dime they made….sometimes $100K in a week!….on penthouses, women, cars and so forth.

Mortgages they, and thousands like them, traded were massed into huge collateralized debt obligations and peddled to financial institutions the world over. The promised cash flows showed up as assets, masking the shaky debts they really were, on accounting books. Sounder debts were steadily watered down with junk until, in time, nobody knew what they were buying, but the commissions and paper profits were so lucrative that they kept buying anyway. Leveraging made it all the more dicey.

It all worked until it didn’t. Word flashed about that folks were defaulting, property values were falling…..and….who could have foreseen?…those debt obligations might not be worth a fraction of what they were sold for. It’s not as though the free market had ever determined their value…..they’d all been priced rather arbitrarily. Suddenly nobody wanted these CDOs anymore. The hucksters were stuck with a million in mortgages they could neither sell nor service. They panicked and bolted their doors.

No doubt, that’s just a small (and oversimplified) chunk of a mountain of mayhem.

So the huge bankers (HB&B….Huge Bank and Broker, Bill Cara calls them) fell over the precipice and look to the general public to pull them out. World finances go down the tubes if the answer is “no.” As I write this, it’s by no means clear how this will all play out. There’s hope the bailout will stem the blood flow, but is it perhaps the first of many? And the long-range implications for the taxpayer and generations to come are not pleasant to contemplate.

Where is Eliot Spitzer when you need him? It would have been good to have him around, if only for the sake of the fireworks. But in the end, would even 10,000 Spitzers have turned the tide? In this system “that which is crooked cannot be made straight.“ Greed almost always wins out, spoiling humankind’s better accomplishments. Not too long ago I was speaking with one of those optimistic atheists, the youthful type who imagine human science and wisdom will solve all problems. He gushed “things have, by nearly every measure, gotten better as time progresses.” I replied that I could think of some measures by which they have not.

Watching televised hearings these past few days, I’ve just thought of another. This week has not been kind to those who put their trust in human efforts.

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Tom Irregardless and Me             No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)

On Day 439 Everything Changes: From Spitzer to Peterson

Taunters are taunting me. “What’re you going to do with your Eliot Spitzer category, Sheepandgoats, hmmm? It’s right there on your front page. What you going to do, now that he’s gone down in flames?….sigh….Oh, very well. I guess we can close out the category. He’s been such a colorful character, and local, that I just had to post a few times about him, here, hereand here.

“On Day One, Everything Changes!” That was the promise following his crushing (69%) victory to become New York State Governor. We all waited for day one to arrive - he was almost a messianic figure. He’d nailed several Wall Street firms with billions of dollars in fines and sent some fat cats to jail. The Sheriff of Wall Street, he’d been nicknamed. Some pictured him a future President. What he did with corrupt financiers surely he could do with the obstructionist politicians that plague New York! But on Day 439 everything changed in a way he hadn’t foreseen, or anyone else. He was caught with prostitutes and  resigned in disgrace. Cheers broke out on the NYSE trading floor [!], and  prices soared*, temporarily snapping a dismal down trend.

*perhaps not for that reason, though there are pundits who maintain it was exactly for that reason.

These were no ordinary prostitutes. The one that triggered his downfall cost him $4300. For a single stand! Who would have thought they could cost so much? Had he economized with cheaper ones he might have escaped detection, for he had to transfer large sums of money to various shell corporations to pay the bill… allegedly $80,000 through the years! Now, in the United States, if you transfer $10K or more from a bank, that bank must notify the feds. And you can’t bust up the transfers into lesser amounts to avoid the $10K trigger…that’s a crime here, and that’s what they say Spitzer did. They dreamed up that law to thwart terrorists. But it’s netted many unintended victims, like philandering politicians. Crossing state lines to promote prostitution is also a crime here (the Mann Act).

Spitzer resigned on TV, wife at his side. “I cannot allow for my private failings to disrupt the people's work. Over the course of my public life, I have insisted — I believe correctly — that people take responsibility for their conduct. I can and will ask no less of myself. For this reason, I am resigning from the office of governor." The couple has three teenaged children. The wife’s plight provided silent ammunition for those feminists who say that a woman should never, ever, put her career on hold  (which Mrs Spitzer had done, sort of) for the sake of raising children - you just can’t trust husbands and when they go bad you’re behind the 8-ball.

Learned psychological types, the sort who buy into evolutionary psychology, quickly weighed in. At last we know the real reason for Spitzer’s zeal in crushing wrongdoers, they lectured knowingly. It was all a sham! He’s just an alpha male, with all the vulnerabilities of the species. And what about the prostitution rings he’d broken up? Even more Freudian: he was just exorcizing inner demons, purging his own soul through nailing others! But I’m not so sure how valid that argument is, or how relevant. After all, he was elected to knock heads together, not to teach Sunday School. Still, once exposed, he hadn’t a chance. Americans want their politicians squeaky clean, a reflection of what they imagine themselves to be.

Besides, his “knocking heads together” style hadn’t worked well of late. Opposing politicians aren’t like corporate shysters whom who can throw in jail. They get mad, and they fight back. Though Spitzer scored some impressive early wins, he later bogged down amidst a style so abrasive that there was nobody to stick up for him when he got in trouble.

I’m not so sure the abrasiveness was wrong. At any rate, what had proceeded it sure hadn’t worked. New York is well known among states for its dysfunctional government. Years ago then-Governor Pataki appeared on TV with leaders of the two opposing parties. He hoped to project the image of firm and steady moderator, guiding these powerful but noble opponents to a consensus for the lasting good of New Yorkers. Instead, the two foes squabbled like children, and Pataki looked like an ineffectual ass, the other parties themselves being immune to embarrassment. The governor steered clear of TV after that.

With Spitzer’s resignation, state leadership defaulted to David Peterson, the Lieutenant Governor. Unexpected, the politically correct media had something to swoon about, for not only is Peterson black, he is also blind. A new category! He’s black and he’s blind, they gushed, as if one quality somehow augmented the other. Plus, he’s amiable. He gets along with everybody, they gushed again, forgetting that a year ago they had praised Spitzer for his being the exact opposite.

No sooner had Peterson been sworn in than he, too, confessed to some extramarital affairs. He wasn’t going to be blindsided the way Spitzer was! But all was cool with the media….he’s black and he’d blind, after all, and he enters with lots of good will. We’ve never had a black and blind governor! Besides, his marital woes were more garden variety. He hadn’t broken any laws, and he hadn’t hired any prostitutes.

A week later he admitted that in his younger days he had used marijuana and cocaine.

Alright, Mr. Peterson, don’t push it! Sure, Bill Clinton smoked (but didn’t inhale) pot and George Bush drank (but didn’t swallow) booze, but you’re only a governor. He’s probably okay for now, but one more Oprah confession, like shoplifting at K-Mart, and he’s outta here.

As NYS Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer took a lot of bad people out of circulation, including some high finance types usually thought untouchable. That should not be taken away from him. New Yorkers can be grateful. Advocates for market fairness say he’s done more to clean up Wall Street than anyone else in decades. For that, anyone who invests can be grateful. Still, I confess I wondered a bit when I read about the Theodore Sihpol casein the Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Sihpol wasn’t a Big Guy, at least not in the financial world. He was mid-level. He had allowed a hedge fund to secure some closing prices after hours. There was no price favoritism. The fund got the closing prices, but it was after hours. Spitzer’s office threw everything they had at this fellow. He might even had settled, but the plea bargain they offered included jail time. So he fought back. At trial, his attorneys called no witnesses. They simply read the law. And it was clear he’d not broken any! Case dismissed.

Now, what are we to make of this apparent abuse of power? You can’t make omelets without cracking a few eggs? But as George Orwell said, any time someone uses that line on you, you should immediately ask to see the omelet.

All in all, it’s rather a sad story. Isn’t there some scripture somewhere about humans not being able to rule themselves?

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Tom Irregardless and Me          No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)

The Nixon-Mao Talks

In the summer of 1970, student demonstrators camped outside the White House night after night, demanding an end to the Vietnam War and hurling insults at President Nixon. This had not happened before. Prior wars had enjoyed popular support, or at least acquiescence, and the young had always fallen into line. Not this generation. Why weren’t they in class?

Richard Nixon, inside, was deeply conscious of it all. Moreover, it seemed like miscommunication. After all, Vietnam was not his war. He had inherited in from the previous President and the one before him. Nixon was trying hard to end it, though doing so in the manner of all politicians before or since: peace with honor, no appeasement for aggressors, these colors don’t run, etc, etc, and so forth. Perhaps more than most politicians, Nixon wanted to be loved, yet here he was hated, and hated unjustly, he felt. So late one night, he strolled out and spoke to the demonstrators, to the dismay of security and staff.

He rambled, vacillating between explaining his policy,  his ideals, and how the world worked, reminiscing, and dispensing fatherly advise. Those students should widen out, he suggested, travel some, even outside the country. For his administration, he hoped “that the great mainland of China be opened up so that we could know the seven hundred million people who live in China and who are one of the most remarkable people on earth.” But if Nixon had hoped for understanding, he got none. From my admittedly sketchy recollection of news accounts back then, students were steamed that they had come with serious adult concerns, and he had engaged them with memories of college football! They didn’t want to hear about football, and they certainly didn’t want any fatherly councel. They wanted what they wanted, and they wanted it now.

Later Nixon expanded his China theme. Weeks later he said to Time magazine “if there is anything I want to do before I die, it is to go to China. If I don’t, I want my children to.”

That might seem strange coming from Richard Nixon. He’d built his political career on anti-communist rhetoric. But by the late 1960’s he was reassessing. “Red” China had no diplomatic relations with any non-communist country, yet it was the largest nation on earth. Did it not make sense to try to assist them into the community of nations? Wasn’t China suffering from it’s isolation? At odds with its two huge neighbors, the Soviet Union and India, and reeling from its latest Great Leap Forward, a venture which starved millions, might it not respond to a helping hand? Nixon, from the beginning of his Presidency, purposed to visit China, meet with Mao Tse-tung, and end decades of Chinese isolation.

Diplomats laid the groundwork, doing so with utmost secrecy. For example, Henry Kissinger flew to Pakistan on some backslapping mission, but feigned illness so he could retire and escape media limelight, Then, unobserved, he flew to China to meet with Mao’s number two, Chou En-lai. Of course, the secrecy was decreed so that Nixon’s political enemies wouldn’t prematurely discover his “heresy,” chumming with communists, and pound him into the ground with it. Not to mention the American allies that would surely be unsettled. The Chinese played along, but never quite understood American secrecy. “If they want to come,” said Mao, “they should come in the open light. Why should they hide their head and pull in their tail?”

But it was young people, acting in innocence and sheer good will, who also moved plans ahead. Conscious of American attitudes thawing and looking for an appropriate response, neither too cool nor too cloying, in April 1971 China invited over the American table tennis team. They were right next door in Japan at the time. Mao made the decision himself. As he termed it, the small ping pong ball could be used to move the ball of the earth. Chou ordered the Chinese team to let the Americans win some games, which were televised live.

One of the American youngsters, Glenn Cowan, was thought of as a hippy. Toward the end of the tournament one the Chinese players unexpectedly presented him a silk brocade scarf. The Chinese team leader panicked at this unauthorized contact, but the player brushed him aside. “Take it easy. As head of delegation you have many concerns, but I am just a player.” Mao heard of the incident and said with approval: “Zhuang Zedong not only plays good Ping-Pong but knows how to conduct diplomacyas well.

During a reception at tournament’s end, Chou En-lai entertained questions from the foreigners. “What do you think about the hippy movement?” the unselfconscious Cowan asked. Chou didn’t know much about it, but suggested it was restless youth looking for change and not sure how to bring it about, much as things had been in his day. The hippy movement runs very deep, the American youngster countered. “It’s a whole new way of thinking.” But Chou suggested that “spirit must be transformed into material force before the world can move ahead.” The boy’s mother apparently sent Chou flowers for educating her son.

One year later, following the groundwork of the diplomats and the kids, Richard Nixon set foot in China, the first American President ever to do so. Days of talks and banquets ensued. Thorny issues were hashed out: Taiwan and Vietnam, for example, and each country tried to get a feel for the others' relations with the bellicose Soviet Union. Everybody toasted everybody. Mao approved of Nixon: “He speaks forthrightly….no beating around the bush, not like the leftists, who say one thing and mean another.“ At the Great Wall of China, the President declared: “A people who could build a wall like this certainly have a great past to be proud of and a people who have this kind of a past must also have a great future.” To this day, the Chinese value those words.

Late evening, the final night of his visit, Nixon reviewed goings-on with aides Kissinger and Haldeman. He had seriously stirred up the pot of international relations. He had taken great personal risk to his legacy and reputation. Would it all turn out well in the end? Kissinger felt Nixon was asking for reassurance and he gave it, moved by “an odd tenderness for this lonely, tortured, and insecure man.”

Hard to believe that all this happened not yet forty years ago. China was then a populous, but backward country. Today it is the world’s rising power. Scores of gleaming skyscraper-packed cities stand where, just a few years ago, there were only barren field. Business Week recently opined that the remaining good jobs in America are to be found in health care and education….can you really base an economy on that? Manufacturing and technology jobs are moving abroad, much of it to China. Now that China’s star is so dramatically rising, will they get cocky? one commentator wondered. No, for China has always thought of itself as a great power, and only now is it finally reemerging after shaking off a century of Western exploitation.

Richard Nixon revisited China in 1993, as a private citizen. “The growth of this place is really unbelievable,” he told chums. “And you know, I like to think that I had something to do with it.” Nixon died in 1994.

………………………………..............................................

All specifics taken from the excellent new book Nixon and Mao, by Margaret MacMillan, c 2007. The book includes a 16 page photo section chronicling the Nixon visit.

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Pool Alarms and Parkinson's Law

The legislators of New York, eager to safeguard us all, have decreedthat, from now on, any new swimming pool deeper than 2 feet must come equipped with an alarm that will raise all hell inside & outside the house should someone (or something) fall in. Thus, Rochesterians who live in the poverty zone (trust me, there are many) who have no air conditioning but several broiling kids, who used to cool them off on a hot day with one of those cheap, inflatable pools, are now protected from that relief, since the price of an alarm exceeds the price of the pool. We just snapped a short spell of 90+ degree weather, with obscene humidity, the first of many this summer. In the air conditioned Albany State Legislature, some legislator is hero of the day. "If it saves one life, it's worth it!" he says. 

Trouble is, there's not many things that won't save at least one life. What of the imposition for everyone else? Mind you, I have nothing against pool alarms. They seem a good idea. It's the mandating of pool alarms!

Folks who remember when you could ride a bicycle without a helmet, indeed, even drive a car without a seatbelt, may need help to know what to make of this. That's why this post is written. In Europe, by the way, where they bicycle far more than we do, nobody wears a helmet. "It would muss up my hair," explained one Frenchman to the Wall St Journal.

This new pool alarm requirement must be looked at in the light of Parkinson's Law, (the 2nd one) which suggests that, having utterly failed to acheive anything of real value, officials nevertheless must justify their existance. Therefore, they redouble their efforts to accomplish nonsense.

Parkinson's Law, derived in the 1950s by C. Northcote Parkinson, is actually a body of business and organizational laws which are usually stated in economic terms, but can be amended to fit swimming pools. The law which specifically applies, the 2nd law, states that the time and money spent on any item in any organizational agenda is inversely proportional to its importance. In his definative book "Parkinson's Law," Dr Parkinson illustrates his second law with a business board meeting:

The lead item on the agenda is a nuclear reactor for the company plant. It is approved immediately, not because it is a good idea, indeed, it is suspect, but because few people on the board know what a nuclear reactor is, and those who do have no idea what one should cost. The two people who do know something have no idea where to begin with explanations. They would have to refer to the blueprints. No one present can read blueprints, yet no one present would ever admit they could not!  Easier just to say "yes." The reactor is approved.  Time spent: about 2 minutes. However, several members have inward misgivings. They wonder if they've really been pulling their weight. They resolve to make up for it with the next item.

The next item is a bicycle tool shed for the employees. Here is something most can get their heads around. They bicker over its design, its materials, its location, indeed, even its necessity, since the ungrateful employees only take whatever you give them and demand more! Time spent: about 1 hour.

The next items concerns the coffee that is served at board meetings: its brand, supplier, and cost. No one is present who doesn't know all there is to know about coffee, and the ensuing discussion lasts the rest of the day!

Now, if we postulate that Parkinson's 2nd law applies, and that requiring pool alarms is an accomplishment relatively trivial, then there has to be some "big fishes" that got away. Are there?

The day before the local paper reported on pool alarms, it reportedon a new "academic excellence" surcharge for nearby SUNY Geneseo State college. The surcharge, which kicks in a year from September, adds $1000 to the annual tuition of $4350, a 23% increase! Where one SUNY college goes, soon the rest can be expected to follow. Lawmakers are clearly not interested in saving that "one life" of a poor child so that he may attend college!

Besides the bruising economic threats people face, there are the ever-growing threats to education quality, public morality and decency, even threats to spirituality. All these areas are ignored while legislators piss away their time on physical safety, a comparatively insignificant area which even a Frenchman knows how to keep in proper perspective so as not to muss up his hair!

As if to underscore the point, New York Governor Elliot Spitzer is crisscrossing the state, challenginglocal citizens to play "Where's Waldo" with their state senator. He'll hold up a picture of the empty Senate chambers. "Where is your Senator," he asks. "He's not here. We've looked all over." He's mad because Senators voted themselves a pay raise and then took off for the summer, leaving stuff on the plate. Important stuff. Necessary stuff. Fundamental stuff. (Most importantly) Stuff Eliot vowed to get done.

They did, however, make it tougher for poor kids to cool off. And that's something.

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Tom Irregardless and Me    No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)

Eliot Spitzer and Jesse Ventura

Sometimes celebrities run for office and, if elected, they make for the best leaders, or at least they're the most fun to watch. Like that pro wrestler, Jesse Ventura, elected Minnesota governor a few years back....remember him? Voters might have asked: can he really do better than professional politicians? But they didn't. They asked: how can he do worse? Minnesotans, briefly basking in national attention, sported bumper stickers boasting "My Governor can beat up your Governor." When they asked Jesse about it, he agreed. He'd been to a Governor's conference. He'd looked those guys over, he told us, and there wasn't one of them he couldn't whip. But he was not so triumphant with the media, with whom he fought all the time. He spoke his mind, and that's probably why he fought with them all the time.

For example, on religion: "Organized religion is a sham and a crutchfor weak-minded people who need strength in numbers. It tells people to go out and stick their noses in other people's business."

Or on promoting the Pledge of Allegiance in the schools (he opposed it): "I believe patiotism comes from the heart. Patriotism is voluntary. It is a feeling of loyalty and allegiance that is the result of knowledge and belief. A patriot shows their patriotism through their actions, by their choice. No law will make a citizen a patriot."

David Letterman asked him on TV which of the Twin Cities was better: Minneapolis or St. Paul. Now, any politicians knows that you have to play cute and say syrupy drivel about both towns, even if they both stink to high heaven. Jesse answered: "Minneapolis. Those streets in St. Paul must have been designed by drunken Irishmen."

Such blunt remarks....there's others, too.... made him an easy target for the media. They treated him as a big joke, so he called them "media jackals." When they sought access to the governor's press area they had to show their press pass which, per Jesse's decree, identified each one of them as a "media jackal."

He only served one term, but said he would have run again had it not been for family considerations. The media pestered them always, he charged, ignoring policy issues so that they could wallow in cheap gossip.

Frankly, the more I read about this guy, the more I like him. He reminds me of Mickey Spillane.

So that was Jesse. Here in New York we have Eliot....Eliot Spitzer. Is he cut from the same cloth as Jesse? He didn't crack skulls in the ring, of course, but he sure did on Wall Street, fining lots of white collar crooks and sending a few to the Big House. Like Jesse, Eliot doesn't hesitate to speak his mind; decorum-laced politicians and media types are incredulous at his outbursts, to the point of questioning his sanity. "I am a [ahem] f**king steamroller and I'll roll over you or anybody else," said he to an opposing Assemblyman, according to the New York Post.

And..... "I've done more in three weeks than any governor has done in the history of the state." Not real modest, and chiding reporters quickly trotted out lifetime accomplishments of other governors, like DeWitt Clinton, the one who dug the Erie Canal 200 years ago. How's that for lifetime accomplishment, Mr. Spitzer, they nyaah nyaahed, as if imagining Clinton had dug it personally (which he did not).  At a news conference they asked him whether his words were overly boastful. "No," he answered, Next question."

Still, you don't want to mess with Eliot. He has done a lot in a short time, he's hugely popular, just like Jesse who enjoyed a 73% approval rating, and New York State is almost on the embalming table. Everyone knows it, so they don't mind a guv who'll crack the heads of those who put it there.

The really big battles are still shaping up. Mr. Spitzer's 2007 State budget, the one that's due April 1rst, though previous budgets have been as late as six months, sending all State agencies and schools into conniptions, proposes cuts of $1.2 billion in health care, mostly from Medicaid, hospitals and nursing homes, with increased emphasis on preventative care. Now, lest anyone think that Eliot is just a mean spirited miser, it should be noted that New York leads in Medicaid spending and spends more than the next two states combined. Even with the new cuts, the budget is a 9 percent increase over last year, says the new state comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. That's almost two times faster than revenues....and 2 and a half times the rate of inflation. It's unsustainable, says DiNapoli, who as comptroller, may turn out the be a major Spitzer asset, even though the latter opposedhis appointment.

Former Governor Pataki tried to rein in health spending, but it's hard to do. The hospital and health care workers unions saturate TV and radio with tearjerker stories of sick, neglected people, and it's game over. Pataki, in the end, learned to shut up and sign the check.

"Eliot Spitzer says he wants to reform health care, and he's right! But he's going about it the wrong way." This was the health worker union's first TV salvo. Trust me on this: the "and he's right" is only because it was Eliot Spitzer. They never did it for Pataki. But mess with Eliot and you mess with the people who like him, which is nearly everyone.

Spitzer was not in the least appeased by "and he's right." He served up his own TV ad. Set in a hospital nursery full of babies crying.....they were crybabies.... the narrator spelled out facts about New York's bloated system, full of fraud and waste and huge salaries for the top dogs.

The next round of ads was predictable. Televised health aides, almost in tears, sniffling why does the governor wants to hurt them, when they work so hard and save lives!

There's lots more to come. Mr. Spitzer and Joseph Bruno, the Senate Majority leader, a firm ally of the hospital people, got into a screaming matchthe other day in the Senate chambers. Even F-bombs were flying! A scared secretary took cover and fled the room.

Yes, there's more to come.

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Tom Irregardless and Me             No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)

Rochester and the Curse of the Fast Ferry

It's the curse that keeps on cursing.

Anyone from Rochester will know what is referred to....the fast ferry, that lake-going vessel that is yet plunging the city through descending levels of financial hell which even Dante never imagined.

It seemed like such a good idea. Bring a high-speed ferry to Rochester, so that the folks in Toronto, whom we all know are itching to visit our town, could hop over the big lake in no time. Sure, it was expensive, but then, great ideas are never cheap! Where's that checkbook? Whadyamean, you're opposed? You got something against progress? But the operation lost money the instant it touched shore....like a million dollars a month. A new administration decided, within days of taking power, that enough was enough, and put the boat up for sale, pleased to escape with a taxpayer tab of only $20 million (now $28 million), assuming they could sell the boat. It was an optimistic assumption.

There was this outfit, Euroferries, that straight off said they wanted the vessel, and city luminaries gave each other high-fives. But that was almost a year ago. You can only drag your feet so long, and so Mayor Duffy sent the city lawyer to go eyeball to eyeball with those guys. Yes, look them in the eye, just like a TV anchorman, and peer into their soul. It was a wise move, for their soul revealed that they did indeed like the boat, but they didn't...um...have the....uh....dough. So the city cut them loose and retreated to square one. That way the boat won't sit ten years awaiting a new owner, or at least awaiting Euroferries as a new owner.

Alas, throughout this long saga, it's hard to avoid the impression that sharpie businesspeople have been playing city officials like Prince played his guitarat the Superbowl. I mean, our boys are politicians, for crying out loud! It hardly seems fair.

Many projects are achieved by trampling the opposition under your feet. If you wait for all the bickerers, backbiters, and foot draggers to come on board, you’ll never get anything done. Noble projects get done this way. This, they tell me, was the story behind the fast ferry. If it works out, the doer is a visionary. A hero. Who cares how he got it done? Running down the whiners is brilliant, an absolutely essential, strategy! But God help that doer if the vision doesn’t pan out!

Isn't there a war somewhere following this general pattern?

Too bad for the first mayor, Bill Johnson. He worked tirelessly and obviously had the city’s interest at heart. But he will be remembered only for “Johnson’s folly.” Fortunately for him, since the next administration scuttled the deal, he will always be able to say "if only." If only they had hung in there. If only they had marketed more. If only they had gone to other places, say the 1000 islands, not just Toronto. If only they had prayed more. And maybe he's right. Nobody will ever know for sure.

Nor can they say they weren't warned. Contrary to popular belief, the city was advised beforehand that the project didn’t have a snowball’s chance in you-know-where. Not wanting to rush blindly into a deal of such magnitude, the city engaged the Carriertom Into-Wishin Research Institute to provide a feasibility study.

Carriertom completed its report in record time, a mere three days, since they are fun-loving people there at the Institute, and could not resist calling their report the fast fast ferry study. True, the haste was at the expense of accuracy, but it was not thought to be out of harmony with the company’s motto “That’s Close Enough!“ After all, Carriertom doesn’t charge much, and in these days of high fuel prices, that’s always a valid consideration. As it turned out, it didn’t matter anyway.

For, not wishing to be ambiguous nor make local politicians do a lot of reading, the report arrived in a dust jacket with bold lettering: Fast Ferry Won’t Work! Alas, this tactic backfired, because they are very politically correct over there at City Hall, and the mail room clerk, upon seeing the dust jacket, misinterpreted it to be a slur against gay people! And a groundless slur at that, since the city has hired several gay persons, and has found they work just fine. Indeed, they are model employees. Enraged, the clerk hurled the report into the trash! Thus, valuable research, which city fathers desperately needed, never reached their eyes.

The next day, the city of Rochester spent God knows how many millions to purchase and transport the boat to harbor. Six months later, a new administration canned the floundering operation, and it's been root canal sailing ever since.

That’s the true story, which the Carriertom Institute is eager to tell so that it may not be unjustly blamed for the failed project. They tried, they really did.

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Eliot Spitzer and the Comptroller

Like in Network, Eliot Spitzer is mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore! The odd thing is that he's not taken it very long. It was just 6 weeks ago that Spitzer was sworn in as governor, wearing his new Hickey-Freeman suit. But it's clear he means to make his mark. Cross him at your peril

The big blowup comes after Spitzer fired the former state comptroller, caught with his hand in the till. He then assembled previous state comptrollers to recommend new candidates. The state assembly said they'd go along, but then they reneged and gave the job to one of their own.

Spitzer was spitting nails. The Assembly's move showed a ‘‘stunning lack of integrity that is deeply troubling ... You have just witnessed the insider game of self-dealing that unfortunately confirms every New Yorker’s worst fear and image of all that goes on in the Legislature of this state,” he fumed. There was some party coming up....some get-to-know-you wing ding with Assembly members. Spitzer cancelled it!

It's an odd place to pick a fight. Yes, he lost the skirmish, but it's a petty skirmish. The Assembly's constitutionally empowered to do just what they did....choose their own guy. Moreover, the guy they chose gets high marks all around, and seemingly fits in well with Spitzer's reform program, except Spitzer didn't think of him himself.

No matter! Spitzer is here to kick some butts. And New Yorkers agree that butts need kicking, even if their not really sure....who actually follows state politics?....exactly which butts need it most. This is the Assembly that has presided over an ever more hopeless basket case mess-of-a-State, and the perception, right or wrong, is that these guys care for little else than protecting their own turf. So New York's indebtedness is second only to one other state, it's taxes are second to none, Medicaid expenditures are twice the national average, businesses can't leave fast enough, and the school graduates behind them. Only once in 16 years has the annual state budget passed on time...it's been up to six months late....these guys stake out territory and refuse to budge. Schools and municipalities can't do their own budgets, not knowing what aid they'll get from the state. Witty New Yorkers say things like (trust me, I know) "Last one out of New York, turn out the lights." The former governor tried to address some of these problems and these guys handed him his head. He learned to shut up and smile.

Rochester's quirky Bob Lonsberry suggests that Spitzer should have been more conciliatory. These guys (the Assembly) aren't going away, he points out, and unlike Eliot's former Wall Street foes, you can't throw them in jail or run them out of business. But it may be that Spitzer thinks nothing will change if he simply plays the game nice. No, Mr. Spitzer was elected in a landslide. He has lots of good will. The assemblymen have none. Many would agree with Ed Rooney .... "I’m all for a tyranical dictator. The beauty of hitting rock bottom is that you have no where to go but up."

Meanwhile, journalists are stocking up on popcorn. It's gonna be an interesting few years.

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Tom Irregardless and Me            No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)