Tough shoes to fill

When I was a kid my family celebrated the Feast of St. Nicholas, who died on this day in the year 343. Known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker, he was known for his great deeds which often included secret gift giving. He was a precursor to and model for the modern Santa Claus, whose origin is borrowed from this St. Nick and the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas. (And you thought it was Hallmark and Coca-Cola.) “Santa” has just gotten better PR over the last couple centuries, but it’s the real St. Nick whom we celebrate today.

Every December 5th evening from about 1985 to at least 1992 or so I would place my shoes outside my bedroom door for St. Nick to fill during the night. This was a nice appetizer to what I considered the real deal on Christmas. And somehow St. Nick always knew what I wanted. Sadly, one day I became “too old” (ha!) for the practice. Years later I tried to pick it up again in my own home but I think ol’ St. Nick didn’t appreciate the insincerity of the whole thing. Too much commercialism, not enough prodigal son.

So, hear’s to you, St. Nick! Maybe next year?

Catching Fire

Over the weekend I saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. It was not nearly as terrible as I thought it would be. On the contrary, it was quite good.

What I disliked about the first Hunger Games movie was that the focus was entirely about the Hunger Games themselves. I didn’t find that part of the plot interesting, namely because I had read a short story with that exact premise 20 years ago. (Look it up. The story is called “The Survivor.”)

The sequel assumes you already know everything about the games themselves, and moves on to the intrigue surrounding the national rebellion and counter-rebellions of our dystopian future. I’m not sure every 12-year-old flocking to see the movie realizes this, but grownups will. Grownups, too, will appreciate the fine performances of Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Even Woody Harrelson is far from mailing it in as Haymitch, former Hunger Games winner turned mentor turned, well, I don’t want to ruin things.

Go see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Even if you haven’t seen the first one, it doesn’t really matter. You won’t be disappointed. And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I look forward to the third one.

Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?

Last week Pope Francis issued a manifesto of sorts on the state of the church and his plans for leading it into the future. The Vatican calls it an “Apostolic Exhortation.” I’m calling it Democratic Party talking points.

Accusing Western consumers of an “idolatry of money,” warning it will lead to “a new tyranny,” the pope dusts off the old anti-capitalist playbook his predecessor must have left on the Papal nightstand. Yup, this radically new and modern pope is spouting the same collectivist garbage on which I called his predecessor not five years ago.

So thank you, Holy Pontiffs, for making this so easy for me. Instead of writing a new critique I can simply dust off my rebuttal from July 2009. I find my old writing particularly good, and haven’t changed a word.

Pope speaks up on economy

July 8th, 2009

The Vatican has released a new “encyclical” from the pope, which criticizes the world’s economic system and calls for a “new financial order.” Ordinarily I would dismiss such a thing with something along the lines of, “I don’t tell him what to think about religion, so he shouldn’t tell me what to think about economics.”

But I do tell him and other Catholics what to think about religion. All the time. So I think the pope’s comments should be considered. We have simply another example of a bad economist spouting bad economic advice. The problem is, this guy is someone a billion people around the world think is infallible. A full report on Friday…

Ain’t my pope on economic matters either

July 10th, 2009

New world financial order, the problems of growth, a world political authority, the denouncing of “profit at all cost.” No, it’s not your average hippie’s peacenik rant, it’s the work of a man one-sixth of the world (over a billion hippies) finds infallible.

The pope’s recent “encyclical,” pontificating (pun intended) generally on the global economy, leaves a few things to be desired to say the least. Sure, all of us would like world peace and food and security for the poor, but wishing doesn’t make it so, even in church.

The pope has the ear of the entire world, but not necessarily a degree in economics. His solution: stop growing so the rest of the world can live better, isn’t feasible let alone fair. It channels the old-time politician logic of, I can make some people better off without making anyone else worse off.

The pope should say this: be generous, give to others, live honest lives. A church can encourage charity from its members; governments are the ones who use force. God asks for only 10 percent; why are governments demanding more?

I have no use for organized religion of any stripe. I would hope, though, that religious leaders could at least use their positions of power a little more effectively.

Black Friday is here

More than nuclear weapons or Obamacare, I think the most hotly-debated political subject this Thanksgiving has been the moral and ethical considerations of Black Friday shopping. Personally I find Black Friday shopping a bit silly and I don’t get the attraction. Then again, I don’t get the attraction of a great number of things people seem to be willing to shell out money for, namely most of the things people are buying on Black Friday.

It’s funny that I seem to know not a single person who finds Black Friday shopping worthwhile or enjoyable. A quick perusal of my Facebook newsfeed indicates that every single person I know is morally outraged by the practice. Yet I also know that literally millions of people will do it.

Hmm. Maybe I really can’t trust everything I read on the Internet.

What people do in their spare time is, I suppose, their business. And if they want to lie about it on Facebook all the better. Most disturbing to me these days, though, is the moral outrage from those who kvetch about restaurants and retailers that “make” their employees work on Thanksgiving or Black Friday or any time that might be inconvenient to anyone who’s ever worked for a living. This is how it works in their minds: there exists an evil, greedy CEO in some far-distant land barking out orders to his minions from a jacuzzi tub (or however he spends Thanksgiving), bleeding his workers dry for pennies a day while he simply sits there and watches the millions roll in. There is no other explanation for what’s occurring.

Never mind the fact that many retail employees probably appreciate the few extra bucks earned from working a few extra hours. Never mind that they took their jobs voluntarily, knowing the store’s hours of operation before they ever walked in the door. And never mind that many thousands of people in more prestigious-sounding occupations than that of retail clerk also must work on holidays. Doctors, nurses, firemen, cops–not to mention military personnel–work every weekend, overnight, and holiday. They knew the schedule going in too. The fact that they’re paid more doesn’t change the relationship between employer and employee. In our country work is a voluntary exchange between employer and employee. Each offers something of value to the other, just like buyers and sellers on Black Friday or any day of the year.

A lack of economic knowledge is one of the things I find most disheartening about American society today. Sadly, it’s probably worse in other countries, where they don’t even begin with a pretense of free-market capitalism. Tune in Monday for a more in-depth discussion of this crisis, typified today by a certain holy man in Rome some call infallible.

Thanksgiving Eve

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You don’t realize it when you’re a kid–or when you’re a grownup for that matter–but the biggest night of boozing and partying in the calendar year isn’t St. Patrick’s Day or New Year’s Eve. It’s the night before Thanksgiving.

If you come from a podunk town like I do, you know that ninety percent of your childhood friends have gone away to school or simply moved away from said podunk town. But they’re going to come home for Thanksgiving, and, knowing they’ll spend all day tomorrow with their families, are looking to spend some time away from their families tonight. Enter the local tavern owner, ready to oblige.

The odd thing about the night before Thanksgiving is that is still is Wednesday. Yes, it has the feel of a weekend, but it’s still a Wednesday for God’s sake. Whereas bars might be able to get away with serving later than one a.m. on New Year’s Eve, on Thanksgiving Eve it’s still a dead stop at one o’clock. That means whatever you’re doing you’ve got to finish by one. That serves only to accelerate the ridiculousness of the evening. Well, Phase One at least. I was reminded recently that there used to be this thing called Phase Two.

This year I’m happy to say I won’t be involved in any phases. I’m definitely more towards “grownup” on the subject of Thanksgiving Eve. (Though I’ve seen quite a number of ridiculous “grownups” out on Thanksgiving Eves past.) Tonight I’ll be home with my wife and cats in my new hometown, blissfully unaware of Binghamton shenanigans. Furthermore, tomorrow I’ll actually get to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, an event I’ve begun watching again after many years of never being up in time to see it.

Well, Happy Thanksgiving Eve, everyone, no matter how ridiculous or family-friendly you plan for it to be.

Joe D.: Still America’s Hero

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Ninety-nine years ago today in the quiet fishing village of Martinez, California, the eighth of nine children born to Italian immigrants Giuseppe and Rosalia DiMaggio entered the world, probably to little fanfare. The fanfare began soon after, and continued to the end of the century.

It’s only the truly exceptional athlete who transcends his sport and becomes a national icon the way Joe DiMaggio did, beginning at a very young age and continuing long after his playing days were over. Nearly every man of a certain age considered DiMaggio his favorite player, as did legions of non-fans who knew nothing of the game but appreciated his humble upbringing and grace off the field. In an era in which players’ personal lives were whitewashed by willing reporters and clever PR men, DiMaggio was nothing short of a saint. Even now, a few damning stories and biographies later, DiMaggio epitomizes dignity and professionalism both on and off the playing field.

I’ve been a fan of the great DiMaggio since I was seven years old. That was 38 years after he played his final game. DiMaggio in my family, though, held a place similar to that of John Kennedy or the Pope in Catholic families across America. The following is from a piece I composed for a high school writing class at age 16, shortly after Dimaggio’s death at age 84.

  Few Americans have captivated the nation’s attention like Joe DiMaggio.  He played baseball with a grace and style that is no longer found in today’s game.  Just as important was his behavior off the field.  Uniquely American as baseball is, it seems baseball stars are more than just entertainers; they are our idols.  (I think this was even more true in Joe’s playing days.)  Many of today’s professional baseball players, no matter how well they play the game, do not portray positive role models off the field.  Players are often arrested for drunk driving or caught starting fights in bars (not to mention the dreaded paternity suit).  Even seemingly benevolent Mark McGwire sets a bad example for young people: steroid use (ephemerally legal as it may be).  Let us not forget Dimaggio’s military service during World War II, costing him three seasons in which he was in his prime.  (Many players left professional baseball during the war.)  I find it hard to believe that any of today’s players would want to leave their million-dollar homes to fight in a war overseas.

            It would be hard to pinpoint DiMaggio’s best season.  One thing is for certain: he never had a bad one.  Joe retired when he was only (I use the word loosely) thirty-six, so he never lapsed into mediocrity (which happens to players who simply can’t give up the game after their talents have left).  During his career, DiMaggio was a model of consistency; his most notable baseball achievement is his incredible record of hitting safely in fifty-six consecutive games (he had a sixty-one game streak in the minors).  So often today’s players seem lackadaisical in unimportant games.  Said Joe when asked why he gives it all in every game, “Because there might be somebody out there who’s never seen me play before.” 

            So why is this fisherman from Martinez, California, revered as an American icon?  According to teammate Tommy Henrich, “He does everything better than anyone else.”  Yankees manager Casey Stengel said of DiMaggio, “He makes big league baseball look so simple.  It ain’t so simple.”

            The man was married to Marilyn Monroe and played centerfield for the New York Yankees.  That’s tough to top.

            In DiMaggio’s nearly forty-eight years of being retired from baseball, he truly was a living legend.  There was something about him that gave him an air of deity.  He would go to Old Timer’s Day every year at Yankee Stadium, but in later years he never played.  He would be there in a suit, probably throw out the first pitch (as he did quite often), and salute the crowd.  That was it.  That was Joe DiMaggio.

            So, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” This line, from Paul Simon’s “Mrs. Robinson,” troubled Joe when he first heard it.  After all, everyone knew where Joe was: he was Mr. Coffee.  Paul Simon met DiMaggio at a benefit once and explained the misunderstanding.  The line was not meant to be taken literally. Paul Simon used “Joe DiMaggio” as a symbol for a true American idol (of which we were lacking in 1967  and still are).  To me, a more effective lyric would have been, “Where has your style gone, all you American positive role models, such as Yankee baseball great Joe DiMaggio?  We need some new role models; not necessarily you, Joe, but someone younger maybe.”  However, this line would have been difficult to fit in the song.

            It’s not as though DiMaggio’s death came as a surprise to anyone.  (We had been prepared for it since about September.)  In what turned out to be the last six months of Joe’s life, the American public was bombarded with news about his health.  Every three days or so, the front page of the Sports section would contain a headline and a brief article about DiMaggio’s condition.  There were really only two articles: one said that Joe had suffered a tremendous setback and that the end was near; the other, said that Joe had made a miraculous recovery and would be returning to his newspaper reporter job in Metropolis shortly.  (These two articles were run alternately every three days from September to March.)  My theory is that we simply wanted to root for Joltin’ Joe one more time.  A game is more exciting when it goes back and forth, and that is exactly what the media portrayed.  The media (namely, NBC) was also responsible for making Joe’s recovery truly a miracle.  (This would come in handy if Joe were ever up for canonization.)  For about twenty minutes in December, Joe was dead.  The peacocks at NBC were the first to break the story (and, actually, the only ones).  The error was rectified when a friend of DiMaggio’s called the company.

No one is perfect. Not even baseball gods like Joltin’ Joe. But even flawed gods give us something to root for, perhaps even more so than would infallible ones. I reserve a special place for DiMaggio in my life, the baseball-playing uncle from California I never had. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. So, here’s to you, Joe DiMaggio, as timeless at 99 as you ever were.

Today in History

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Today, of course, is a sad anniversary in American history: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. They say everyone alive at the time remembers where he was when he or she first heard the news. Every time I see statistics now about how people heard the news I’m always surprised. Most people didn’t hear the news from Walter Cronkite or their local news reporter, but from friends or neighbors or coworkers who called or told them in person. Amazing that even in the pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook era, most people were already on a 24-hours news cycle, and relied on an old-school “social media” to get their news. Let’s hope we never have to find out what chaos would strike the blogosphere should such an event ever occur again. If Miley Cyrus can bring Twitter to a standstill, I’d hate to think what real news could do.

The Kennedys still remain a fascination to us 50 years after JFK’s death, the subjects of books, movies, and of course, blog posts. I count myself among Kennedy watchers (as I am with many historical figures), and will watch this weekend’s tributes with interest. I usually say that I like everything about the Kennedys… except their politics. And with everything I’ve read and heard about that fateful November day in Dallas (and, like today, it was a Friday), I think Oswald was the only shooter present. I would not be altogether surprised to discover, some day, that Oswald indeed discussed the shooting with associates boardering on co-conspirators, but it seems as though ultimate responsibility lies with Oswald himself. I love a good conspiracy as much as the next guy, but I just don’t see it here.

That said, remember today that life is short, and one never knows how or when it will end. Spend time with your family and friends, and remember that sometimes life can be so enjoyable.

A few old favorite phrases

Monday’s post made an oblique reference to a few of my old go-to bits about politicians and your money. I thought it would be both wise and nostalgic to revisit those old friends, always timely and illustrative of so much of the political world. The statements are related, and reveal similar things about the modern statesman.

Statement number one: “I possess the ability to make something out of nothing.”

This is the real-world translation of most of what your elected office holders and candidates for said offices promise to bring you at some point in the future. Whether it’s health care, jobs, educational opportunities, parks, roads, bridges, or anything in the form of government spending, you may have been led to believe that such things simply arise from some magic elixir concocted by our wisest political representatives. I hope this does not come as a shock, but you have been misled. Perhaps you were thinking that somehow the world could be arranged so that statement number two were also feasible:

“I possess the ability to make some people better off without making anyone else any worse off.”

This is one of my favorites regarding transfer payments from one citizen to another (though it’s never described as such by its proponents). Increases in the minimum wage, or any rise in one price without considering effects on other prices, fall prey to this deceit as well.

Such one-eyed optimism brings us to our final statement, perhaps the most beautiful of all: “I will spend other people’s money on you without spending any of your money on anyone else.”

So delightful in its logical simplicity, I’ll admit I heard this one first from Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman. There is simply no good comeback to this one, unless you are comfortable with a response validating theft. And when presented with a response denying such, simply refer to either Statement One or Statement Two. Or to borrow another phrase from Friedman: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

When reading the news today or any day, think about how many times you could substitute the above phrases for what appears as “journalism” or statements from our elected representatives. One thing’s for sure, political advertisements would be a lot more succinct.

Still disinterested, never uninterested

I’ve had a standard routine I’ve used on the first day of class for every course I’ve taught, regardless of subject, for the past five years. One of the new “first class” bits I’ve added in the past year or so has been the difference between disinterested and uninterested. “Uninterested” means what you think it means; when something doesn’t appeal to you, you are uninterested. “Disinterested” means impartial, as in, “A judge should be disinterested in the case.” (A scene in the 1991 film Bugsy contains this distinction if it helps you remember the difference.)

I tell my students we will examine political science (or history or economics or communications) with disinterest. Of course we may find the subjects interesting, and we may indeed have opinions, but at first study we should set that aside. Say we are considering a certain piece of legislation or economic program. One’s first instinct is to suggest whether it’s “good” or “bad” and therefore whether it should be adopted. The knee-jerk response is actually second-order thinking, and should be reserved for consideration following this: a disinterested consideration of the likely effects.

With any change or proposed change one can generally predict who stands to benefit and who stands to lose. Such an honest interpretation would be refreshing from any politician or journalist, but such appraisals are few and far between. One-eyed impassioned pleas are more the standard, touting potential benefits and ignoring potential costs. The current example of national health insurance is but one of a universe of examples hindered by this obstruction.

The past four years I’ve tried to take a disinterested view of politics and government. As we are still a (mostly) free people, we have the luxury to do this, a luxury not assumed by peasants of less-civilized places or times. But one of the other benefits of living in prosperous times is the ability of one to profess his views, wise or unwise, founded or unfounded. And with modern technology on my side, I welcome the opportunity to broadcast easily to a potentially large audience. So tell your friends, and revisit often. If nothing else, I hope I can hold your disinterest.

Politics aside, it hasn’t been too bad

When I discontinued this blog in November 2009 it was for one reason: I didn’t feel like giving away anything for free anymore. I gave up the blog, gave up the TV show, and vowed never again to print an issue of The Binghamton Vanguard. Those things were money-losing operations, and I wasn’t making enough money at my regular “job” (whatever that is) to justify their continuation.
I’d like to reveal that I now make more money at my regular job and can justify a few whimsical enterprises. I would like to but I can’t. I think, though, that the non-pecuniary benefit of having a blog has risen now to the point at which I find it worth the expense, as I did with the TV show I brought back for a short period in 2011. To date only the Vanguard stands as is. One out of three ain’t bad.
I read a story recently from economist Steven Landsburg which described what a young person’s–any person’s–ultimate life goal might be. What’s the goal? What should one’s direction in life entail? To be a consumer. Landsburg’s words, though he says he’s merely quoting a friend: “I want to consume as much as I can of as many different things as I can for as long as I can.” There’s your reason to do anything, including have a blog, paid or unpaid.
The event in November 2009 that soured me to unpaid philosophizing was, of course, the reelection of Matthew Ryan as mayor of Binghamton. More specifically it was the defeat of my candidate, Douglas Walter Drazen. I was disappointed to say the least with the Drazen loss, and seeing no hope for Binghamton’s future, I knew by the time the next mayoral election rolled around I’d be long gone. For all my faults in life I do tend to stick to plans, and that one was a case in point.
Last week Binghamton elected a new mayor: Rich David. To say he’s a new mayor exaggerates a bit; for several years he was the city’s deputy mayor, and operates in the same circle of Republican cronies that have plagued the city my entire lifetime. These so-called Republicans make the John McCains and Lindsey Grahams of the world look like Tea Party stalwarts, and are, on a local level, the manifestations of why the Tea Party exists. We’ve had our own Republican internecine battle in Binghamton for decades before Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin came along, one of the rare instances in which Binghamton really was ahead of a national trend. Unfortunately it was a bad trend, and our city has been suffering beyond what the average Obamacare malcontent could conceive.
My thoughts on Binghamton and its poor governance were codified every week or two for 13 years. I’m going to revisit those ideas in the coming weeks and months, and relate them to national issues. The nice thing about having principles is that you don’t really have to wrestle with new issues that arise. Just apply your principles and the answer awaits, no political considerations necessary. This one is going to be one of our major themes.
A major theme of our society the past four years, unfortunately, is a continuation of one that has afflicted us for most of the past century: the growth of government at the expense of personal liberty. The few voices that have emerged recently promoting liberty have been too often mocked by those in political power and worse still by those in the media, ironically the one-time champions of freedom and enterprise. Sadly I see little real opposition to the slow creep of government upon our nation, and sadder still that slow creep seems to be moving less slowly.
This being said, there is still no time in human history I’d rather live than in present-day America. With all its faults this is still the greatest nation in the history of the universe. And the fact that I can blog about it whenever I want just makes it that much better.