The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
 
 
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Brain / Mind ... Personal Reflections ...

My mother has been in the intensive care unit at St. Marys Hospital in Passaic for the past 18 days, following an unexpected respiratory arrest that brought both her lungs and heart to a halt. Thus, I’ve gotten to know something about hospital life; there’s nothing like hanging around an ICU for 6 hours each day (following a few hours in the emergency room at the start) to get a feel for things.

I must say that I’ve been impressed with many of the people working there. I’m still not a big fan of doctors, but the emergency room MD was pretty amazing in his low-key fashion. He was dancing his way through a non-stop chorus of chaos, making it all look well-rehearsed. The ER med tech guy who helped him was an amazingly intense young man. And most of the ICU nurses and technicians have done pretty well too.

I’ve been going back to my office for half-days during this time, and many of the people there are minor-league by comparison. The combination of human caring and professional intensity is entirely lacking amidst much of the support staff. Myself included, unfortunately.

I probably am romanticizing the hospital situation somewhat; there are problems and pettiness and employee gripes at St. Marys. It’s hard and sometimes nasty work, but when these folk go home they certainly are entitled to feel good about what they do for a living.

Next thought: since her respiratory incident, my mother has been in something of a coma, to a varying degree. She does open her eyes a fair amount, and sometimes seems quite aware of what is going on around her. But most of the time, she is not experiencing what we call “consciousness”. This is ironic to me, given the academic interest that I’ve taken on the topic of mind and self-awareness. I’ve read quite a few books and have devoted part of this web site to reviewing what I’ve learned from scientists, psychologists and philosophers about the complex interactions between brain, mind and self (and let’s not even get into stuff like “free will”). But I didn’t imagine that my own mother would soon be caught in the twilight world where those around her can only guess “what it is like” for her right now.

All of those good words and learned thoughts by the experts, professing to have a grasp on what our minds are and what goes on within them . . . You’d think I’d be well prepared to understand what my mother is going through. But no. When something really happens to the brain and mind of a real person, all of the learned thoughts and conceptual paradigms about our innermost life are “like straw” (as St. Thomas Aquinas said late in his life about the many words he had written trying to capture the essence of God).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:42 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Personal Reflections ...

This blog has pretty much been “off the air” lately, as my time has been diverted to a family situation. I.e., my mother experienced a “respiratory arrest” last Tuesday afternoon that effectively shut down her lungs and heart. The EMT and ER people managed to keep her going and get her stabilized, and she’s been in a hospital intensive care unit since then. We’re not sure how this situation is going to play out; my mother’s condition is “touch and go”, you might say. There’s been some progress, but also some set-backs. She is fighting incredibly hard to keep going, however, and most everyone involved seems rather impressed by her sheer willpower.

So, I will be back before long, and I’ll have some interesting things to talk about. I’ve been in the “belly of the beast” of the American health care system, and may still have a ways to go through those awful entrails. I’ve had some time to reflect on my family relationships. I’ve been in an urban hospital mixing with people from all parts of the globe. I’ve had my life upset a bit, giving me a chance to look at it from a different angle. It’s all been quite upsetting, and awfully tiring; I’ve lost 5 pounds over the past week (which takes me down to around 120 — but on the bright side, that’s a good excuse to start eating more!). But it’s also been a learning experience. Life as a learning experience; that’s what being an “eternal student of and for life” is all about. I hope to share some of my new lessons on this page very shortly.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:25 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, December 8, 2008
History ... Society ...

When I was in grammer school and high school, I learned about history — as did most of us. Regarding our own nation, I learned about the Revolutionary War, about the Civil War, about WW1 and WW2, about the Founding Fathers, about the adoption of the Constitution, etc. Regarding world history, I was taught about the great empires in China and Rome and the Middle East, about the kings and queens of England, about Alexander the Great, about Genghis Khan and Marco Polo, about the Greeks and the Egyptians with their pyramids, and other sundry events and dates and figures. Unfortunately, I never thought to ask the bigger questions: just why were there kings and nations and wars and trade routes to China? I never stopped to wonder just when and why, in the course of early human history, did people give their consent to being ruled by a king or other kind of government? Just why did they affiliate themselves with a kingdom or a fiefdom or a nation? When did they consent to the idea of war, of putting their lives on the line to bring mayhem and misery to other people who were ultimately like themselves? And when and how did the one or two good things that came from large-scale organization brought on by kings and ruling elders, i.e. trade and shared learning, get going?

Only in my old age did I even think of these things as questions. I have been listening to a CD course from The Teaching Company called “The Wisdom of History” by J. Rufus Fears. I must give Prof. Fears credit for bringing up those questions. In his history of the Middle East, the big professor (Dr. Fears does appear to be a robust man; his “hotness rating” on ratemyprofessors.com is 0) points out that it was in Egypt and Iraq where the first kings and kingdoms occurred. Humans were living there as they were throughout the rest of the world, i.e. in little family-tribes, getting by through a mix of hunting, gathering, and small-scale agriculture.

However, the weather started changing, getting dryer and dryer, and a lot of these little tribes were in trouble. Someone figured out that they could prevent these people from starving by learning how to channel the big rivers and predict their flows, i.e. the Nile and the Tigris / Euphrates system. This would take large-scale organization on the part of those with the right information; and such organization required the ability to boss other people around. Since it was a matter of growing food or starving, a lot of people gave in and pledged their allegiance to the handful of folk with information about the rivers. (Information is the precursor to power.) And so came the birth of kingdom and absolute tyranny. The new kings soon made it clear that they were the boss, not to be questioned. If you don’t like it, go find your own river.

Once we had kingdoms with hundreds and eventually thousands of people willing to do what the king said, it wasn’t hard to take the first steps towards war. Maybe there were still tribal people getting by out beyond the rivers in question; well, why not organize some of the subjects into a fighting group, arm them with sticks and rocks and whatever else could do harm, and go out and conquer those little tribes. It would make the kingdom bigger, give the king more land and people to control, and thus allow more taxes to be levied as to support the material comfort of the king and his family. So, the idea of war and conquering got started. It got especially interesting when one growing kingdom discovered that there were others out there, and that they were becoming interested in the same hills or seas or rivers for future expansion. So, more and more emphasis was placed on training armies and making war. Eventually, war got so popular that it became more than a way to compete with other kingdoms for new turf; if done right, it could conquer another kingdom as a whole, providing a bounty of new lands, slaves, and whatever material comforts the losing kingdom had accumulated.

So, starting with the Middle East but certainly expanding rapidly out from there, the world saw the continual geographic growth of regions where local inhabitants lost their freedom, where they were forced to swear allegiance to a king and give in to his demands (including taxes, service in the army, contribution of free labor for public projects, obedience to general laws of behavior, etc.). There were fewer and fewer places where a small family tribe could just live on the land as they chose. The world was getting organized, but in a rather crude way; there were a handful of big bosses (kings), and thousands then millions of people taking orders from them unquestioningly. (If you did question the king, you were probably a goner).

Still, the geographic growth of all this forced control caused by megalomaniac kings did cause one good thing to happen, something that would eventually give many of the small people the opportunity to gain some level of power and freedom of their own. And that was trade. As kingdoms grew, roads and ships had to be built. Over time, people became more mobile. And people discovered that over those hills or across the bay were other people who had access to local resources that allowed them to make metal plates or pottery or perfume; they might be interested in exchanging some of that stuff for what we have, be it fish or apples or wool or stone tools. Once trade started, many possibilities for individual betterment were unleashed. Numbers and writing were started by kings and their ministers to keep track of taxes; but those techniques eventually got out and were adapted as to help traders. So, with trade was spread the ability to write and understand numbers. Eventually, this spurred the exchange of ideas and techniques. Civilization was on the way.

And thus came about the schizophrenic world that we know: a world of war, a world of power, a world of allegiance demanded by king and country, demands that that too quickly become tyranny. And yet, a world of economic opportunity, intellectual development, and humanistic ideals. The Middle East was the birthplace of our key monotheistic religions, and thus the ethics of individual dignity and rights that eventually stemmed from them. Not far away were the ancient Greeks, who through the leisure and learning allowed to a privileged few (because of trade) were able to develop philosophies and ideals like democracy.

So there it is, the (very rough) story regarding the origins of the best and worst of humankind — if I’m hearing Dr. Fears right. It’s too bad that we are all taught at a young age to take them for granted. If we are going to emphasize our good things and phase out the bad, we need to know where they came from and why they got so popular. History needs to stop being all about dates and people and battles, and start being more about why humankind is the way that it is. You gotta know how you got here in order to get any further.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:46 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Art & Entertainment ... Photo ...

On Monday evening at sunset, there was a celestial mini-event here in the Eastern USA, as the crescent Moon was in close proximity to Venus and Jupiter. All shining brightly in the south-western sky, the three formed a triangle that was quite a sight to see, hovering over the afterglow of dusk. I got out my camera and tripod, and you see the results above.

Back in the old days, the public interpreted events like this as having some sort of metaphysical consequence. By “old days”, I certainly do include pre-historic times along with antiquity and the Middle Ages. But I must also include the “hippie era” of the late 1960’s, when the “dawning of the age of Aquarius” became a popular topic. The 5th Dimension put out a hit song reflecting the great hope that was in the air at the time, the hope for a “groovy future” because of a certain alignment of Mars, Jupiter and the Moon. (Probably assisted by all of those “mind expanding” substances that American youth was popping or smoking or ingesting back then.)

But today, the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus — which you’d think was an even better partner than Mars — can put on a show right before dinner, and hardly anyone went out to light ceremonial bonfires for ritual dancing in multi-colored robes. I’m surprised that hardly anyone thought to link this heavenly display with the recent election of Barack Obama as POTUS. Many people, especially rich liberals and not-so-rich youth, see the coming of Obama as something mystical, the dawning of a new era. So why didn’t they make the connection with this great sign from above? Why wasn’t there barefoot dancing by joyous youth around the autumn flames at sunset? Just because the stock market had another bad day?

I’m not going to let this go without an attempt, however lame, at a 60’s style celebration of that great sign in the sky as our nation enters a new age. Get ready, because I’m going to mash the lyrics from the first stanza of the 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”. But I’m also going to need to twist up Mr. Obama’s last name somewhat. Aquarius has 4 syllables, while Obama has a quick 3; it doesn’t fit well in the refrain. So I’m going to give his name a Roman Empire twist; I’m changing it to “Obam-ius”. Having done that, here’s what we get:

With Venus bright in the southern sky,
And Jupiter out near the Moon
When hope will guide our country
And peace will be here soon
This is the dawning of the Age of Obam-ius, Age of Obam-ius,
Obam-iussssssss . . . .

OK, I’ll stop here. Guess the 1960’s are over, REALLY OVER. Just me getting old.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:11 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Sunday, November 30, 2008
Food / Drink ... Personal Reflections ... Religion ...

It’s Sunday and a lot of people have gone to church today to participate in services meant to worship some form of divinity. I wasn’t one of them. I haven’t attended a regular church worship service in almost ten years. In some ways I miss it. I still believe in a divinity, and there’s no reason why the divinity that I believe in doesn’t deserve my participation in a communal worship service honoring that divinity. But one of the things that turns me off about church worship, such as it is available in my community, is that it seems to be about more than just divine worship. Much more. Too much more, in my book.

Let me be honest here. It’s also a matter of personal economics. Church don’t come cheap around here. Most congregations will hit you up for money once they see you as a regular. And that’s legitimate; it costs money to heat and maintain church buildings, and hire ministers and other staff, and buy songbooks and such. But for now, my parental support responsibilities make me do cost-benefit comparisons for any major purchase I might consider. And the typical costs for belonging to a typical church just don’t outweigh the benefits, in my book.

Why not? Well, the churches (and mosques and synagogues and whatever else might be out there, including Quaker meeting houses) just don’t deliver the kind of intellectual stimulation that I’d like. I am an eternal student, after all, and the subject of God for me is not a settled one (and never will be). So there’s never a lack of thirst for intelligent things to be said about the question of God, and of how we should live our lives in light of that huge question. But most of the churches that I’ve been part of (and I sampled quite a few back when I was younger) seemed to focus on repeating the same things over and over.

Sure, someone usually gives a sermon with a few thoughts on how the ancient scriptures and confessions of faith relate to current events. But they have to walk on eggs, they can’t question whether the ancient writings and creeds might be wrong in some ways or whether someone else’s ancient writings and creeds might fit better given the issue of the day. They can’t be very open minded. And I’m not in the mood to spend scare money on closed mindedness.

And what else bothers me is the focus on “the founders” and the history of the sect. When I was hanging out with the Quakers, it was suggested that I get to know Matthew Fox and Quaker history (which I did, somewhat, as it is worth knowing about). When I was an Episcopalian, I was expected to know something about Bishop Cranmer and Anglo history. The Roman Catholics of course have their many saints and popes to learn about (but only up to a point; they don’t want the average Joe to know too much about the old popes, given some of the less-than-stellar leaders the Roman Church has had over the centuries).

And then of course there are the worship rituals and all the time and effort needed to support them. And then the basic grounds-and-facilities issues and the business stuff, like fixing the leaky boiler and balancing the budget. Then there are the social customs, the picnics and dinners and bake sales and youth activities and such. All well and good. Oh, and then also the social activism that some congregations engage in. Even better. But as to getting back to the basic question: why should we believe in God, and live our lives as though God really does exist – everyone seems almost embarrassed to consider it. As though it’s all settled, bringing it up implies lack of conviction.

Maybe the problem – or my problem anyway – is that churches are about worship, and not about ongoing existential dilemmas. Worship implies that you’ve gotten past the existential of believing in God, and are ready to start acting out your belief. At least during the hour allotted for worship services. I guess that existential dilemmas regarding faith are not easy to share and discuss and deal with. So we don’t. At least no where in my neck of the woods. And that’s too bad. I could see pulling out a twenty and losing an hour or two on a Sunday morning if there were a group format nearby that mixed discussion, learning, meditation and singing, along with comparisons of the many ancient and modern thoughts on God and faith from throughout the world, personal reflections on the crisis of belief and faith, and sharing of ways to enact faith in daily life and social life. And no requirement to memorize the founders and past history of the movement! I.e., no Moses, Mohamed, Buddha or Saint Peter to bow down to.

(The Unitarians claim that they do this, but they fail to make it to first base with me, as they don’t presume belief in God or even interest in belief in God; the latter would relate to those of us – most of us, actually – who entertain doubts amidst our hope. The Unitarians don’t even require hope for a loving divinity, you can be an atheist and be fully accepted in that community. Not my cup of tea, a bit too weak of a brew.)

So for now, I stay home on Sundays. But I maintain my hope that there’s something out there somewhere like this. A church of eternal students on the road, searching for faith within their lives.

BEER REVIEW: Here’s a quick review of two new beers currently being pushed on the masses by the giant American brewers, Budweiser and Miller. They both involve lime. I personally like lime, and I was intrigued by the notion of how limey flavors would go with beer. Well, Bud and Miller, in their infinite wisdom, decided that lime flavor would go best with a watery light beer. So they have given us Bud Light Lime, and Miller Chill. Of the two, I like Miller Chill better. It still tastes just a bit like beer; and the lime flavor is subtle, not all that far from fresh lime juice. On the other hand, Bud Light Lime tastes more like lime-flavored candy, liquid style. Too much cheap quasi-lime flavoring in it. So Miller has the better entry in the lime beer war, for now.

WEB SITE REVIEW: There are plenty of useful little web sites that you don’t notice or look at until you specifically need what these sites do. One of those sites is www.filleritem.com I came across it the other day when ordering something from Amazon and just missing the $25 threshold for free shipping. That’s when you want to know what can you buy from Amazon for a buck or two that would put you over the top and avoid the $5 or more for shipping. It’s not easy to to that directly on Amazon, as they don’t have a price-range search (which further selects out those items sold directly by Amazon; a lot of listed items are sold by affiliated vendors, and thus are irrelevant to the free shipping offer for goods purchased directly from Amazon). But filleritem.com does indeed allow such a search. Only problem: the site needs updating. Some of the cheap items listed aren’t available anymore, and others have gone up in price. I hope that they do keep this site updated; if you do business with Amazon, sooner or later you’re going to need it! (PS, there’s also www.slickfillers.net)

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:33 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Health / Nutrition ... Public Policy ...

There’s a good post under the “Economix” column on the NY Times site discussing why health care costs so much in the USA. A Princeton economist named Uwe Reinhardt writes that the USA spends about 40 percent more per capita for health care than what other developed nations spend, as adjusted for GDP per capita. Some of that cost involves our greater use of specialists and tests due to “defensive medicine” practices (i.e. doctors having to cover their butts in fear of lawsuits). Some of it is just the “brotherhood” of doctors making enough work to keep everyone in business; studies have found that in cities where there are a lot of specialists, the average use of specialists per patient goes up. Unfortunately, this does not result in better health. Some of it might be that we invent the latest and most expensive machines, drugs and procedures, and are the first to use them. But a study by the McKinsey Global Institute found that about 21 percent of the excess spending is due to administration and insurance overhead costs.

In other words, our crazy system, with its health care corporations, insurance companies and government agencies shooting paperwork back and forth, requires a lot of people cross-checking each other, making sure that their organization isn’t left “holding the bag” for unexpected costs of patient care and treatments. Some of the administration cost also goes for insurers designing and marketing “gold-plated policies” to rich people who can afford truly humane and decent health coverage.

I’ve said before that capitalism and health care don’t mix. I’m all in favor of free international markets for computers and refrigerators and long-distance phone calls and socks and sealing wax; if you get a computer that doesn’t work right or some sealing wax that doesn’t seal, you can get past that and move on. But when you make a mistake about buying health care, it can be fatal. And when you depend on your employer to buy health care for you, then you’re letting someone else play with your life.

We accept a certain degree of socialism here in America. We allow state control and coordination of certain critical things that don’t get done properly under free markets. Those include schooling, police and fire protection, garbage collection, etc. We want to make sure that these things, which are essential to everyone, are fully accessible to everyone, not just to the rich. Unfortunately, health care is now less and less available to the poor and even the middle class. It’s time to bring health care into the crypto-socialism fold. There may still be a role for private enterprise in providing services, but only in the context of a government guaranteeing a reasonable level of care for everyone. I honestly hope that’s where President Obama and all his friends in Congress will soon take us. The American health care system is sick, and is making Americans sicker than they need be.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:40 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Religion ... Society ...

I watched the recent NOVA science show on PBS about the Bible (The Bible’s Buried Secrets), regarding what archeology tells us about the Hebrew Testament and the formative era of Judaism. To put it bluntly, what archeology tell us is that a lot of what is said in the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament isn’t true. Especially in Genesis, the first book. OK, so we’ve know for a long time that the Earth and heavens weren’t made in a week, and that Adam wasn’t formed out of the mud with Eve being pulled from his ribs. But most of the great stories about Abraham and Jacob and Moses also turn out to be fabrications and retrojections from later events, events such as the Babylonian exile, events which do have historic foundation. Even David, although confirmed as an historic figure, was taken down a few notches from the powerful and glorious king that he is made out to be in scripture.

According to NOVA, the “nation of Israel” most likely gained its identity between 1200 BCE and 1000 BCE as a mix of refugees from southern Canaanite cities that were in turmoil (as Egyptian dominance subsided), and local nomads in the high country around Jerusalem (where the urban refugees were settling). There may well have been former Canaanite slaves in the group who had managed to run off from central Egypt, and perhaps there were charismatic leaders amidst them who inspired the Moses character. And those groups may well have wandered in the desert country between the Nile and the Canaan highlands for many years. So there were folk-tales available from which a narrative of a great past could be weaved, a past that was fabricated to deal with problems of the day (such as the crisis of conquest by Assyria and Babylon).

Interestingly, one of the biggest retrojections onto the days of Moses was the idea of monotheism; archeology shows that the early Jews continued worshiping a variety of gods, including the Canaanite fertility goddess, for many centuries after King David and Solomon. They finally decided that it was best to stick with one god, YHWH, in order to deal with the foreign invaders. That was the god which the Egyptian refugees encountered in their wanderings (being worshiped by villages in southern Sinai, perhaps the Biblical “Midian”), and was thus remembered by them as their protector.

(It would be interesting to research whether the memory of Asherah, the Canaanite fertility goddess whom the early Jews sometimes referred to as the “wife of YHWH”, lasted into New Testament times and contributed to the formation of the Virgin Mary myth in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.)

The interesting thing is that many of the people who were contributing to this research and offering this interpretation were either from Israel or otherwise had typical Jewish surnames. I’d say that it is a good bet that many of the people who were debunking the great myths of the Jewish nation were and are Jewish. And that impressed me. These people seemed very relaxed about what they were doing and saying. No one was threatening their well being for saying that the great stories of the Bible aren’t literally true. Now compare that with the situation in Islam. Not too many years ago, a very early manuscript of the Quran was found in an obscure mosque in Yemen. Since then, only a handful of western scholars have been allowed to see it. Those who suggest that it may have been an ‘evolving work’ (such as Dr. Gerd Puin) have encountered hostility. You can find strong refutations by Islamic thinkers of the idea that the Yemen verses might show the “official version” of the Quran to have significant differences from what Mohammad or his immediate associates wrote during their lifetimes. E.g.

So, it might be a while until you see a NOVA episode regarding the “buried secrets of the Quran”. And that’s a shame. It is said that Islam is a relatively “young” religion; the NOVA special would indicate that the “Israel nation” identity was formed over 1600 years before the life of Mohammad. Well, the Jews are certainly acting quite admirably and maturely about what science is saying about their most sacred foundational myths and stories. Let’s hope that Islam will learn to live up to this example.

MORE IMMATURITY: I was listening to NPR yesterday and the announcer said that the “liberal blogosphere” (e.g. Daily Kos, Huffington Post) is somewhat upset with President-elect Obama for showing some centrist tendencies, e.g. considering Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State, meeting with Senator McCain, and not committing to the prosecution of Bush Administration officials for torture. Plenty of immaturity out there; and perhaps Barack Obama has aged decades over the past two years. Perhaps.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:45 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Current Affairs ... Economics/Business ... Public Policy ...

I thought that I’d weigh in on the question of what to do about General Motors. GM would like some federal help in getting it through the big economic downturn that we’re in. They claim that if the taxpayers don’t cough up $50 billion in loan guarantees shortly, GM will go bankrupt, and that all kinds of dire consequences will ensue. Personally, I think that our government should just say no; but it should also get ready to say yes to the damage control that will be absolutely necessary once GM goes into the bankruptcy ringer. The potential long term benefits to our world from a GM bankruptcy are worth it all.

As to a federal bailout: I think it would be the worst of all evils. GM management would like some fast federal cash and nothing else, other than an obligation to pay the money back someday. There’s no way they’re going to get that. The Democratic Party now runs the federal government, and big labor and environmentalists now largely run the Democrats. These parties are not going to give GM a pass to do what it wants with public money. GM would be partly nationalized much as the big financial institutions have been, through public purchase of a significant equity stake. A Democratic Congress will almost certainly require this as part of a bailout package, putting the federal government on GM’s Board of Directors.

From there, the Democrats will require that GM management pursue a contradictory and ultimately self-defeating mandate: to build high-efficiency “green cars” and at the same time be very good to the labor unions. Sorry, folk, but Honda and Toyota didn’t get as far as they did with affordable high-tech cars by giving the UAW cushy terms like GM’s lazy management did. By the end of the second Obama Administration, it would be quite clear that a “GM – Federal Partnership” would be a boondoggle. GM would continue building second-rate cars, but now second-rate GREEN cars like the Chevy Volt. The Volt sounds great, but I remember how great the Chevy Vega sounded in 1975, and what a dog it turned out to be (along with its successor, the Chevette). GM would continue losing market share, and thus continue losing money. It would anticipate and require continuing injections of taxpayer money to keep it alive. It would probably also inspire Congress to enact new trade barriers for foreign auto manufacturers and parts suppliers. Trade restrictions would certainly make the unions happy and might keep a zombie GM going. But trade protectionism was a big factor in sustaining the 1930s Depression. I truly hope that history doesn’t repeat itself in the 2010’s.

There’s a lot about the creative destruction of capitalism that I don’t like, but if any capitalist enterprise seems destined to experience it, it is GM. GM got where it is today by locking itself in the past. Way back in the first half of the 20th Century, GM was the new kid on the block, who had to innovate or die. But eventually it got fat, happy and complacent, and remained so despite decades of warning signs that America was changing and that innovative foreign car companies were overtaking it. So, I believe that a bankruptcy court is the best place for GM right now. Bankruptcy does NOT mean shutting the showrooms and assembly lines down. Many big companies have gone through “reorganization” bankruptcies whereby they continue operating while a long-term plan is made to either sell-off the company’s operations, reformulate the company so as to re-emerge as an independent enterprise, or some combination of both.

I could see GM going through the “both” scenario, although it might take four or five years. During that time, the federal government would have to provide GM with short-term loans to keep afloat. However, the bankruptcy judge – most likely a Republican appointee, thankfully – would have the Constitutional power to keep the Democrats from controlling the destiny of this once-great industrial empire. There would be other federal involvement, and it would be expensive – no doubt about it. GM would dump its expensive worker pension obligations on the federal government pension guarantee fund, requiring a big injection of federal funding to meet the promises made to GM retirees. And the City of Detroit would go from near-collapse to collapse; the Obama Administration would obviously have to get Congress to direct funding there to avoid some really ugly stuff.

So, for the taxpayer, the GM situation is a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t proposition. However, if we don’t bail them out, the damnation will end sooner, and the possibility of eventual salvation will be thrown in as a bonus. GM holds a lot of assets that would be attractive to foreign-based auto companies. The Toyota “wanna-be’s” like Subaru and Nissan might shell out for one or two of GM’s marketing names (e.g., “Pontiac” or “Buick”) and part of its dealership and distribution network. If Congress could resist temptation to fiddle with the bankruptcy laws so as to require that union agreements be protected in all GM manufacturing plants and warehouses, perhaps Nissan and BMW and Volkswagen would buy up some of the newer and better GM facilities; even Toyota and Honda will need to get ready for their increased market shares.

But the billion-dollar question is whether a “knight on white horse” will show up to buy a “vertical core” GM complete with manufacturing, marketing, product development, distribution and dealership networks, perhaps based around two or three of GM’s better brands (say Chevy, Cadillac and Saturn). Without that deep-pocketed, risk-taking capitalist knight, a lot of GM operations will eventually close for good. There is an apparent candidate that I can think of: China. This would be China’s chance to get into the automobile big-leagues. They have the money and the know-how. They could wait out the US recession until things get better, and then establish a firm foothold in the US and Euro auto markets. They could use GM’s engineering and design assets to better serve their own growing domestic market. If done right, China could have the next Toyota, based upon the firm foundations that GM built.

I’m sure that a lot of Americans would oppose this. And I’m not one of them. Japan has Toyota and Honda, Europe has BMW, Daimler-Benz and Volkswagen, and the USA would probably still have Ford (which might get a boost if GM went into bankruptcy and “controlled-contraction”, just enough to survive). And then China would have “General Motors”; or maybe they’re re-name it “World Motors”. GM to WM, why not. So you and most everyone else in the industrialized world would have a lot of choice as to buying a car. A different choice from 20 or 30 years ago, but still a choice. That’s how capitalism works (when it works).

And if not the Chinese – then perhaps a Latin American consortium led by Brazil might step up. I could see Lula in Brazil making a bold pitch for GM. Brazil is the rising economic star of Latin America (thank goodness that they finally have one!). This might be South and Central America’s chance to finally get onto the world economic map; it could create all kinds of opportunities for economic betterment throughout this long-stagnant region. Or, another bold thought – Saudi Arabia and the Arab oil states might finally realize that their day is coming to an end. The handwriting is on the wall that the oil-economy is not going to last forever. What better way to use their amassed fortunes than to buy into the industry
that now supports them but is eventually going to abandon them as the Middle East’s underground reserves peter out? What better way to guarantee an economic future for their children and help them avoid the siren calls of an other-worldly medieval fate under the auspices of al Qaeda?

Yes, a GM bankruptcy would be rather unsettling, especially given all the other economic chaos now happening. But the long-term prospects for a more prosperous world arising from GM’s ashes are just so incredible, so mind boggling. President Obama will have the chance to become a truly great President if he can grab an opportunity like this and fight off all of the political forces that will try to stop it. If Obama can JUST SAY NO to the UAW, to Nancy Pelosi, to the greenies who think they can run a car company, and to the GM big shots in Detroit who ran GM into the ground and now want to become industrial bureaucrats – if he can withstand the hellish criticism that his former admirers in the press and academia would unleash against him – well, then he has a big chapter awaiting him in the history books of the future (versus the dismissive footnotes that will be afforded to Bush and Clinton).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:07 pm       Read Comments (5) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Monday, November 10, 2008
Current Affairs ... Politics ...

There’s a very good article on the London Times web site about Barack Obama and his recent ascension to the throne as President of the United States and King of the World. This article is by a fellow named Matthew Parris, who makes the point that Obama actually did NOT become King of the World on Nov. 4; even though many people throughout the world seem to believe this. Obama is a man that the world loves, and Parris has some ideas on why this is. Here are some of his thoughts:

Each of us in our private chapel half believes that Barack Obama knows our hopes and has heard our prayers.

He, we sense, understands. He cares. He is like us, understands us, surely agrees with us, even though he has not yet said so. He would be our friend if ever we were to meet him. In some strange way he knows us already, though we have never been introduced.

He is the pop star whose poster adorns the adolescent’s bedroom wall; the Blessed Mary who understands her supplicant’s every woe; the gentle Jesus, a personal friend who will not forget us; the Queen Mother who, if she ever had come to tea, would have got on with us like a house on fire.

Ah, so Obama gives many people the impression that he is their secret friend. Why? Because Obama and his message seem so understanding and so “in synch” with their lives. But Parris then goes on to explain that we commoners who labor under such delusions, be they about Obama or any other celebrity, are best shielded from reality.

It is desperately important that we never meet these people, for reality would be cruel. We thought they knew our joys and woes, heard our prayers, and when it dawns on us that the demigod at whose feet we laid them hasn’t listened, can’t help, or doesn’t care, our sense of rebuff will be personal. In our minds we were friends. Believe me, the disillusion when Elton John looks bored to meet you and turns away can be bitter.

Actually, I once experienced something like the “Elton John send-off” that Parris describes. Back in the early 1980s, there was a DJ on WNEW-FM named Dan Neer.

Back then, 102.7 WNEW-FM was THE rock station of the New York area; my brother and I were devoted listeners. And Dan Neer, or “Dan-O on the Radio” as he called himself, was the funniest, wittiest, and coolest DJ on the top radio station in New York. He joked around just like we did when our group was out bar-hopping on a Friday night (ah, sweet days of youth). He played the music we’d be listening to in those bars. He seemed to be one of us, part of our gang; someone we could hook-up with at the next place we’d be stopping at.

Then we actually got to meet Dan Neer. WNEW sponsored occasional early-morning live broadcasts from a rock club somewhere in downtown Manhattan, and they would invite listeners to line up early for admission. They called these events “Finally Friday”. If you got in, you’d get some complementary goodies (I still have my yellow “Finally Friday” coffee mug somewhere), free coffee and danish, and you would get to watch a WNEW DJ doing a live show. Well, on the day we attended, Dan Neer was the featured DJ. Great! We would get to see our hero, live in person!

After an hour or so, Dan-O was mingling with the crowd between songs; mostly favoring the young, pretty women. My brother eventually went up to him and gave him a friendly greeting, like he was one of the boys. Dan-O wasn’t all that impressed; he responded to my brother like a stranger being asked for directions, not sure he could help. My brother finally requested that he play a favorite song; and Dan-O blurted out an uninterested “don’t know” as he walked off, probably spying some young female more worthy of his attention. We got some beer (despite the early hour, the bar was open) and commiserated about Dan-O being a jerk. Who knew.

Interestingly, Dan-O had a brother who was also a DJ on NEW, named Richard Neer. I recall that morning actually sitting down at a table where brother Richard was sitting and having a fairly nice conversation with him. Richard wasn’t quite as dynamic on the radio as Dan, but in real-life he was much more personable. (So I’ll give Richard’s book “Rise and Fall of Rock Radio” a plug, even though I haven’t read it yet).

Here is one more interesting quote from Parris regarding Obama-mania:

And this whole thing could go very sour. A politician who has subtly insinuated himself into the imaginations of millions as a secret friend and the personal champion of all their hopes for the world may find their disappointment the more bitter in the end.

All I can say is that after the Finally Friday live broadcast, my brother and I didn’t talk much about Dan Neer. We’d still listen to his show at times for the music, but would no longer make special effort to tune in whenever he hit the airwaves. I guess that he eventually wore thin with other listeners, as his show was rescheduled and he then disappeared from 102-seven. (He did come back in 1985, but I never listened to him again, or heard anyone rave about him; he’s currently a satellite radio DJ).

I’m sure that Barack Obama will have a much better fate than “Dan-O” Neer did. But it probably helps that only a minute fraction of the 65 million people who voted for Obama will ever get to meet him.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:33 pm       Read Comments (3) / Leave a Comment
 
 
Friday, November 7, 2008
History ... Politics ...

Didn’t Take Long: VP-elect Joe Biden said that once Barack Obama was elected, some nation or force would confront the US, just as the Soviet Union was thought to have put nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962 to rattle President John Kennedy. (“Watch. We’re going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy”, Oct. 20, 2008.)

Well, the votes from last Tuesday haven’t been completely tallied yet and already two threats have arrived on the proverbial radar screen. Iran just issued a statement threatening to shoot at US aircraft operating near the Iran / Iraq border (Reuters quotes an unnamed Iranian politician as saying “This is a clear message to the American president-elect because radicals are not very happy that Obama has been elected.” ) And, Russian President Medvedev just announced his intent to station tactical missiles in the Kaliningrad sector of Russia, that isolated little portion of Russia squeezed between Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea. He claims this to be a necessary countermeasure to the anti-ballistic missile interceptors that the US plans to install in Poland. Interestingly enough, the US rationale for placing those missiles in Poland is to blunt the threat of a missile attack on Europe from Iran.

(This sounds rather crazy at first; Iran’s missiles should logically be aimed at Israel, not Europe. BUT, if a nuclear-emboldened Iran eventually plans to attack Israel, it might also want to discourage Europe from uniting with the US in defense of Israel. Iran’s ability to lob a nuke at Vienna or Paris might bring back those old European pacifist instincts that served it so tragically in the 1930’s, should Hezbollah, Hamas and other Iranian surrogates bring Israel to its knees.)

I am currently listening to a Teaching Company lecture series on “The Lessons of History” by Prof. Rufus Fears. One of his lessons is that we don’t learn from history. Before WW1 and WW2, according to Prof. Fears, Americans and Europeans didn’t think that another big war could happen. They were convinced that technology and world trade had changed things such that no one anywhere would remain interested in the barbaric tradition of war. Life was good, everyone seemed happy; another big war just didn’t seem possible. And yet, more big wars tragically occurred.

I can’t help but wonder if some of that mentality lives on, as reflected in President-elect Obama’s solid victory over Senator McCain. This is not to belittle the credentials that Senator Obama earned over the past year as a skilled politician and an intelligent leader. He survived two extremely brutal political campaigns and proved that he has “the right stuff”. I previously expressed my reservations about him, and I still have some concerns; but I do feel a bit better now. However, a segment of his supporters (young people and liberal Democrats) cast him as “the peace candidate”, the guy who they hope will successfully conclude the two US military involvements in the Middle East which have dragged on since 2001.

(Two more lessons of history – the USA gets very tired of war after a few years; and the Middle East is the graveyard of empires.)

In my opinion, there are still strong forces out there in the world today for whom war IS still thinkable. Even worse, they may see war as an extension of an historic vision, just as Hitler once convinced Germany of an historic destiny to conquer Europe. Such modern forces could well include Russia and Iran. Russia lost the Marxist vision, but I’m sure it can come up with some new “lesson” (or older lesson about the greatness of its past) that it feels bound to teach the world. With Iran, the lesson is very old, regarding the superiority of the Persian people (they’re still getting over that defeat by the ancient Greeks) and the ultimate victory of the Shia vision of Islam. How better to gain dominance over the Islamic world but to take out Israel, something that Sunni-based al Qaeda can only dream of. (Al Qaeda showed us that pan-national “movements” can be extremely dangerous; but we must NOT take that to mean that the world has changed such that powerful nation-states will never “go Napolean” on us.)

I think that President Obama will be smart enough to see the warning signs and realize the need to quickly and forcefully prepare for and respond to what Biden predicted. Unfortunately, the political pressures from his supporters will make it difficult for him. He will be urged to get US troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan quickly, and to avoid installing that anti-ballistic missile system in Europe (which Russia hates so vehemently even though it’s too light-weight to knock down their nuclear missiles). There are intelligent arguments for this. BUT, if this is done too quickly, it might create the impression of weakness and pacifist delusion, just what the bad guys are looking and hoping for. I suspect that Obama will in fact “stand strong” militarily, and will take a lot of criticism from some who vigorously supported him (he might wind up being called “a Bush in sheep’s clothing”; or would that be too ironic?).

Hopefully, Senator McCain will be among the first to speak up and defend President Obama in time of crisis – and in preparation for a coming crisis that the public doesn’t yet see. McCain, for all his failings, does have an old-fashioned sense of sin and the need for atonement. Recall how he vigorously promoted campaign reform after being caught in the Keating banking scandal in the 1980s. Well, Senator McCain sinned again by unleashing Sarah Palin from the frozen wastes of Alaska (what if she appoints herself to replace a re-elected Senator Ted Stevens once the Senate banishes him?). And McCain probably knows it. Hopefully he will realize that his penance is to once more cross the line of party loyalty, so as to do all that he possibly can to promote the success of President Obama. I expect nothing less of John McCain over the next four years.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:49 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
 
 
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