Tides and Times

One day last week, while we were preoccupied with news of the day now forgotten, a  milestone passed that is worth reflection.  As reported in today’s New York Times, as much time has passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall as the time in which it stood.

I was seven when its construction began in August of 1961, and I still recall the blur of worried news as years passed with airlifts of food and reports of deaths from East Germans seeking escape to the West.

The Wall was the site of one of JFK’s memorable speeches, in which he declared in poor German grammar, “Ich bin eine Berliner.”  Years later, Ronald Reagan used the same scene to call out – this time in English, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!”  In its time, that Wall stood for the evil that was the other side, to those on each side.

Perhaps because of its status as the ground zero of the Cold War, the Wall seems to have stood forever in the public mind.  In fact, it neither rose nor fell on a single day and stood in one form or another for only a few months more than 28 years. In terms of wars – hot, cold or lukewarm – that is long.  The twenty-eight years that have passed since then, however, seem to have passed in a moment.  Indeed, I have law students who were not yet born when the Wall fell and to whom the Soviet Union and all the Wall stood for are ancient history.

I have, in a drawer somewhere, a pebble from the Wall, sold in true Capitalist form, as a souvenir by Germans from one side or the other.  There is little else tangible left to mark the battleground between East and West that lasted a generation.

In the generation that followed, the two Germanys assimilated reasonably well, and mostly subtle differences remain between the sides.  Certainly, economic prosperity spread from the West, but most Germans, from either side, see themselves simply as Germans.

Contrast that rapid change with the century that has passed since our country was reunited, following the Civil War.  We lived through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Segregation.  Our Civil Rights era lasted twice as long as the time that has passed since the fall of the Wall.

I have no glib answers to this sad difference, but it is food for both thought and discussion.  It remains for us a topic on which not enough has yet been said.

 

 

 

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A loss of Innocence

Fifty years ago today North Vietnam began its Tet Offensive turning the Vietnam War from one of guerrilla actions into a surprise offensive against the cities of South Vietnam.  In previous years the Viet Cong had announced a partial ceasefire for the Chinese New Year period.  In 1968, however, they used the occasion to go on the offensive, even reaching Saigon in a matter of days.

The offensive lasted until February 24, when South Vietnam recaptured what little remained of the city of Hue.  While it was held by the Viet Cong, thousands of civilians were executed.

Until then, the US government had led the public to believe that the war had long been about to turn the corner toward victory.  Public opinion had begun to turn agains the war, with nearly half the country questioning the war. Opposition was particularly strong among those subjects to the draft.

This opposition was crystallized by the photo you see here, taken on February 1, in which a police chief, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, executed a suspected Viet Cong officer on the streets of Saigon.  The photograph taken by Eddie Adams was published across the world and resulted in his receiving the Pulitzer Prize the next year.

On February 17 after the close of the offensive, the prominent anchor of the CBS Evening News Walter Cronkite, who was later described as the most trusted man in America, said these lines on his broadcast:

“We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds” and added that, “we are mired in a stalemate that could only be ended by negotiation, not victory.”

It was later reported that President Johnson was watching the broadcast and, after hearing Cronkite’s remarks said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Soon events spiraled against Johnson and the war.  Although not publicized until later, the My Lai Massacre, in which American troops killed scores of civilians, took place on March 16, the day that Robert Kennedy entered the race for President against the sitting President of his own party.  On the last day of March, Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection.

Events continued through the traumatic year of 1968, but one place to mark the start of the loss of faith in our government was this day, fifty years ago, with the Tet Offensive.   Are we better off for our acquired skepticism, or are we more divided, to the point of polarization over what indeed is truth?

Pontius Pilate asked that question somewhere around two thousand years ago.  Sadly, the question remains relevant still today.

 

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About History and All It Tends To Do

Twin tragedies from different eras share a common date today.  Twenty-two years ago, the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded 73 seconds after liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  It was an unusually cold morning, which struck me as I watched the innumerable replays of the explosion that day.  It turned out that the cold was determined to be a factor in causing O-ring seals to leak propellant, resulting in the disaster.

This loss was the first of the Shuttle program, and stunned a nation lulled by the description of the program as a routine one in which reuse of the vehicle and the first stages of the rockets were presented as the norm.  After the second disaster, with the loss of the Columbia, we came to learn that the program had actually been designed with a predicted failure rate that proved troublingly accurate.

There are many lessons to learn from all this, but one is particularly timely in my mind.  Christa McCauliffe served on the mission as the first true civilian astronaut.  She was selected because she was a school teacher who planned to promote the program by teaching lessons while circling the earth.  Her death curtailed the civilian passenger program, but not the idea that spurred her personal mission.

Recently Jeanette Epps was removed from her scheduled tour on the International Space Station.  She had planned to teach Christa McCauliffe’s lessons from the ISS in McCauliffe’s honor.  No reason was given for her removal, but she would have been the first black woman on the ISS and has been outspoken in support for blacks and women in NASA.

 

In an earlier disaster that would have gone unsung, if not for Woody Guthrie, a plane crashed 70 years ago today in Los Gatos Canyon, not far from my grandparent’s homestead in California.  Thirty-two people died, including 28 migrant farm workers from Mexico who were being deported.  Wikipedia shares the discussion about the, also routine, Bracero program under which they were deported, but the underlying economic and racial themes from the story echo all too well in today’s climate.

I want not to judge too quickly, but I do think we need to reflect and consider the past in the muddle of today’s events.  Whatever our values; be the law and order, compassion or economic gain and loss; our policies and actions should be well considered and not simple enough to fit on a bumper sticker.

My own opinion is that compassion and pragmatism would yield much the same policy, but for today it is enough to look back and reflect on lives cut short.

 

 

 

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Saying Goodbye

Eight years ago, we brought two American Eskimo puppies into our home.  This morning, one of the two was not following my wife around, as was her usual routine.  I went outside and found her in the yard, having died of what must have been a heart attack.  I often likened her to a cat, for her habit of lying in the middle of whatever is going on.  Like many a cat, I suppose she went off on her own to die.

Earlier in her life, I wrote a piece about the two dogs and my love/hate relationship with them.  It entertained by wife and so I thought I might share it in memory of Annie, who is pictured here.

 

Hounded

Two dogs with one distorted personality define our days. One is incurably insecure and the other suffers from Tourette’s. One is a kleptomaniac, while the second barks for no reason, even in her sleep. Each in her own way is a carnival mirror image of her fraternal twin.

To protect the guilty, I will call them Annie and Becca, two good Jewish matriarchs. They are white hairballs with eyes, American Eskimo dogs that we took in as seemingly innocent puppies, only to find that we were taken in by a two-headed Cerberus. Weighing thirty-five pounds each, they shed a dog a day, leaving white clouds of fluff floating through the air to collect in corners like drifts of snow within a door left open to the elements. Each wears a tufted pig of a tail coiled above its behind that floats over its back to better spread its trail of hair. Negative energy in their coats attracts their hair to any and to all dark surfaces, especially and naturally black clothes. Being fond of marking their territory this way, they prefer sleeping on air vents in order to effortlessly spread their presence to every surface in our home.

Neither is the alpha to the other, because they are two parts of one wholly overwhelming whole.   Never separated as puppies, they live as if connected by a leash, always within reach of the other. They howl, as if tortured, if separated. They race after each other in and out of the house, the second holding the leader’s tail in her mouth, only to tumble into a ball of fur rolling across the yard, collecting leaves and debris to deposit indoors. When not engaged in these “zoomies”, they entertain themselves by cleaning each other’s teeth and other acts of interpersonal hygiene.

“How do you tell them apart?” we are often asked by guests after their overwhelming initial greeting. “One is neurotic and the other ‘simple’”, I usually reply. The truth, however, is that they each have unique traits that meld, for better or worse, with the other. One, I say, thinks she is a person and the other is just a dog. Annie is depressed not to be invited to the table, while Becca is content to lie unerringly on the second stair nearby. Annie rests on the periphery of our presence, flat like a bear rug, while Becca prefers her bed, where she lies drooling, thinking she may have a dog treat coming.

Most days, Annie unravels a roll of toilet paper through the house and out the dog door. She steals shoes and sometimes bills, taking them to the fort she has dug underneath the evergreens in the farthest reaches of our yard. There we find, half-covered with dirt, whatever is missing from our household, although the pair of prescription glasses lost a year ago remains a mystery that Annie will not confess to. We did, however, find a missing box of cereal buried carefully in her corner of the world, full when she carried it through the dog door, but empty when we uncovered it. Most recently, she has been ridding my garden of unwanted soil, I assume to plant bones in hopes that they will grow.

Becca is content to be just a dog and doubtless assumes that we are as well. Her world is a simple one consisting of things to eat and others to bark at, generally for no reason, other than to see if they bark back. Although bred as a circus-performing breed, she seems never to know where her back feet are or what to do with them. She is simply a mouth-breather with more tongue than mouth.   The only sign of intelligent life in her head appears when we tune in Animal Planet, which she barks at, as if cheering on her favorite football team.

We have been hounded this way for nearly four years, possessed by overgrown baby seals, albino dust balls, bleach-blonde gremlins. They began as cute puffs of cream, just eight weeks old. Hoping to raise them as “good dogs”, we knew we were in trouble when the first trainer we interviewed rejected us. We then tried taking them to class, or more accurately, group therapy. There a dachshund cowered, a poodle did something that rhymes with its name and a doberman stared warily, as if seeing double. Finally, we hired a commando dog trainer who came with a guarantee. The dogs came back from training acting as if they had been to sleepover camp.

In this early morning light, I sit here in my small office with the glow of a warm computer lighting up the two dogs lying here peacefully beside me, waiting patiently for me to finish my task and to welcome the day with them. I know that once I turn and rise they will greet me warmly, each in its own way, before racing off to create more material for what I fear will be a never-ending tale about two creatures and their pet owner.

 

Godspeed Annie.

 

 

 

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Reflections

Thornton Wilder, known for his insightful wit, wrote,

 

“It is only in appearance that time is a river.  It is rather a vast landscape, and it is the eye of the beholder that moves.”

 

If so, we collectively took a hard right turn this year that nearly led us off the map.  It has been a strange, and perhaps surreal, time.

Our new President turned the White House into a reality show without a script.  He traded insults and threats with the equally disturbed dictator of North Korea, and tweeted petty and sometimes bizarre messages, as if to distract attention from the slow but unyielding investigation by Robert Mueller into Russian involvement in the election.

The Republican led government proved unable to govern effectively, except to deliver a Trillion Dollar tax cut to the rich, at the expense of most of those that brought them to power.

Terrorist and cyber attacks peppered the news with alarming persistence.  They included a shooting from a Las Vegas hotel that killed 58 and injured 546, numbers that no longer seem to shock our collective conscience.  Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma caused unprecedented devastation, as did the second largest wildfire in California history.

I lost one who was perhaps my closest friend.  We all lost Chuck Berry and Greg Allman, two very human musicians who defined the ends of Rock and Roll music. Fats Domino and Tom Petty too passed away.  With them went Country Music’s Mell Tillis and Glen Campbell, a virtuoso guitarist who recorded dozens of hits with the Wrecking Crew studio musicians before making hits from many of Jimmy Webb’s catalog of songs.

The actress who shared her heart openly with the world, Mary Tyler Moore died, as did the playwright Sam Shepard.  The world lost two humorists who made us not only laugh, but think deeply and give to those in need – Dick Gregory and Jerry Lewis.

And then there were the deaths of the controversial Hugh Hefner and the terrifying Charles Manson, two individuals who, respectively, made us rethink our standards and our very humanity.

In the wake of this world seemingly turned upside down, I am somehow comforted that life still can go on.  Except in Puerto Rico, the lights remain on.  There is food in most of our cabinets.  Football games, even with the toll they take on lives, still are played.  Children go to schools that do their best to instill education, ambition and a few values.  The Internet still works, even without net neutrality, and the mail, what little that is left, still is delivered fairly regularly.

It is heartening that sexual abuse is no longer tolerated anywhere, except it seems in the White House.  I do wonder, however, whether one, or maybe even two, men may have been unfairly swept out with the trash.  Indeed, the backlash against Meryl Streep bears the marks of mob mentality.  Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman topped it all off magically.

While white nationalists came out from hiding, they have largely been shouted down by those living in the 21st Century.  We can even hope that we have heard the last from Roy Moore.

All in all, I have learned again that there is more life in the small, day-to-day moments that one has some control over than the real and imagined horrors shouted in the news.  Somehow, my two grandsons know joy, love and hope that their world will be a good one.  We have more than a few students intent on using the law to serve justice for all, and I rejoice when I hear good news, even though it is sometimes rare.

I do not ignore the horrors and injustice that pervade too much of our landscape.  They discourage and depress me, but they also goad me to carry on in the smaller world where I live each day.

You may find it in an earlier post, but here are the words I remind myself to live by:

 

Be kind.  The world can be a cruel place.

Live small.  Make room and save resources for others.

Seek peace.  Both within yourself and with others.

 

The only thing I might add is to have a sense of humor.  God had to be laughing when he made some of the people we run into.

 

 

 

 

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In Passing

Earlier this week one of my dearest friends passed away, or as Tennyson wrote, “cross’d the bar.”  Len Kirkham was among the last of his kind, a sailor and builder of wooden ships during the final years of that era.  The first time he sailed alone around the world, he took along only a world atlas and his sextant as a guides.  It happened that he knew his way around the sea well enough to have navigated for his Prime Minister and to have earned a few national sailing titles of his own.  He also served as navigator in the Whitbread Round the World race during 1973-74. Far from being one dimensional, he earned an MBA from the London School of Economics and two other masters degrees in hydrodynamics and history.  His obituary, although short, gives one a hint of his remarkable life.

Several years ago I put down on paper my own story of discovering Len and how we came to be friends. I’d like to share it with you.

Midlife crises come in as many forms as there are persons to have them. Mine came right on time, at the age of fifty, and through it, I met someone who became one of the most memorable figures of my life. Having lived through the end of one career and the start of another, a divorce, remarriage and then a successful battle with my son’s cancer, I felt I was due my own selfish moment, which I went about in my own unique way.

During a long sojourn in Seattle for my son’s bone marrow transplant, I grew enamored with wooden sailboats through its Wooden Boat Center, where I would sail in the afternoons after completing my day’s work. The movement of a wooden boat through water while under sail is as natural and organic a motion as the wind through silver maples on a summer day. The boat can turn leaves of water into shiny spray as it glides effortlessly along. I wanted that experience for my own, and so, set about to find my own wooden sailboat.

After a time, I found the perfect boat, a thirty-foot wooden yacht, exactly my age, which I bought, sight unseen, and had shipped from New England to Lake Lanier, north of Atlanta, Georgia. Although its paint was cracked and peeling with age, it had beautiful lines. She had been drawn by the hand of one of the great boat designers and built with the heritage of classic Northeastern yachts. I knew on first Internet sighting that it was to be my red, convertible, two-seater sports car. Designed by William Roue of Bluenose fame and built at the yard of Smith and Rhuland in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in its heyday, she rode low in the water on her narrow lines with sweeping overhangs, bow and stern. She spared little room for cabin comforts and preserved her sleek body to slice through the welcoming waters that awaited her, or so I thought.

When “Amity” arrived on its flat-bed tractor trailer, I had her Sitka spruce mast set and then my yacht was slowly cradled into the water, where she unhesitatingly proceeded to sink. As I stood on her bow wondering “What have I done?” I noticed that the deck seemed to sag beneath my feet. I stooped to examine and noticed that the forestay – the wire that keeps the mast from falling on the captain – had peeled the deck up from the hull. Panic began to set in and I had the boat lifted back onto land. I knew then that I needed help. Instead of seeking out a therapist, I began the seemingly impossible task of finding someone in the rural South who knew the fine art of rebuilding wooden sailboats.

Sailors are not that different from those who prefer solid ground and can thus be alternately helpful and cruel. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up the phone and called the one person I was told who could help me. I had been warned that this character was difficult, but all agreed that he was my only choice.

“Ello, Mate”, he replied when I introduced myself by phone, “Yes, I’ve heard about you. You’re the bloke who bought that shipwreck and it brought down here.” After I asked for his help, he replied, “Well now, not so fast, we need to sit down and discuss this before I can say whether I can help you.” It seems that I was the one to be interviewed for this job.

Several days later, I drove down a gravel road and up to a large tin shed surrounded by old boats in various states of disrepair. “This is not a good sign,” I thought with anxiety. I opened the door to the “office” and was greeted by a cloud of Marlboro smoke, followed by a Springer Spaniel. I shook hands and sat down across a dusty desk covered with bits of boats. “So, I have to ask,” he began, punctuating his point by putting out his cigarette butt, “What in the hell were you thinking?” I then proceeded to suffer through the toughest interrogation of my life.

Looking me over with his long peppered mane and longer graying beard, he took a deep draw from his next Marlboro. I began to wonder what I had been thinking in seeking him out. We negotiated for a time, not over money, but over the quality of what was to become my resurrected boat. In the several hours of questioning, I happened to ask how he got into wooden boat building. It was then that the stories began to unfold.

Over the course of several years, he and his crew restored what turned from rotting timber to a new boat named “Spirit”, I sat for many hours across that desk and learned a great deal about his character. He was born in working-class England, taught himself to sail, raced for the Prime Minister, studied at the London School of Economics, became an investment banker, built a boat by hand and then sailed it home around Africa. He took it once around the world, stopping from time-to-time to do work for Lloyds of London. On the way home, while in the South Atlantic, he decided to go around once again. He was captured once by rebels as a hostage, and eventually slowed down enough to find his way to Texas, where he set up a shipyard.

In time, he married a genuine rocket scientist, who programmed and ran the space shuttle’s simulator. She was so good that they called her back to NASA to choreograph the shuttle’s mission to repair the Hubble telescope. They ended up in Buford, Georgia, after a few more adventures, where he set up shop as a shipwright. There he builds and rebuilds boats for owners who shared his vision for doing a job right, whatever the time required and with minimal regard for cost. We shared many hours in that office, as I listened to stories about his life and travels, after which he would tell me how the boat repairs were going. I have to confess that I enjoyed those times so much that I let the work linger on for what became several years, because I didn’t want to lose the excuse for listening to more adventures.

Spirit required a few replaced ribs and a great many hull planks from the garboards to the waterline. In good time, she found a home back North, where she sails proudly in her grand tradition. I then proceeded to buy another boat that, not surprisingly, was in need of repair.

I have cycled through three boats since then, but I still make regular stops at that smoky shed to check in on my friend. I pet his spaniel, Sammy, and learn about his trips to exotic lands where he builds marinas. I learn how he taught famous seamen to sail and the racing picture of him that hangs in the Hong Kong Yacht Club. Sometimes now, I hear the same stories repeated again, but I never let on. I have something rich to show and keep from my midlife crisis. I provide a believing ear and receive in return the riches of a life I wish I could have lived.

Both he and the dog are growing old like me, but each has bright eyes and a sense of joy at seeing me drop by for a visit. In spite of all his accomplishments, he values most the validation of others he respects. It is a pleasure for me to serve that role and to dream that someday, I will have stories to tell, like his own, and perhaps another aging wooden boat to continue our saga.

 

Len first developed cancer in 2000.  He outlived his first surgeon, but began to succumb again to the disease about a year ago.  I came to spend more and more time with him as the months passed and drove him for treatments from time to time.  In his final days, his wife warmed me to be prepared because he was wasting rapidly.  I simply answered “he is my friend.”  I sat with him on the afternoon before he died.

He is gone now, but I still find myself wanting to plan my next visit, to ask him again about how he met Tristan Jones in the Azores and taught him to navigate, or how he found a picture of himself in the Hong Kong Yacht Club racing with the Union Jack flying from the stern of his wooden boat with a fleet of yachts behind.

I leave you with this:

 

Crossing the Bar

Alfred Lord Tennyson, 18091892

Sunset and evening star,  
  And one clear call for me!  
And may there be no moaning of the bar,  
  When I put out to sea,  
  
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,  
  Too full for sound and foam,  
When that which drew from out the boundless deep  
  Turns again home.  
  
Twilight and evening bell,  
  And after that the dark!     
And may there be no sadness of farewell,  
  When I embark;  
  
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place  
  The flood may bear me far,  
I hope to see my Pilot face to face  
  When I have cross’d the bar. 



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Evolving Values

We are experiencing a daily parade of men accused of sexual misconduct, ranging from rape and trafficking to unwelcome physical contact.  There maybe two sides to a few of the stories, but probably not most.  We hear much about the ones in which the men are, or have been, in prominent positions from which they have now fallen precipitously far.  There are undoubtedly many, many more instances that we will never hear of and that will probably not result in anything like the swift justice that we hear about in the daily news.

This post is not to address the topic of sex in the workplace itself, although having served as counsel for a sales company, I have heard and had to deal with too many examples.  I am more interested for now in how society comes to develop a new, shared ethic over an issue that has lived in the background for years or generations.

The philosopher Hegel proposed that society develops through a process in which a thesis develops, leading to an antithesis, and resulting in a synthesis or shared and higher social state of mind.  Hegel’s premise has suffered from having been later associated with Nazi ideology and is certainly a simplistic perspective of history, but his thoughts may still be useful as we look at how shared values evolve.

Bear with me on this, because I think that we are living in one of those moments in which our collective social conscience is rising above its past.

I’ve often wondered how society has turned upon things it has long accepted, rationalized, tolerated or simply ignored and developed a new and largely shared ethic.  The examples are many and interesting.

My grandmother could not vote until 1920 and the reasons for rationalizing male-only voting now seem laughable.  Prior to that, slavery was justified by ever-failing rationale after rationale, which required an horrific civil war to resolve, at least in name, America’s original sin.

Segregation of the races was the norm in my parent’s formative years, but it fell as its injustices were exposed by the brave and dedicated who stood for their antithesis against what we all, I trust, despise.  As a marker in time, I cringe at the thought that when I became of age, the marriage between my wife and I would have technically been against the law in my state.

Tobacco smoking, perhaps even more addictive than the lie of racial superiority, took generations to rise in our consciousness to being publicly shunned and legally discouraged. Pedophilia among the clergy also took much too long to expose.

Gay and, more recently, transgender rights have risen to the call for full recognition.  We had a transgender student who broke down in tears with me over rejections from firms who were not ready to accept a talented candidate different than the past.

I think about other issues we are facing today and many others waiting for their overdue moments.  Environmental sustainability certainly is timely, if not too late.  The consolidation of wealth and the essential need for a rising philanthropic ethic are concerns we should all address, whatever our station.

As relates to the abuse of power for sex, the field of politics remains a place where the mighty have not yet fallen as precipitously as in other areas.  I fear that we no longer expect the elected to have even the most basic character standards.

Still, when we look back at this year, it would be good to note what incident triggered the change in our shared values.  It may have been Harvey Weinstein that galvanized women into speaking out.

The fact that so much has come out without meaningful government action is troubling on one level, but it also demonstrates that we can accomplish good things without a fully functioning government.  All has yet to be said, but this is something to think about.

 

 

 

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Money Talks

Before my wife and I retired, I came across an article that broke down by state what it took to be considered in the top 1% of household income in the US.  Because our state is poorer than most, we just made it into that now much-maligned category.  We still work, in a manner of speaking, but it is all essentially for free, so we have fallen quite a bit in the rankings.

We still live in a respectably modest home and drive Prius’s.  We have no vacation home and travel economy most often.  We do own a boat, but it is basically the smallest and oldest among those where we keep it.

Having had a passing interest in the subject, I was intrigued by a recent headline stating that the top 1% in the world now own half of all the wealth in the world.  Last year, Oxfam reported that just eight people, six of whom are Americans, own half of the world’s wealth, which, if true, is even more troubling.

The American ethos has long held that anyone who applies him or herself, can become a success, and there have been enough examples to support for the myth, including a few recent individuals who earned billions from Internet businesses.  The rate of consolidation, however, is likely to make such examples rarer in the future, because new ideas are more apt to be acquired by those with capital.

The trend of holding capital, rather than investing is a relatively new development in the history of capitalism.  It is directly contrary to the dictates of Adam Smith, who observed that profits always go back into the system as capital for new profit making endeavors.  Apple serves as perhaps the best such bad example, having now over 260 Billion Dollars in cash sitting idly offshore.  It seems that the rich not only get richer, they also lose interest in doing anything with what they have.  This means that much wealth is no longer is used for ventures that create jobs and opportunities for working people to improve their own lives.

Adam Smith might say that capital is only put to use if there is demand for the product invested in.  For the average worker, wages have not kept up with costs now for decades, which reduces demand.  The only part of the economy where income has grown is among the one percenters, and it is only there that demand has increased.

Apart from the systemic poverty that all these developments ensure, there is an additional and insidious consequence that we seem to be experiencing even now.  Money has always been used to influenced policy in government.  Now, it seems, Dollars and not votes, are the currency of government.  The most recent and, so far worst, example is are the two tax bills currently before Congress.  Politicians are openly advocating increasing taxes on most individuals and eliminating health and entitlement benefits in order to cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy.  This kind of thinking is what gets a morally bankrupt, reality TV star elected President.

I can’t say I have any easy answers to these troublesome trends, but we do need some.  Societies in which the rich live in excess while the poor struggle and often starve tend to fall in time.  People need live with hope for a better future and believe that our government and way of life can make that possible.

As I first wrote this post, I began to list examples of government by and for the plutocracy, but I thought better of the effort.  I have tried to avoid political commentary as a rule here, and my point is not a political one, but rather about a worrisome economic tread.

If we avoid “us versus them” arguments, perhaps we can accomplish better economic opportunity for all.

 

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All Saints’ Day

Today is known as All Saints’ Day, in recognition of the Roman Catholic Saints, who are too many to have a day of celebration for each.  Five hundred years ago yesterday, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, marking the beginning of the Reformation.  We know that he mailed his propositions to the Archbishop of Mainz that day, and tradition has it that he also posted his theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, the town where he was a professor of moral theology.  The propositions were originally intended as topics for debate and not statements of belief, but his opinions were clear, and his stance ultimately led to his excommunication.

The first thesis argued that  Christian’s entire life should be one of repentance.  From that he went on in the remaining statements to criticize the prevailing practice of selling forgiveness, or indulgences, by the church as corrupt and harmful to the proposition of salvation by faith and to the welfare of the poor.

Two years earlier, Pope Leo X had granted open indulgences to pay for the building of St. Peter’s Basillica, preempting local sales of indulgences for eight years, which probably chaffed local clergy in northern Europe.

Luther was not the first to criticize indulgences.  Wycliffe, Hus and others had done so earlier, but history seems to decide when the time is ripe for change and if you believe that history has a direction, Luther was its chosen messenger.  Similarly, the issue of indulgences was the vehicle for more fundamental change, a revolution in religion that was more mildly named the Reformation.

Luther was finally excommunicated in 1521 for refusing to recant his condemnation of indulgences, two years before the construction fund for the Basilica ended.  He went on to form the Lutheran church and emboldened others in Europe to establish new faiths.

Today, the notion that God wants his people to be wealthy holds sway in much of this country.  On Sundays in church and on the airwaves you can hear propositions that God will reward you with greater wealth if you give handsomely to the church.

The Gospels hold the last word, I believe.  All that need be said is found in Luke 21:1-4.

Sidenote:  Another German, German Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press around 1440.  While it is true that the first book he printed using this process was the Bible, that was clearly not his reason for creating movable type.  After all, the text of the Bible doesn’t change, so a fixed page was much simpler and cheaper to create and reuse.

It is more likely that his movable type was first used to insert names into documents granting indulgences by the church, which would have been a lucrative and suitable use for his invention.

 

 

 

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Vacillating About Vaccines

The last case of Smallpox occurred in Somalia 40 years ago this month.  There were two varieties of the disease, Variola Major, which had a mortality rate of 30 to 35 percent, although children died in much greater numbers, and Variola Minor, which killed about one percent of those infected.  Those who survived often suffered from blindness and, of course, pitiful scarring.  In the 20th Century, between 300 and 500 million died from the disease.

Smallpox was perhaps the first weapon of mass destruction.  After it was introduced by the Spanish in the New World in the early years of the 16th Century, 80 to 90 percent of the native populations infected died of the disease.

Edward Jenner found in 1796 that exposure to the milder disease Cowpox created an immunity to Smallpox.  Through the efforts of generations of physicians, Smallpox became the first disease to be fully eradicated, although both Russia and the US have samples of the virus in storage.  Our vials are kept at the CDC, a short distance from my home.

Jonas Salk used an inactive form of the Polio virus to create a vaccine in 1955, a year after I was born.  Having seen firsthand the devastating paralysis it could cause, my parents did not hesitate to have me inoculated.  Today, the disease is nearing eradication, with only 37 cases worldwide reported last year.

Other vaccines followed Salk’s work with general success.  The diseases of Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Chickenpox, Diphtheria, and Hepatitis A and B were each reduced and, in some cases, nearly eliminated through vaccines.  Pertussis, or Whooping Cough, seems to be coming back, perhaps because the immunity from weaker versions of its vaccine may wear off over time, a situation that occurred in my own case, just a few years ago.

The November issue of National Geographic  has an excellent graphic illustrating the impact of vaccines on there diseases.  One interesting observation depicted there is the impact of “herd immunity.”  100 percent immunization is not necessary in order to reduce a disease’s incidence to near zero.  The greater the percentage inoculated, the less likely it is that any one sick person will infect others.

The concept of herd immunity means that the occasional child that slips through the inoculation net is unlikely to cause great harm to others.  This safety net fails, however, when the number not inoculated rises.  In 2014 383 measles case arose around an Amish community that had not been vaccinated.  Mumps still surfaces today in the US in areas, such as colleges, where unvaccinated may be in close quarters.

All that is why the misguided parents who refuse inoculations for their children based on fake science are a danger.  They put not just their own children at risk, but all those that their children come in contact with.

In 1918, 99 years ago, the flu pandemic that circled the world killed between 50 and 100 million people, 10 to 20 percent of those infected.  Almost 500,000 Americans died from the disease, reducing the life expectancy in the US by 12 years because of its effects.  Today, most of us dutifully find a source this time each year to get our flu shot for the expected strain to impact our population.

Fake news is too easily spread today and is fittingly described as “viral.”  The consequences of sharing misinformation can be as devastating as the diseases that good science and generations of doctors have worked so hard to protect us from.

Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote, “The good thing about science is that it is true whether or not you believe in it.”  What you say to others, however, could cause lasting harm.  Words are powerful tools.  Use them wisely.

 

 

 

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The Last Word

After all is said and done, more is said than done.

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