Saturday, December 31, 2011

California Pension Gold Rush

San Francisco’s police chief retired recently at age 53 after 30 years of service on a pension of $239,000 per year. San Francisco allows its employees to retire on 90% of their final average pay after 30 years of service. Let’s just try to calculate the value or cost of a pension of $239,000 per year. A pension actuary would use a present value calculation but to keep it simple, it would take about $6,000,000 earning 4% interest to provide $240,000 of income per year.

The chief is only the tip of the iceberg in San Francisco where 146 retired city workers and their survivors are knocking back $100,000 or more a year in pension money. If those 146 people receive only $100,000 per year, that’s a minimum of $14,600,000 a year in pension benefits. At 4% interest it would take $365 million to provide $14,600,000 per year.

CalPERs, the California pension system has over 4800 former employees with pensions over $100,000 per year. The former city manager of the town of Vernon receives a pension of $499,000 per year. Is it any wonder that California is on the verge of bankruptcy? None of the characters that Arnold Schwarzenegger portrayed in the movies would have had the nerve to go before Congress and ask for a bail-out while at the same time doing nothing to reform the most generous pension system in the whole country. The only other alternative proposed by his successor as Governor is to make drastic cuts in needed state services or increase taxation.

It is true that government employees are required to contribute to their defined benefit plans during their working years. However, the rate of contribution will never fund their generous retirement plans. If over her 30-year career the San Francisco police chief had contributed $15,000 per year into a 401k type plan, which managed to earn 5% each year, she would have accumulated a little over $1,000,000 in her retirement account. Using 5% interest the account would have provided an income of $50,000 per year. It is obvious that her retirement plan is almost five times better with absolutely no risk!

A call for pension reform does not imply criticism of government employees and their work. Like the rest of us most of them work hard at their jobs and deserve to be financially secure in retirement. Nevertheless, their defined benefit pension plans are dinosaurs that are crushing the rest of us under foot. They even prevent cities and states like California from hiring needed teachers, police, firefighters, and medical and social workers.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

Frank Capra’s masterpiece, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” has become one of the most popular films of all time. Nevertheless, film critics seem obligated to dismiss it as an exercise in sentimentality. They overlook the fact that most “sentimental” films of that or any era are almost impossible to watch today. Critics rarely discuss the film on its merits as a film and tend to overlook Capra’s mastery of the film medium.

Even the most hard hearted critic will be hard pressed to keep the tears from flowing especially at the finale. Why can’t they recognize that it’s not just sentimentality but that it takes a real craftsman to elicit such a universal response? Capra regarded this as the greatest work of his illustrious career, and so too did its star, Jimmy Stewart.

Both Capra and Stewart had returned to Hollywood right after the end of World War II after distinguished service in the military. Stewart had piloted many bombing missions, and Capra had been responsible for making the famous “Why We Fight “ documentaries for the Army. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was the first film venture for each of them on their return to civilian life.

It is well known that before the war Frank Capra had become Hollywood’s most famous and acclaimed director despite the fact that he had come to America as a young Sicilian boy who could not speak a word of English. His family migrated to California to provide for themselves by farming. The young Frank worked to help the family but somehow managed to become the only one in the family to get a college degree.

After a brief and uneventful stint in the Army in the waning days of World War I, he found himself out of work and with no prospects. In his autobiography he described how quite by accident he stumbled into a fledgling movie studio and began his career. He was in Hollywood almost at the inception and proceeded to learn the craft of filmmaking from the ground up.

All the things he learned during this apprenticeship are evident in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In the first place, he learned to make pictures that were really moving. His characters never just stand around just talking. Either they are moving or the camera is moving. Unlike many other films, Capra’s never grind to a standstill.

Just visualize the scene right after the marriage of George and Mary.  Ernie, the cab driver, is driving them to the train station as they embark on their honeymoon. They are joking with Ernie but  through the back window the camera shows men running in the street. We jump immediately into the scene of the run on the banks without any pause or introduction.

Speaking of George and Mary their earlier love scene where they both talk on the same telephone is perhaps the best and most famous in all of film history. No love scene in Casablanca, an equally sentimental film but a favorite of critics, can compare to this one for realism and emotion.

Capra was a pioneer practitioner of many of the techniques that we take for granted in films today. He began the film with a flashback and narrator. He used stop action to introduce the adult George Bailey. No film noir director ever used light and dark to greater effect than Capra. At the film’s finale the entire cast is  artfully brought back as if to take their bows. The camera goes from face to face in one of the most moving scenes ever shot.

Speaking of the cast, Jimmy Stewart regarded this film as his greatest performance. “The Best Years of Our Lives,” a saga of returning war veterans, swept the Academy Awards in 1946 but it was a real travesty when Frederic March won the Best Actor award for his relatively wooden portrayal of a hard drinking banker. He wasn’t even the best actor in “Best Years.” In addition to the classic telephone love scene, I remember especially Stewart’s reaction to the news that his college-hero brother will not be returning to take over the running of the Bailey Building and Loan. In that brief scene his face goes through a whole gamut of emotions. That scene prepared us for the angry Stewart who berates his own children on Christmas Eve. Jimmy Stewart really grew up in this film.

The rest of the cast could have won an award for best ensemble. Capra had a knack of bringing out the best in his reservoir of great character actors. Was Donna Reed ever better? Capra introduced a young Gloria Grahame into this film and she was a stunning success. Who can ever forget her reaction to Stewart’s compliment on her dress? “Oh, this old thing. I only wear this when I don’t care how I look!" Of the others it will just be sufficient to notice Beulah Bondi’s transformation from a loving mother to a haggard old landlady.

Every scene in this great film was planned and directed by Frank Capra. It is a true work of art. Who can bear to watch any of the remakes? It takes great skill to make a “sentimental” film watchable and believable. During the harrowing twenty minutes after George Bailey’s suicide attempt, who doesn’t believe that Henry Travers is a real angel?

Years ago I remember an episode of “Cheers” where the regulars were standing around the bar on Christmas Eve watching “It’s a Wonderful Life.” At that time no one owned the rights to the film and so it could be seen on practically every local channel all during the day and night. Characteristically, they were casting sarcastic jokes. At the end of the film they were all crying uncontrollably.###

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens R.I.P.

The recent death of Christopher Hitchens will probably elicit many panegyrics on this virulent atheist who died such a painful death. In my opinion Hitchens was more a "true believer" than an atheist. He was one of the high priests of a new religion that is still in its formative stage. He was as zealous in the promulgation of his cause as any so-called fundamentalist. Evidence of his zeal was shown a couple of years ago when he was invited by Fairfield University, a Jesuit institution in Connecticut to present his case in its "Open Visions" forum. The debate was discussed in detail in a local newspaper, and prompted me to write the following response.

Thanks to Marcia Miner for her detailed coverage of the recent debate between “New Atheist” Christopher Hitchens, and theologian John Haught at Fairfield University.Hitchens, who received “a rousing welcome” at the Jesuit University, claimed to be a devotee of Socrates. He especially liked the method of inquiry championed by the ancient Greek philosopher who asked his followers to question everything and start by admitting that they know nothing.

Nevertheless, in Miner’s article Hitchen’s himself came across as one of the most opinionated of men. It seems obvious that while asking others to admit their ignorance he speaks with a greater degree of infallibility than any pope. This is only to be expected because the so-called New Atheism is really a new religion based little on science and mainly on belief.

For example, Hitchens argued that in religion could be found “the origin of totalitarianism which happens to be the enemy of human rights.” What is the scientific, political, or sociological evidence for that claim? The three great Totalitarian movements of the 20th century were Nazism in Germany, Communism in Russia, and Communism in China in its most virulent form under Chairman Mao.

None of these movements owed their origin to religion or religious belief. Although born a Catholic, Hitler early rejected his faith and became an atheist who hated Christianity almost as much as he despised Judaism. The founder of Communism in Russia was Nikolai Lenin who also became an atheist after rejecting his Jewish heritage. Joseph Stalin, Lenin’s brutal successor in Russia, also rejected his Russian Orthodox origins to become an atheist. In China, the atheist Chairman Mao had no use for the traditional religions of China.

Indeed, religion had to be ridiculed, attacked, and brutally persecuted in each of these Totalitarian societies as a necessary step toward the attainment of their goals. We all know that over 50,000,000 people died at the hands of these Totalitarian atheists.

So the claim that Hitchens made is not based on science or scientific method. Nevertheless, it is part of the belief system of the “New Atheists.” In saying this I am not equating Hitchens with Hitler, Stalin, or Chairman Mao. That would be unfair. Despite his bitterness and anger he is probably a decent fellow who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Nevertheless, when he criticizes St. Robert Bellarmine for his role in the Galileo case, he engages in a specious and unfair practice. Instead of questioning the myths that have grown up about the Galileo case, he is content to set up a straw man that can be easily knocked over to gain a “rousing reception.”

Cardinal Bellarmine was perhaps the greatest scholar of the early 17th century. Besides his theological and devotional works, he was an avid student and supporter of the new science. When Galileo’s opponents, mainly university professors, initially accused him, Bellarmine was put in charge of the case. Any historian of science knows that Bellarmine did all he could to let Galileo beat the rap. Galileo was let go only with the injunction that until he had definite scientific proof of his hypothesis, he continue to treat it as just a hypothesis, and not as a settled theory. He was specifically required to keep his “science” out of the area of “religion” unless he did have definite proof. Galileo did not have the technological tools needed to “prove” his case, and he knew it. It was only 300 years later that scientists were able to discover the “stellar parallax!”

Nevertheless, Galileo got off with a mere slap on the wrist and was not troubled by any authority for the next 20 years. In the meantime, Bellarmine died and the final trial did not take place until about 20 years after his death.

Even for that famous trial the myths have persisted. Galileo was never tortured. Even after being found guilty he was merely confined to his villa in Florence where he continued to enjoy the favor and support of his Medici patrons. His punishment was merely to recite the seven penitential Psalms, a chore he conveniently passed on to his daughter, a nun living in a nearby convent.

Although most of its students don’t realize it, most of Fairfield University’s halls are named after Jesuit saints like St. Robert Bellarmine. Some like St. Edmund Campion were even martyrs for their faith. Indeed, it was people of faith whose faith built the University in the first place.

Compare the number of colleges and universities in this country built by religion to the number built by atheism. All these institutions were dedicated to the search for truth and saw no conflict between faith and science. Indeed, it is to Fairfield University’s credit that it chose to invite an atheist to its “Open Visions” program. Compare this practice to the innumerable institutions of higher learning in this country where even the idea of “intelligent design” cannot be studied or even mentioned. The moderator should have asked Hitchens about “Climategate” where scientists recently conspired to suppress scientific evidence contrary to their own beliefs.

Hitchens has won fame and fortune ridiculing the cruel god of his childhood. But he still talks like a child when he argues that anyone who would prefer Jesus to Socrates is “intellectually defective.” Why not investigate the teachings of both Jesus and Socrates? What part of “love one another” does Hitchens not understand?