Monday, November 26, 2012

Huntington Library and Museum

On a recent trip to California my wife and I were able to visit the magnificent Huntington Library located in the posh little town of San Marino just outside of Pasadena. The library and the surrounding grounds were originally the home of railroad magnate Henry Huntington. After his death in the 1920s the home and its extensive collection of European and American  art were turned into the incredibly beautiful museum.

Huntington Library and Museum
San Marino, CA

The collection is so large that it takes at least four buildings to display only a portion. But what a portion! In the building devoted to European art there is a room dedicated to some exquisite Renaissance Madonnas, as well as a splendid collection of French eighteenth century  art, but the centerpiece of the Huntington is the magnificent collection of British eighteenth century portraiture.

This collection is mainly found in a great room covered with beautiful full-length portraits of beautiful men and women. Pride of place goes to Thomas Gainsborough’s famed “Blue Boy” which was purchased by Huntington from famed dealer Joseph Duveen in the early 1920s for the then record breaking price of $700000. Everyone knows the painting but hung as it is in the place of honor in the midst of all these beautiful paintings, it takes your breath away.

Equally striking is Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinkie” a portrait of an 11-year-old girl standing in a cloud-backed landscape. The portrait of Pinkie was ordered by her grandmother, and Lawrence was able to capture the budding loveliness and gaiety of this young girl.  Sadly, Pinkie died of tuberculosis shortly after the painting was completed.  Nevertheless, the painting holds its own today hung as it is directly opposite the “Blue Boy” at the other end of the great room.

In  between are paintings of the “beautiful” people of eighteenth century England during the era of the American Revolution, an event of whose significance most were probably unaware. I was interested in these paintings not only for their beauty but also because some of the people depicted were friends and associates of the subject of my doctoral dissertation of long ago, General Henry Seymour Conway. Conway was a soldier and a politician who rose to great prominence during the era of the American Revolution, and some of the people depicted in the Huntington library collection were associated with him.

Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire
by Sir Joshua Reynolds

For example, there is Georgiana Spencer, a distant relation of Princess Di, who would marry into the wealthy Cavendish family and become Duchess of Devonshire. For a while during her short life she was the reigning queen of London high society. General Conway was a close associate of the Cavendish family and a number of Dukes of Devonshire. Incidentally, two centuries later, Fred Astaire’s sister and original dancing partner, Adele, would marry another Duke of Devonshire.

The Huntington Library sits in the midst of beautiful grounds and fabulous botanical gardens. We went upstairs and happened to look out a window to behold a landscape more spectacular than anything in the paintings. Even down below sitting near the children’s garden, we could behold the striking San Gabriel Mountains acting like a frame for the whole scene.

By that time our four and a half year old granddaughter was getting a little tired but earlier she had gone through the picture gallery with great enthusiasm. She took innumerable pictures with her digital camera. Looking at Pinkie and the other beautiful ladies in their stunning gowns, at one point she exclaimed, “this is glorious!”

We visited the day after Thanksgiving and the large parking lot was practically full. Nevertheless, the grounds are so large and the collections so designed that we never had the feeling that you get in so many museums of being crowded, rushed, and jostled. The Huntington Library is one of America’s great museums, and anyone visiting in the Los Angeles area should not miss it. ###

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Another Military Scandal

General William 'Kip' Ward
In the wake of the recent scandals surfacing around the sexual behavior of top-ranking military officers, another less lurid problem has largely gone unnoticed. 

A few days ago the Secretary of Defense demoted the head of the US Africa Command, General William 'Kip' Ward, from a four star to a three star general. Although this general was not fooling around with other women, he was apparently taking his wife along with him on expensive junkets and charging their lavish personal expenses to the military. There is no need to go into the spending details that amounted to over $80000 since the incident brought to light a much bigger problem.

Coinciding with his demotion, General Ward decided to retire but the demotion to three star status caused his military pension to drop from about $240000 per year to about $210000 per year. In other words, the general's pension dropped by $30000 per year, an amount equivalent to the maximum benefit an ordinary citizen can expect to receive from Social Security at normal retirement age.

In the Social Security system the benefit amount is limited by a cap on earnings qualifying for retirement benefits. If a citizen earns more than $100000 per year, Social Security is only designed   to provide a benefit based on actual earnings below $100000. Ordinary citizens earning over $100000 are rightfully expected to save on their own if they want a higher retirement income. Moreover, under Social Security retirement benefits are calculated based on a worker's average earnings over 30 years.

 These same rules do not apply to Federal employees like General Ward. Why should citizens be required to provide a pension benefit for the amount of Federal or government salaries over $100000 per year? Obviously, General Ward was making over $250000 per year in salary not to mention the other very substantial benefits and perks of his office. He could certainly have afforded to save for his retirement on his own.

Since his pension was based on only the last couple of years of his career, the amount required to adequately fund it is enormous.
It would take over $6000000 earning 4% interest to provide an income of $240000 per year. To keep it simple that means that if the General had served for 30 years, we would have had to kick in $200000 for each year of his career to provide a pension for him that most of us can only dream about.

General Ward and others like him in the government would have   very comfortable retirements even if their pensions were based on the average of their earnings over their whole career, and if they had supplemented with a 401k type plan. However, it would appear as if the general lived like a potentate during the last years of his career, and will even with his demotion continue to live like a potentate for the rest of his life.

If we multiply the General's situation by the millions of Federal, State, and Municipal employees throughout the land, we can understand why the Federal government is so deeply in debt, and why many states and cities are on the verge of bankruptcy. Governments are finding it impossible to fund these excessive pension benefits. Even sadder is the fact that the ordinary soldier in the General's command can hardly afford to maintain a family.

Is it any wonder that State and Municipal worker unions were the largest contributors to President Obama's re-election campaign?  ###

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Election Aftermath

Ohio Result 2012

I have learned my lesson and will no longer make predictions. Even though I do not regret my endorsement of Governor Romney, and still believe that my assessment of the two candidates was correct, I acknowledge that wishful thinking made me lose touch with some basic facts of American politics.

On election night all eyes were drawn to the map of the pivotal state of Ohio. There it was: a sea of red surrounding a few blue islands. The most prominent blue island was Cleveland in Cuyahoga county in the northwest corner of the state. The vote there was decisive. Next day I did a search for the 10 worst cities in the country and sure enough Cleveland was close to the top.

Cleveland has a population of about 430000 people but Forbes magazine placed it atop its list of most miserable cities in the country. Significant factors in the assessment were high unemployment, high taxes, and political corruption. Cleveland is part of Cuyahoga County where in the past 10 years more than 300 public officials have been convicted of crimes. A recent FBI investigation ensnared more than two dozen government employees on charges of bribery, fraud, and tax evasion.

Cleveland also has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country with thousands of abandoned homes. Apparently, it provided down payments through the Federal Afford-a Home program to people who could not afford the mortgage payments.

Reading about Cleveland brought to mind nearby Bridgeport in my home state of Connecticut. Looking at election returns it was clear that the Democrat political machine that has controlled the city for the past 50 years once again brought out the vote not only for President Obama but also for even the lowest functionary. For example, Christina Ayala young woman of 29 was elected to the State House of Representatives by a margin of about 3000 to 300 despite the fact that prior to the election, she had run a red light, caused an accident, and fled the scene. Her father is a prominent Bridgeport politico who now has virtually appointed two daughters to the State legislature.

Mireya Porto of Bridgeport surveys her car totaled in recent accident . 

Bridgeport even voted to restore an elected Board of Education after the state of Connecticut had stepped in a year ago to replace the notorious old board with an appointed one. Under the guise of restoring the Board to popular control, it has just been handed back to the party machine.

I write not out of sour grapes but to point out a basic political fact. For the past 50 years under virtual one-party rule. Bridgeport stands as a monument to the effects of one-party dominance. It has one of the worst school systems in the State. It has one of the highest murder rates. The city has been virtually bankrupt for the past few years since it requires about 150 million dollars of state aid each year to keep its failing schools going.

Why is it in the interest of the people in cities like Bridgeport and Cleveland to vote Democrat year after year? What do they hope to gain except for jobs and opportunities for a few anointed leaders? Even more puzzling is why Republican politicians so often fail to approach this substantial voting bloc and show them that they don’t have to accept the status quo.

I do not understand why every four years the Republican Party enters the race for the Presidency down by three of the most populous states in the country. They automatically concede California, New York and Illinois to the Democrats even though those states are social and economic basket cases. So many times in the campaign it seemed to me that even though Romney and Ryan had a good message, they were preaching to the choir. The people of Cleveland, Bridgeport, Miami, and Los Angeles were not even listening, or else could care less about budgets and tax issues.

In the future the Republican Party will have to show people in the American cities that they don’t have to tolerate poor schools, street crime, and urban decay. ###

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Romney Endorsement

The Weekly Bystander would like to endorse Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, for President of the United States. This endorsement reflects both a very negative view of President Obama and his Administration, as well as a very positive view of Governor Romney. 
I must admit that I have never liked President Barack Obama. Here are the reasons.
From the first I regarded him as a totally inexperienced politician who was the product of a notorious and corrupt Chicago political machine. When commentators scoffed at the inexperience of Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska back in 2008, how could they have overlooked the fact that she was far more experienced than Barack Obama and that she was only a candidate for Vice-President?

Since 2008 I do believe that President Obama has grown in office but at the same time I believe that he has been one of the most divisive Presidents in history. Putting aside the merits and demerits of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the most objectionable aspect of it was the way it was rammed through Congress. Does anyone remember the political tricks that were used at the time?

Whole states were exempted from its provisions in order to gain needed votes. Reluctant Senators were shamelessly bought off. Finally, a bill was passed by the House of Representatives and sent to the Senate where it was altered. The amended bill was never sent back to the House for approval or even to a conference committee. It was merely “deemed” to have been approved by the House of Representatives. It was Presidential advisor, Rahm Emanuel who uttered the famous words, “we’ve got the votes, so f__k em!” What a way to unite a country.

Since that time the economy has remained in the doldrums and scandal after scandal has engulfed the country in both domestic and foreign affairs. The latest involved the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Much has been made of the Administration’s attempt to deny that it was a terrorist attack but the President has skirted two much more important issues.

He deliberately avoided an honest question in the Second Debate about how and why requests for additional security were denied. He still has not answered the question. Finally, an attack on an American embassy is an attack on American soil. Why has the President refused to acknowledge this fact or given an appropriate response?

I wrote the following description of Governor Romney’s qualities back in August and since then I believe the Governor’s campaign and debate performance have lived up to my expectations.

In Mitt Romney the Republican party has found an attractive candidate to put up against a floundering Administration that seems totally unable to understand or deal with the country’s economic woes. I must admit that I am a political conservative and that I do like Mitt Romney but here are a list of qualities that I think any observer would agree with.

1. Romney has an attractive appearance. He appears youthful and energetic both in person and on TV. His wife and family are equally attractive. Again, in the age of American Idol this quality cannot be underestimated. Obama has no advantage here.

2. At the same time Romney appears to be intelligent, experienced, and quite capable of handling the demands of the Presidency. It would appear that he has been successful in practically everything he has set his hand to. Never mind the Olympics, he managed to get elected as a Republican governor of one of the bluest states in the country. Even the critics of his career at Bain Capitol would have to admit that he was successful there.

3. No one can doubt that he showed great skill he winning one of the most grueling primary campaigns in memory. Those who question his campaign strategy and tactics should give him credit for knowing what he is doing. He is no dope. His selection of Paul Ryan as running mate was a masterstroke. Moreover, the Romney campaign is and will be extremely well funded unlike the McCain disaster. Obama will not have the overwhelming financial advantage he had in 2008.

4. Even his so-called negatives will be perceived by voters as positives. He is wealthy and makes no bones about it. Independent voters are wise enough to understand that a rich person has a great incentive to protect the rights of private property so basic to our country’s health and freedom. If the election is about class warfare and divisiveness, the Democrats will lose.

5. I don’t think his religion will be a factor. I know very little about the beliefs of Mormons, but I once overheard a man say that he never met a Mormon he didn’t like. He seems to be a devoted family man. Again, Obama has no advantage here.

Below find a video of the last two minutes of Governor Romney's remarks at the annual Al Smith dinner. The first eight minutes showed him in a very jovial mode but toward the end he appeared very Presidential. ###