Tuesday, May 27, 2014

War on Film

Yesterday in the United States of America we celebrated Memorial Day, a day devoted to honor and remember America’s veterans, especially those who gave their lives in the call of duty. It is a kind of paradox that while we consider ourselves a peace-loving people, we have been at war practically throughout our history.

From 1775 we fought the Revolutionary war to secure independence from Great Britain. After that, Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the new Republic thought that America would never go to war again because the Atlantic ocean would be a barrier to aggressors. For this reason, he virtually dismantled the American armed forces while the Napoleonic wars were ravaging Europe. He also believed that the value of the trade and commerce of the United States would be a more potent weapon than ships and guns.

Since then, however, practically every generation of Americans has seen war. From 1812-1815 we fought the War of 1812. From 1846 to 1848 we fought the Mexican war after the annexation of Texas.  From 1861 to 1865 we were engaged in our Civil War, the bloodiest in history until that time.  Memorial Day traces its origins to that conflict. In 1898 we fought the Spanish-American war against the tottering Spanish empire.

In 1917 the United States became involved at the tail end of the European conflict that will always be remembered as the First World War. WWI  was supposed to be the War that ended all wars but only a generation later America became involved in the Second World War after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. That terrible conflict ended in 1945 with the unconditional surrender of both Germany and Japan.

Since then American forces have fought in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Today, our military commitments are stretched all over the globe.

I have never served in the military. I was born in 1939 only two years before American entered World War II. I was too young in 1950 to be drafted into service in 1950 when the Korean War broke out. During the Vietnam era I was deferred from service because of my student, teacher and marital status. Luck kept me out of war but I must confess that I never had any desire to serve in the military.

Nevertheless, I always have had a great admiration for those who entered harm’s way. I admit that I was and am an avid armchair soldier. Even as a child my interest in history spilled over into military history. I remember reading daily accounts of the events in Korea as American troops were steadily pushed back by overwhelming numbers, and then rejoicing when General Macarthur’s daring land and sea flanking maneuver turned the tide.

Since that time I have never stopped reading military history and historical novels. The best historical writing will try to avoid the excesses of propaganda and present the good, the bad, and the ugly on both sides of any conflict. Good war films should also have this quality. Here is a list of personal favorites that portray ordinary soldiers in extraordinary times.

Audie Murphy in Red Badge of Courage

“The Red Badge of Courage.” John Huston’s adaptation of Stephen Crane’s classic Civil War novel of the same name stars the baby-faced Audie Murphy who was incidentally the most decorated American soldier of WW II. The real stars, however, are the many other actors who so realistically portray ordinary soldiers.

Clark Gable in Command Decision

“Command Decision.” Clark Gable and Walter Pidgeon starred in this gripping WW II drama of high-level decision-making in the light of terrible losses of B17 flight crews on missions over Germany. The film was made after the War and was based on a Broadway play.  As a result, the dialogue is superb.

Gregory Peck and Dean Jagger

“Twelve O‘ Clock High”. This film starred Gregory Peck as an Air Force general faced with the difficult task of reviving a demoralized bomber command that was reeling from unacceptable losses. Dean Jagger (pictured above) won an Oscar for best supporting actor. I recall that this film was used later by corporate sales organizations for its lessons in how to get the most out of your people.

Harold russell, dana Andrews, frederic March

“The Best Years of Our Lives.” Dana Andrews and Frederic March starred in this 1946 film about veterans returning from WW II. Their performances were more than matched by Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, and Virginia Mayo as the women who stayed behind and held the fort. The film also featured Harold Russell, a young sailor who lost both his hands in action. Best Years of Our Lives swept the Oscars in 1946 and when Robert Osborne introduced it on TCM last night, he said that some consider it to be the greatest film of all time.

“A Foreign Field.” This little known British film about veterans returning to Normandy on the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day begins as a somewhat light comedy but then becomes serious, very serious, and then deeply moving. It features a handful of movie greats at the end of their careers. Alec Guinness, Leo Mc Kern, Lauren Bacall, Jeanne Moreau, and Geraldine Chaplin all give magnificent performances. 

Click on the link or view the video clip below for the battle scene that ends the "Red Badge of Courage." The last minute is particularly poignant.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Connecticut Pension Gravy Train

Judge Anthony Avallone

Recent judicial appointments by Connecticut’s Democrat Governor Dannell Malloy raised such an outcry that the State legislature quickly acted to amend the pension formula for the State’s judges. In particular, Malloy had nominated three sixty-six year old lawyers to the State Superior court. It was not the $154000 salaries that went with the job but the fact that the judges would be eligible for a pension of about $100000 per year when they retired at age 70 after only four years of service.

However, it would appear that the legislative action will only effect judges appointed after July I of this year so that Malloy’s current picks will still be on the gravy train. One of the lucky lawyers is Anthony Avallone of New Haven, a former State Senator and longtime member of the Democratic National Committee. He will receive a lifetime pension of $100000 per year with annual cost of living increases after only four years of work. When he retires in four years it will take about $2.5 million dollars for the State to fund his pension.

Moreover, at least 10 of the 36 judges appointed by Governor Malloy during his first term are over age 60. To put it simply, their combined pension income will eventually cost state taxpayer’s about $1,000,000 per year. At 4% interest it takes $25 million dollars to provide $1,000,000 of annual interest. How can the Governor ever expect to close the pension liability gap?

It is not only judges jumping on the Pension gravy train. State Senator Donald E. Williams is retiring this year after more than twenty years in the Legislature. He is the current Senate Majority leader. He is also the favorite to become the new President of Quinebaug Valley Community College despite having hardly any experience in the field of education. He has never taught and does not hold a PhD.

This is how the game works in Connecticut. As a State Senator Williams made only about $35000 per year since it is considered part-time employment. With twenty-two years in the Connecticut pension plan he would have been eligible to receive 44% of his $35000 salary at the normal retirement age. His pension benefit would have been about $15000 per year. However, if he gets the Presidency of Quinebaug, his State pension would then be based on his new six-figure salary. If he stays on the job for just three years his state pension benefit will more than triple. The college is doing a search and Senator Williams is one of the three finalists. Given his Democrat connections, it would be a miracle if he didn’t get the job.

Williams is one of about a dozen State legislators that Governor Malloy has provided for in his first term in office. The Governor has added so much unfunded liability to the State Pension plan during his tenure that it will be interesting to see if he makes the State’s large unfunded pension liability an issue in this election year.

Look how easy it was to change the pension formula for new State judges. In response to the public outcry the Democrat controlled legislature took just a couple of hours on the last day of the session to amend the formula. In the previous four years the Governor and his cronies did absolutely nothing to deal with this glaring injustice.

The Democrats might also have to be careful in raising the income inequality issue. In Blue State Connecticut all citizens are equal but some are obviously more equal than others.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Politically Correct Prejudice

Don Sterling, the 80 year-old owner of an NBA basketball team, only had to make a private racial remark to his young girlfriend and the punishment was swift and severe. The National Basketball Association (NBA) banned him for life and the league will try to force him to sell the team worth almost a billion dollars.

 Immediately after the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, the Obama administration, including then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, blamed it on an inflammatory anti-Moslem video posted by some man in California. Even though the Administration knew the video was not the cause of the terror attack, it still threw the poor guy in jail.

However, anti-Catholicism is the oldest and still most pervasive prejudice in America. In the 1920s the three Ks in KuKluxKlan stood for Jews, Blacks, and Catholics (Kikes, Koons, Katholics). Today, the first two are treated as if they were endangered species but it is still open season on Catholics. The popularity of a film like “Philomena” confirms the theory that anti-Catholicism is practically the only prejudice that political correctness allows and even encourages.

The film is based very loosely on the story of a young woman who has a child out of wedlock in Ireland in the 1950s. In the film her baby is taken from her and then “sold” to the highest bidder, an American couple, for adoption. The film then goes on to recount the attempt of Philomena to find her lost child by traveling to America years later. Despite the very flattering reviews, it would appear that the film is a pack of lies. Philomena, along with two sisters, was placed in the orphanage by her father on the death of their mother. Later, when she became pregnant, her baby was not taken from her but put up for adoption. The baby was not sold to the highest bidder as the film claims. The American couple made a donation to the orphanage but the nuns never charged for adoptions. Moreover, Philomena never went to America to find her son. She only traveled to America last year to promote the film either for fame or fortune.

Catholic nuns and priests have been fair game in the entertainment industry for years. G. K. Chesterton was perhaps the greatest Christian apologist of the early twentieth century. Even before he converted to Catholicism after the First World War, books like “Orthodoxy” and “The Everlasting Man” had established him as the determined proponent of the common sense of Christianity, and the equally determined opponent of all the crazy notions of his own time. It was he who coined the phrase, “when men cease to believe in God, they will believe in anything.”

In addition to his religious, literary, and political writings Chesterton also turned his great talents to poetry and detective fiction. His Fr. Brown became one of the first in a long line of well-know fictional detectives. Fr. Brown was an unlikely sleuth. He was a quiet, well-educated Catholic priest who would never be taken for a crime solver. Chesterton’s point, however, was that though Fr. Brown looked innocent and un-worldly, his knowledge of human nature, gained largely in the confession box, enabled him to see what the professionals could not.

This year my wife and I have been watching a BBC series based loosely on Chesterton’s priest detective. It is a good watch although this Fr. Brown is a far cry from Chesterton’s original creation.*  However, the other day we watched an episode that Chesterton would never have imagined, and that sadly represented a particular modern bias.

This episode involved two murders in a convent of nuns. Briefly, a young attractive novice drops dead of cyanide poisoning at the ceremony where she is to take her vows. Then, an unlikeable old nun is also found poisoned. The old nun was portrayed, in what has become stereotypical fashion, as an incredibly, intolerant martinet. Not only does she force novices to lie prostrate on the ground before her, but she also is disobedient and insubordinate to her own mother superior whom she regards with thinly disguised contempt.

It is this stereotype that films like Philomena thrive on. Of course, the attack on the nuns at the Irish orphanage is part of an attack on Catholicism in Ireland as well as an attack on the Catholic Church itself. The penalty for such prejudice was an Academy Award nomination for Philomena and its star, Judi Dench.

Over 60 years ago I graduated from a Catholic elementary school staffed by nuns of the Dominican order. Although they seemed terribly old to me at the time, I later discovered that most of them were young and still taking college courses.  I guess that there were some rotten apples in the barrel but I never met one. Only years later did I discover that despite their youth and inexperience they managed classrooms of more than 50 students with grace, dignity and order. My classmates and I came from immigrant families that did not value education very highly. The nuns were our first glimpse of a larger world. I also came to realize that these nuns had given their lives for us. I believe that the same must have been true of most of the Irish nuns who took orphans under their care and found good homes for them.


* An earlier British Fr. Brown series starring Kenneth More gives a depiction of the priest much truer to Chesterton's original.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Legislative Winners and Losers

The Connecticut State legislature is nearing the end of the 2013/14 session and, as usual, is giving an example of how one-party government works. Connecticut is a heavily Democrat or Blue State with a Democrat Governor as well as a lop-sided majority in both its Senate and House of Representatives. Ordinary citizens should always beware such a concentration of authority.

Last week I reported on how the Governor won easy approval of a number of appointees to the State Judiciary, a number of whom were current or former State legislators. All of these judges would get excellent compensation packages as well as incredible pension benefits. For example, two sixty-six year old appointees would be eligible for $100000 pensions after only four years service on the bench.

As the session winds down, there is even more bad news for Connecticut taxpayers. Early this year Governor Dannell Malloy proposed exempting part of the income of a privileged class of people from State income taxation. Initially, he proposed allowing retired teachers to exempt 25% of their pension income from taxation this year, and then 50% in future years. In other words, if a teacher’s pension was $50000 per year, they would have had to only pay taxes on $40000 this year, and then $25000 in future years.

Even though it was estimated that this special interest tax relief would cost over 20 Million in lost tax revenue, the Governor must have felt it wouldn’t matter since he was expecting a large surplus from his tax increases of previous years.

 Unfortunately, the projected surplus did not materialize but the Governor is still trying to push through the legislature a modified tax relief for retired teachers. Now, the tax exemption has been put off until the next tax year and teachers will only be able to exempt 10% of their pension income in 2015. In succeeding years it will eventually go up to the full 50% exemption. Interestingly, the lack of a surplus has forced the Governor to withdraw his plan for a tax rebate for all citizens but so far he is still pushing for relief for teachers whose pensions are among the best in the country.

Also, the Legislature is still considering a plan to require private employers in the State to provide a State run retirement plan for their employees. Apparently, statistics show that many people in the State have no formal retirement plan. This reminds me of the scare tactics used to support the adoption of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) a few years ago. Remember, there were 30 million Americans without medical insurance. Now, five years later it turns out that only 7 or 8 million have signed up for Obamacare, and many of those were people who had lost their insurance despite the President’s promises. So, where are the other 23 million?

Is there a retirement crisis in Connecticut that would force the State government to get involved. In this day and age it is hard to believe that anyone has not heard of an IRA, traditional or Roth, that is available to everyone not covered by an employer sponsored plan.  You can walk into any bank, or go on line to set one up with a minimum of cost or effort.

Proponents of the Connecticut plan want to force all employers to adopt a plan that would be administered by the State. Employees could contribute up to 5% of their pay into the plan that would require no matching contribution from the employer. A person making $40000 per year would be able to contribute a maximum of $2000 to the plan each year. The plan is not supposed to cost the employer anything accept the effort needed to process payroll deductions.

Even though employers might be required to offer this plan to their employees, I don’t think there will be many takers. The impetus for this plan is not coming from the millions of people who are without retirement plans but from those in politics and the media who have a deep and abiding distrust of those in the financial services industry who have tried for years to convince the uneducated and the unwilling to save a portion of their income rather than consume it all. When I was in the financial service business, I knew that my competition was not rival companies but the local shopping mall.

Anyone who thinks that people will wait on line to sign up for this State run retirement plan, has never had to try to convince people to buy insurance to protect their family from the catastrophic effects of death or disability; to save for their children’s college education; or to set aside money for a retirement in the distant future.