Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Year-end film picks 2015

Alain Delon in
Le Samourai
The following is my list of top foreign films viewed this past year. The list will rival any top film list of 2015. Personally, they are all favorites of mine. The short video below shows Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel at the top of their reviewing form. They are discussing the German film classic, "M", that starred a young Peter Lorre, and Jean Pierre Melville's masterpiece, Le Samouri, which they call one of the greatest and most influential films of all time.

The Band's Visit: A fading Egyptian police band arrives in Israel to play at the Arab Cultural Center. When they take the wrong bus, the band members find themselves in a desolate Israeli village. With no other option than to spend the night with the local townspeople, the two distinctly different cultures realize the universal bonds of love, music, and life. (Israel)

Enchanted April: Stifled British wives Lottie (Josie Lawrence) and Rose (Miranda Richardson) rent an Italian villa for a husbandless vacation. Sharing the retreat are acerbic widow Mrs. Fisher (Oscar nominee Joan Plowright) and socialite Caroline d’Este (Polly Walker). The four spend a month savoring newfound freedom and the opportunity for self-discovery. This film also featured Michael Kitchen, Alfred Molina, and Jim Broadbent at the outset of their notable film careers. (England)

“12”: This powerful Russian film directed by famed director Nikita Mikhalkov is the story of a room full of jurors from all different levels of Russian society who are thrown together to determine the fate of a young man accused of murdering his stepfather. Each juror powerfully reveals his own story as they seek to discover the truth about the murder and themselves. (Russia)

The Lunch Box: In the bustling Indian metropolis of Mumbai, housewives still prepare hot lunches for their office- working husbands. A dedicated courier service delivers the lunch box right to the desk each day. The lives of two people are forever changed when one lunch box is delivered to the wrong desk. (India)

Mid-August Lunch ( Pranzo di Ferragosto): Gianni Di Gregorio stars in and directs this charming tale from Italy of great food, feisty ladies, and unlikely friendships. The setting is a weekend in a deserted Rome during the dog days of summer. (Italy)

Le Samourai: Alain Delon, who looks and acts a lot like the young Clint Eastwood, plays a contract killer with samurai instincts in this film by renowned French director, Jean-Pierre Melville. The film is a mixture of 1940s American gangster movies, 1960s French pop culture, and Japanese lone-warrior mythology. Shot is subdued color, Melville’s masterpiece defines cool. (France)

Of Gods and Men: This French film is based on the life of the Cistercian monks of Tibeherine in Algeria from 1993 to 1996. When a crew of foreign workers is massacred by an Islamic fundamentalist group, fear passes through the region. The army offers the monks protection, but they refuse. Should they leave? Or should they stay and continue to minister to the local Moslem community despite the growing menace in their midst? (France)

Not One Less: In the crushing poverty of rural China, a young woman is ordered to a remote village to be a substitute teacher. Barely older than her students, the shy girl is charged with keeping the class intact for a month or she won’t be paid. Faced with overwhelming family debt, her biggest little troublemaker disappears into the city to find work. The stubborn teacher, however, is determined to follow the boy and bring him back to school. The film, directed by famed Chinese film director, Zhang Yimou, is based on a true story. (China)

Note: Click here for the Siskel and Ebert video or view it below.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas Symbol

Rockefeller Center (click on image to enlarge)

The Christmas tree remains one of the most popular symbols of the Christmas season. Whether a simple tree in our home or the most magnificently decorated tree in a public place like Rockefeller Center the tree bears the same meaning.

In a wonderful book on so-called children's stories entitled "The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove",  G. Ronald Murphy S.J. explained the origins and meaning of the tree and its decorations. 
The evergreen tree has found its most lasting and most emotional place in our culture, without a doubt, in the Christmas tree, an amalgam of Germanic legend and the Cross. In December of every year the tree comes into the house. A tree inside the home after all the centuries that have passed is quite miracle enough. To glorify and celebrate its ancient, compassionate magic power, it is decorated with lights (with burning candles in Germany!) and with tinsel, to make sure it looks radiantly stolid and happy despite the cold and ice. Then a star is placed at its peak, since Wise Men must surely find their way to this tree. Below the tree, as if he had just emerged from its trunk, the true source of the warmth of the Tree of the Universe and its power to renew life, encouragement, and protection against all the kinds of cold, is lying in a manger: the newborn child. *

                         O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,
                        how faithful are your leaves.
                        you are ever green, not only during the summer,
                        but even during the winter when the snow falls.
                        O Tannenbaum, O tannenbaum,
                        how faithful are your leaves.

Click here for a brief video of the song that contains a clip from Joyeux Noel, a French film about the christmas battlefield truce in the first year of WWI. Or view the video below. Merry Christmas.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

San Bernardino, Newtown, and Violence

The recent mass shooting by a husband and wife team of Islamic terrorists in San Bernardino has once again led to the same kind of debate that followed the terrible massacre of 20 children and six teachers in a kindergarten classroom in Newtown three years ago. Once again, the inevitable voices are heard. On the one hand, President Obama has led the pack in calling for increased gun control. On the other hand, many criticize the President's reluctance to even use the term "Islamic terrorist", and some like Donald Trump have even called for a ban on future Moslem immigration to the USA. 

Islamic radicalism was not an issue in Newtown three years ago but in the aftermath of that tragedy similar lines were drawn. The governor of Connecticut led the charge for stricter gun control laws but others argued that the focus should be on the mentally ill young killer who wielded the weapons. Three years ago I wondered why people on both sides of the issue preferred to "demonize" each other instead of working together. I still feel the same way and reprint my Newtown article below since the response to San Bernardino has been much the same. 


I know that violent acts are going on all over the world but the massacre of twenty innocent children and six school staff in Newtown hit so close to home that it broke through our psychological firewall.

Since the tragedy innumerable words have been written and by now the newspapers are full of articles and letters offering solutions to the problem. Inevitably, most take a one sided view. Some writers call for stricter gun control laws. Others decry the violence in our entertainment media and overall culture. Finally, others call for reforms in treatment of the so-called violent mentally ill.

I would like to suggest all of the above. It seems striking to me that most advocates of stricter gun control are also ardent defenders of Hollywood’s right to do whatever it pleases in depicting violence. At the same time, opponents of violence in the media are often strong supporters of gun ownership. It seems that it is time for those on both the left and the right to come together and adopt each other’s solutions.

I have never owned a gun and never plan to own one, but I know very good people who do. Two beloved uncles were avid hunters, and so is my younger brother, a retired NYPD officer who also happens to be a fanatic about gun safety.
Even before the massacre of the children and their teachers in Newtown, it was hard for me to understand the intransigence of some people on both sides of the issue of gun control. On the one hand, I have never been able to understand why a hunter might require an assault rifle or a handgun that is just about the modern equivalent of the machine guns that were banned in the 1930s.

On the other hand, I am aware that even states like Connecticut that have the most stringent gun-control laws are among those with the most violent crime rates. Bridgeport, Connecticut is usually among the Nation’s leaders in firearm related murders. Frankly, I believe that the possibility that a one of my neighbors might actually own a revolver is a real deterrent to crime in my neighborhood.

Still, I don’t believe that the right to bear arms allows me or my neighbor to assemble an arsenal fit for a SWAT team. We have banned especially lethal firearms in the past and we can do it again. I know that criminals will probably find ways to get their hands on assault rifles, but the supply could be limited at the source.

While we are at it, I think that there is another so-called right that needs to be somewhat restricted. Why is it that proponents of stricter gun control laws never seem to oppose the acts of violence that appear daily in films, video games, and on TV?  The release of a new film this Christmas season was delayed because of the massacre in Newtown. Was it perhaps because the film begins with a rooftop sniper looking through his scope at a young girl? You could be watching “Miracle on 34th St.” this season only to see it interrupted by commercials for films full of bloodshed. I can’t imagine the violence that my grandchildren see on their video games where they themselves become the shooter.

Maybe, most of us wouldn’t be led to commit acts of violence by witnessing violence, but what about the mentally ill? Some will say that exposure to this violence does no harm. Some also argue that it limits free speech and stifles artistic creativity.   If what people see on TV does not influence behavior, why do advertisers spend so much money promoting their wares, or politicians buy so much ad-time to get elected?

As far as artistic creativity is concerned, I believe that I can make a very strong case for censorship. During the 1930s the film industry adopted the now infamous “Production Code.” Faced with the threat of government censorship resulting from a public outcry, Hollywood agreed to police itself. Any new film would have to be reviewed and modified it if failed to meet certain set standards. The Production code was abandoned decades ago but modern filmmakers and critics still bemoan the censorship that gripped Hollywood.

Recently, Turner Classic Movies released DVD sets of some of the pre-code films and a reviewer in the Wall St. Journal thought that the Code had been a great tragedy. However, in his own review he could only point to one or two films of even limited value from the pre-Code era. He failed to mention that the adoption of the infamous Code coincided with what most critics regard as the Golden Age of film.

For example, 1939 is regarded as one of the greatest years in Hollywood history. “Gone with the Wind” swept most of the Oscars, but moviegoers that year also saw: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Wuthering Heights; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Stagecoach; the Wizard of Oz; Ninotchka; Of Mice and Men; and Dark Victory. The next two years saw the likes of Citizen Kane and Casablanca—two of the greatest films of all time. Restrictions on the so-called creativity of producers, directors, and artists only forced them to greater heights of excellence.

The  Newtown massacre occurred right in the midst of the Christmas season. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people on both sides of the political spectrum could come together next year to make America a more peaceful society? 


Monday, December 7, 2015

Pearl Harbor Memorial

Today, December 7, marks the anniversary of the Japanese devastating surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor on a Sunday morning almost 75 years ago. Being only two years old at the time I have no personal recollection of the terrible event but do remember that my parents pulled the window shades down during air raid alerts later in the war.

Nevertheless, I’ve always had a great interest in WWII. As a thirteen year old I watched on TV NBC’s epic 1952 series “Victory at Sea” that ran for half an hour on Sundays for almost a year. The black and white wartime footage, the narration by actor Alexander Scourby, and the musical score by Richard Rogers all came together to make for riveting viewing. (episodes can be viewed on youtube)

Maybe it was “Victory at Sea” that led me to devour Samuel Eliot Morison’s monumental and magisterial twelve volume account of the US Naval operations in WWII while a graduate History student at Columbia University. It was easy to put aside the readings assigned in classes in favor of Morison’s great history.  Morison was a sailor as well as an historian. Before the war he had already written his definitive account of the career of Christopher Columbus after personally tracing the explorers voyages in a sailboat. When the war broke out he was recruited by the Navy to be its official historian.

The result was one of the great histories of all time. The Navy managed to get Morison on the scene before many naval engagements and his writing is full of eyewitness testimony. He loved the Navy but was not a propagandist. He pulled no punches especially when examining the activity or inactivity that led to the disaster at Pearl Harbor. (It is available in a one volume abridgement)

My wife and I did get a chance to visit the Pearl Harbor Memorial many years later in 2000. We were in Hawaii at a company convention where I was to be inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame in recognition of long years of service as a financial advisor. I suppose it could have been considered the high point of my career, but it paled in significance when we went to visit the Memorial shrine to those who lost their lives that day.

The Pearl Harbor Memorial is one of the great achievements of government architecture. You don’t just walk in. You check in and then join a small group of other tourists. After viewing a really good brief documentary, our group boarded a small motor launch that took us out to the Memorial built atop the ruins of the sunken battleship USS Arizona, a cemetery for the seamen who went down with their ship that day.

 It was an incredibly moving experience. However, the presence of many Japanese nationals at the site that day was the most moving thing. They had come to lay flowers in honor of the deceased. I guess the process of healing had begun many years before when after inflicting incredible destruction upon Japan during the War, the United States decided to help in rebuilding the devastated nation.

The Japanese could have been reduced to slavery or at least a cruel oppression. Yet, the USA decided to allow the conquered Japanese to be free and eventually self-governing. The result was a miracle. Today we drive Japanese cars and watch TVs made in Japan. Who could have imagined 74 years ago that baseball players named Matsui, Tanaka, or Suzuki would have become New York Yankees?


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Russia: Friend or Foe?

Who has more business in the Middle East?

The recent Islamic terrorist attack in Paris has led the French government to respond with air strikes against ISIS in Syria. These events might lead American politicians to re-evaluate their thinking about the Russian military intervention in support of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in his two-pronged struggle against Syrian rebels on one front, and ISIS militants on the other.

In a recent Republican debate front-runner Donald Trump supported Putin’s intervention and argued that the United States can no longer act as the world’s “policeman.” In response, Jeb Bush argued that the United States should not give up its leadership role in world affairs. There is something to be said for both positions but sometimes leadership means stepping back from untenable positions and recognizing one’s limitations.

What could be President Putin’s motives for entering the Syrian conflict? I could think of a number of them but the first one that comes to mind might be his fear that the Islamic revolution could spread to his own borders. Any observer can see that the so-called “Arab Spring” has been a disaster. The toppling of “strongmen” or dictators in Libya and Egypt has led to chaos in Libya and military rule in Egypt.

If you look at a map of modern Russia you will see that almost its entire southern border is made up of non-Russian states whose population is overwhelmingly Islamic. ISIS and other Islamist militants pose a much greater threat to Russia than they do to the United States or Europe. When Russia lobs its cruise missiles into Syria, they only have to travel 1000 miles compared to the 6000 miles or so that separate the USA from the area.

The ISIS terror and bloodshed in Syria and Iraq certainly must be stopped but why can’t American politicians and commentators see that if the USA can ask England, France, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to help, why can’t we accept a role for Russia?

After the Second World War and the total defeat of Germany and Japan, we set about rebuilding those two battered nations. We had learned the lesson of the First World War where the victorious powers kept a foot on the throat of defeated Germany by saddling it with an enormous war debt.  The resulting chaos in Germany led to the rise of Hitler, the Nazis and the Second World War. As a result of the USA’s participation in the political and economic recovery of Germany and Japan after WWII, these two countries have become real allies. 

However, after the defeat of the Soviet Empire in the “Cold War”, we still continued to regard Russia as an enemy.  As former Soviet “republics” gained independence from a Russia in both political and economic chaos, we stepped up the pressure by welcoming them into the Western orbit, and, in some cases, even letting them become members of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, a military organization formed after WWII to counter the Soviet threat.

Today, Russia strikes me as Europe’s Canada. It has tremendous oil and natural gas reserves and both Europe and the now independent former Soviet republics are major customers. Wouldn’t it be in the interests of the USA to regard Russia as an ally and not an enemy?
It is true that Russia recently reclaimed its long-time sovereignty over the Crimea and is making threatening gestures in eastern Ukraine. But how many people are being beaten, raped, tortured or beheaded in the Crimea? The Crimea has literally disappeared from the news.

Someone should ask the Ukrainians if they prefer their current independent status within the Russian sphere of influence, or if they would prefer to be in the middle of an all out shooting war? The Ukrainians are major users of Russian oil and gas. We should consider whether it would be better for the Ukraine to be independent of both Russia and NATO.

Nevertheless, the USA and its NATO allies continue to call for increasing military and political pressure on Russia. Just this week NATO has offered membership to Montenegro, a tiny republic in the Balkan Peninsula that has only recently gained its independence from Serbia. Most of the NATO members provide little military or economic to NATO but it will add another country to the list of those that could involve NATO and the USA in a terrible war.

Last year we remembered the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War that began with a political assassination in a small Balkan state. Now we should remember the terrible fighting of 1915 and 1916 that caused millions to lose their lives in the trenches. The USA and Russia have much in common. It would be much better if we were allies rather than enemies.


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

George Washington's "Thanksgiving"

Below I reproduce George Washington's "Thanksgiving Proclamation" of 1789. Washington had just been elected first President of the newly formed United States of America following upon the adoption of the new Constitution by the States. *

I have read much about Washington and everything I have read indicates that he was a great man and a great American. He was regarded by his contemporaries in Europe as the greatest man of his age. His proclamation is a sign of his greatness.

Thanksgiving Proclamation
Issued by President George Washington, at the request of Congress, on October 3, 1789

By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and—Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other trangressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
Go. Washington
Washington's proclamation did not make Thanksgiving an annual National holiday. That would only come with Abraham Lincoln after the terrible Civil War.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Terrorism in France

This past Friday our local senior center presented the French film “Of Gods and Men” as part of its foreign film Festival series. The film was based on the life and death of eight French Cistercian monks of Tiberherine in Algeria from 1993-1996. Although they lived in their monastery and sustained themselves by what they grew there, the monks were not cloistered.

They played an active role in the life of the small Moslem village in which they lived. They participated in the life of the community and served the needs of the people. One monk was a doctor and ministered to a seemingly endless stream of local patients. They loved the people and the people loved them. One thankful Moslem woman even described these men as the branches on which the villagers, the birds, found support.

However, Islamic fundamentalists are terrorizing the region. After a massacre of a crew of foreign workers, the local army offers protection to the endangered French monks. They refuse protection but still have to consider whether they should stay and continue to minister to the local Moslem community or leave in the face of the growing menace in their midst.

They decide to stay but are eventually taken hostage by the terrorists. At the end of the film we see them being driven by armed guards up their own hill of Calvary in the snow of the Atlas Mountains. They were never seen again. Incredibly, shortly after the film ended the news arrived from France of the terrible massacre by Moslem extremists in Paris.

Today at Sunday Mass our organist played a quiet but moving rendition of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.” It brought to mind one of the best scenes from the film classic, “Casablanca.” Vive la France!


Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Mets Lose the Pennant


The devastating loss by the NY Mets in Game 5 of the recent baseball World Series illustrated a failure of management that should be a lesson for all who aspire to managerial roles whether in sports, business, politics, or even family life.

I went to bed last Sunday night after watching the completion of the top of the eight inning in game 5. NY Mets pitching ace Matt Harvey had just pitched his eighth inning of shut out ball against a very potent Kansas City Royals team. 
Although the Mets were down in the series three games to one, they were leading 2-0 in this game and seemed to be just where they wanted to be.

Harvey had done a great job, and now they could hand the ball to Jeurys Familia, their hard throwing closer, to do his job and complete the game. Before the game commentators and Mets fans had expressed lack of confidence about the middle relief pitchers on the Mets squad, and hoped that Harvey could just pitch well enough and long enough to hand the ball to Familia.

I am not a Met fan but did come to root for them this season because after a mediocre start that led the same commentators and fans to call for the ouster of the team’s General Manager Sandy Alderson, and Manager Terry Collins, the team had turned around with a couple of excellent acquisitions and the emergence of a corps of fine young pitchers including Familia.

You never know what can happen in baseball but I went to bed confident that the Mets would prevail in game five and live to fight another day in Kansas City.  Incredibly, I woke up next morning to discover that the Mets had lost the game and the Series by a score of 7-2 in the twelfth inning after blowing the two run lead in the ninth inning. What happened?

After Harvey had completed the eighth inning, the pitching coach informed him that his job was done and that Familia would pitch the ninth. This was the first managerial mistake. Manager Terry Collins should not have delegated this responsibility to an underling. Harvey had done a great job and the Manager should have complimented him but then informed him of his decision himself.

Predictably, an adamant Harvey resisted and said that there was no way that he was coming out of the game. He was “pumped” and wanted to finish what he had started. Now, in the heat of the moment the Manager had to make a decision.  He would not have time to check stats or rationally consider all the options. At this point, the Manager made his second mistake and acceded to Harvey’s demand.

I call it a mistake not because the Mets lost the game and the series but because Manager Terry Collins backed down and failed to do his job. No one can blame Harvey for wanting to complete the game. It is what you would expect from any great athlete. But in backing down Manager Collins weakened his own authority, and even let down the other players on the team who all had contributed to the team’s success.

Despite all the individual statistics, baseball is a team game and every player has his job on a successful team. The Kansas City team is a great example. They had no super stars but just excellent and combative players throughout their lineup and pitching staff. In agreeing to Harvey’s request the Mets Manager placed the interest of one individual above his own initial assessment of what he thought was best for the team.

The Mets loss reminded me of something that happened during my childhood 65 years ago. It was 1950 and my favorite team, the NY Yankees, was in the World Series against the “whiz kids” of the upstart Philadelphia Phillies. My aunt worked for a company that had seats for the Series and so my uncle and I were able to attend the fourth and, what turned out to be, the final game.

The Yankees had won the first game 1-0 in Philadelphia as Vic Raschi, one of the Yankee magnificent pitching triumvirate, pitched a masterful two hitter. The Yankees won the second game 2-1 as their fire-balling ace Allie Reynolds outpitched Phillie star Robin Roberts. Both pitched complete games, a rarity today. The Yankees won the third game 3-2 behind cagey left-hander Ed Lopat who had a wide variety of pitches none of which would match the speed of a high school player today. Still, Lopat pitched eight innings in that victory.

So, my uncle and I had the good fortune to be in box seats near the left field foul pole for game four. The Yankee pitcher was their young rookie phenom Whitey Ford, a small but crafty pitcher who had come up to the majors in mid-season and racked up nine straight wins. In his long career he would go on to become the winningest pitcher in World Series history.

Anyway, Ford was in good form that day and the Yankees jumped out to an early lead. He pitched a shutout into the ninth inning and the score was 5-0. There were two outs in the ninth when a fly ball was hit to Yankee left fielder Gene Woodling who was positioned just about fifty feet in front of us. He lost the ball in the sun and dropped it allowing two runs to score.

I think I remember all of this because of what happened next. Yankee Manager Casey Stengel immediately came out of the dugout and removed Ford, who had pitched magnificently, from the game. Up three games to none and ahead 5-2 with two outs in the ninth, Stengel was not going to take any chances. He brought in Allie Reynolds, who had pitched 10 innings just a couple of days before, to end the game. I believe that Reynolds blew away the batter on three straight fastballs, and that was that.

People thought that Casey Stengel was crazy and he certainly could say crazy things in a crazy manner but no one has ever matched his success as a manager. Any manager in any field would do well to follow his example.


Friday, October 23, 2015

Democrats Debate

Things move very quickly in American politics. While in the process of reviewing the recent Democrat Presidential debate, Jim Webb, one of the candidates has dropped out of the contest, apparently realizing after the debate that he wasn’t a Democrat. Also, current Vice-President Joe Biden has indicated that he will not make a run to succeed President Obama.

I watched most of the recent debate and here is a report. Hillary Clinton, the former First Lady and, most recently, Secretary of State, was the star of the show and her lead in the polls must have earned her center stage.

To her right was Bernie Sanders, the 74-year-old self-styled Democratic-Socialist from the State of Vermont, who is giving Secretary Clinton a surprising run for the money. On Clinton’s left was Martin O’Malley, the former mayor of the notorious city of Baltimore as well as the former Governor of the State of Maryland.

Literally on the fringes of the debate were two real dark horses. Lincoln Chafee, a former liberal Republican from the tiny state of Rhode Island, stood off to Clinton’s left. He seems to have been repudiated by the voters of that tiny blue state even though he now calls himself a progressive Democrat. James Webb, a former Marine veteran of Vietnam and Secretary of the Navy, stood off to Clinton’s right both literally and politically, and seemed to be uncomfortable standing on the same stage with four liberal partisans who were trying desperately to appear as the most left-leaning Democrat of all.

With the exception of Webb all accepted the current Democrat party line of which Sanders is the most blatant advocate. Despite seven years of a Democrat President, Sanders insisted that the government and Congress were controlled by fat cats on Wall Street. All took for granted the fact that income inequality has increased dramatically in the past years, even though Democrat President Obama has been in office for the last seven years.

Also, despite an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) running wild with unprecedented and often illegal rulings, Sanders insisted that Climate Change was the greatest problem facing the country. All ( I’m not sure about Webb) agreed that renewable energy must replace fossil fuels in the coming decades.

As if these two issues were not enough, all agreed that the minimum wage must be increased and Sanders even called for almost doubling the Federal mandate to $15 per hour. He also called for universal “free tuition” at public colleges and universities throughout the country. What could be more popular with young voters? Clinton agreed but she did opine that students should have to work a little to contribute something toward the cost of their higher education.

I’m not going to discuss these issues here and now, but I would just like to make a couple of observations on the way that Democrats approach government and politics. They identify a problem; devise a plan to fix it; but then look for someone else to do the work. None of the candidates ever said what sacrifice they or their supporters would make to solve these problems.

Income inequality is a good example. Sanders and the others could only demand that the top 1% of income earners do the heavy lifting. They never suggested that Democrat politicians or their public service union supporters make any financial sacrifices. Nor did they suggest that high government salaries and generous pension benefits be cut to help the poor.

It was the same with minimum wage increases. Employers, large and small, would bear the burden of almost doubling the salaries of unskilled or entry level employees. It never occurred to them that employers would just have to pass along the increased expense to consumers, or else lay off many employees to just stay in business.

Finally, when it is obvious that the Democrats themselves have created the problem, they just laugh it off. “What about your emails and your secret server, Secretary Clinton”? Senator Sanders did not give a damn about the emails, and allowed Clinton to just laugh the whole thing off. Ha, ha, ha! “What about Benghazi, Secretary Clinton”? Oh, that’s just partisan politics. Ha, ha, ha! “What difference does it make”?

I guess that she’s right. She and her husband can do no wrong. Ex-President Clinton can be paid $500000 per speech by foreign potentates but his wife can still get away with complaining about income inequality.

Even Saturday Night Live could not take the hypocrisy of the Democrat debate and put together a great parody featuring Larry David as Bernie Sanders. Click on the link or view the video below.


Friday, October 9, 2015

Off the Streets

Last weekend my wife and I attended a fund-raising dinner at our local church in Fairfield, CT. The dinner was not to raise funds for the church but for a small organization called “Off the Streets” that was formed a few years ago in Connecticut to deal with the “homeless”. “Off the Streets”, was created by a deacon of the Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, and one of the deacons in our own parish founded the local Bridgeport, Fairfield, Trumbull chapter.

Information provided by “Off the Streets” shows some surprising figures about the homeless. Families with children make up 36% of the homeless population. Single men make up 44% while single women make up 13%.  Unaccompanied minors make up the remaining 7%. Surprisingly, 44% of the homeless population did paid work in the past month but for one reason or another they still live in shelters, their cars, or on the streets.

In many cases the homeless only lack the funds to provide a security deposit for an apartment rental, and furnish the apartment. The goal of “Off the Streets” is to provide the up-front costs needed for an apartment. Their brochure states their very basic goal.

The mission of Off the Streets  (OTS) is to provide a security deposit and basic furniture and living needs for those homeless people who have no other means of providing these, but do have a means of paying a monthly rent.

Although it works with local social service agencies to find and screen candidates, OTS does not rely on national, state, or local government funds. It is a 501c3 charity that relies totally on voluntary staff. It has no paid staff and operates on a minimal overhead of $20 per month, a startling contrast to many so-called charitable organizations where overhead can take up almost 90% of revenues.

I am impressed by the fact that Catholic deacons have taken the leading role in providing for the needs of the homeless. In the Acts of the Apostles we find that deacons played a very important role in the very beginning of the Church. When the Apostles found it difficult to tend to the physical needs of the members of the early church, they decided to appoint deacons to assist in the care of the needy. But over the centuries the deaconate became just a kind of temporary step in the process of ordaining a priest. However, after the Second Vatican Council the Church created the permanent diaconate as a way for the laity to take a more important role.

In its brief existence, “Off the Streets” has succeeded in providing almost 1000 homeless individuals and families with a place to live. It has a devoted group of volunteers who work year round. In its pamphlet OTS explained how it helps.

*OTS generally pays security deposits and other upfront costs.
*OTS’ process can usually provide a fully furnished apartment in as little as two to fourteen days.
*OTS provides basic household goods (furniture, bedding, etc.) to help give our clients a fresh start.
*A bus ticket can get a homeless person off the streets when family from out of town are willing to take in the person.

The Off the Streets website provides much more information of what it does and on the ways others can help.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Yogi Berra R.I.P. 9/22/2015

New York Yankee baseball legend Yogi Berra died yesterday at the age of ninety. The internet and other media are already full of accolades and memorials of the great star who despite his stats and awards always seemed to be the most humble of men. I would like to offer a few personal recollections that might not appear in the mainstream stories.

I became a devoted baseball fan in 1947 at the age of eight. Actually, I recall listening to the 1946 World Series where the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Boston Red Sox, but by next season I had become an avid listener to the radio broadcasts of the Yankee games. There were some Yankee fans in my family but I suspect the great influence was the three great Italian American stars, DiMaggio, Rizzuto, and Berra, that made up the core of the Yankee team.

It is a baseball truism that a team must be strong up the middle and the three great Italian American stars were the Yankee middle. Berra was the catcher, Rizzuto the shortstop, and DiMaggio, the center fielder. The Yankees won the World Series in 1947 but lost in 1948 to a great Cleveland Indian team that won a record 120 games. However, in 1949 the Yankees began an incredible streak of five consecutive World Series championships. By that time the great DiMaggio was at the end of his career but Berra was coming into his own. In 1951 he won the first of his three Most Valuable Player awards.

At that time the games were only beginning to be televised but since we had no TV, I listened every day on the radio after school. Most of the games were still played during the day. I have never forgotten turning on the radio one day to discover that Allie Reynolds, the hard throwing Yankee pitching ace, was one out away from pitching a no-hitter. It was especially dramatic because the Yankees were playing the Boston Red Sox and Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters of all time, was at bat.

Williams hit a high pop foul that Berra circled under for what seemed an eternity. It is a very difficult play but a catcher will rarely miss it, but Berra did to the shock of the announcer and everyone else in the Stadium. Reynolds would have to try again to get Williams out. Incredibly, Williams hit another towering pop fly behind the plate but this time Berra caught it to save the no-hitter.

More than his feats on the field, I think it was Berra's innocence and humility that endeared him to people whether they were baseball fans or not. I remember reading that after enlisting in the navy while still a teenager during World War II, he volunteered for duty on a "rocket" ship. Berra thought it was a kind of Buck Rogers futuristic vessel but it turned out to be a ship that launched rockets to soften up enemy beach defenses before a naval invasion. That is why he found himself with a front row seat at the famous D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 at the age of nineteen.

Of course, people have their favorite Berra stories, and his Berraisms have become famous. My favorite is the one about the lady he met one day on a hot spring training day in Florida. The woman complimented him on his Bermuda shorts and said, "Mr. Berra, you look very cool." He replied, "Thanks, lady, you don't look so hot yourself."

Toward the end of my own long career as a financial advisor, I finally qualified for my company's Hall of Fame. A colleague from Mississippi who was already a member sent me a letter of congratulations and included Yogi Berra's remarks on his election to baseball's famous Hall of Fame. When Berra was asked what it meant to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, he replied, "It doesn't mean much unless you're a baseball player. Then, it means a lot."

What a man!


Monday, September 14, 2015

Republican Tsunami

Carly Fiorina
I believe that there is a Republican tsunami sweeping over the country. It began when Republicans took  over the House of Representatives despite the re-election of President Obama in 2012. It increased in intensity in 2014 when Republicans took control of the Senate. This political upheaval only mirrored what has happened on the state and local level in the past few years. In the past few years Republicans have gained control of almost two thirds of the govenorships and state legislatures.

The Republican surge is illustrated this year in the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election. No matter what one thinks of individual Republican candidates, it is obvious that the Republican party has put up an unprecedented array of talented experienced candidates. The youth, vitality, and new ideas of the Republican candidates contrasts with the age and old fashioned ideas on the Democrat side, where Hillary Clinton seems so yesterday, and the Socialism of Bernie Sanders harks back even further. The Democrats seem so desperate that many are calling on old Joe Biden, a man who has never had an original idea, to run.

I did not watch the first Republican debate but here is my initial impression of the Republican field.

Donald Trump has taken the early lead in what promises to be a long race for the Republican nomination. So far, Trump seems impervious to criticism. He is the "bad boy" in the campaign and voters love a "bad boy." Just look at the continued popularity of Bill Clinton. Nevertheless, I suspect that like most front runners, Trump will run out of gas. His insulting comments about Carly Fiorina's face may be the beginning of the end for him

Speaking of Carly Fiorina, Trump's criticism has only helped her candidacy. Her response demonstrated that she is a candidate that must be taken seriously. She argued that the upcoming election is not entertainment but is about issues that will really matter. She also gained stature when she said that there are no "women's issues" but only issues that pertain to all of us. She is intelligent and experienced and even her ouster as CEO of Hewlett Packard will not work against her, since the Directors of the company have admitted that she was right and they were wrong.

If Trump is the "bad boy" in the campaign, I think that Ben Carson is too good a man to go the distance. In fact, in TV appearances he appears to lack the fight and aggressiveness that is so important not only in gaining votes, but also in dealing with the terrible enemies that we face all over the world. Also, he has never been elected to any position of power. One of the great things about America is that there are thousands of men and women like Dr. Carson but they are best suited for the private sector.

Mere election to office does not necessarily qualify someone for the duties of President of the USA. Senators like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul should have established themselves in the Senate before seeking the Presidency. They are intelligent thinkers and good vote getters but do not have the necessary experience as yet. President Obama is a good example of a first term Senator who attained the Presidency on charisma but turned out to be not ready for the job.

Governors seem to be more qualified than Senators for the Presidency, and the Republican field contains a number of present and former Governors. Of these, I think that Jeb Bush, the former Governor of Florida, and John Kasich, the current Governor of Ohio, have the experience and qualifications. I think a Bush/Kasich ticket would be very electable since both Florida and Ohio are key states in any Presidential contest. Bush lags in the early polls but he should not be counted out.

Governors like Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and Chris Christie of New Jersey do not appear to have enough experience as yet.  It is doubtful if Christie could even
carry his home state of New Jersey. In general I question the ethics of sitting Governors running for the Presidency. They promised a lot to the people who elected them, and it doesn't seem right for them to turn their attention away from their home states. Scott Walker still has a long way to go in Wisconsin so why doesn't he want to stay and complete the job.

Politicians would do well to follow the example of Ronald Reagan who after two successful terms as Governor of California retired and proceeded to groom himself to become a national figure. Jeb Bush has followed the Reagan example. It will be interesting to see how he fares in the race once the front runners come back to the pack.


Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Pope, Poverty, and the USA

I suppose that it’s natural for Pope Francis to call upon the wealthy to assist the poor. Charity, especially for the poor, is an integral part of the Christian message. However, on his upcoming visit to the United States the Pope will have an opportunity to examine one of the greatest anti-poverty programs in all of human history. 

If we remove ourselves from current political rhetoric and disputes, and take a longer view of what has happened in the USA in the 150 years that have elapsed since the end of the American Civil War to the current day, we will see the greatest advance in human well being in the history of the world.

Although politicians and activists like to complain about modern income inequality, there can be no doubt that in the past 150 years the USA has become the wealthiest nation in history, and that the wealth has been spread over a greater number of people than ever before in history.
Sure, from the time of the “robber barons” in the late nineteenth century to our own time, there have been wealthy fat cats at the top of the economic pyramid, but just consider the fate of the immigrants of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Irish, Jewish, Italian and other immigrants came to this country fleeing starvation and oppression, and with nothing to sustain them but their religious and cultural heritage.

In each case the first generation of immigrants took the most menial of jobs and lived in wretched slums. The second generation, however, found jobs with large American corporations in the expanding American industrial and transportation sectors. Many also became upwardly mobile as teachers, policemen, firemen, or other civil servants.

 However, members of the third generation did not just work for these corporations, they became part owners through a variety of means. Corporate pension plans expanded dramatically after the Second World War, and these plans were largely invested in the American economy. Even government employees became capitalists since their pension plans were primarily invested in stocks and corporate bonds.

In addition, the proliferation of mutual funds, and tax qualified retirement plans like IRAs made stock ownership easy and affordable for a larger and larger percentage of the population. Just the other day I heard of a study by some economists that claimed that Employee Stock Ownership plans (ESOPs) were the best thing since sliced bread.

In 1920 when nativist sentiment and outright religious prejudice imposed quotas and effectively put a stop to immigration, the population of the country was about 100 Million. I’m sure many at the time thought that America could not handle any more people. Today, there are over 300 Million people living in the USA and the great majority enjoys a standard of living unique in history.

There were no poverty statistics back in the 1920s but if 10 percent of the population was considered to be in poverty that would amount to 10 Million people with 90 Million above the poverty level. But today, if we use the same percentage, 10 percent of the population or 30 Million people would have incomes below the poverty level. Still, there would be 90 percent or 270 Million people who live above the poverty level.

Even the poor in the USA would be considered well to do in other parts of the world. Here, the poor own cell phones, TVs, refrigerators, cars, and most have access to a variety of government subsidies for housing, medical care, and food.

It is not just the children of impoverished immigrants who benefited from the enormous growth of the American economy in the past 150 years. The American South was impoverished and devastated by the Civil War that raged in the 1860s. Today the South is booming with states like Texas and North Carolina attracting people and industries away from other parts of the country. From a poor agricultural backwater, the South has entered the industrial age and created an unprecedented degree of prosperity that should be an example to the rest of the world.

It is the job of economists and sociologists to explain the great increase in American prosperity over the past 150 years. Yet, no one can deny that it has happened. I would just point out that the increase in wealth coincided with the legalization of the corporation in the nineteenth century.

When a corporation became recognized as a legal entity with the same rights as a person, it opened the way for the tremendous expansion of American industry. The corporation became a limited liability company meaning that only the corporate assets of stockholders were at risk in any business venture. Private, personal assets of stockholders could not be lost if a corporation failed. This single provision protects pensioners as well as CEOs.

You can complain about corporate greed all you want but please don’t do it on the iphones that corporate giant Apple created. How many jobs did Steve Jobs create?

It seems to me that instead of criticism directed against corporations and business, the Pope and others should encourage the study of what these corporations have done to create the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. They should be models for others to follow, rather than an evil to be abolished.


Friday, August 28, 2015

Corporate Taxes


Some people like to complain that large corporations like General Electric, which currently has its corporate headquarters in my town of Fairfield, Connecticut do not pay taxes. In particular, the charge against GE seems to stem from Elizabeth Warren’s successful run for the Senate a couple of years ago. In her campaign Warren claimed that GE paid zero taxes.

Actually, Warren’s claim was shown to be sheer demagogic misinformation but the myth lingers on today. Sometimes, this kind of political hot air can have serious consequences. Apparently, many Democrat politicians believe that companies like GE are cash cows that can be milked forever.

Last June the Democrat Governor of Connecticut and the Democrat controlled Legislature sought to deal with the State’s huge budget deficit by adding new taxes to large corporations like GE with headquarters in Connecticut. It appears that the strategy has backfired since a number of other states have come courting GE with very attractive offers.

If GE paid no taxes, why would those states, like blue state New York, offer rich incentives to entice them to leave Connecticut? The truth is that GE and other large corporations pay tons of taxes although their corporate tax returns are not usually in the public domain. Here’s how it works.

Any business whether a large corporation or a small sole proprietor is allowed to subtract business expenses from its gross revenues before paying a business or corporate income tax. For most of my career I was a self-employed financial advisor and every year I had to file a Schedule C along with my personal income tax return. At the top of Schedule C I would have to list my total income or revenue for the year, but then I could subtract my business expenses from the gross income to come up with my net taxable income. These expenses included salaries paid to employees other than myself, office rent, phone costs, business travel expenses, and purchases of office supplies from computers to paper.

 A large corporation like GE has all these expenses and more. Salaries, from the CEO down to the minimum wage mail clerk, are deductible. So, when the CEO gets a bonus, that reduces the gross income for corporate tax purposes, but so too does an increase in the minimum wage for low salaried employees. When the CEO and the mail clerk get their salaries, they are subject to both Federal and State personal income taxes.

GE can also deduct the real estate taxes it pays to the town of Fairfield. It is the largest taxpayer on the town’s grand list. It must pay sales tax on all purchases of equipment and supplies to the State of Connecticut. It would be a catastrophe for Fairfield and Connecticut if GE and its 3000 corporate employees left the State for a more business friendly environment.

It is true that corporations can claim expenses against income that most individuals cannot. A corporation can deduct the cost of its benefits package, including the medical insurance that is often provided to employees at low cost. It can deduct the cost of major acquisitions or at least claim depreciation expenses over time.

After all deductions are totaled, they are subtracted from gross revenues and the balance or profit is subject to corporate income tax. The corporate tax must be paid before shareholders can receive any dividends. So, the profit is taxed, and then the part of it paid in dividends is taxed again to the shareholders as ordinary income. This is why some people think that the taxation of corporate dividends is unfair double taxation.

What is left of the annual profit after taxes and dividends is then retained in the corporation for various purposes although there are limits on the amount of retained earnings. For this reason Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Company never pays dividends. Rather than generating taxable income for his shareholders, Buffet prefers to just make new acquisitions. If the shareholders need the money, they can just sell some shares.

Finally, if a corporation has a bad year or incurs unexpected huge expenses due to things like new taxes, or government mandates, there may be little profit to tax. Many companies saw this happen in 2008 with the onset of what is now called the Great Recession. Nevertheless, it is estimated that in 2010 GE paid about a Billion dollars in corporate taxes, and almost 3 Billion in 2011.

Governor Malloy of Connecticut seems to have seen the light and has since put together a package for GE but it may turn out to be too little and too late. Instead of milking the cow, the Democrats may have killed the goose that laid the golden egg.

If GE leaves Connecticut, there will be no profits to tax. If GE leaves the State, the results would be disastrous not so much for GE stockholders, executives and other fat cats, but mainly for the thousands of ordinary people whose incomes are dependent on GE.