Death South Of The Border

Rodolfo Torre Cantu

The brazenness and bloodiness of the continuing Mexican drug wars is astonishing.  On Monday, a drug gang gunned down Rodolfo Torre Cantu, the leading candidate for governor of the state of Tamaulipas, one of the Mexican states along the border with Texas.  The candidate was out campaigning when his motorcade was stopped by a truck blocking the road and the cars in the motorcade were riddled with bullets, in an incident that sounds like the Sonny Corleone death scene in The Godfather.  Rival Mexican drug gangs have apparently begun to increasingly target governmental and political figures, and Cantu was their most high profile victim yet.

The overall death toll from the Mexican drug wars is even more amazing.  Experts estimate that 22,000 people have been killed by drug-related violence in the last four years.  Consider that slightly more than 5500 Americans have died in the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq since those conflicts began in 2001 and 2003, respectively.  Four times as many Mexicans have been killed, and in a shorter time frame!

This is bad news for America on multiple levels.  No country wants to have lawlessness on its border, and if Mexican drug gangs are bold enough to ambush leading politicians on public streets in Mexico, they likely are bold enough to try to cross over into American territory if they think it would benefit them.  Moreover, law-abiding Mexicans will not long tolerate living in a country where criminal violence reaches such levels and gangland killings go unpunished.  Those who are concerned about illegal immigration into America should be especially concerned that Mexico does not devolve into a state of criminal anarchy and chaos, because the flood of illegal immigrants that will result will dwarf what has happened to date.

Ian Malcolm Was (And Is) Right

We all remember Dr. Ian Malcolm, the annoyingly egotistical mathematician and chaos theorist from the Jurassic Park books and movies.  Malcolm confidently predicted that, for all of its technology, Jurassic Park was a fundamentally unstable creation that would inevitably fail because “life finds a way.” He was right, of course.

His statement has proven to be equally true as it applies to the relentless advance of the dreaded Asian carp.  An “electric barrier” was created to keep the carp from moving up the Mississippi River and into the Great Lakes.  Now the carp have been caught past the barrier, only six miles from Lake Michigan.  The Great Lakes communities are tremendously concerned that the destructive fish will ruin the sports fishing and recreational boating industries on the Great Lakes, and Members of Congress from the surrounding states have now proposed legislation to permanently separate the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes in order to keep invasive species out.

Let’s hope that any action gets taken in time, but I think Ian Malcolm would point out that six miles is not a very long distance.  He might predict that if a fish was caught only six miles away, there is a good chance that other members of that species have already traversed the six-mile distance — and if they haven’t, they could jump, crawl, sprint, or be carried past whatever barrier is erected in their path.  Asian carp, he might suggest, will somehow find a way.

A Disturbing Crisis Of Confidence

The data on consumer confidence in the United States is very discouraging indeed.  Americans are, by nature, optimists.  In past recessions American consumers have spent and borrowed with complete confidence that things were going to get better and have thereby helped to pull the economy into recovery.  That doesn’t seem to be happening in this latest recession.

The statistics reported today are amazing.  For example, the percentage of people who said they were going to buy a car dropped to the lowest level since records began being kept in 1967.  Imagine — Americans not buying cars, or even thinking about buying cars!  What could be more compelling evidence of significant changes in the outlook of American consumers?

In addition, the linked article notes that one of the groups that experienced the biggest drop in consumer confidence was Americans under age 35.  That result, at least, is not hard to understand.  We have seen several years of college students and masters’ candidates unable to find or keep work after graduation.  If you were an unemployed college graduate who was being strangled by enormous student loan debt, your outlook probably would be bleak, too.

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (II)

The next stop on our tour of public art on the Statehouse grounds is the Peace statue, which is on the north side of the Statehouse grounds, directly across Broad Street from the Rhodes Tower.  The Peace statute was erected by the Womans Relief Corps, Department of Ohio, in 1923.  It commemorates the “heroic sacrifices of Ohio’s soldiers of the Civil War 19861-1865 and the loyal women of that period.”

The women's plaque on the rear of the Peace statue

The figure of Peace takes the traditional form.  It was the work of Bruce Wilder Saville, who happened to be a faculty member at Ohio State.  The rear of the statue is somewhat less traditional, and a bit more interesting.  It features two metal plaques — one commemorating the sacrifices of the more than 300,000 men of Ohio who fought valiantly in the Civil War, and the other recognizing, in heartfelt terms, the glory of the women who supported the war effort.  To my mind, the plaque describing the crucial role of women in the Civil War is especially powerful and moving.

Equally poignant, in the middle of the rear of the Peace statute is the simple statement:  “Let us have Peace.”

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (I)

Off To Phu Quoc

Russell has been on the move and has left the friendly, if sweaty, environs of Ho Chi Minh City.  Rather than heading east to Mui Ne, however, he has gone south to Phu Quoc.

Phu Quoc is an island in the Gulf of Siam that is south and east of mainland Vietnam, near the coast of Cambodia.  The island features wooded mountains to the north and fine, unspoiled beaches to the south.  It is remote, largely undeveloped, and largely unknown. From the pictures on the internet it looks like a fabulous spot.

Russell plans on staying their for a few days, then taking a boat back to the mainland to explore the Mekong Delta region.

R.I.P., Professor Ginsburg

I was very saddened to learn today of the death of Professor Martin Ginsburg, an extraordinary teacher and intellect.  For many years Professor Ginsburg taught Tax Law at the Georgetown University Law Center, and I was privileged to learn from him.  I took my first tax law course from him not because I had any interest at all in tax law, but because other students said his course was not to be missed — and they were right.  Having Professor Ginsburg teach you tax law was like having Michelangelo teach you painting.

Professor Ginsburg’s standard question to his students began “If you were king . . . .”  He emphasized that the federal tax code simply represented a series of policy judgments.  He taught us the existing laws on things like the “hobby loss” and “like kind exchange” provisions of the Code, of course, but also urged us to go beyond the bare language of the federal tax laws to consider the broader social engineering issues lurking underneath.  At some point in the past, Members of Congress had made the policy judgments that led to the Code in its current form — but were they wise judgments?  If we were king, would we have done it differently, or at all?

Professor Ginsburg’s keen sense of humor, enthusiasm, and obvious love for the subject matter made what could have been a dusty or rote learning exercise into something that was enormously stimulating and satisfying.  Although he was a giant intellect in the field, he was neither arrogant nor aloof, and he seemed genuinely interested in what his students had to say.  He was one of those rare teachers who could have taught anything and made it a memorable experience.  He will be sorely missed.

The (Comparative) Rise Of Public Employee Unions

When I grew up in Akron, Ohio in the ’60s — at that time a classic blue-collar, Democratic city — unions were a big part of the landscape.  People paid attention to what the head of the United Rubber Workers had to say.  The men who headed the AFL-CIO, the United Auto Workers, the United Steel Workers, and the Teamsters Union were all familiar names.  People wondered about whether there would be a strike and what kind of impact it might have on our community.

In those days, of course, union membership in private sector jobs was much more common. (I was a union member twice — when I worked as a bag boy at Big Bear and was, I think, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, and when I worked at the Toledo Blade and was a member of the Newspaper Guild.)  In 1945, 36 percent of all wage and salary workers in the United States were union workers.  By 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the percentage had fallen to 12.3 percent.

Moreover, the kind of workers who are union members has changed.  According to the U.S Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2009 more public sector employees (7.9 million) belonged to unions than did private sector employees (7.4 million), even though the private sector job force is about five times larger.  The Hoover Institution notes that the rise of public employee unions isn’t due so much to increasing the percentages of union members in public employee jobs, because those percentages have remained relatively constant at around 40 percent for the past 30 years.  The comparative “rise” of public employee unions therefore is the result of an increase in the number of public sector jobs and a decrease in the number of private sector workers who belong to unions.

Why is this so?  The AFL-CIO says it is because corporations block unionization drives.  I think the reasons are probably more complex.  One of the significant impetuses for unionization early in the 20th century was workplace safety.  These days, in most industries, workplace safety is heavily regulated by the federal government and there is correspondingly less need for organized worker efforts in that area.  In addition, many workers don’t like the idea of paying mandatory dues to unions, particularly when they see stories of union leaders who have engaged in corrupt activities with union funds.  Finally, many unions have not been particularly successful in securing long-term jobs for their members.  The highly unionized industries of my youth — the rubber industry, the auto industry, and the steel industry, to name just three — have seen significant job losses as plants in America have closed in the face of overseas competition.  We can argue about whether the unions’ success in collectively bargaining for higher wages and richer benefits in those industries contributed materially to the loss of those jobs, but there is no argument that fewer workers are employed in those industries.  Finally, employers seem to show much less fear of unions and strikes these days, and particularly in this economy it would not be difficult to find workers to replace those who had gone out on strike.

If I am right on the reasons for a decline in private sector union membership, why haven’t those same forces operated to affect public employee membership?  I think there are three reasons.  First, public employee jobs cannot move overseas.  Second, public employee unions can directly influence the decisions of those who are going to decide their wages and benefits by lobbying and contributions to political campaigns.  Third, the legislators and administrators who are making decisions about public employee wages and benefits are spending taxpayer money; they don’t need to sell more widgets or achieve greater worker productivity to justify increased wages and they don’t have to worry about competition.

Public Art At The Ohio Statehouse (I)

Yesterday after I finished my Saturday morning work I took a walk around the Ohio Statehouse to look at the various statues, plaques, fountains, and other pieces of public art that are found on the Statehouse grounds.  It is an interesting collection.  However, it seems to be generally ignored by the Columbus community, perhaps because it is so familiar and so, well, public. It deserves a closer look — which is what I propose to do in this series of posts.

The replica of the sundial at Mount Vernon

The first stop on my tour was the replica of the sundial found at Mount Vernon.  The sundial is found on the north side of the Statehouse.  The sundial was erected at that location by the Ohio Daughters of the American Revolution in 1932, to commemorate the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth.

A plaque at the base of the sundial states that “as time passes, the ideals of Washington reveal new meanings.”  (My guess is that this obscure, generic comment on the continued relevance of Washington was the product of weeks of work by a committee.)   The statement from Washington that is carved into the marble base of the sundial is a bit more explicit:  “The right of a people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey that government.”

The sundial itself includes a compass, the standard sundial face with Roman numerals, and the inscription “Times takes all but memories.”  It’s a bit bleak, but comments about time typically are.

Sequel Fatigue

Last night Kish and I went to see Toy Story 3 in 3D at the Easton movie theatres.  It was well done, I suppose, but I found myself thinking about how little true creativity we see in popular culture anymore.  As nice as it was to see Woody and Buzz Lightyear in a new adventure, I would rather see the team that made Toy Story 3 devote their considerable talents to creating something totally new and different.

It seems like 75% of the movies showing at any given time are movie versions of TV shows or comic books, or sequels of prior successful movies, or remakes of old movies, or even remakes of sequels.  Everybody seems to be searching for a “franchise” that they can ride for a few sequels until diminishing quality and declining audience interest have irreparably damaged the memory of the excellent original movie.

Contrast the current approach with the golden age of Hollywood, during the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.  The most popular movie ever, Gone With The Wind, ended with a cliffhanger if there ever was one, but the studio resisted the temptation to crank out a sequel.  There was no sequel to The Wizard Of Oz, High Noon, or Rear Window, or It’s A Wonderful Life.   After Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a big hit, Walt Disney made Pinocchio, not Snow White 2:  Grumpy’s Revenge.

I sometimes wonder whether the focus on sequels has caused writers, directors, actors, and animators who are at the peak of their abilities to take the path of least resistance, rather than breaking new ground and creating new characters, story lines, and techniques.  What potential masterpieces have gone unmade as a result of the emphasis on producing sure-fire sequels?

Journalism Adrift

I’ve posted before on “the new journalism” found on blogs and websites and spurred by the internet and easy access to sound and video recordings.  Today, even an obscure video or blog posting can “go viral” and have an enormous, immediate impact that is difficult for newspapers or weekly news magazines to match.  There is simply no need to wait for your daily paper or 6:30 network newscast anymore, and with each passing day fewer people are doing so.

I think the rise of “the new journalism” has been baffling to the “old journalism.”  Deep down, members of the media can’t understand why people aren’t content to get the news the same way they did during the 1970s.  Mainstream media outlets want to be relevant given the rapidly shifting tastes of modern American culture, but they clearly don’t quite know how to achieve that goal.  For example, the Washington Post hired a blogger to cover conservative politics; he recently resigned under fire after his comments on a listserv didn’t match the objective standards expected of Washington Post reporters.  Why should it have surprised anyone that a blogger might not always display that mask of careful objectivity that is a hallmark of traditional journalism?

Another approach seems to be to have mainstream journalists try to write more like bloggers.  This model, I think, is even more misguided.  Eleanor Clift’s recent piece for the “Woman Up” section of the website Politics Daily, on Al Gore’s alleged massage incident, is an embarrassing illustration of that approach.  For years, Clift has portrayed herself as a respectable, knowledgeable commentator on national politics, although she is probably best known for feverishly trying to get a word in edgewise on The McLaughlin Group.  Whereas Clift used to quote “campaign insiders” and “highly placed Administration officials,” her entry linked above quotes an email sent by a colleague and describes how that colleague “imagined” a “scenario” involving Gore.  Clift’s piece also discloses that she went for a run in the morning and a “fellow jogger” confided that it was “nice to know that Gore had these urges.”  Still later, Clift states that she “doubt[s] Gore’s alleged late-blooming sexual aggression will manifest itself with a tally comparable to Tiger Woods.”

Isn’t it humiliating for Clift to write such drivel?  Why in the world would anyone want to read about the speculative imaginings of Clift’s colleague, or the awkward confession of a geriatric jogger?  By writing about such tripe Clift provides nothing that could not equally be provided — and probably with more honesty and immediacy —  by a blogger in the heartland.

Mainstream journalism is never going to survive if it strives only to produce pale imitations of content that already can be found in abundance elsewhere on the internet.  It would be like trying to compete with the Ipod by producing a ’60s-era transistor radio.

Dark And Stormy Nights

A final point about our recent visit to Bermuda:  it seems like every time you visit a tropical location, there is a new cocktail that people are drinking.  In Bermuda last week the overwhelming cocktail of choice was called a Dark and Stormy.

The Dark and Stormy is made in a tall glass with plenty of ice, a shot, more or less, of Gosling’s Black Seal rum, enough ginger beer to fill the glass to the top, and a lime wedge for garnish.  (Apparently the ginger beer of choice is Barrit’s ginger beer.)

The result is much darker than the standard tropical drinks, which tend to have lighter pastel colors.  Nevertheless, Kish and a host of others at the conference we were attending found the Dark and Stormy to be a very tasty and refreshing drink on a sultry evening.  I’m not sure any grocery stores sell Barrit’s, or any kind of ginger beer, here in Columbus, but we will be keeping an eye out for it.

A ComFest Lunch Hour

Today Richard and I had lunch.  He had the excellent idea to walk down to ComFest for our noontime meal.  We hoofed it down to Goodale Park, strolled past the food and vendor tents, bought a Bahama Mama from Schmidt’s, and listened to the end of the set from The Shallow Side at the metal music tent as we downed our lunch.  (For the record, they were pretty good, but we did not get to hear Bronson Bunny Deathwish, which was the evocatively named group that was to follow them at the OffRamp venue.)  After snarfing down our brats we walked past some of the other music venues, listed to the end of the set from The Ageless, checked out the drum circle group, listened to a bit of a political diatribe, and then headed back to the office.

Such is ComFest.  Although the event started in Columbus in 1972, and I’ve lived in Columbus for the vast majority of the intervening years, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never been to ComFest before.  It’s a well known event in Columbus that combines music, alternative politics, arts and crafts, alternative lifestyles, and other counterculture elements in a rich stew that can be experienced today, tomorrow, and Sunday at Goodale Park.  If you want a tie-dyed shirt, it is the place to visit — the selection is enormous.  It is also the place to go if you want to listen to any kind of music, drink herbal tea, have your face painted, buy “tobacco supplies” that look suspiciously like bongs, eat an eggplant burger, support peace, and get a sense of the diversity to be found in Columbus, that curious oasis of tolerance in the bustling world of the Midwest.

Next Stop: Mui Ne?

Russell reports that he is enjoying Ho Chi Minh City.  He has visited the War Remnants Museum mentioned in my post on Monday, met up with a Vassar classmate who is in the city teaching English, and has found the cost of living to be quite manageable.  He says that his efforts at painting outdoors never fail to attract a crowd.  He also is sweating his brains out due to the hot, muggy weather.

When you are hot and uncomfortable, you naturally think of . . . water.  In this instance, Russell is considering whether to head to the Mekong delta or to Mui Ne.

Mui Ne is a beach town in southern Vietnam.  It is about 140 miles from Ho Chi Minh City, reachable by train or bus. Mue Ne’s climate is hot and dry for most of the year, and it advertises itself as “the sunniest place in Vietnam” as well as the kiteboarding and windsurfing capital of Vietnam.  It features a series of beautiful beaches on the South China Sea, fresh seafood, sand dunes, the Red Canyon, a host of resorts, and some interesting historical sites related to the Cham culture.  It also is described as having a chilled out feel that is a good respite for the weary traveler.

Sounds like a good getaway destination during the rainy season.

D.C. Heat Wave

I saw that the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area experienced a heat wave today, with the temperature reaching 100 degrees in June for the first time since 1997.

The story about the heat wave brought back some memories.  Kish and I lived in D.C. from 1981 through 1986, and during the summer the heat was the most unbearably intense, humid, sapping heat imaginable.  As a fresh-faced Congressional aide I would leave our tiny walk-up apartment at 1019 East Capitol Street, striding briskly toward the Capitol and my eventual goal of the Rayburn House Office Building, and be positively dissolved in sweat before reaching the environs of the Folger Shakespeare Library.  At first you would feel a tiny trickle, then you would start to become a bit stressed about the sweat oozing from your open pores, and soon you would be staggering through the steamy air, your starched shirt damp and rumpled, sweat rings and saddle bags staining the fabric, praying that you would soon reach the arctic blast of the government building air conditioning.

I am convinced that nowhere gets hotter than Washington, D.C. in summer.

The Queen, The Hog, And The Coin

When Kish and I were in Bermuda we bought a soda, paid cash, and received some Bermuda coinage as change.  I took a look at the coins and was surprised to find that the bright copper Bermuda penny has the familiar likeness of Queen Elizabeth sporting a crown on one side and a hog on the other.

What’s up with that?  Why would a tony island like Bermuda, with its lovely “pink sand” beaches, iconic Bermuda shorts and knee socks, ubiquitous scooters, and proud British colonial heritage, feature a pig so prominently on its legal tender?

It turns out that hogs have a long and distinguished connection with Bermuda.  A sea voyager who was an early visitor to the Bermuda Triangle was shipwrecked with some live hogs in the hold.  The hogs made it to shore and, in a few years, their grunting, squealing descendants had spread throughout the island.  The hogs were so prolific that some who visited Bermuda came to know it as “Hogge Island.”  (Changing that name undoubtedly helped spur Bermuda’s tourism industry, by the way.)  Naturally, then, the first coins minted on Bermuda featured a hog on one side.  The current penny is a tribute to that initial coinage.

The eagle is our natural bird, of course, and it looks noble on our currency.  Canada’s coins properly feature the likes of the beaver and the maple leaf.  Given its important role in Bermuda’s history, the humble hog therefore is properly honored with a prominent place on the Bermuda one-cent piece.  You have to give the Queen credit for being willing to share a coin with a curly-tailed swine of the four-legged variety.  The people of Bermuda also seem proud of their hog penny.  Indeed, one of the most popular pubs in Hamilton is the Hog Penny Pub.