HOW IT’S DONE


Here’s K.T. Tunstall singing Bob Dylan‘s “Tangled Up in Blue” with Jools Holland in 2005. I love it. A few years ago–right around the time of this video–K.T. Tunstall performed “Suddenly I See”, the song which was played so effectively over the credits in the magazine-centric The Devil Wears Prada, to open the Annual ASME Award ceremonies. I was sitting next to my friend and colleage AJ Baime, and when the song ended, the crowd politely applauded as K.T. Tunstall bowed and exited the stage, head down, right in front of where we were sitting. The applause faded, but AJ kept at it, clapping and shouting “Yeah! Yeah!” until he was the only in the auditorium making noise, and K.T. finally lifted her head and gave him a big smile. And I thought, “Aha! So that’s how it’s done!”

JUST SAY NO THANKS!

Isn’t it kind of divine that in the same week that Tim Thomas, the goalie of the Boston Bruins, refused to attend a White House reception in honor of the team’s championship last spring, Buckingham Palace released the names of 277 people who between the years 1951 and 1999 declined to accept one of the Queen’s Honors, including, in some cases, knighthood, and with it the right to be be called Sir or Lady. Among the refusniks were Roald Dahl, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, JB Priestley, Lucian Freud, Robert Graves, FR Leavis, LS Lowry, Henry Moore, Philip Larkin and CS Lewis.

In a statement he posted on Facebook, Thomas was plain about his decision. “I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People.This is being done at the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial level. This is in direct opposition to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers vision for the Federal government. Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a Free Citizen, and did not visit the White House. This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL.” Thomas has been tut-tutted by such political philosophers like Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser, who on ESPN played establishmentarian court jesters, saying that when one has been invited by the President, one ought to go, out of respect for the office.

Nonsense. First, this has nothing to do with the country. President Obama is merely copying a move pioneered by John Lindsay, who in the midst of tight mayoral race in New York City in 1969, barged into the locker room of the World Series-winning Mets and inserted his head under waterfalls of champagne. (The ploy worked; he won a narrow plurality in a three-way race.) President Nixon soon began rewarding winning coaches with congratulatory phone calls. Now it’s receptions. Clearly these are held as publicity opportunities for the incumbent, and I have no problem with Tim Thomas or any of these other jocks exercising his right to absent himself. The White House is such a bubble, it’s good when this or any president hears some disagreement.

Indeed, I wish it was plainer why the 277 would-be honorees in Britain declined their invitations; no reasons were cited, and the Palace took care in its response to a BBC request to release only the names of people who are dead. Over the years, explanations have been provided by some people who are not on the list. According to the New York Times, the writer J. G. Ballard said he did not want to be named a Commander of the British Empire because the whole thing was a “preposterous charade.” The poet Benjamin Zephaniah (left) refused membership in the Order of the British Empire, saying “Stick it, Mr. Blair and Mrs. Queen.” David Bowie declined a C.B.E. in 2000, saying “I seriously don’t know what it’s for.” (Selling records, duh!) In 1992, Doris Lessing declined a knighthood, saying “Surely there is something unlikable about a person, when old, accepting honors from a institution she attacked when young?” But eight years later, she accepted another title, the Companion of Honor, saying she liked that “you’re not called anything” special.

And that’s the point–we don’t know if these folks were trying to raise an objection, or to avoid being used as a monarchical prop, or simply because they were holding out for a better honor. After all, Alfred Hitchcock turned down a C.B.E. in 1962, then later accepted being named a Knight Commander of the British Empire. But I like what Terence Blacker wrote in the Independent. Noting that the opt-outs “have little in common politically or personally beyond the fact that their work is the product of uncompromising individuality,” Blacker suggests that “Simply by accepting a bauble of thanks from the nation, they would be sacrificing what was best about them – their apartness. Once they became part of the national community, their voice, their eyes, their strength would be changed. They neither accepted the honour nor, in what has become a new form of boasting, told the world that they had rejected it.”

HOLDING TEACHERS ACCOUNTABLE

I’m married into a teaching family. My wife took up teaching as a second career, and has spent the last decade teaching in various New York City and Westchester County middle and high schools of widely different conditions of wealth, quality and ambition. Two of her uncles were teachers, two of her cousins are school superintendents, and and at least three other cousins are or were teachers. When Chris Christie and his ilk start blaming teachers for the inadequacies of the educational system and start looking for ways to cut their pay, you can guess our response.

But you might be surprised. My wife comes home with stories of her colleagues’ inadequacies. She works with one man, comfortably tenured, who weekly offers some statement of scientific principle that shows that he really doesn’t know how the world works. She works with another, fresh from the Teach for America program, who has such a wilting classroom presence that he cannot hold his students’ attention. The older man probably get paid $70,000 a year or so, and could probably be whipped into shape by a motivated administration. The younger man should probably earns $30,000 or less, and would have been sent packing long ago if he didn’t carry such a light price tag. My wife would show no regret if under some grading system these two were sent packing.

But there are two problems. First, any system based on student performance is apt to also claim good teachers, because, let’s face it, in a lot of schools, the kids are not destined for success. They are not prepared, they don’t do homework, they do not have proper parental support. Second, school administrations are highly political bodies, and are often quite happy to shirk the dirty work and shift blame onto teachers. At one suburban school, for example, my wife confiscated a phone from a student who was playing with it in class. She put it in a drawer, from which it was subsequently stolen. The student’s mother, a power in the Booster Club, complained to the principal, who ordered my wife to pay for a new phone. When my wife, through her union, refused, the school promptly gave her two surprise classroom observations, on which basis they declared her performance substandard, and dismissed her. A year later, the school was ruled to be in violation of the union contract, but that’s not the point. Schools are political environments, and teachers need protection from the failures and foibles of administrators and parents.

Here’s an idea. Before my wife worked in education, she worked in health care. It is her observation that when patients have bad outcomes–that is, die–hospitals are very serious about rooting out why. When patients die, especially patients who were not admitted in dire condition, the hospital convenes a Mortality Panel to investigate what happened, with an aim to fixing the problem. Sometimes they find shortcomings by a doctor or a nurse or someone else on the staff, and take steps to address it. But often they find that the outcome wasn’t always within their control. Patients drink, smoke, take drugs, have poor diets, have underlying conditions, suffer environmental insults, and so on. Here’s the idea: if you want to hold teachers responsible for student performance, make the teachers’ performance part of a total evaluation. By all means, examine whether the teacher was up to the job. But other questions should also be asked. Did the student do his homework? Did the student come to class? Does the student possess a learning disability, or an underlying medical or psychological condition that affects performance, and does the school address those issues? Does the student have a parent at home? Did he have breakfast? Did he have a place to sleep? Is the student a discipline problem? What has the school done to address this kid’s challenges? If not, is it because of a funding issue?

By all means, hold teachers accountable. Better yet, hold everybody accountable.

JUST ASKIN. . . .


Clearly it makes no difference now, but I wonder how the GOP race would look this morning if Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum had followed Newt Gingrich‘s angry response to John King‘s question about Marianne Gingrich‘s comments by saying something like this: “John, just let me say, if Speaker Gingrich doesn’t want to answer questions about his private life, I’m with him. If he doesn’t think this kind of character question is relevant to his suitability to be president, then he should decline those questions, and I’ll defend his right to do so. But just so you know, John: you are free to ask me any questions about my marriage that you like.”

DO WE RESENT THE RICH?

Yesterday on Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough trotted out one his preferred observations. “Americans don’t resent the rich,” he said. “We want to be rich.” He noted that voters had a high regard for the Kennedys and the Roosevelts, who managed to convey a sense of concern for the general good.

I suppose Scarborough is right; we do not resent the rich per se. But we resent a lot of qualities that are associated with the rich. We don’t like snobbery, for example. We don’t like a sense of superiority. Or a sense of entitlement. We don’t like people bucking the line, or favoritism. We don’t like shallowness, and we don’t like self-absorption. In general, we believe that anyone who inherits wealth doesn’t know what life is really like, and that most people who have accumulated vast wealth forgot mostly all of whatever they once knew as fast as they could. We do resent people who can spend money without a second thought; and more, we envy those who can pamper themselves; and most of all, we have contempt for those who waste it. We acknowledge that money can’t buy happiness, but we do believe that having more money would buy us more happiness, and that the rich don’t know what real unhappiness is, because at the bottom, no matter how bad things are, having money gives them options that a lack of money forecloses. We don’t mind being taken advantage of by the rich on any particular deal, for we expect that everyone has his thumb on the scale, and believe that capitalism is a system where goods and services are exchanged in a way that mostly keeps a lid on the gouging; what we resent is lying, dishonesty, theft, and being forced to swallow a bad deal and told we ought to like it. We don’t really like that the exploit workers or rape the planet, but not many of us are willing to do much about it, as long as prices remain cheap on our end.

Some rich we like quite a bit–lotto winners, entertainers, criminals of a certain style, and the unlikely rich, like whoever owns Shamwow. We feel we could be these people. We have a certain tolerance for the discreet rich–the ones who live behind drawn shades in the big house on the hill, or behind the granite facades of the austere apartment buildings on Sutton Place, and who just go about their business without throwing their wealth in our faces. We actually like a very few of these discrete rich, people whom you hear about from time to time who work as librarians or janitors and who save and invest every penny they ever made, and whom you never hear of until they die and bequeath millions to some worthy charity. We like those rich a lot.

I do not think Scarborough is right when he says that we all want to be rich. All of us have a fantasy in which we are rich, and it is not unpleasant. Richness is a condition that we would accept, preferring it to most other conditions. In reality, what most of us want is more. According to a survey I saw a few months ago, most Americans believe they would have their dreams fulfilled with an income of about $150,000 a year.

That is the American Dream, isn’t it? It’s not to be as rich as Mitt Romney. It’s to have a house, a car or two, food on the table, some money for vacations, enough savings for the kids, health care as needed, and enough money for a decent retirement. For what it’s worth, the distance we are from that dream on any given day is equivalent to the amount we resent the rich.

AIN’T LIFE GRANDIOSE?

Life with Newt Gingrich is, anyway. Mitt Romney‘s campaign staff has put together this compendium of Newt’s greatest moments of self-regard for the pleasure of one and all. I suppose a few of these observations may be taken out of context, but I’ll bet it’s not many. My only complaint is that Romney had his minions slip this info out in a press release, hoping people like myself will perform the character assassination silently, sparing Mitt getting his mitts dirty. He would have done himself a world of good had he spoken up at some point last night and said “Newt, you’re a fatuous ass.” Here is the press release:

A Selection Of Speaker Gingrich’s Thoughts Over The Years
Gingrich on Gingrich:

“I Think I Am A Transformational Figure.” (PBS.org, 12/2/11)
“I Am Essentially A Revolutionary.” (The New York Times, 8/23/92)
“Philosophically, I Am Very Different From Normal Politicians … We Have Big Ideas.” (NYT, 6/29/11)
“I Have An Enormous Personal Ambition. I Want To Shift The Entire Planet. And I’m Doing It. … I Represent Real Power.” (Washington Post, 1/3/85)
“I First Talked About [Saving Civilization] In August Of 1958.” (GQ, 8/05)
“Over My Years In Public Life, I Have Become Known As An ‘Ideas Man.’” (NYT, 6/29/11)
“I Am The Longest Serving Teacher In The Senior Military, 23 Years Teaching One And Two-Star Generals And Admirals The Art Of War.” (GOP Presidential Candidates Debate, 12/15/11)

Speaker Gingrich Has Compared Himself to a Litany of Historical Leaders:
Ronald Reagan And Margaret Thatcher: “Because I am much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, I’m such an unconventional political figure that you really need to design a unique campaign that fits the way I operate and what I’m trying to do.’” (CNN.com, 11/16/11)
Abraham Lincoln: “I begin as Lincoln did.’’ (Washington Post, 12/1/11)
Woodrow Wilson: “I am the most seriously professorial politician since Woodrow Wilson.’” (Washington Post, 11/22/11)
Henry Clay: “I was not a presider, I was the leader. I think Henry Clay’s probably the only other speaker to have been a national leader and a speaker of the House simultaneously.” (USA Today, 8/30/99)
Charles De Gaulle: “First of all, in the Toynbeean sense, I believe in departure and return. . . .I believe in the sense that, you know, De Gaulle had to go to Colombey-les-Deux.”
Thomas Edison: “Once he took over GOPAC in 1986, the organization became what he called the creative thinking and research group of the Republican Party. ‘We are on the way to becoming the Bell Labs of politics,’ Mr. Gingrich proclaimed. ‘That’s the closest model you can find to what we do, and nobody else is in that business. The first thing you need at Bell Labs is a Thomas Edison, and the second thing you need is a real understanding of how you go from scientific theory to a marketable product.’” (NYT, 12/3/95)
Vince Lombardi: “What the Republicans had accomplished, Gingrich said, was like the old Green Bay Packers sweep during the days of Coach Vince Lombardi: The opposition knows you are going to run at them, but they cannot stop you.” (Washington Post, 8/13/95)
The Wright Brothers: “At that dinner. . . Gingrich sought to add more emotional lift into his stump speech. ‘I am asking you to embark with me on a voyage of invention and discovery, to be as bold and as brave as the Wright brothers.’” (Washington Post, 12/1/11)
Moses: “At one point, he likened himself, lightheartedly, to Moses. He’d help them cross the Red Sea once again, Gingrich vowed, but only if they promised, this time, to stay on the other side.” (NYT Magazine, 2/25/09)

By the way, I like this sort of stuff, although in moderation. And I far prefer a politician who can drop in an apt historical or literary reference to a brick like George W. Bush.)

ROMNEY’S LBO ISSUES

Okay, work with me here. It’s January 2012, and we’re in the midst of the full presidential campaign following the self-inflicted, nearly unprecedented financial collapse of 2008. We’ve talked a little about what happened and how the government reacted, but the candidates have only just begun to talk about destructive business practices. Now, maybe I’m naïve, or confused, or just plain dumb, but I find it amazing is that the practices being discussed are not banking deregulation or collateralized debt swaps or any of the relatively newfangled investment tools. Instead, we’re discussing the leverage buyouts that Mitt Romney participated in as the chairman of Bain Capital. That’s right, leveraged buyouts, the preferred capitalist tool of the Reagan era.

LBOs were the golden chariots in which the Reagan Market Revolution conquered Washington and Wall Street, and with their more sinister-sounding stable-mates, Hostile Takeovers, they were the vehicles by which the doctrine of creative destruction carried the day. They were the operating arm of market efficiency, the principle that conquered all: it excused closing those factories, laying off workers, shipping machinery to sweatshops overseas, and above all, enriching the stockholders. They would be the winners because they deserved to be, because they took the responsibility and risk of allocating precious capital among winning industries. And the losers? You might think that the losers would be workers who lost their jobs, or who found their salaries or pensions or benefits adjusted, or who found their unions weakened, or who found themselves working for WalMart in jobs that carried no benefits. Not so: the losers would be those slowly failing companies who were trying to halt an immovable force; the losers would be those who failed to embrace the free market future.

Championed by Reagan and the Republicans, LBOs won the day without a serious political challenge. The Democrats in the 1980s, chastened by failure and dumbstruck by defeat, spent a decade wandering in the political wilderness, unconvincingly quoting old verities before reemerging with a set of ideas, many of which bought into the GOP’s pro-market ideology. Oddly, the more trenchant criticisms of LBOs came from law enforcement through the insider trading trials of Rudy Giuliani, and from the arts late in the decade and in the 90’s: plays like Serious Money and Other People’s Money and Rent, novels like The Bonfire of the Vanities, movies like Wall Street. But there was never a real political challenge to LBOs, to the idea that we should not be able to destroy without relieving or replacing that which was destroyed, to the thought that the market, as all-knowing and unknowable as God, would always set things straight.

At the start of the campaign, it would have seemed that to have been a Republican in 2012 and to doubt the legitimacy of LBOs would have been like being a Christian and doubting the miracle of the Eucharist. But now here comes Rick Perry, sounding a lot like the pro-Gore Democrat he was in the mid-eighties, says “”I happen to think that companies like Bain Capital could have come in and helped these companies if they truly were venture capitalists, but they’re not — they’re vulture capitalists.’’ Astonishingly , that attack is repeated in a video by Newt Gingrich’s Super Pac. “A story of greed,” the narrator says. “Playing the system for a quick buck. A group of corporate raiders, led by Mitt Romney. More ruthless than Wall Street. For tens of thousands of Americans, the suffering began when Mitt Romney came to town.” Nothing, not even his hypocrisy about his personal life, so clearly reveals Newt Gingrich’s fundamental cynicism. It turns out that the man who rode the pro-market rocket in the nineties now wants to separate good capitalists from bad—like we French or something!.

Perhaps this might be one of those cases where Americans find a stand-in issue for things they can’t otherwise discuss (you know—we can’t talk about race, but we’ll chew the OJ Simpson case to death.) In this case, this may be the beginning of a way to talk about capitalism, regulation, and the distribution of wealth without frightening the special interests who underwrite our campaigns. But beyond that—how does Bain-era capitalism look a quarter century gone?

In an excellent article in the Times yesterday, Ross Douthat praises Bain and other investment capital firms for helping America keep a competitive edge it had begun to lose in the sixties, and for helping sustain the country’s standard of living during the decades since. The formula that had profited America so sensationally in the first half of the 20th century would not have continued to work, Douthat says, and that change was necessary, even though results were mixed. “Our economy became more efficient, but also more ruthless and Darwinian. Our G.D.P. kept rising, but the new wealth was less evenly distributed. The revolution delivered growth, but at the expense of stability and certainty. And for many Americans, even the “modest net impact” of private equity buyouts cost them a solid, good-paying job.’’

Nicely said, but I’d go Douthat a step farther. The pro-market ideology gave a blessing to greed. In the decades following, useful regulations were overturned, sensible practices were ignored, sound practices were jettisoned, and every limit was pushed to its breaking point, and beyond. There were moral breakdown, far, far more damaging than anything that happened in the sixties.

Douthat says that these problems must be recognized. “Romney needs to prove to anxious voters that he and his party have more to offer them than just Bain capitalism alone. To win the White House, he’ll need to promise not only competition that leads to growth, but growth that leads to broadly shared prosperity. To defend his revolution, he’ll need to show that he’s reckoned with its costs.’’

I doubt very much whether Romney is capable of doing this. Last week Matt Lauer asked the candidate “Are there no “Are there no fair questions about the distribution of wealth without it being seen as envy?” Replied Romney, “ You know, I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms, but the president has made this part of his campaign rally. Everywhere he goes we hear him talking about millionaires and billionaires and executives and Wall Street. It’s a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach.”

Talk about it in quiet rooms? My God, was this man awake in the 20th century? None of those LBOs tiptoed in.

SPEAKING TOUR!

The first stop in my 2012 Speaking Tour took me out the door, over the bridge above busy Route 9A, and to the basement of the library for a lovely Sunday afternoon reception of the Briarcliff Manor Historical Society. I had been invited to speak about And the War Came, and it was a lot of fun to speak before an interested and attentive audience about one of my favorite subjects. Thanks to Jan Wagner and the rest of the Board for inviting me, and to Josh Parker, Howard and Susan Code, Chip Wagner, my dear wife and so many others for their support, encouragement, and enthusiasm. Next Stop: Ossining Historical Society on June 2nd.

THE DEADSPINNER

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Will Leitch, erstwhile prime mover of the very funny and wildly popular Deadspin blog, once and eternally the target of Buzz Bissinger‘s bizarre and overbearing anti-sports blog blast on Bob Costas‘s HBO show, and now Contributing Editor to New York magazine, where he lends his elegant stylings mostly but not exclusively to sports topics. We talked at the blonde piney and micro beery Downtown Bar and Grill on Court Street in beautifully gentrified Bourem Hill, which looks vastly more prosperous since I last stomped its sidewalks some decades ago. A very pleasant afternoon indeed.