Feb 22, 2009

February 1, 2009: America's Bleak and Dangerous Outlook

L.F. Hamp

A very recent nationwide poll indicates fully 80 per cent of Americans will not buy an automobile manfuactured by a company in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, contrary claims of Mutt Romney, Arnold Swarzenegger, Richard Shelby, Lindsey Graham, Sarah Failin, and a now much reduced host of angry Republican governors and lawmakers notwithstanding. These japing, jaded stooges of Wall Street money, Big Oil, AIG, and the Banking (Finance) industry appear more than willing to spread our taxpayer money amongst long-time friends of the party, while destroying the future for millions of auto and related industry employees.

I detest these auto industry execs as much as the next guy. They learned nothing from the crises of '73-74, and '79-80. They did what they had to do to keep up appearances while necessary but relapsed into gas-guzzling conspicuous consumpiton (pleasing the hell out of the oil industry) as soon as public concern and interest waned. Of course all big business is very much aware of the nation's short attention span. They rip for a while, get caught, do a little penance, percieve a lack of scrutiny, rip again.

You'd think we'd learn lessons permanently, but it never happens. As unequivocal evidence, I offer Vietnam and Iraq II; Teapot Dome, Watergate, Iran/Contra, and a continuing, deepening current economic slide reminiscent the aftermath of another Republican free market orgy held in the l920's. Then, auto executives have the brass and gall to show up for hearings in D.C. In seperate private jet aircraft. AIG execs, facing congress, hat-in-hand, held (at least two) sales meetings in posh resorts even while begging sustenance at the public trough. (Fi you see a stinking scandal, you needn't look far to find Republicans.)

I can't pretend to know what Congress will do, bit this I'm sure of—destruction of the American (and Canadian) auto industry will mark a long first stride on ur decline from world super-power to world whipping-boy. And when the industry's laboring millions find themselves on the street, they're going to be very, very angry—maybe even angry enough to start a....(fill in the blank). (It goes without saying the public brought much of this on themselves carrying far too much high interest credit card debt and driving gass-guzzling Hummers, to 'keep up with the Joneses', and allowing themselves to be suckered into mortgages on monster homes they knew they couldn't afford.)

Their predicament and anger will be nothing to the general population's when our many enemies get into harness to knock us down and drag us out to the trash. Their numbers are large, and inhabit almost every continent. There won't be a River Rouge plant to build airplanes or cobat vehicles or tanks. Our shipping industry is already gone with the wind. In a week unfriendly nations could dry-up our oil storage facilities. Most of the American manfucturers who converted to making small arms during WWII (Pistols, Garand rifles, 'Tommy' guns, etc.) are long since gone, as are the skilled workers necessary for the endeavor.

One big concern (seldom mentioned) making strategists uncomfortable is that we may be trading one dependency (oil from unfriendly states and areas like Russia, the mid-East, and South America) for another—pinning our hopes on lithium-ion batteries requiring materials now available from Siberia (Russia), China, and central Africa, particularly the bloody Congo. Ninety (90) per cent of our research on electrically powered transport is being done on lithium-ion batteries.

Another seldom mentioned concern is the ability of the democracies to control sea lanes. The (newly oil-rich) Russians are again expanding their presence at sea. Though collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the beaching of most of their fleet (including nuclear powered subs complete with reactors) on the shores of the Baltic Sea (turning those waters into a festering cesspool), they've never reliquished their dream, first inspired by Peter the Great 300 years ago, of easy, year around access to the world's big waters.

Meanwhile, quietly, pretty efficiently, and very rapidly, India has developed a navy which includes large modern aircraft carriers, cruisers, frigates, submarines, aircraft and missile-arms. This could conceivably require our entire navy to maintain operations in Eastern waters. India may be a democracy in form, but few Indians have much love for Western democracies and with ample reason.

Ergo China, although far less democratic and open China is now emerging as a military and naval power to contend with.

In short our enemies, and potential enemies, are many, varied and occupy every continent but our own and Austrailia, and we almost certainly have many 'sleepers' here at home.

To face these threats, at home and abroad, here's what President Obama inherits from the failed Bush Administration. A fairly good chance of nuclear terrorism. An intelligence network still more involved with turf wars than protecting the nation. A poorly protected chemical industry. Little progress in seaport security. Little protection against biological terrorism and little done to improve such protection. Little cooperation to date developoing anti-terrorism protection in the world community.

Recent analysis of America's situation leads those studying our problems to believe we're going to be a much diminished entity by 2025, losing power relative to China, Russia, India—perhaps unable to hold our own in global give and take. There's little evidence the nation has the strength of character (a la the 'greatest generation') to persevere in the coming grind.

Face it folks, we haven't won a war since 1945 (the 100 hours war in the Gulf notwithstanding), and those in which we have engaged have been classic case studies of repeated blunders, wasted resources, mis-management, pathetic planning, just plain miserable acquisition of intelligence, and poor interpretation of the intelligence we do acquire. Few troublmakers really respect or fear our military/economic power or honor our claim to world leadership in any moral sense.

Winston Churchill, facing a similar, dangerous situation as Britian alone faced the Nazi juggernaut 20 miles across the English Channel, spoke words America would do well to consider: “This,” Churchill said on the BBC airwaves, “is only the beginning of the reckoning; the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year until, by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in olden time.”

January 18, 2009: Two Mistakes and a Short Tale

L.F. Hamp

I'd hardly finished writing, printing and distributing my last missal when a friend stopped by to file two complaints. First, he pointed-up the fact I'd misled people about the “Great South Sea Bubble” scandal in Britian, writing it had ocurred in the early 19th century. He no sooner spoke than I recognized my error. The scandal of 1814 was referred to by some as, “another South Sea Bubble,” and involved speculation in every branch of British government and business, but particularly corruption in the Royal Navy. (More about that story below.)

The original “South Sea Bubble” scandal occurred 94 years earlier, in 1720, and involved manipulation of stocks and bonds which originated atfounding of the South Sea Company in 1711. The Company was granted exclusive trading rights in South America and the Pacific Ocean islands. As 1719 came to a close, the Company proposed to take over the entire British national war debt from the French Revolution and the ensuing war against Bonaparte. Their plan was to have investors receiving annuities (most investors received annual payments) exchange annual pay-outs for stock in the company. A rather small amount of stock would be issued at a very high price and the annuities extinguished.

The company's stock took off much like our mortgage market in recent years, and in less than a year had ballooned to ten times the original asking price. The whole nation immediately went “bonkers” for this and similar schemes. Then, early in 1720, the public suddenly lost confidence and panicked. South Sea Company shares dropped nearly a thousand points from its high-water mark, falling below the original asking price, and took Bank of England stock down with it. The rest of the story is much what our parents and grandparents got during those long years 1929-1940, and what we've been seeing for the past few years and, particularly, in this year.

A special committee of the House of Commons found ample evidence company officers were a brotherhood of thieves. Many officers of government had taken huge gifts of cash and/or goods to smooth the corporate pathway. Among them were the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the equivalent in the United States to the Secretary of the Treasury), the Postmaster-General, at least two commissioners of the national Treasury, and a (large) handful of the nation's most prestigious families. Many company officers were releived of their estates. The company, too important to the natinal economy to be allowed to die (sound familiar?) survived into the next century.

The other complaint was about my mocking of John McCain as looking (in real life) like the cartoon character “Mr. Bill” of SNL fame, and particularly about him waving his damanged arm about as though trying to execute a Roman military salute. Now, look at the facts. Since McCain returned from his stay at the Hanoi Hilton, through years of service in elective office, he'd always done his best to keep the injured wing close to his body, usually with a pen, or a rolled-up sheaf of paper in his right hand to discourage “hand-shakers”. He never did anything to draw attention to his wounded limb.

During his pathetically inept run for the presidency, however, he began waving the thing around in the air at every opportunity, trying to call attention to the wounds he suffered, the imprisonment he endured, at Obama's expense (since Obama never served in the military). If Obama's (largish) ears are fair game, so is the warrior's wounded wing. No apology offered.

Now for the short tale. The scandal of 1814 cost Britian the services at sea of one of her greatest maritime warriors, Thomas, Lord Cochrane. (The 'Lord' was a courtesy title due the eldest son of a bankrupt Scots earldom.) Cochrane had proven a veritable Paul Jones or Horatio Nelson as a young officer commanding small ships. He once took on the large Spanish Frigate “El Gumo” with the tiny brig “HMS Speedy”, defeated her in battle at sea, then took her back to England as a prize. He later made a fortune as commander of the frigate “HMS Pallas”, and in the previously captured French-built frigate “HMS Imperiuse”.

Cochrane was a restless, troublesome subordinate in a service best known for very touchy, stodgy and conservative Admirals. He made many enemies, and serving as member of the House of Commons, castigated them freely and often. Political enemies (many senior naval officers and friends in parliament) trumped-up charges of corruption against him related to a stock scandal during what became known to many as, “another South Sea Bubble,” in 1814. He was falsely and maliciously convicted, briefly imprisoned, stripped of rank and seniority in the Royal Navy, and expelled from Parliament.

In 1817 Cochrane was hired to command the navy of Chile, which he successfully directed until the new nation and Peru were freed by Spain. He then took command of Brazil's navy, leading it to victory over Portugal, resulting in Brazilian independence. He later commanded the Greek navy during their successful war for independence from Turkey.

Lord Cochrane was a pioneer innovator. He was the first Royal Navy commander to recommend use of steam-powered warships, and of the screw-propeller. At one point he recommended use of disabling (poison) gas in sea warfare though his superiors declined to pursue the plan. All in all, Cochrane enjoyed a gratifying career, and helped free Chile, Peru land Brazil from the grip of Spain and Porutugal. It's pleasant to report Queen Victoria restored him to rank and seniority in her Royal Navy, and he died Admiral of the Fleet Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald (Scotland), and a member of the House of Lords.

January 21, 2009: Tale of Two Cities, Legacy Of The South-Side Hit Men, Full-Throated Anthem.

Chicago has been for decades and remains the most segregated city in the United States. It has been made so not only because of decades of racial discrimination but also by the division of the city along class lines. In fact after the Haymarket Riots of the late nineteenth century the city's upper classes, fearing a future Jacobin uprising, arranged for the United States military to position the Great Lakes Naval Base between the affluent north side and the teeming masses of Lithuanians, Croats, Serbians, black, Latino's and others who labored in the stockyards and the meat-packing houses. It is a classic Dickensian “Tale of Two Cities”, the affluent north and the working class south.

Chicago, as baseball historians will tell you, was early the national capitol of our national passtime. Early in the last decade not only did the league offices of the newly formed American League headquarter itself in Chicago, but the two major league teams briefly dominated each of their leagues. The “hitless wonders” on the South side famously defeated the north-side Cubs on the 1906 World Series. But sport and industry was the only thing the north side had in common with the much despised “south-siders”. That they had these things in common does not mean that they shared the same experience. North siders ran the industries and the accounting houses, South siders manned the machinery and became, famously, the “hog butchers of the world”. The same was true of the beloved national passtime as it related to each community. On the north side, where until recently baseball was famously played only during daylight, the Cubs draw from an upper middle class, professional business clientel. One can, even today, watch a Cubs game on WGN on any given summer afternoon and find very few blacks, latinos or other minorities in what is a surprisingly homogenous white uppper-middle class crowd. Through thick and thin, for over a century now, these loyal suburbanites have, as the nation is currently with the Wall Street bailout, been rewarding incompetence and mediocrity as the Cubs now enter their second century of futility.

It has been otherwise on the South Side. There the Chicago White Sox, rocked to the bone by the “Black Sox Scandal” of 1919, and by drawing from a much poorer part of Chicago has been the home of not only weekly fireworks displays, alien space landings, a “disco demolition” and other promotional “gimmics” to fill the parks Comiskey, but old Comiskey Park also hosted the old Negro League All-Star Games, prize fights and, famously, the Beatles. It is a bit ironic, and offends the sensibilities that even during those years where the White Sox win League and World Championships the yearly attendance regularly falls short of the Cubs, regardless of what the Cubs put on the field.

This dynamic has produced some interesting results. Fireworks and concerts come to mind, but also mid-game promotions are used to draw crowds. Sportscaster Harry Carray, when broadcasting for the White Sox introduced his famous “Take Me out To the Ball Game” saranade during the seventh-inning stretch. Likewise organist Nancy Faust introduced in the late 1970's a staple of her own.

It might have been during the hey-day of the “South-Side Hit Men”, Zisk, Baines, Spencer, et.al, who set a league record for home runs, lighting up the “Monster” in center field. The “Monster” was that exploding scoreboard introduced to Comiskey by Bill Veeck in 1960. With it's upper deck entirely enclosing the field, the reverberations from the exploding fireworks could not only be heard but felt through the entire ball yard. Moreover if the wind was blowing off the lake, the debris from the fireworks display would rain down on the opposing pitcher, as the crowd celebrated. During one such occasion as the Sox hitter was rounding the bases, and the opposing team's manager was walking slowly out to the mound to retrieve his battered pitcher, Nancy struck up the chorus from the old Steam hit, a chorus that has become an anthem for home teams and underdogs everywhere.

“na na na na, na na na na
hey hey-ey, goodbye”

I can vividly remember Jack Morris, ace of the Detroit Tiger pitching staff during a game at old Comiskey. It was during the fourth of July weekend 1984, with Detroit and Chicago facing off again for the first time since Morris had no-hit the Sox at Comiskey Park in early April. It had been cold then, and the Sox' bats were frozen. Morris walked off the field, no-hitter in hand, and the Tigers went on to win 35 of their first 40 or so games on their way to a World Championship. But it was now July, it was hot and humid, and the Sox bats had come alive. In the previous game, catcher Carleton Fisk had cleared the roof in left field, a feat accomplished only a dozen or so times during the 80 year history of the yard. This night the Sox would send two balls into Armour park, shots that cleared the roof in left field. First Greg “the Bull” Luzinski, would send one over the roof into the night, then Ron Kittle would repeat the feat. As the scoreboard exploded and the debris was raining down, Tiger Manager Sparky Anderson made the long slow walk out to the mound to take his star pitcher out of the game. Giving the ball to Sparky, Jack started his long trek to the dugout. Foust, as had by now become customary, led the raucus crowd in yet another rendition of

“na na na na, na na na na
hey hey-ey goodbye”.

Jack Morris, looking up in disgust, gave the crowd the finger.

Ken Burns has made much of the psychic connection between sport generally, and baseball specifically, to American culture. We don't remember that until the 1930's we had no national anthem. That the “Star-Spangled Banner” is our national anthem is that it became popular nationally because it was used at the beginning of each baseball game, and the practice—incidentally, began at Old Comiskey Park, Chicago.

Likewise, but with differing results, the famous cat-call that has become the “na na na, hey-ey, goodbye” refrain also began at Old Comiskey Park, Chicago, although by now it has made it's way into nearly all sports venues. I bring this up because what gathered on the Washington Mall yesterday was a cross-section of Americana, a reflection of the country itself, and this, it became apparent, included some South-Siders.

As a life-long Chicago White Sox Fan, I take particular pleasure in seeing photos of the President with a White Sox ball cap perched upon his head. I also took particular pleasure in the crowd singing that signature refrain as the image of George W. Bush was broadcast on the Jumbotrons on the National Mall. As Michelle Obama was being introduced the public adress system was drowned out by the crowd who, seeing the image of 'Ol Two-Cows up on the screen began the catcall of Sox fans everywhere:

hey-hey-ey goodbye”

Later, as Marine One, carrying now the former President from the White House to Andrews Air Force Base for his last trip aboard Air Force One to Texas circled one last time the White House and the Capitol Mall, the crowd once again raised it's voice in the full-throated cat-call:

hey-hey-ey goodbye”

Joe Scarborough, on his “Morning Joe” program on MSNBC said this morning that what the crowd did constituted a “classless” and “despicable” act. I disagree. It was a delicious moment, one for the ages, to be savored as fine wine. The crowd could, after all, have stormed the Bastille and brought out the guillotine. It chose levity instead.

And so departed the worst President in the last century, perhaps the worst ever. What remains is for us to pick up the pieces.