Sunday, August 14, 2011

Deep Fried Twinkies, Short Selling, Deficit Reduction, Email Challenges and a Poem

Deep Fried Twinkies and Selling Short

Some of the political interviews seen last week on TV from Ames, Iowa had in the background a stand selling deep-fried Twinkies.   I would have hoped that the tastes of those in attendance there who voted in the Iowa G.O.P. Straw Poll had been more discriminating in their choice of candidates than this food stand  indicated what might be their tastes in food.  

And speaking of those candidates who were campaigning for the support of the G.O.P. in Iowa, I noted from their TV debate the other evening that when they took time out from criticizing the President, it was to criticize one another, rather than present any constructive ideas.  They excel, these Republicans, at criticism, but other than slashing government spending and fighting any tax increases, their party is devoid of any constructive forward looking ideas.  R.I.P., G.O.P.!

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And in regard to the “market,” I see where the Greek government has placed a two month ban on short selling on their stock market.  

I suppose this is because they recognize that short selling in no way contributes to the health of their debt-stricken economy and is merely a form of speculation, in which speculators are convinced that there will be a downturn in the market, and invest to profit by it.  As I had said in an earlier posting, investors who engage in speculative, non-productive use of the stock market (which should be no more than a vehicle for people to invest in and share in the ownership of corporations) should be given a one-way ticket to Las Vegas.   It would not be a bad idea if short selling were banned here as well.

(Short selling is a technique whereby an investor borrows stock through his brokerage house, agreeing to pay it back at a future date, at which time the investor anticipates the price of the stock will be lower.  Hence he can borrow 1000 shares currently priced at $50 a share, selling those borrowed shares at that price, but paying back the loan of those shares six months later with 1000 shares bought at whatever the price is at that time.  If they have dropped to $40 a share, he can pay back his loan of $50,000 worth of stock with $40,000 worth of stock and have $10,000 of profit.  Of course, if the stock rises to $60 a share, he would have to pay back his loan of $50,000 worth of stock with $60,000 worth of stock and suffer a $10,000 loss.)

I don’t see how this or other forms of stock market speculation ... as opposed to investing in the future of a corporation ... creates jobs or supports the economy, but it does pay for summer homes in the Hamptons.

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Thoughts on Deficit Reduction

Now that the twelve member Congressional super-committee which will attempt to further resolve the deficit crisis been named, it is clear to me that they will not be able to reach a compromise in the time allotted to them.  Their ideological positions will prevent it.  Consequently, the draconian spending cuts which are supposed to motivate them into doing something constructive will automatically go into effect.  And this will do nothing to create jobs, which is the crux of the problem.

This will elate those who adhere to the policy of reducing spending, regardless of the effect it has on the operation of our government, and that effect will indeed be drastic.  It will also elate the President since deficit reduction will be guaranteed not to come up again before the 2012 elections, giving him the opportunity to claim that the cataclysmic disaster which will have overtaken our economy by then is the fault of his opponents’ insistence that the problem be solved without tax increases.   

Whichever side you are on, by then it will be too late to save our economy and the nation will face a threat, fueled by unemployment, to the way it is governed equal in intensity to that which preceded the Civil War.  American Democracy will undoubtedly suffer.
 
I suggest that the President call the newly constituted Congressional panel into session without any delay, recommending that they adopt the solution offered by the bi-partisan Simpson-Bowles Commission earlier this year.  This would require the Republicans to agree to some tax increases and Democrats to agree to some cuts in entitlement programs.   And then, the country can get on to solving the real problem, job creation.

While this solution had no chance whatsoever of being passed by Congress earlier this year, and that is why the President then ignored its bi-partisan recommendations, the looming economic disaster faced by the country now gives it a better chance.  If the Senate and House leadership of both parties have enough intestinal fortitude to urge the immediate passage of a deficit reduction bill embodying the Simpson-Bowles recommendations, the economy may still be saved, regardless of those stubborn legislators who will still maintain positions of ideological purity or dwell on placing the blame for the entire sorry debacle.

Jack Lippman

Pin-up Girls (130 pics) This picture has nothing whatsoever to do with this posting, but it is nice, isn't it.

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                      THE WALK

                       Sid Bolotin





After three hours of exploring

Personal beliefs about fear

Thirty people hold hands

And prance ‘round the huge bonfire

The moon and stars shedding light

As American Indian mantras are chanted

All watch with anticipation

As the glowing embers are raked

To form a six by twelve foot carpet

Then more prancing and chanting

As we circle ‘round again

Allowing each who chooses so

To walk the length of the surface of red-hot coals

After two weeks of mental prepping

And the pre-walk discussion

I step up and sashay the full length

No running, no skipping, no jumping

Amazingly my feet do not burn

Just a slight stinging on my left heel

My first…and only…firewalk

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Get a Horse!

Occasionally, I see something on the internet about which I would like to make a comment.  Usually, most news, business, governmental or even personal sites purport to offer an opportunity to do so.  A few years ago, they gave you an Email address and you simply used it to let them know what you wanted to say.  But that has changed!  

Now, when you click on the “Contact Us” link on many websites, you are asked to “log in” or to “register” an ID and password in order to send a message.  And then, that message is often limited to posting it on the web site’s Facebook, Twitter, MySpace or some other social networking connection, where they, and perhaps many others, may read your message.  You may not want that to be the case.  You also will be getting yourself involved with that site.  Personally, I do not trust social networking sites and avoid them all.  I suppose you can say I am “anti-social-network.”  So, when clicking on the “Contact Us” link does not enable me to send a traditional Email, which occurs more and more often lately, I usual forget about it and not send my message at all.  

And on those occasions where I am offered  the opportunity to send an Email, it frequently must be sent using their own “send” template, resulting in it not appearing in my regular “Sent Mail” listing, and my not having a record of what I sent.  Emails to Congressmen are notorious for this. 

To get around this shortcoming, where possible, I try to send a copy to my own Email address to confirm that the message went out.  I also find that Email sent this way sometimes doesn’t go out immediately.  The next time I encounter such an Email template, I will copy the Email address if it is visible and paste it onto an outgoing message to be sent from my own regular Email.  

Another alternative, if you can find an old fashioned mailing address, is to type an old fashioned letter, put a 44 cent stamp on it and mail it to whomever you want to contact.  Unfortunately, this advice is analogous to the common recommendation given a century ago to those whose car failed to start: “Get a horse.”

JL

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Meeting




Hey, guys and gals!  I don't like writing everything that appears on this blog.  Please put your thoughts together and submit something.  Agree with me, disagree with me, break new ground, write a poem, draw a picture, but submit it to me for inclusion in the blog.  See top of blog for my address.   (The following story is a work of fiction, I think.  Any resemblance to events which may have actually occurred is purely coincidental, I think.)


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                                   The Meeting

                                            Jack Lippman
 

The meeting was held in a secluded and luxurious chalet in the foothills of an isolated mountain range.   A private airstrip was the only access to the place other than a rugged unmarked road used to bring in the staff, food and housekeeping essentials from the nearest town, sixty miles away.  A number of private jets were parked at the end of the runway where the hangar and fuel depot were located.


The men, all casually dressed as if they were there for a weekend of hunting or fishing, sat around a large conference table.  They shall remain nameless, but suffice it to say, each one represented personal wealth in excess of the 300 billion dollar level, which made their eight figure annual salaries almost meaningless.  These were the wealthiest men in America.   If I were to identify them, you would not recognize one name.  Each had gone to great lengths to preserve their anonymity, a quality common to possessors of wealth of this kind.

“Gentlemen,” intoned a short gray-haired man sitting at the table.  “In order to get to our agenda promptly and tend to business, I want to remind all of you of what our group is all about.  I am sure you all already know this … that is why you are here … but these ideas bear frequent repeating.”  No one said anything.  A few of the men nodded their assent.

"Although we as individuals are clearly the most charitable people in the world, our prime objective is wealth preservation.”

“Not exactly,” someone interjected.  “I am not in the least charitable.  I don’t care if people out there live or die or starve or whatever.  I donate for tax purposes.  If the God damn government took away the deductions I get for what I give, and what my foundations give away, I wouldn’t let loose of a red cent.”

“Thank you, George, for your comments.  But let’s get on with it,” the discussion leader continued. 

“Ideally, it would be wonderful if there were no such thing as taxes.  Some of you, I know, have moved a lot of your wealth to countries where there are practically none, but we all know there are limits to how much of that you can do.  So long as we are Americans, we must do as much as we can to keep taxes here to a minimum and deductions and loopholes at a maximum.  We must have a government, for without one, we would lose the protection it provides to allow us the freedom to do what we want with our money.  And of course, at a minimum, we need an army and navy to provide that protection.”

George raised his hand, was recognized, and spoke up.  “Bull.  We don’t need the government to provide us with a military.  We can hire our own.  It’s cheaper that way.  There’s plenty of mercenaries around and no one gives a shit if they get killed.”

“George, thank you for your comments.  That’s something to consider, but let’s get on.  Even though the maximum tax rate is down to 35%. that's still a big hit.  Even with deductions and shelters, it takes a lot out our wallets.  The Democrats would like to see it go back up to 39%, like it was under Clinton.  I would love it back down to 25% or even lower.  Single digits would be fine.  And paying into Social Security is something we must avoid.  That’s a bottomless pit. We only pay into it on a miniscule fraction of our income but I would hate to see that changed, and there are those out there who want to do exactly that.”

“Look at the numbers, though. There are only ten of us in this room and there are maybe another 100,000 top-bracket taxpayers out there who are almost in the same boat as we are, and we are speaking for them too.  Our task is to make sure the government keeps doing it our way.  We have to get the country behind us.  That Norquist fellow did a fine job getting a lot of Congressmen to pledge never to increase taxes nor get rid of our blessed loopholes, but he’s beginning to lose his credibility.  Bush helped him a lot to connect to the conservatives out there, but that’s history now.”

The discussion leader paused briefly, looked out of the massive picture windows at the spectacular scenery surrounding the chalet and continued.  


View looking westward from chalet picture window

“As I see it, we must do everything to promote the idea that tax increases, in any form whatsoever, including removing loopholes and deductions, are extremely bad for the country.  We must drill it into the heads of all Americans that taxation removes incentive to invest and grow the economy at all levels and kills jobs.  That gets them every time.  We have to get that into the schools at all levels, even kindergarten.” 

“Ha,” someone laughed.  “Maybe we should put out an Ayn Rand inspired comic book for kids.”

“Great idea,” the leader chuckled. “But this is no laughing matter.  We must convince America that the Laffer curve, the economic ideas of Milton Friedman and of course, of Frederick Hayek, are irrefutable truths, deserving of as much respect as the Ten Commandments.  And that the Keynesian policies of using government spending and higher taxes as tools with which to manage the economy, and to provide an unearned safety net, are poisonous.”

“The way to do this is to convince a majority of Americans of the validity of our positions.  And this is a great time to continue to do this.  The citizenry is hurting and they, like us, are taxpayers.  We need them on our side. They will buy this argument that taxes are the cause of all of the country’s problems, if we shove it down their throats hard enough and often enough.  Put the blame on the government.  It spends too much.  On anything and everything.  As a wise person out there has said, ‘we have to starve the beast.’ "

"If the funding for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and every government spending program out there were cut at least in half, we would never again need to even think about raising taxes.  We might even cut them significantly.   Frankly, I know people would be hurting and some might even die, and things the government does, like roads and dams and research, would have to be eliminated.  But it is far more important that this nation preserve our freedom to accumulate wealth without having to share it with anyone else through excessive taxation.  It’s our money. We cannot have anything that would even hint at the Marxist concept of wealth redistribution.  That’s what high taxes really are. The French cut off Louis XIV’s head to start this God damn leftist ball rolling and we aim to make sure it is stopped right here.” 

All those around the table rose and applauded the speaker.

“Okay, here is the way we do it.  And it has to be done so convincingly that even the Congressmen and local politicians who come aboard actually believe this stuff with all their hearts.  That won’t be easy, because some of them are really smart, but we need to make them believers.” 

1. We must control the media.  We have to have at least one or two major TV networks in our pocket whose programming we can control.  We must dominate talk radio, internet web sites, newspapers, particularly in smaller cities and towns, and magazines.  Once they get our message out, it gets E-mailed all over the country, multiplied ten-fold.  


2. We must fund foundations and institutes which provide legitimate appearing material and documentation, telling our story, to be provided to the media.  Generously endowing a few hard-up colleges or universities can result in strong support for our position from the academic world.  


3. We must ally ourselves with groups who seem susceptible to adopting our ideology because they are already single-mindedly devoted to one cause or another.  This blind devotion can be easily transferred to our cause. This will increase our numbers and believe me, this is very applicable to members of Congress and local legislators.  The groups with which we must ally ourselves are endless.  They include pro-Israel groups, pro-life groups, creationists, anti-fluouride groups, home schooling and pro-educational voucher groups, evangelical Christian groups, anti-immigrant groups, chambers of commerce, some professional societies, sporting groups, bankers associations and Second Amendment groups.


4.  We must repeatedly attack any opposition to our positions.  Innuendo and stretching the truth can be used to discredit any who disagree with us.  Guilt by association and lies, even ones easily disproven, are effective tools since refuting them takes the opposition’s eye off of the ball.  Individuals who are in financial distress can be coerced. Anything questionable in an opponent’s personal life should be capitalized on.
    “Gentlemen, to embark on this program, we have established an off-shore funding center with access to all of our accounts in this country.  Everything is cryptographically protected to a degree beyond the capability of any government in the world to decipher.  You will never be identified as being involved in this program. Take a deep breath, gentlemen, for here is the price tag to do this job properly." 

    "If any of you are not willing to contribute $200,000,000 to this effort right now and commit to that amount each and every year for the next ten years, you may get up and leave this room right now. All of your jets out there have been refueled and are ready to take off with you if you so choose. Remember though, what I propose  is not only for your good, but for the good of the country as we know it.  You see, I am firmly convinced of the truth of every word that I have said.”  

    He rose and looked at all of the men sitting around the table, making eye contact with each of them individually.  None of the nine other men even budged nor made any motion to leave their seats.  He paused for half a minute and only then, smiled.

    “Okay, then.  Let’s have lunch and afterwards, I want to introduce you to a few people who will make sure every penny of the two billion dollars that you have just pledged is well spent … and turn over the chair of our group for the next year to whomever is next in alphabetical order.  That’s you, George, right?”

    Everyone leaned back as white-jacketed waiters entered the room, laid down fine bone china and sterling silver table settings and prepared to serve a lunch which did not come from McDonalds.      

              
     




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    Saturday, August 6, 2011

    "Moby Dick," an Incomplete Anagram

    It is about seven weeks until the Jewish High Holidays.  For me, among other things, that season always brings to mind Herman Melville’s great novel, Moby Dick.  A few years ago, I wrote an article about the relationship of Moby Dick to the Jewish High Holidays.  Interestingly enough, I have not been able to find similar ideas anywhere in the enormous amount of commentary on Melville’s novel.  


    Recently I had occasion to review the article and it occurs to me that this might be a good time to reprint it.  It is not an easy read, and the next seven weeks might be a good time to read Moby Dick.  For those of you who observe the Jewish High Holidays, it might even enrich your participation in the Holiday services.  



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                                         Moby Dick, a Jewish Novel?
                                (or “Moby Dick, an Incomplete Anagram”) 

                                                     Jack Lippman                                                  

     
    I have always felt that there was a special relationship between Herman Melville’s great novel, Moby Dick, and the Jewish High Holidays.  Many of the biblical allusions in the book relate specifically to Old Testament occurrences which are part of the Jewish High Holiday liturgy.  This is so striking that I have often wondered, even though it is clear that Herman Melville had an extremely thorough knowledge of the Old Testament, whether he might also have had a Jewish friend who took him to synagogue during the High Holidays.

    For people who like to play with words, the very title of Moby Dick is enticing and perhaps exciting.  If you look at the letters, and try to construct an anagram from them, you fail to produce “Yom Kippur,” but you do come fairly close.  The first five letters of the holiday’s name, “Yom Ki” easily fall into place, but then the anagram fails.  But this failure to complete the anagram may not be accidental.  In the book, the white whale called Moby Dick never appears in his entirety, only that portion of him which is not submerged in the water being visible.  Might it not be logical that Melville, in entitling his book, would create only a partial anagram since his view of the whale was never more than a partial one?   He actually says “… there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like.”   (Chapter 55)

    In another quote, Melville apparently associates the sperm whale, whose face he considers to be an inscrutable blank wall, with the Deity. (Chapter 79)  He paraphrases Exodus 33:23 (“Thou shall see my back parts … but my face shall not be seen.  But I cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face”)  (Chapter 86) causing us to wonder whether Melville is talking about God or about a whale.  To those familiar enough with the novel to subscribe to the idea that the White Whale might be a manifestation of God, or actually represent a Deity which mankind has never actually fully seen, the incomplete anagram may make some sense.

    Herman Melville came from a socially prominent Manhattan family which had lost most of its money, precluding his pursuing higher education.  Instead, at age eighteen, he went to sea on a merchant vessel.  This was followed by whaling voyages, capture by cannibals, teaching, lecturing, and ultimately a government job at the Custom House in New York.  Early on, Melville turned to writing about his experiences at sea and from Moby Dick, it is clear that he was very familiar with the Old Testament.  I am unaware of Melville having any close relationship with Jews of his period, although undoubtedly, there certainly were Jews in New York City in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Perhaps, as I have thought, he had a Jewish friend.   But let us get on with the book, and of course, its uncanny relationship to the Jewish High Holidays

    The “Etymology” which begins the book includes the word for “whale” in many languages.  It is noteworthy that first of all of them, however, Melville lists (in Hebrew letters, no less) the Hebrew word for whale.  Immediately following that is a section labeled “Extracts,” where quotations involving whales are cited from various historic sources.  The first five of the many extracts quoted, notably, are from the Old Testament, specifically from the Books of Genesis, Job, Jonah, Isaiah and Psalms, texts with which Melville obviously was very familiar.

    The novel itself starts with three words, “Call me Ishmael.”  And Ishmael is the narrator as we read “Moby Dick.”   In the Bible, Ishmael is Abraham’s son, born of Hagar, his wife Sarah’s maidservant.  Genesis 21 tells us that when, after years of barrenness Sarah gives birth to Isaac, she no longer wants Hagar and Ishmael to remain in the household.  The Lord instructs Abraham to accede to his wife’s wishes and to send Hagar and Ishmael off, assuring Abraham of Ishmael’s future wellbeing.  Apparently, Ishmael did survive his wanderings, because years later, we find his namesake about to set off on a whaling voyage out of Nantucket, which as his telling the story evidences, he also survived.  Coincidentally, Genesis 21 is the morning Torah reading for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah during the Jewish High Holidays.

    On his way to Nantucket, Ishmael stops in the whaling port of New Bedford, waiting for a boat to take him to the island, where he will seek employment on a whaling vessel.  He visits the Whaler’s Chapel in that city where he listens to a sermon about the punishment which awaits those who defy and disobey the Lord, but how the Lord also forgives those who repent.  This, of course, is the story of Jonah, which in the salty language of the seagoing preacher, is told in its entirety in that Chapel in New Bedford.  That same Book of Jonah also is read, again coincidentally, as part of the afternoon service on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. 

    An interesting footnote to the chapter in which Ishmael visits the Whaler’s Chapel is Melville’s passing reference to “antique Adam who died sixty round centuries ago.”  If the author was using a Hebrew calendar, and rounding off to the nearest century as he says he is doing, he is fairly close to the mark, because I place the story of Moby Dick as taking place approximately in the year 1850 or 5610 on the Hebrew calendar, only 390 years off from Melvilles’s “sixty round centuries ago.”  Melville, again coincidentally, was obviously conversant with that calendar, which moves on to another year at each Rosh Hashanah.

    The novel deals with the whaling ship’s captain, Ahab, who drives his crew mercilessly in his mad quest to find Moby Dick, the White Whale who, on an earlier voyage, had taken Ahab’s leg and left him seeking revenge.  In the Old Testament, Ahab was a Hebrew king, and influenced by his evil wife Jezebel, became an idolatrous worshipper of Baal.  Melville’s Ahab apparently was one who in the past, like his biblical namesake, also had disobeyed and defied the Lord.  The novel does not go into the specifics of Ahab’s transgressions but it is clear that unlike Jonah, neither the biblical King Ahab nor Melville’s Captain Ahab had any intention of repenting.  In fact, many view Captain Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick as his way of battling the Lord’s efforts to punish him, represented by the whale.  This, in effect, is the novel’s story.  Ahab, in hunting the whale to avenge his mutilation, is fighting the God who has punished him for his sins, and continues to do so, through Moby Dick. 

    Early on in the novel, before the Pequod (for that is the name of the boat Ishmael sailed on) left on its voyage, a mystical character named Elijah appears on the dock to warn Ishmael that something is wrong with Captain Ahab, that he has a history of something terrible that had happened in the past.  Elijah tries to discourage Ishmael from signing onto Captain Ahab’s boat.  In the Bible, the Prophet Elijah is precisely the one who attacked the idolatry of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, urging the Hebrew people to recognize only the one true God, and not the false god worshiped by King Ahab.  And just as the Prophet urged ancient Jews to keep their faith pure, so Melville’s Elijah is there to warn Ishmael against Captain Ahab as he signed onto the crew of the  Pequod  on that dock in Nantucket.  The parallel is striking. 

    But what might you ask does this have to do with the Jewish High Holidays?  The story of King Ahab and Jezebel is not part of the High Holiday liturgy.  The Prophet Elijah is more associated with Passover, when a door is left open for him at the seder.  Nevertheless, you will find those same words Elijah used to the Hebrews, uttered in the face of King Ahab’s apostasy, still resonating to Jews of today, as Yom Kippur draws to a close just prior to the final sounding of the shofar.  “The Lord, He is God” (Adonoy Hu Ha-Elohim) is repeatedly intoned as Jewish worshippers complete their period of “tshuva” (penitence) on the Day of Atonement.   Was this the same message that Melville’s Elijah was trying to communicate to Ishmael?  Indeed, it is a Jewish message.

    The novel goes on to tell the story of Ahab’s quest for Moby Dick, and how the Pequod ultimately finds him, battles him and is destroyed by him, with Ishmael being the only survivor.    As the novel approaches this climax, the vessel encounters another whaling ship, which is sadly crisscrossing the sea, looking for missing crewmen, lost in an earlier attempt to challenge Moby Dick.  These crewmen included the vessel’s captain’s children, and the name of the ship, the Rachel, obviously relates to the biblical Rachel who laments her lost children in Jerimiah 31.  That reading happens to be the Haftorah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, another indication of the relationship of Moby Dick to the Jewish High Holidays.  It is the Rachel, still searching for its lost children, which rescues Ishmael from the disaster which befell Ahab, his ship and the rest of its crew.

    (Twenty-five years after writing Moby Dick, Melville published a 30,000 word poem entitled “Clarel, A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land.”  Melville scholars have suggested that this is really a study in comparative religion, a field which became popular in the late 19th century, when industrial and scientific advances were causing many to question long standing fixed beliefs.   Melville’s knowledge of Judaism, as indicated in Moby Dick, would logically lead him in this direction a quarter of a century later.)

    No, Herman Melville was not Jewish, nor do I really believe he had a Jewish friend who took him to High Holiday services.  What is clear is that he was extremely familiar with the Old Testament, and included many references to it in Moby Dick.   In re-reading the novel, and relating it to the Jewish High Holidays, this reader has had frequent occasion to put the novel down and refer to the Torah and the Prophets in order to deepen his understanding of what Melville is saying.  To my way of thinking, a novel which prompts its readers to study Torah has to be considered a Jewish novel, and Moby Dick certainly meets this standard.




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