Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Old Watchmaker, Olympic BackScratching, QuizTime and a Word from Erskine Bowles

Let's start off with an old short story of mine from the "archives."  I think I wrote it back in 2005.  I hope you like it.  And of course, your stories are always welcome, and anything else you wish to submit for inclusion in the blog is welcome too.
Jack Lippman


                                             The Old Watchmaker 

He stood patiently in the doorway watching the vehicles roll down the dusty road in front of his shop.  There were jeeps of all sizes, humvees, trucks, half-tracks, construction equipment on flatbed trucks and interspersed in the column, an occasional tank.  American soldiers could be seen in them, but they seemed to be hunkered down within the vehicles, not attempting to wave at, nor communicate with the Iraqis silently standing on the street silently watching.

They weren’t moving very quickly, perhaps no more than ten miles an hour, following the old naval adage that a convoy should travel no faster than its slowest ship.  But there never had been a need to do anything quickly in Al Muftar where even time had moved slowly for the past five centuries.  The temperature was one hundred and five, but at least the air was kept in motion by a warm sandy breeze, blowing down from the hills to the northwest.

Abdul was approaching seventy years of age, but his memory was excellent.  He recalled his father, who on that very site had started the watch and clock repair business that had supported his family and now, half a century later, his son’s family, telling him about the old days with the British whom no one could trust.  After the first war, when the lazy Turks were driven out, the British had tried to run the country, and tried to set up a government.  Even though Englishmen had been dealing with the Middle East for many years, his father told him, they never could understand the people of Iraq.  Whatever they tried to do resulted in greater animosity toward them.

“Abdul,” he would say, “Iraq is heir to the ancient Babylonian empire.  Our people were scientists, writers and musicians long before the English people learned to read and write.  We were enjoying the Hanging Gardens, up where Baghdad is now, while they were still trying to figure out a way to keep a cave warm enough to live in.”

He then would tell me how the British, after repeated attempts at setting up a government, threw up their hands in despair and left.  The years that followed were not good ones, with kings and princes vying with innumerable tribal leaders from all over the country for control.  And because we had oil, outsiders, even the Russians, wanted a hand in running our country.  His father had died before the Americans, in an effort to outfox the Russians and to neutralize the unpredictable Iranians, had let Saddam come to power. 

In Iraq, a land where the people do not have very much money, repairing clocks and watches was a good business.  No one threw a timepiece away when it stopped working.  They brought it to the shop where Abdul’s father, and now that he was gone, Abdul, would fix it for a few coins.  Because it was the only such shop in the sleepy riverbank town, it was patronized by the townspeople, who numbered about 30,000, as well as those from the surrounding villages and farms. 

Abdul had become a member of the Baath Party shortly after Saddam had come to power.  It was the only way he could maintain his shop without being subject to harassment by the political police.  He went to meetings once a month, carried signs at demonstrations, but most of the time, he devoted himself to running his business.  Nominally a Sunni Muslim, he avoided religious arguments, which were always going on at the coffeehouse, and went to the mosque to pray only rarely, explaining to the local imam that he prayed at home, and that he could hear the daily sermons over the loudspeakers on the streets anyway. 

A humvee, near the front of the column, pulled out of line and stopped in front of Abdul’s shop.

“Hey, you!  Speak any English”?,  called out the American soldier who climbed out of the vehicle.  Loaded with all kinds of backpacks and equipment, his dust and glare goggles hanging around his neck, he looked like someone from another planet.

“Sure, I speak good English.  I learned it in school.”

“Well, that’s lucky,” the soldier said.   “Now I don’t read much Arabic, but I see from the sign over your store that you sell Seiko and Citizen watches.  You a watch repairman?”
“That’s my business.  Can I do anything for you.”

“You bet you can.  Tell me, do you replace watch batteries?”

Abdul smiled as he replied.  “I have been replacing watch batteries in this town ever since battery operated watches were invented.  What kind of watch do you have?”

The soldier pulled off his watch, a Rolex knock-off that he had purchased on the street in Fayetteville a year ago.  He eyed Abdul as he handed it to him.  Abdul looked at the watch and smiled at the soldier.

“Pretty good knock-off, but I hope you didn’t pay more than twenty-five dollars for it.  I can put a battery in for two dollars. It won’t take more than two or three minutes.”

The soldier smiled.  “I paid twenty for it.  Go ahead and fix it.  The convoy will take fifteen minutes to get through this town, and I can catch up with them easy.”

Abdul replaced the battery and gave it back to the soldier who paid him, waved good-by, and drove off in a cloud of dust.   Within the next few weeks, several hundred American soldiers had stopped by Abdul’s shop to have their watch batteries replaced.  The army had not yet set up a post exchange near their encampment, which was about four miles south of Al Muftar, and word spread quickly that there was a watch repair shop in the town where watch batteries could be replaced.  Abdul even sold some new watches and an occasional piece of jewelry to the Americans.   


About a month later, a car drove up to Abdul’s shop and two men got out.  One was an American, but not a soldier.  He was wearing gray slacks and an open collar sport shirt.  He carried a briefcase.  The other, Abdul recognized as Hassan Jabanna, who was a lawyer who had practiced in the town.  Abdul hadn’t seen him in a while, and had thought he might have been killed in the war.

“Abdul,” Hassan announced, after greeting him and inquiring as to the health of his family, “This is Ted Sparks, who works for the United States Government.  Ted is trying to help us set up a town government here, and a few people thought you might be a good man to include.  You’re well respected by the local people, I can vouch for you … and you have made quite a name for yourself with the Americans with your watch repair business.”

Ted and Abdul shook hands.

“Hassan,” Abdul said quietly, “I am an old man.  Next year I will be seventy.  You don’t want me in your government.  You want younger, more active people.”

“That,” the lawyer replied, “is exactly why we want you.  You are not a zealot, burning to change everything, as some of the younger people are.  You get along with the Americans, you got along with Saddam, you’re perfect to be on the council.”

And then a grim expression crossed Hassan’s face.

“Abdul, you were a member of the Baath party.  I was too.  The Americans know that, and it really doesn’t bother them to have former Baathists on the town council … but it could bother them, if they chose to let it.  They might not want American soldiers patronizing a shop run by a supporter of Saddam.”

Hassan didn’t have to say anything more.  A lifetime living in Iraq had taught Abdul to listen to and understand the unsaid, the implied, the tacit warning which in prior days, if ignored, could lead to prison or worse.

So Abdul agreed and was appointed to Al Muftar’s newly formed regional governmental council.   A week later, leaving a meeting at the town hall, he and two other council members were killed in a bomb blast set by Iraqis who despised the council and its members.  They considered them to be tools of the Americans, who, unfortunately, no longer have anyone to go to when their watch batteries die.

QuizTime – Who Am I ?

After I got out of college with a B.A. in Political Science and Economics, my first real job was working in my Senator's office as an aide.  I had done some summertime interning in Congress while in college and I really liked it.  By age 28, I had moved on to a second Senator’s staff and even did some speechwriting for Congressman Jack Kemp, who ran for Vice President in 1996. I liked working in the Capitol so darn much that I decided to run for Congress in my home district.  Guess what.  I won!  And I got re-elected six times! That adds up to a lot of Washington experience, so much that the Republican Party thinks I’m good enough to run the country and that’s why they’ve nominated me to be the guy a heartbeat away from the Presidency. Hey, so I’m not a lawyer or businessman nor have I any advanced degrees or administrative experience, but I’m really into this government stuff!    What the heck, I’ve read all of Ayn Rand’s books, and know all about Milton Friedman and Frederich Hayek and those guys I used to talk to my profs back in school about.   Who am I ?  

(Hint: Those Republicans who supported Santorum, Paul, Gingrich, Bachmann, Cain or Perry in the G.O.P. primaries, but ended up "settling" for Mitt Romney, are in love with me.)
Jack Lippman



Backscratching Slated for 2016 Olympics

I understand that the 2016 Olympics in Brazil will include, for the first time,  competitive back scratching.  Well, it's about time!  Although back scratching flourishes as a team sport in some parts of the world, unfortunately only the individual men’s event will be on the schedule in 2016.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the sport, it utilizes a standard 18 inch bamboo scratcher as pictured below in all events. 

 Item image      Competitors are judged on the number of strokes, the length of the strokes as well as the extent of the area of the competitor’s own back which is scratched during three successive 90 second periods.  Points can be added or subtracted for the grace with which the competitor handles his scratcher.  For example, a "satisfaction stroke" (scratching deeply) rather than just touching on the skin surface is a plus although drawing of blood does result in disqualification.  The choice of the accompanying music is not counted in the scoring.

William “Bubba” Mices, President of CoWBSA (Competitive World Back Scratching Association) hopes that a favorable reception for back scratching in Rio in 2016 will lead to the inclusion in future Olympics of additional back scratching events, such as team back scratching (five scratchers form a circle, each scratching the back of the teammate in front of him), women’s back scratching and mixed pairs beach back scratching. All of these events are already included in CoWBSA’s annual Global Championships, next taking place in July, 2013 in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where most of the world-ranked scratchers will compete, including the current men’s titleholder, Reelei Callipygian, a native of the Republic of Malta.

Mices pointed out that the mixed pairs beach competition has always been popular at the Association’s Global championships and would be a natural for Olympic television.  In that event, a male-female speedo-attired team standing in a sandbox scratches each other’s backs while holding their free hand on the partner’s shoulder.  Any other body contact results in disqualification, he added..


Mitt Romney Says that His Tax Reform Proposal is “Very Similar to the Simpson-Bowles Plan.”  But

Look Who Disagrees With Him!

Erskine Bowles,  a chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, was co-chairman of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. He wrote this for The Washington Post  last week.

Ever since President Obama named my pal Alan Simpson co-chairman of the bipartisan fiscal commission, Al has said, “Erskine does the numbers, and I do the color.” We would not have gotten a majority of our commission members to support our panel’s recommendations without both the color and the numbers. It is as a numbers guy that I hope we see, this fall, a numbers-based debate on the debt.

As a lifelong Democrat who proudly voted for Barack Obama in 2008, I applauded the president’s insistence on a balanced plan to stabilize the debt. I have urged him to embrace more recommendations of the national commission he appointed. For example, to be taken seriously, his plan has to do more to slow the growth in health-care costs.

As a businessman with respect for Mitt Romney’s career, I plead, from one numbers guy to another: You must have a balanced plan that reforms the tax code in a progressive, pro-growth manner and produces additional revenue if you are serious about reducing the deficit by at least $4 trillion without disrupting the economic recovery and hurting the disadvantaged. The plan must produce enough capital to invest in education, infrastructure and research so that the United States can compete in the knowledge-based global economy.

Since our report was published in late 2010, the president and Congress have enacted a down payment of more than $1 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade, and established that defense spending, not just domestic programs, must be cut. But cutting the deficit by at least $4 trillion over the next decade to stabilize the debt and get it on a downward path as a percentage of gross domestic product won’t happen without sweeping tax reform. This year, our tax code will give away more in loopholes — $1.3 trillion — than it collects in income taxes.

This month, Mr. Romney said that his tax reform proposal is “very similar to the Simpson-Bowles plan.” Unfortunately, the numbers say otherwise: His reform plan leaves too many tax breaks in place and, as a result, does nothing to reduce the debt.

The “zero plan” our commission recommended offered both parties an appealing bargain: lower tax rates for everyone in return for reduction in tax loopholes of every stripe. Taxpayers and the economy would benefit from a vastly simpler tax code, and getting rid of loopholes would produce more than $1 trillion of the $4 trillion needed in deficit reduction.

The most important lesson Al and I learned is that to fix the debt, everything must be on the table. Americans everywhere have told us that as long as the sacrifice is shared, they are ready to do their part. The surest way to doom deficit reduction is to play favorites by taking things off the table.

So although I give Mr. Romney credit for pledging to reform the tax code, his proposal will not take us to the promised land. Our commission’s tax plan broadens the base, simplifies the code, reduces tax expenditures and generates $1 trillion for deficit reduction while making the tax code more progressive. The Romney plan, by sticking to revenue neutrality and leaving in place tax breaks, would raise taxes on the middle class and do nothing to shrink the deficit.
Mr. Obama hasn’t gone as far in cutting spending as is necessary. But in contrast to Mr. Romney, the president — like the “Gang of Six” and like-minded members of both parties — has embraced the central principle of Simpson-Bowles: America will turn the corner on its debt only if Republicans and Democrats support a bipartisan, balanced deficit-reduction plan.

Over the next four years, the United States will need to do much more to address its long-term debt than either party has been willing to do. To avoid the most predictable economic crisis in history, we must let the numbers do the talking.


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Jack Lippman
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