Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Wet, Hot & Hairy American Political Season, Part 2: A Wetter, Hotter & Hairier House of Cards


Larry "the Bernie" David

John "the Donald" Di Domenico


Note to international readers: If you aren't doing so already, I'd encourage you to follow the American political season this year. The sensibilities and fortunes of this country's experiment in democracy (which some Americans insist on calling a republic due to the representational form it takes) once upon a time produced, blues, jazz, and Miles Davis--so it might well produce something else you have never seen or heard before, something good. Additional note to everyone else: Please don't take offense at being called stupid. 'Tis the Season.
-- CLH


I almost hesitate to say "I told you so." Almost. But I told you so.

In case you missed it, I predicted last August 16th that a showdown between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump was coming for this election cycle in "The Wet, Hot & Hairy American Political Season." (I can hear many of you mumbling to yourselves, "Wait... Bernie Sanders? Isn't he lagging so far behind in his delegate count that there isn't a chance in hell he could ever catch Hillary?" Keep reading.)

This political business is tricky terrain to navigate. No subject rivals it for the heartbreak endured by all of us, the bitterness and hatred it generates, the wars it starts, the friendships it casts asunder. Popular myth likes to assign these difficulties to fundamental, intractable differences that are hardwired into human beings. Republicans and Democrats, like Conservatives and Liberals, Tories and Whigs, Tea Partiers and Greenpeacers... are all born that way. Natural enemies. Right?

There is a grain of truth in there, but only a grain.

Because it is observably true that people with different ideologies and orientations are capable of getting along just fine. We do it all day long, wherever we go, whatever we do. Certainly, the struggle to survive involves some competition, but a kind of peaceful coexistence is the natural consequence of deliberate cooperation--if for no other reason than it makes sense. It's easier. More is possible. Life is more interesting. If you tend an apple orchard and I raise chickens, we can share and both eat apple tarts and scrambled eggs. If survival is the goal, then my life usually improves when yours does.

Clearly, there are instances when striking down an irrational aggressor becomes necessary. But even in the animal kingdom, where competition for food and warmth often does involve combat or create natural enmity, species living in a plentifully supportive environment tend to get along. Where privation exists, hostilities occur proportionately.

Could it be that the capabilities of great intelligence and sophisticated communication can just as easily be used by irrational human beings to do the opposite? Could it be that a small percentage of humanity believes that keeping the rest of us at each others' throats better enables their own survival? Of course it could be.

The problem comes in sorting out who that irrational element is. The tendency, of course, is to target the most visible, the most easily labeled troublemakers. Lunatics are easy to identify. The problem is, those high-profile targets the newsboys write about are almost never the ones who are causing the underlying problems. So in a political season in this country, we involve ourselves in seeking out and electing a hero to do the sleuth work. Lots of candidates show up, all claiming to be the smartest monkey in the zoo, all claiming to know the answers, all claiming to be the hero we are looking for. Eventually the throng winnows down to the ones who strike the most heroic poses and manage to make the most convincing arguments for their suitability. Our New Age of immediate internet communications and 24-hr. news cycles enable the hack journalists to shovel loads of steaming-hot opinion and controversy into our lives, and the anxiety level rises rapidly.

The greater the perceived problems are that need to be solved, the more anxious we are to solve them--and the more desperate we are to find that hero and make him or her President of the United States. So desperate, that once we find one we like, we creatively invest that person with whatever heroic qualities are necessary until, like a mosaic or paint-by-numbers portrait, our hero emerges.

Eventually we discover that our hero is a product of our imaginations. The more heroically-endowed our delusional figure is, the more profound our disappointment when the flaws we overlooked or pardoned are revealed. And that's only if we can tolerate the mental anguish of the discovery.

Which is precisely where the American electorate finds itself today.

In some ways, a culture like ours that encourages and protects a unique degree of free expression just makes the heartache worse. A democracy's strength can also be its weakness. In theory, it should be a direct path to self-governance, but in practice, as soon as you allow other people to have their own individual viewpoints and give them a vote in influencing the outcome, you have to prepare yourself for the inevitability of being governed by someone else. If you align yourself with a political party or faction that you feel supports your own interests, and view an opposition party's victory as a personal defeat, then you had better be prepared to suffer what Alexander Hamilton described to Thomas Jefferson as tyranny of the majority.

As quickly as you can utter "One man, one vote," all hell breaks loose. Considering all the blood and tears it takes to pull it off, you must wonder occasionally if a nice, benign monarchy wouldn't be easier.

It's important to keep in mind that this approach to self-government had never been done on quite the unprecedented scale attempted in this country. Many of the attendant problems were not predicted. After nearly a hundred years, freed black slaves were upgraded to human beingness and granted the right to vote by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution in 1868-70 (made more enforceable by the 1964 Civil Rights Act). Feeling emboldened, Susan B. Anthony came along in 1872 and tried to change the slogan to "One man or woman, one vote," then got arrested and tried for her trouble, having voted in Rochester, New York. She refused to pay the court fine, instead spending the rest of her life championing women's suffrage legislation. In 1920, fourteen years after her death at the age of 86, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified and women at last had the right to vote. And finally on July 1, 1971, the Twenty-sixth Amendment lowered the minimum voting age to eighteen years old. The doors opened and in came the tired, poor, huddled masses, yearning to breathe free and register as Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.

Well, sort of.

Up Against the Wall

In many ways, what those tired masses yearned for most was free expression--theoretically guaranteed by that critical First Amendment to the Constitution. None of the subsequent amendments, even the right to vote, would have come into the discussion without it. None are as important to the individual or as alien to group thought and the herd mentality. As a result, none are fought harder or require as much defense.


Photo by Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo

So when you hear Hillary Clinton's and Donald Trump's new post-primary speeches in which each repeatedly emphasizes a newfound interest in unity and inclusion, it is permissible to yawn politely or roll your eyes. Neither believes it for a minute. Freedom of speech and right to assemble? Don't count on either of them insisting too loudly on either. What the current American election cycle is going to mean for the participants is civil war.

The current nomination process is amounting to nothing more than selecting each party/army's field commander by convention time next July. After that, it will be bombs away in waging the larger Civil War. Fists are already flying. Will it come to armed conflict? Let's hope not. But thirty plus congressional seats (including seven in the U.S. Senate) and a critical Supreme Court justice are the immediate spoils of victory. The battlefields at Cleveland and Philadelphia will be strewn with the dead and discredited, and there will most assuredly be no prisoners taken.

So you might want to be a little careful of what and who you wish for. No matter what your allegiances are, expect the unexpected. Wars can be messy.

Hillary would like to declare the Democratic nomination a fait accompli right now, of course. Bernie might disagree. He would point to a few observable facts. For example, that the headline in Missouri should have been (as it was in Iowa) not that he lost, but that by conceding defeat despite a razor-thin margin of 1,539 votes (Hillary 49.61% to Bernie 49.37%) in order to save the taxpayers of Missouri the cost of a re-count, he lost virtually nothing, because the Show Me State divides the delegate counts proportionately. Meaning that Bernie got 34, and Hillary got 34 plus 2 awarded for being declared the "winner." In Bernie's Iowa concession? He got 21, and Hillary got 21 plus another whopping bonus of 2 delegates. Even in a state like Illinois, where Hillary's 50.5% victory over Bernie's 38.2% was trumpeted by the press, do you know how the delegates were apportioned?

Ready? Hillary 68, Bernie 67.

And in the three primary/caucuses in Arizona, Utah and Idaho yesterday, who came out with the greatest number of delegates? Hint: it was not Hillary.

As another example, Bernie might site the record-breaking $42 million he raised in the month of February. That's an average of $27 per person (no joke) from a faithful following his spokespeople say he will champion to the end, which is not likely to come soon with that kind of cash on hand. But to really get past all the journalistic smoke and mirrors and understand the impact of what he is accomplishing, it is necessary to suffer through another little math lesson.

His total of 927 delegates compared to Hillary's 1681 could make it appear that, despite his triumphant charge and astonishing momentum, he's losing his ass anyway. But look a little closer. Hillary was given a big head start with 400+ Super-Delegates--a Frankenstein-like block of prefab primary voters consisting almost entirely of the Democratic party's establishment leadership, including all sitting state governors and members of the U.S. Congress--the vast majority of whom were automatically seated as delegates from the start, their support pledged to their favored candidate in advance of the primaries--with the idea of stacking the deck.

Did someone say this process is rigged?

However, if you were to subtract Hillary's 467 super-delegates and Bernie's 26 from their respective totals--i.e., if you judged this primary race by how many delegates she had earned through votes actually cast, compared to the number earned by Bernie, the totals would be 1,170 votes for Hillary versus 870 cast for Bernie. Hardly a landslide just yet, when a total of 2,382 is needed for a deciding majority.

If you add to those figures Hillary's 467 super-delegates and Bernie's 26 for the aforementioned 1,681 to 927, it looks a little different. You could even say that it might just be a bridge too far for Bernie, and that's precisely the effect the block of super-delegates is supposed to have on the opposition--and yes, on you, the voter. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here...

Except for one thing. The super-delegates can change their minds as they wish.

What if those 467 super-delegates were taken away from Hillary and given to Bernie? Hillary's total becomes 1,213... and Bernie's? 1,394.

If these governors and congresspersons have pledged their support to Hillary, but it becomes clear she's going to be a problem--that for this or any other reason, Bernie is a better choice--then that support pledged to Mrs. Clinton can be changed to support for Bernie, without so much as a "by your leave.'

Why would they do that? Well, why do you think? Self-preservation, baby--this is national politics!

For one thing, if they are thinking of their congressional seats, backing a loser now can put their own jobs at risk later. If they bet on the wrong horse and the Republican candidate is elected to the Big White House, their subsequent re-election prospects won't look quite so good... It could even mean having to get an "honest" job in the semi-real world that employs K Street lobbyists, corporate board members, think tankers, lawyers, and authors of political tell-alls (thrillers and dullers, fiction and non-fiction). The Folding Green Party.

The point is only that the super-delegates are a block of pledged supporters who could be handed over to Bernie in the event of, say, the FBI asking the Attorney General for indictments on the appropriate State Department personnel, especially the Chappaqua heiress herself. Two weeks ago, Bryan Pagliano (Hillary's IT specialist who ill-advisedly set up her off-site server and acted as its traffic controller) accepted an immunity deal with the FBI. What happens from there depends on what and how much Pagliano tells the FBI. The reality of it is that when immunity is offered by a law enforcement agency, it is in exchange for testimony when two things are true: (1) the agency has reason to believe there was a provable crime committed, because the criminal has told them so, and (2) the criminal knows that he or she has been (or likely will be) caught with no other way out, and wants to personally avoid prosecution by naming other people involved in those criminal activities.

Done methodically, this approach produces a ripple effect, or more accurately, a domino effect. The idea is to get the Big Domino. In due course the investigative/police agency (in this case, the FBI) acquires new information through a series of leap-frogging immunity deals with other guilt-stricken/frightened/willing person(s) which lead to more and more names and/or knowledge of other known criminal behavior. This is continued until the FBI is satisfied they have found the instigator, Domino #1, usually someone who was able to convince others to commit crimes on his/her behalf. Whoever is found at the center of these activities can then be prosecuted and justice served.

Photo courtesy of thefrontierpost.com

So Bernie might get lucky. His presidential bid is certainly not dead. The momentum of his massive grassroots campaign is evidence enough of that. If he's as smart as he appears to be, he won't change course or listen to any b.s. about being Hillary's running mate. If rumors are true that Hillary's old boss is beginning to tell donors that he'd like to see them circle the wagons behind her and start getting down to the serious business of how to take on Donald Trump, Bernie will start feeling a whole other kind of pressure.

But Be Careful What You Wish For

With the exiting POTUS showing flop sweat this early in an election year, it could appear that the only reason Bernie was ever tolerated was that (1) no one believed he would even be in contention at this stage, and (2) Hillary needed to have someone to argue with to give her a sparring partner. More than that, no one thought Trump would still be in the race--and not only is he in it, Hillary is looking a bit wobbly as his opposite. So anyone hoping against hope, that all those people feeling the Bern are going to buy into the idea of switching their allegiance to her, needs to take a closer look.

What Hillary lacks in charisma, Bernie has in buckets. He's not just another crackpot socialist. When Bernie calls for a political "revolution," he knows what the word means, even if most of his fervid millennial followers don't know (or care) what the difference is between a 90% income tax rate and a 15% gratuity on a grande lowfat latte. Despite his power-to-the-people fist salute and eat-the-rich populist economics, he also knows what the words "socialism" and "communism" mean, and the wide gulf between them and what he calls democratic socialism. While it is true that he and wife Jane journeyed to Yaroslavl, USSR, the day after they wed, it was because he, as the mayor of Burlington, VT, had planned the trip months earlier as part of a sister city program. Of that trip, he concedes in his 1997 book Outsider in the House, "Trust me. It was a very strange honeymoon."

I do trust him. Beyond protecting Social Security and salvaging some workable aspects of the Affordable Healthcare Act, he might succeed in getting tuition-free public university education taken seriously. It's not likely he could get much of his utopian chicken-in-every-pot economic agenda through Congress if he were elected, but no matter. He is an authentic man of the people. His heart is in the right place, even if his head is a ways up his ass, politically. He would be in a state of shock for his first few weeks in the Oval Office. Like many presidents before him, he'd get over it.

On the other hand, the Republican party's own presumptuous nominee knows perfectly well what he's doing politically, as he rallies half the Republican base while he bullies the other half. Unfortunately, he's wrong on several points he'll have to get right in order to win a general election, or his inflammatory ad lib and tough-guy rhetoric is going to be his downfall. He might smarten up fast, or he might not. He's poised to declare the Republican race over and done at a time when there are at least two roiling internal revolutions happening within his own adopted party.

The first revolution started when he filed and declared his candidacy last June, and has built with the momentum of a messianic movement ever since, despite the sneering of the party establishment. In their usual fashion, the party poohbahs have been ignoring the press while they try to steer the outcome and remain uninfluenced by either the Fourth Estate or the electorate, and have spent months dismissing Trump as nothing more than the most colorful clown in the circus. It took until three weeks ago for them to finally overcome their denial and mount a desperate counter-revolution. Now, at last, they are taking him very seriously, attacking him ferociously, fearing the worst and fearing it could get much worse than that.

The internecine Republican revolution will unquestionably provide the biggest exchange of black powder cannonades of this election cycle. While the Democrats stand along the sidelines like a patriarchal royal family keeping their powder dry, pointing fingers and gasping in offended horror, the Republican party is engaging in the most colorful ritual sacrifice in the storied history of the post-Watergate GOP. But so far, not much of their last-minute maneuvering seems to be influencing primary votes. Rumors are swirling and being denied that party officials are huddling about what can be done to out-maneuver the Don by jiggering and re-writing the convention rules before July. Not that they have a candidate--unless the idea of running Ted Cruz as a third party takes hold amongst the mathematically challenged party members.

Oh, boy... now wouldn't that be fun!

It is possible the conservative press could lend a hand, although the combined efforts of the Wall Street Journal and National Review don't seem to have changed Trump's trajectory. The Republican electorate engaged on social media, such as they are, might be of use. The #nevertrump campaign has attracted everyone and everything, from Mitt Romney's speechifying to Louis C.K.'s email to Lindsay Graham doing a 180 and endorsing Cruz. The number-crunching and delegate-counting will certainly dominate the news for weeks to come. Ted Cruz will continue to strike his poses and try to close the gap between him and Trump, while performing his best Jerry Falwell/William Jennings Bryan imitation (one imagines him up in the middle of the night with a mouthful of pebbles, oiling and combing his hair and practicing his lines in front of a full-length mirror)--while Kasich tries to steal his own handful of delegates from Trump-leaners who can't abide Cruz, as he recites "I think I can, I think I can" and dreams of a contested Republican convention in July. It remains to be seen if any of the crop of PACs will keep scrambling to air anti-Trump television ads without further energizing his supporters, or just save their money and let Hillary spend hers.

It appears that the only person who can assure the defeat of Donald Trump's candidacy is Trump. Even when his legendary PR instincts and campaign canniness deserted him during his three-day bout of moral deafness and amnesia about David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan, the Donald side-stepped and tap danced, scattering the party militia. But he's not going to side-step inciting violence that easily.




It was all well and good that Trump offered to pay the legal expenses of 78-year-old partisan, John McGraw, after the cracker's sucker-punching of a black protester at a recent North Carolina rally, but where was the contrition at his role in provoking this? Where's his condemnation of the assault? Instead, he told Meet the Press that McGraw may have gotten carried away, but that he "obviously loves the country."

What country would that be, exactly?

I'm sure we can expect the schizophrenic Republican establishment to engage in as much of a coordinated assault against Trump's hostile takeover of the party as they can muster. (Are they afraid if he gets the Republican nomination that he won't beat Hillary, or that he will?)

Now think of that coalition for a moment! The Republican ruling class unwittingly uniting in solidarity with the Democratic establishment in an all-out effort to block the billionaire vulgarian from rolling his gold-plated Trumpmobile up Pennsylvania Avenue. Now we're talking a grassroots rebellion!

And a brokered or contested convention. What the Don's response would be is not certain. True, he could take his candidates over a cliff and start a counter-counter-revolutionary third party (after smugly revealing that he had been crossing his fingers behind his back when he made that loyalty pledge back in September). He could also just confidently stick around for the bloodshed.

And the counter-counter-revolution in the Democratic party? The FBI is conducting at least two separate ongoing investigations of Hillary Clinton. The one on the back burner concerns that little Clinton Foundation business of influence peddling and money laundering while she was Secretary of State. While that might turn up some interesting war crimes, the ruling class of the Democratic party are continuing to bravely use the now-infamous Clintonian Linguistic Defense of "It depends upon what the definition of the word 'is' is," maintaining that a crime is not a crime unless or until the criminal is tried and convicted of it, and even then... But the FBI's hundreds of agents on these cases have their hands full. It's unlikely they will get to the Clinton Foundation any time soon.

One possible outcome would be for Attorney General Loretta Lynch to decide that the best way to serve at the pleasure of the President is to decline any of the FBI's requests to prosecute Hillary for her mishandling of the 22 Special Access Program emails, designated as so likely to cause "exceptionally grave" damage to national security that they cannot even be reviewed by Congress, or any of the other 2,000+ that merely comprised top-security breaches.

An early test of whether calling off the Lynch mob was in the works would be to see how Hillary's polls and delegate counts hold up throughout the various stages of an indictment of one or more State Department personnel. But there are no sure things here. The Democratic base has been oddly unresponsive to her misadventures with the FBI investigations. Apparently, the only thing they would find unforgivable would be her losing the election and allowing a Republican to take over as commander-in-chief.

But even if her polls started tanking and Bernie started winning unexpected numbers of delegates... and even if her former State subordinates' heads started to roll and her own started feeling threatened... and even if super-delegates with upcoming re-elections started screaming, the Attorney General might still be directed by her boss to leave Hillary alone. Short of her actual conviction of a crime, if he thought Trump (or any Republican) would get past her and into the White House, he might start feelin' the burn. Hillary knows where a lot of bodies are buried, so the one thing that could never be tolerated would be her acceptance of an immunity deal of her own. You just can't tell with these Clintons.

Enter her understudy.

If the President thought she could come through it and still win the election, thus assuring a politically acceptable appointment to the Supreme Court (either before or after the election) plus preservation of his health care legacy, such as it is, and a continuation of certain key executive orders, he would do what he could to make sure she whistled right past the graveyard and into the Oval Office. But if he thought she was going to cost him all that or worse, he wouldn't hesitate to throw her under that prison bus and start feelin' the Bern.

As is the case with anything else in an election year, the timing of the Attorney General announcing such a decision would be critical. A last-minute upgrading of Bernie from also-ran status to leading contender would, of course, demand that Bernie still be around.

If not, if the whole Draft-Elizabeth-Warren-or-Joe Biden Movement needed to be rekindled and refinanced on short notice, the Democratic party would have their own revolution on their hands and start looking a lot like the Republican party.

Viva la revolución(s)!




Start the Revolution Without (With) Me

That's as good and bad as the news gets. When the revolution or counter-revolution or counter-counter-revolution is over, one of the Republican or Democratic candidates will be the next President of the United States. Hillary's camp has been talking trash and saying they are gleefully looking forward to a race against Donald Trump, and Trump's camp has made the same claim, saying they can't wait to wage a vicious war against Hillary. If Hillary can't cheat the hangman and Bernie gets the nod, or if the earth opens and swallows the Donald, leaving us with... somebody... one of them is still going to win, and one is going to lose. On the first Tuesday next November, two grimly smiling candidates will be photographed as they ostentatiously arrive early at their polling places and wish they could vote twice. Only one of them will wake up the next morning as the President-elect.

Who knows what will happen between now and then? The rules that once governed the institution known as the American Political Season are now a thing of the past. Revolution is in the air.

You say you'll change the Constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it's the institution 
Well, you know
You better free your mind instead
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow
--from "Revolution" by John Lennon and Paul McCartney

There is something else that's hinky about this political season.

For starters, the Democrats' fear of Hillary's talent for self-destruction is stoked by the even greater fear that Donald Trump, no matter how scornfully he's mocked, is such a force that if he can't be stopped and becomes the Republican party's presidential nominee, he could give Hillary a real run for the money in the general election. And it gets hinkier.

Some Democrats have finally noticed that the better the Donald does in his primaries, the better Bernie does in his (see above). And the better Bernie does, the better the Donald does!

Why? Because they are both feeding a similar cultural narrative. As long as they are both in the race, they are influencing the primary results like a pair of running mates. These guys share so many qualities that if they wanted to guarantee themselves a place in history, all they would have to do is... well... join forces, and create a third party.

No doubt about it. This has been the strangest American political season since it all began in 1789. Back then, we were led by reluctant heroes like George Washington (or “1” as he would be called today). “2” (John Adams) didn’t initially want the gig either, but warmed to it quickly and accepted the position for various reasons, among them the same sense of duty to our new republic that had convinced his predecessor to postpone duty-free farming for a few years. When Thomas Jefferson came along and took the job away from Adams, their friendship and lifelong arguments became the intellectual anatomy of every bone in the American body politic for the next 200 years, give or take a mid-term election.

Then something changed.

"It's the Economy, Stupid"

...quoth James Carville (not Donald Trump). As Bill Clinton's election strategist, Carville famously posted a sign in the Arkansas campaign headquarters in 1992, advising other staffers to keep three things in mind as they went up against incumbent president George H.W. Bush:

(1) Change vs. more of the same
(2) The economy, stupid
(3) Don't forget health care

Twenty-four years later and surprise!... the issues are the same.

No wonder American voters are so angry, frustrated with a Washington that has failed them on all three strategic points, Democrats and Republicans alike. Oddly enough, the presidential candidates who understand this are the ones still in the game. The ones who are emphasizing that (2) incorporates (1) and (3) are faring the best of all.

Various economic experts put the date when the air started coming out of the U.S.S. Economy's balloon in early 2000, around the time Time Warner and AOL mistakenly merged (1+1=0). The ensuing communications company collapses and dot com devastation was underway. When the NYSE staggered and took four days to reopen after September 11, 2001, the Hindenburg-like conflagration of the domestic and world economies was complete.

Real Median Household Income (inflation adjusted) is a statistic monitored very closely by economists. Mindful that Twain's caution that the "three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics," was issued because such numbers are often used to confuse people who don't understand them, I'm going to explain this one and make sure it is clear.

When the the full monetary value of all the goods and services produced in the United States is measured, that number is called the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for a given period of time. If you were to determine who pocketed those dollars in the U.S. population, listed them all one-by-one from biggest income to smallest and then drew a line down the middle of the pack, that line would be called the median. Half of the population above the line and the half below it. When it's adjusted for inflation (a currency's relative loss/gain of purchasing power compared to what it was at an established earlier time) you have a number called the Real Median Household Income.

For the 2002 U.S. Census, the Real (supposedly inflation-adjusted) Median Household Income was $55,807. Obviously, if the median was $55,807, there were some people at the top of the heap who made substantially more than that, and a lot who made much less. That subject, income equality, has its own statistics and is a central part of the discussion--it is self-evident and self-explanatory. So for now, we're going to fasten on just the statistic of Real Median Household Income.

Between 1990 and 2000 the figure rose steadily from $52,623 to $57,724. In the wake of the 2000-2001 collapse, the 2002 U.S. Census figure had declined to $55,807, but in true fashion the 2006 Census showed it was on the rise again, having risen to $56,598. Smiles all around.

Then something happened. But instead of getting into all the complex factors here and who's to blame--minimally four U.S. Presidents and counting (along with their masters and minions) and scores of congressmen/women, plus untold thousands of political appointees, federal regulators, bankers, mortgage brokers, loan officers, unqualified buyers, unqualified sellers, hit-and-run real estate agents, hedge-funders and other speculators, debt packagers, etc.--all were guilty of wanting to get something for nothing, whether it was political capital, cold hard cash, or both. The cost to this and many future generations of American taxpayers for rushing all the hook-and-ladders to the scene and supposedly extinguishing the hideous second Hindenburg inferno that occurred in 2007-2009 was very high indeed.

But despite the ocean of money poured on it, when the numbers were crunched for the 2010 census the Real Median Household Income had dropped back down to $53,507. The federal government, now under President Obama's stewardship, proceeded to double down on predecessor George Bush's Troubled Asset Relief Program's $475 billion by opening the floodgates and pouring additional borrowed monies into the U.S. economy in what continued to be dubbed "the bailout," which in fact was a great number of bailouts. By April 30th of 2011 the initial estimate of $700 billion had turned into $2.5 trillion spent and paid forward (and backward) to the American taxpayers, with commitments for another $9.7 trillion. The banks that had been considered "too big to fail" continued to fail spectacularly, resulting in a 0% Federal Reserve lending rate in 2013 which inspired a bull market that stampeded along Wall Street right up until the first of this year.

But... the Real Median Household Income when the next U.S. Census was done in 2014? $53,657, up a nearly imperceptible $150 over the previous census.

$150. Per household. Enough to take the family to a ball game, parking not included.

Some early calculations indicate that 2015's Real Median Household Income began to tick up, but no reliable figure has been published, nor anything to indicate a significant change in the trend. But it's an election year, a time for fuzzy math and hyperbole. The pertinent fact from the census figures is that the four-year trend was, and continues to be, a statistical flat line.

So the big question is: whose part of the national economy was bailed out, exactly? Where have all those trillions of dollars gone?

The Road to Hell is Paved

"Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority. It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters . . .  but they mean to be masters."
-- Noah Webster (1758–1843)

Noah Webster learned twenty-eight languages in the course of creating etymologies for his masterwork, An American Dictionary of the English Language.


I learned a lot about the meaning of economics back when I'd watch our big, orange tabby, Bob, as he'd eat his dinner. He would be hungry when he came inside after a day spent patrolling the yard and surrounding neighborhood, in his capacity as an ambassador (he knew more of our neighbors than I did) and security guard. If he was feeling safe and secure that day, he would just quietly go about devouring every crumb in his bowl, but if he'd had a dust-up with a neighborhood dog or raccoon, or was feeling uneasy about some other aspect endangering his feline existence, he would crouch defensively over his food for the first few minutes.

You've seen people who eat a meal in the same way. Anticipating some hidden interruption or threat, they hover over their victuals armed with a knife and fork, ready to subdue an intruder or fend off a firing squad captain, stabbing away at what could as easily be a last meal as a feast fit for a king. Ask any physician about the effects on a human body's digestive tract, its glandular response, cardio-vascular and nervous systems, etc., caused by the stresses and pressures of daily life.

Thus, according to the simplified survival model supplied by my hairy, departed friend Bob, economics consists of: (1) doing a good job, (2) getting what you need, (3) keeping what you've got, and (4) having enough security to keep going and enjoy the process.

Thus, when an unsuspecting citizen who's come home after work and is eating a meal in front of a TV set hears that a major in the U.S. Army has murdered 13 people on the Fort Hood base in Texas (mostly fellow soldiers), and wounded 32 others, he or she is bound to have difficulty swallowing food; that the murderous officer shouted "Allahu Akbar!" before opening fire in the base's Soldier Readiness Center, and said diner loses his appetite completely; that the incident has been officially ruled "workplace violence" instead of terrorism, and he wants to vomit; that the murderer was employed by the military as a psychiatrist, and he starts to look over his shoulder whenever he eats again, wondering if it is safe to take his eyes off the horizon.

Even more upsetting to the digestion than the unwillingness to treat a terrorist as a terrorist is the unwillingness to treat innocent citizens as innocent. In the spring and summer of 2013, four years after Nidal Hasan's murder spree at Fort Hood, two historic events in rapid succession brought this into focus and changed everything.

First, on April 13, 2013, thousands of local law enforcement officers locked down the city of Boston, Massachusetts, and inexplicably suspended the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure while performing hundreds of warrantless searches for Dzhokhar and Tamerian Tsarnaev, two Chechen brothers suspected of having built and detonated a pair of home-made bombs earlier that day during the annual Boston Marathon. The illegal searches were bizarre enough, but more startling still was the total absence of comment from anywhere in the American press. A few radical libertarian bloggers may have rattled off a tirade here or there, but apparently the national press was now in such a state of shock that the unquestioned suspension of the civil liberties of Boston's citizens was acceptable in the name of national security, at least in the face of domestic attacks from two suspected radicalized Islamic terrorists.

Next, on June 21, 2013, in an incident rich with irony, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed charges against Edward Joseph Snowden on two counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 for "unauthorized communication of national defense information" and "willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person," plus theft of U.S. government or foreign government property. These charges consisted in large part of blowing the whistle on his former employers, the Central Intelligence Agency and Booz Allen Hamilton--a contractor for the National Security Agency--i.e., the "communications intelligence information" that was "communicated to an unauthorized person" was intelligence gathered in massive programs of warrantless surveillance conducted on American citizens and ultimately communicated to those same citizens--thee and me--through the journalistic efforts of Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill in the pages of The Guardian and later The Washington Post.

The impact of Snowden's revelations soon started unfolding, and the stark realities of this Brave New World started shaping a national debate that had been looming since the enactment of the National Security Act of 1947 and the establishment of the CIA and NSA. The question being, who are these people working for, exactly? Whose interests are being served by spying on our own citizens?

In response to these developments throughout the summer of 2013, and coupled with Barack Obama's asking a quibbling Republican-controlled Congress for a too-little-too-late Authorization for the Use of Military Force to go into Syria a few weeks later, gadfly/bomb-thrower/troublemaker/punk/provocateur Matt Drudge tweeted on September 3, 2013: "It's now Authoritarian vs. Libertarian. Since Democrats vs. Republicans has been obliterated, no real difference between parties..."

Which is obviously an oversimplification that ignores some important social factors. But on the issues of the U.S. economy and its adjunct, national security, not so much. Once again, which party is looking out for our economic health and safety?

Good question.

Which party is responsible for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that working class Democrats and Republicans view as a sop to corporate interests and a destroyer of their jobs, among other things? Proposed in 1990 during Republican George H.W. Bush's administration, it was ratified in 1994 during Democrat Bill Clinton's.

Which party is responsible for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and requisite renewal of the 1974 Trade Promotion Authority (TPA)--equally as contentious in the hard-hit working middle class. It was conceived in 2008 by Republican George W. Bush's administration and promoted heavily by Democrat Barack Obama's, stalemated but scheduled to be voted on and ratified by the U.S. this summer. But don't count on it in an election year.

In fact, don't count on anything going as expected this summer, not during this Act II of Potomac Kabuki Theater (all that Beltway world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players).

Once again... it's the economy, stupid! The grand rhetoric and ideological posturing, the earnest pleas for unity and support, all of it is spouted to redirect you from the vital issue that is driving this election. Which party is looking out for your economic health and safety? Which party were the primary voters in Michigan, one of the very hardest-hit Rust Belt states, turning to for help when they gave a big victory to Trump and a shocking upset victory over Hillary to Bernie Sanders? The answer is...

Good question.

A Democracy's Basic Flaw

Come senators, congressmen,
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside and it is ragin'
It will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'
-- from the song "The Times they Are A-Changin'" by Bob Dylan

There is revolution in the air. The two presidential candidates who have dominated the discussion this year are the two outliers. Neither has the support of the party whose nomination he is seeking. In Bernie's case, he's a socialist who vehemently insists on branding himself a democratic socialist. In the Donald's case he's a lifelong Democrat who became a Republican.

For several months following the 2012 general election, the common thread in most Republican post-game analysis was that Mitt Romney had not made an effective case for his candidacy, i.e., if he had only... taken the time to explain the details of his plan for his presidency, reached out to the women voters, the minority voters, the Millennials and other disenfranchised, he would have won them over. As my wife and I watched one such political commentator go on in this vein one day, she turned to me and said, "All these pundits are wrong... Romney's mistake was that he explained his plans too much." And Obama pretty much stuck to his hope-and-change mantra. Nice and simple.

The strongest candidates for the White House in the current election cycle are the two people least identified with any recognizable political party or ideology. Like human Rorschach tests, these two populists are actually trading on being the least well-defined of any of the candidates. Neither is hiding anything. Neither really knows what he would do if he became President, only that he would go to work on the economy. They both shoot straight and answer the questions asked of them, without filtering their remarks. Whatever else you see in either of them, it is just what you want to see. The fewer details the voter knows of their values and ideologies, the more can be supplied by the voter.

It is that Rorschach Factor that is the basic flaw in a democratic form of government. Whether it's a direct democracy or a representative form like a republic or parliament, its effectiveness depends on citizen-participants who are rational, moral, ethical, tolerant, educated, informed about the issues. Those participants need to know they have a stake in the outcome, and see that other citizens participate in the same manner--a democracy's value and power depends on the inclusion and resolution of other viewpoints.

So of course, by the same reasoning, a democratic form of government fails to work to the degree that it is composed of people who are irrational, amoral, unethical, intolerant, uneducated, not informed about the issues, and without a stake in the game. All of which is made worse if there is an insufficient number of viewpoints represented.

In either case, the citizen/voters see what they are able to see. You can guess which type is most perceptive, and when faced with relatively little information, who will seek out more information, and who will dream up their own. It's Be Careful What You Wish For, Part 2. As George Harrison wrote in "Savoy Truffle," a song written as a tweak/warning to his chocolaholic friend, Eric Clapton, "But what is sweet now, turns so sour."

(Note to partisan Liberals, Conservatives, Democrats, Republicans: not only would a democratic form of government that is composed entirely of Liberals (or Conservatives, or... fill in the blank) fail ultimately, it would fail fast.)

Because underlying that is this even more basic flaw: voting is only one of many responsibilities of the citizen. Unless the voter is also an active participant in the society and the government being created with his or her vote, a democracy, like any other form of government, amounts to satisfying the urge of an individual citizen to relinquish control and responsibility for some aspect(s) of his or her life to someone else.

That can be bad news in a culture of non-participants and spectators. But it can be really good news in a democratic society of responsible citizens participating in free elections.

Total self-governance is an ideal, of course. Transferring self-determination from yourself to another person or entity is part of everyday life, especially in a complex society. Whenever you employ someone else to perform a service, you are asking the other person to take over the controls in some area of life. But the degree to which you are successful in the endeavor depends on how smartly you have selected that person, and how smartly you observe and direct the other person(s) in the transfer.

The less willing you are to participate and guide those persons employed to assist you, the more apt you are to be dissatisfied with the outcome. Taken to the logical extreme, utter disconnection and lack of participation in a government's functions, relinquishing the burden of responsibility and putting it all on the shoulders of the elected/employed officials, predictably results in disaster.

In the case of our American republic, it ceases to be a government of, by and for the people. Instead, the elected representatives become more and more autonomous, until the government is finally an oligarchy (per Oxford--"a small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution").

Actual representation is no longer possible at that point. And there's the rub.

In his essay "Civil Disobedience," Henry David Thoreau begins the discussion of this slippery slope with his own take on the Jeffersonian idea that a "government is best which governs least," writing: "That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient." Inexpedient as in "not practical, suitable, or advisable," (per Oxford). To the degree that this form of government is, or becomes, less under the control of the citizen who gave it existence, it has the very opposite effect from the one intended. Most agree that pooling community resources and hiring a militia or security force is useful for dealing with hostile aggression or criminality. But what if members of that force disagree with the group's consensus values and betray them by selectively choosing which laws to enforce and on whom?

Like Thoreau, another American philosopher, L. Ron Hubbard, stated the point more bluntly when he wrote: "It could be said that a government is the aggregate irresponsibility of a people. They are not taking responsibility for the course of justice or protection of the state from foreign aggression, and they shove all this responsibility over onto a government," (from his book, Scientology Clear Procedure).

Henry Thoreau's good friend and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was also blunt in his comments: "The more reason, the less government." The more unreasonable, irrational or irresponsible a people or nation becomes, then, the more important the role of government in guiding the individual. But that's another even slipperier slope. The end goal and salvation of the individual and that people would lie in eventually taking back whatever autonomy they had lost as individuals in the process. Or as Emerson wrote in his famous 1841 essay entitled "Self-Reliance," "There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried."

These basic concepts of Emerson's, Thoreau's and Hubbard's are rooted in the same concerns as what Thomas Jefferson and the framers/signers of the country's charter forewarned when they wrote, at the request of all the members of the Second Continental Congress, of the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence: "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it..." Understood in its entirety, this document is likely the most radical political document in the history of the West. A lot of refinement was needed over the ensuing years to sort out definitions of "rights" and "citizen," etc., but it was a great beginning.

Self-Reliance Defeats Voter Apathy and Whatever Else Ails You

In 2016, voter apathy has morphed into voter antipathy. Civil war is looming. The political season has gotten so brutal, and so early in the year, that the voter apathy/antipathy is dulling our senses and wits into a state of voter neuropathy, our nerves numbed and weakened by diseased governmental bureaucracy and a dysfunctional political class.

A big part of the cure lies in self-reliance. Certainly, the oligarchic sea monster we created has done some massive damage to the Ship of State. A good, new President in January of 2017 might make life easier, provided the new commander-in-chief understands that... it's the economy, stupid! Even then, it's going to take the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, plus all 319 million of the rest of us Americans, to get this thing right.

When November 8th arrives, by all means, dust off your civic duty and vote for any candidates still standing who you think will do some good for all of us. But don't leave it at that. Take John F. Kennedy's advice that he gave in his inauguration address: "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Think long and hard. Then do it.

Don't leave it up to a bunch of desperate politicians. Your personal happiness, the happiness of your fellow Americans, and even the happiness of all Mankind, depend more on how successful you are in becoming your own hero. So do something heroic. Do your part. Contribute your own unique skills and charms. Do what you know is your best and don't settle for less.

A few days ago I went poking around on the the internet to see if I could find a live performance of the Beatles' song "Revolution 1" from their 1968 album The Beatles, aka "The White Album." The Lads from Liverpool never performed this song live, but I've always been partial to it for a number of reasons. In the process, I found Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio (10 miles south of Cleveland). As a counterpoint to their annual Bach program (the oldest collegiate Bach Festival in the United States), in 2011 the students in BWU's music conservatory began performing an entire Beatles album each year, LIVE. Just for kicks. It was a smashing success, drawing larger and larger audiences of enthusiastic students each year. (In fact, if you're in the area, the 6th annual festival is coming up on April 8th. This year they will perform Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, in its entirety.)

No one had ever taken on performances of this material on this scale. Not even the Beatles themselves.

Beatles fans don't need to be told that the Fab Four stopped doing live performances in 1967 after their manager, Brian Epstein, died. Not coincidentally, their music became more complex in structure as they poured their considerable creative energies into studio recordings that included orchestral arrangements large and small, complete with beautiful arrangements for strings, woodwinds, brass, etc., as well as recorded sound effects and musique concrete.

So, in the playful spirit of creativity and self-reliance, I'll leave you with a video of "Revolution 1" performed in 2014 by the various Baldwin Wallace University's music conservatory majors in music theater, music performance and the orchestra. And as a bonus, their performance of another song from that sublime White Album, "Honey Pie," sung by BWU graduate (one of his degrees is in composition, handy for these horn arrangements) Patrick Hyzy, multi-instrumentalist and a full-fledged Beatles fanatic who, with a little (lot) of help from his friends, decided to make his own unique contribution to the world.

Listen again to John Lennon's advice...

You tell me it's the institution 
Well, you know
You better free your mind instead











Friday, January 8, 2016

Elvis


On April 14, 1956, RCA Victor Records presented Elvis with the one millionth copy of his landmark hit, "Heartbreak Hotel," recorded just three months earlier at their McGavock Street studios in Nashville. (Photo courtesy elvispresleyphotos.com)


Contributing writer Bruce E. Boyers celebrates what would be Elvis Presley's 81st birthday today, with a short essay on an "Aha!" moment he experienced when he was a very young man. Listening to a car radio, he heard Elvis singing "Heartbreak Hotel," a song written by Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton (singer/songwriter Hoyt Axton's mother, for you music scholars) and recorded with, among others, Chet Atkins on guitar and Floyd Cramer on piano. The world would never be the same again. -- CLH 



Elvis

by Bruce E. Boyers


I've always been a bit ambivalent about writing about Elvis. You see, my mother brought me up musically in such a way that, by the time I was 10 or 11, I knew for a fact that the greatest music in modern times had been written and recorded by African-Americans. Although she didn't own any "race records," she told me all about them—78 RPM vinyl singles that brought a musical form known as Rhythm and Blues into the world. Historians now point to one such record—ironically, recorded in 1951 at the same Sun Studios in Memphis where Elvis would, four years later, make his first impressions onto wax—as the very first Rock and Roll record ever made. The song is called "Rocket 88," and it was written and performed by the highly controversial (years later) Ike Turner.

In that I was aware of these earlier efforts that eventually resulted in Rock and Roll, I've always been chafed by Elvis being called “The King of Rock and Roll.” In my mind, that title should have gone to Chuck Berry, Little Richard, or one of many other black pioneers like Ike Turner, who in reality taught Elvis everything he knew.

Well, a few years ago I was considerably softened up on the subject. I read about a 1971 press conference that Elvis held in Las Vegas following a hugely successful performance he had just had at the newly opened International Hotel there. At that press conference, a journalist referred to him as “The King.” It just so happened that Fats Domino was standing in the nearby crowd of onlookers. Elvis gestured at Fats and said, “No, that's the real king of rock and roll.”

Okay, Elvis, you made a bit of peace with me with that one. So here's a bit about Elvis.

Kid Galahad--and Kid Bruce

By the time I started to become musically aware—just before the Beatles hit the US in 1964--Elvis Presley was somebody you could only see in movies. Thanks to a killer schedule of filmmaking he had been pushed into by his manager Colonel Tom Parker, the only way anybody could experience Elvis between 1962 and 1968 was to go to their local cinemas. I was a poor kid who rarely if ever got to go to the movies. Hence, Elvis was kind of off my personal radar.

Well, almost.

In 1962, when I was 7 years old, my entire hometown of Idyllwild, California was totally abuzz,  the name Elvis Presley on everybody's lips. Although my mother did not take me to see it, she and many other townspeople got to witness Elvis making the film Kid Galahad right there in our little town. The locals also got to witness a bit of Elvis's good spirit—in between takes, he'd play football with the local kids out in the street.

Years later when I actually got to see Kid Galahad. It was amazing to watch Elvis singing his way past all the bits of the town (many long gone) that were firmly fixed in my memory as a kid—and knowing that at any of those moments I hadn't been very far away.

The Inspiring Elvis

But enough about me. Who was this Elvis Presley person anyway? He must have had something going for him. The number of famous musicians who cite his name as the performer that got them interested in playing music is endless. A seven-year-old Bruce Springsteen saw Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show and was inspired to take up music. Bob Dylan once described the sensation of first hearing Elvis as being “like busting out of jail.” Elvis was also a prime influence on a little band called the Beatles.

It wasn't until I was about 11 years old that I really understood why he had such an influence—up until then I had only heard the second-rate songs Elvis was forced to record for his movies, and I couldn’t figure it out at all. But late one night I was riding with my mom in the car, and a song came on the radio that instantly riveted my attention. She reached over and turned it up, and said, “That was Elvis Presley's first record.” (It wasn't, but it was his first release on a major label, so it was probably the first she'd ever heard of him.) The song was "Heartbreak Hotel." Like much of the blues and R&B I had been exposed to, it was raw, it was ferocious, it was dirty. And it was INCREDIBLE.


That, as I was later to learn, was real Rock 'n' Roll. Elvis in the beginning was this beautiful, untamed sexual animal. Guys sat by patiently while their girlfriends screamed in ecstasy over him. Some weren't so patient, and downright hated him. Bigots tried to have him boycotted because he sounded black. Television shows at first banned him, and then demanded him as his records flew up the charts, one after the other.

In actual truth, Elvis was just doing what came naturally to him: singing. And when the rhythm moved him, dancing. It just so happened that both made women everywhere insanely desirous of bearing his progeny.

Elvis Presley was a dream come true for one Sam Phillips, owner and operator of a small Memphis outfit called Sun Records. Elvis had been in the studio a few times, but hadn't really impressed anybody. Phillips, however, was constantly on the lookout for a white performer who could bring the sound of black music to a white audience. One night he had Elvis in the studio, and had him sing just about everything he knew. It proved entirely fruitless—until they were about to give up and go home, when Elvis picked up the guitar and starting singing his rendition of a 1946 blues number. Suddenly, the other musicians—and Sam Phillips—were wide awake. They recorded the song. "That's All Right" became a local sensation, and launched the career of a legend.

Elvis had made some careful observations over on Memphis' Beale Street, the black part of town where all the rhythm and blues clubs were. He'd obviously learned his lessons well.

The wild, out-of-bounds Elvis had a long string of hit records, including "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel," "Love Me Tender," "All Shook Up" and many more. Unfortunately, it only lasted until 1958, when the US government—who already had rock 'n' roll on their radar as something dangerous to be carefully watched—decided to draft Elvis into the army. While Elvis's two-year army stint didn't even come close to killing his career (as I'm sure some hoped it would), things were different when he came out. He got into movies, and tamed down quite a bit. The old Elvis—the one who has now inspired generations of rockers—was gone forever. When Elvis died in 1977, John Lennon commented sarcastically, “Elvis died when he went into the army.”

To be fair, he didn't. Once out of his encumbering movie contract in 1968, he came back out into live performances with a vengeance. While not the wild man he once was, he proved he could still pack a hell of a punch as a performer. He started choosing his own songs—instead of the crap of the type foisted off on him during his film career—and the results were fantastic. He had new hits with songs like "Suspicious Minds" and "In the Ghetto.” And up until his health began to really slide in the mid-1970s, he sold out concerts—many of them arenas—everywhere he played.

So here's to you, Elvis. The dream lives on.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy and Prosperous New Year's Wishes, Part 1: John Lennon and Paul McCartney and the Business of Life





The 8th of December marked the 35th anniversary of the day John Lennon was shot and killed in front of his apartment building in NYC. As in previous years, his October 9th birthday had inspired me to write a few thoughts on the man, and by the anniversary of his death I had moved far beyond the sadness of the day and felt compelled to pass along the good news that his spirit and presence in the world are felt more now than ever before. John Lennon is as alive as you or me.

And not just because his and and the other Beatles' entire catalog of music came gift-wrapped to all the major streaming services last Christmas Eve. And not just because people of a certain age--like me--can still sing along and rattle off the lyrics of dozens of songs he and Paul McCartney wrote together. It's not just that millions of us hardcore Beatles fans call them the best rock and roll band in history, despite the hard-working Rolling Stones' (and many other fine musicians') publicity department claims to the contrary, or even that the Beatles' stature as such is so widely accepted that it's become cool for dying publications like Rolling Stone or Esquire to hiply rank them or their work below other recording artists, or publish sour-grapes interview comments from aging rockers, all in an effort to be included in the conversation and draw attention to themselves. 

It goes beyond even all that. To this day there is something else that gets many of us, musicians and music writers, music historians and music business people, to continue to cite the craft and musicianship of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr as the gold standard for every aspect of the business of music.

Their self-imposed demand for excellence in all aspects of their work was absolutely unrelenting. Every detail counted, every time. Despite the drugs, despite the love entanglements, despite the gurus and the hangers-on, no excuses were tolerated. Much as it was the approach of another venerated business icon, Steve Jobs, who was a force of nature in his often tyrannical expectations for all things related to the Apple brand, these musicians were famously able to keep their eyes on the mountain and get the team to the summit. So when they knew finally that their ten-year association was coming to a close and were determined to make one final album, they wanted to create a masterpiece. Thus they returned to that taskmaster of a recording engineer who had helped them record much of their best work, George Martin, and recorded 1969's Abbey Road

The Business of Music    

Spotify reported Monday, December 28th, that the most popular song streamed from their site since 12:01 a.m. Christmas day had been Abbey Road's first track, "Come Together," with 2.3 million streams. (During the same three-day period the songs in the Beatles catalog had been streamed upwards of 70 million times, an average of at least one song per Spotify subscriber.) 

When Lennon and McCartney recorded the half-hour radio interview at the top of this article, they were visiting the United States on a business trip. The purpose of the visit was to establish the beginnings of that other famous Apple brand (and what a tale there is in how the two brands eventually entangled...), Apple Corps Ltd, a company whose primary function was intended to be the recording, promotion and distribution of music. Early in the radio broadcast, interviewer Larry Kane asks them what they are going to do with all the power that their success and money was bringing them. "To try and channel it for good," is John Lennon's matter-of-fact reply.

You can't blame him for trying.

Because no question, he and McCartney were trying to do just that. Their stated purpose was to lend financial support and guidance to deserving artists. In addition to that, they had recently lost their longtime manager Brian Epstein, whose unexpected death had plunged their business empire into chaos. But as determined as they were to regain control of things, their lack of experience proved costly. In their innocence, these two young businessmen (Lennon was 27, McCartney 25) and their enthusiastic friends Harrison and Starr were about to experience what every great business venture ultimately endures at least once. Utter business failure and financial ruin lay ahead. 

By the end of their run in 1970 (less than three years after this interview was recorded) Apple Corps Ltd. was in ruins, and the Beatles themselves were, if not dead broke, close enough to Personal Bankruptcy to smell the cheap gin on its breath. They had made several managers, lawyers, financiers and other hucksters and con artists live comfortably, but like many new business people who had gone before and who have come along since, they had a few things to learn.

The good news is that they were quick learners. Better than that, their musical skills and knowledge of music production had resulted in a body of work unparalleled in the history of recorded music. All they had to do was own it, literally and figuratively. It took concerted effort on the part of these divorcees, and the litigation went on for another five years, until 1975, but when the dust had settled the Fab Four were back in control of their financial destinies. Many fences had been mended. Many needed to be rebuilt.

Fortunately, they had understood from the earliest days in their association that quality is fractal.

What the Hell Does "Quality is Fractal" Mean?

In simple terms, it means that not only does quality count, quality in every aspect of selling and delivering the product counts. Every aspect. When a hair stylist cuts your hair, she knows you're potentially going to comb it differently, use a different  or no conditioner, sleep on it or wear a hat over it, maybe even do a little home trimming or barbering, and mess up a good thing in who knows what ways--but she makes sure you see that it looks like a million dollars, and know that you can come back for a fix-up if needed--before you pay the bill. That final glance in the mirror is part of the product satisfaction that sends you home humming and feeling that just-got-a-haircut glow. Why? It's part of what you paid for! So was the music that played over the sound system. So was the barber chair you sat in. So was polished mirror you looked at yourself in.

In his article "Quality is Fractal" for the blog RAMENwriter Des Traynor illustrates the point with a quote from arrogant, hotheaded, foul-mouthed television chef and hugely successful businessman Gordon Ramsay's autobiography, Humble Pie:

"It doesn't matter how amazing the steak is, if it's served on a cold plate it's crap. If it's served with a dull knife it's crap. If the gravy isn't piping hot, it's crap. if you're eating it on an uncomfortable chair, it's crap. If it's served by an ugly waiter who just came in from a smoke break, it's crap. Because I care about the steak, I have to care about everything around it."

John Lennon and Paul McCartney, plus George Harrison and Ringo Starr, knew this principle. Everything between their lips and your ears counted. Everything. With a recording technology that was prehistoric by today's standards, and recording engineer George Martin (my candidate for the the title of Fifth Beatle), these four working-class heroes from Liverpool, England, started from scratch after they had disbanded as a recording and performing entity, and became astute businessmen. Led by the sure hand of Paul McCartney since 1980, the fractal quality they had insisted on as recording artists has been brought to bear on their mutual business practices in the form of Apple Corps Ltd., and the wealth they have accumulated is legendary.

Quality in A Small Business


As small business owners, I know and you know that quality counts even more for a small business. How much more?

I've watched  a fair number of episodes of Gordon Ramsay's television show, Kitchen Nightmares. If I were a restaurant owner, I don't imagine I would be too thrilled to see him come through the front door of my business on that first day. But I would get over it. Why? He has only one acceptable standard: perfect. Perfect. If he adhered to his usual routine, he would first sit down and order a meal, making his selections based on the advice of the waitress or waiter... he might taste something that was to his liking, but more than likely he wouldn't.

Then he would go back to the kitchen, and 9 out of 10 times he would immediately order every single cook or chef, sous chef, saucier and dishwasher to scrub down all the pots and pans, grills, ovens, refrigerators, vents, drains, walls and floors, until the place was sparkling clean.  

And if he was in the mood, he'd roll up his sleeves and pitch in and probably out-work everyone.

What Color (or Shape or Quality) is Your Fractal?

The online Oxford dictionary defines fractal as "A curve or pattern that includes a smaller curve or pattern which has exactly the same shape," and also as "A curve or geometric figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole."

What does this have to running a small business?  

Whatever your product or service is, it is composed of smaller sub-products or sub-services (fractals) that form the final sellable or exchangeable product or service when all are added up and considered as a whole.

When the Beatles famous White Album was released in November of 1968, they didn't just release it, they presented it. Thirty finely crafted musical performances, delivered as a double LP in a stark white gatefold album with only two words printed on the front: "The BEATLES". In an age of psychedelic complexities and ornate Fillmore West-inspired op art design, it stood out in startling contrast. On the inside, in addition to two vinyl disks containing some of the finest music they had ever recorded, were both a poster and four 5"x7" color prints with portraits of each of the four lads. The quality of the packaging was the most stunning anyone had ever seen.  

What a set of fractals!

Each company and each product has its own particular set of fractals. Certainly, they are similar in a general way. But the object of this discussion is how to address your particular set of concerns. Your fractals are unique, different from anyone else's.

Everywhere from Facebook to the cover of Forbes, you've seen the ubiquitous list of the ten or twelve or nineteen habits of successful people. Every so often you get pulled into reading one of them, only to discover that you know them all. 

Rarely, you will see something on one of these lists that you never thought of.

Rarest of all, you might find what is really valuable: a specific habit for a specific field from a specific person. Instead of reading that successful people like to read in bed just before switching off the light and hitting the hay, you read that a famous author likes to a read a Louis L'Amour novel before bed.

You might read that John Coltrane, perhaps the most innovative and radically creative jazz saxophonist of the modern era (since WWII), practiced his scales and did his exercises for hours every day.

Or you might read that back in the 1980s-1990s when Michael Jordan was leading the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships with an astonishing .835 free throw percentage, he would go down to the snow-covered stadium hours before anyone else arrived, and practice his free throws before the building was even heated. 

Or that Larry Bird's lifetime .886 free throw percentage came from practicing his free throws 365 days each year, at the stadium or in his home's driveway when the team was in town, even if he had to shovel snow off of it. 

Or that Billy Crystal has always done one hundred sit-ups backstage in preparation for performing a stand-up comedy routine, one of the most stressful and physically demanding feats in show business. 

Designing Your Own Fractals for Success 

In Part 2 of this article, we are going to design a set of custom fractals, a list of component parts that you have derived from your own experience. Armed with this list, you will have a strategy for producing a perfect product for your small business.

Get out your legal pad, and sharpen your pencil. Sharpen two. Whether you are a jazz musician, a basketball player, a writer or a stand-up comic, get ready!

We're going to make you a list of Happy and Prosperous New Year's Wishes that are going to materialize as New Year's Successes in 2016.

Stay tuned!  

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Night of the Living Dead: Dark Tales of the Black Forest, Part 4



by Carl L. Hager


Is it possible?

Seven years later and all we have to show for the return of Return to Forever, the once and future kings of jazz/rock--that mighty musical organization whose infinite musical influence Sting referred to as "scorched earth" for the way they set such a star-high standard for jazz, for rock, forever--is...nothing. The kings have still not reappeared.

Return to Forever, when last seen on our fair planet Earth, had completed a world tour and capped it off with an announcement that a DVD/CD, compiled from their live performances, was imminent. Then nothing happened.

Nothing continued to happen. Being privy to some of the machinations and inner tickings and tockings of that organization, I wrote this, on October 31, 2008: http://jazzjazzersjazzing.blogspot.com/2008/10/dark-tales-from-black-forest.html

As Jon Gruber (@gruber) would say, a little bird had told me, chirpped it into my ear, that something was not right in the Black Forest of Big Music.

The king was dead.

More correctly, the kings were dead. Well, not dead exactly. Otherwise occupied probably says it. They've moved on. Saying they are dead would imply that kingmaker Chick Corea and his co-kingmaker, bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist and tintinnabulist Al Di Meola, and keeper-of-the-time Lenny White, were the walking dead. That would be unfair.

It would also be unfair, and inaccurate as well, to say that no DVD was ever issued. Claude Nobs, founder and organizer of the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival, has been filming or video-ing selected performances since first mounting his festival in 1967, and has documented some of the greats. There is nothing wrong with those recordings. But the performances can be uneven, and tend to be staged-looking and unimaginatively recorded. In some ways they are intended more as historical recordings than entertainment. The performance Nobs captured of the reunited Return to Forever band falls in that category for me. Even though the band tried to rev up the crowd at the end and get some excitement going, it wasn't meant to be. None of the band looks comfortable. The brewing problems with Al Di Meola, which ironed out a lot as he and the others did additional performances of the new arrangements, is evident in the tentativeness on some tunes. I saw the Montreux DVD once and had no interest in seeing it again.

So let's get real. There's been no DVD released that shows the incredible magic of what these guys were doing that summer of 2008. To do the tour justice would have required investing lots of time and energy, not to mention expense. Professional camera work at multiple locations and venues to ensure a wide selection of useable performances, plus good-quality sound and video editing in post-production, would have required a dedicated effort. And I can attest that it would have been worth every dime and minute. I saw and heard music performed that is beyond anything I'd imagined I would hear--and I was very familiar with their recorded output. This was an opportunity to record what ultimately was the last meeting of these four players, a band who were among the pioneers spawned by Miles Davis's Bitches Brew sessions. They, along with Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter in Weather Report, John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tony Williams's Lifetime and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, revolutionized jazz. To say that the token effort in documenting their tour was disappointing doesn't begin to express it.

Do you know what is, hands down and far and away, the all-time, most-read item on this blog, ever? The story I published stating that the DVD was coming. For the last seven years, music fans have been searching for clues all up and down the block. People from here in the U.S. and Japan, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, England, France, Germany, Latvia, Brazil, Norway, Sweden, Chile, China (yes, I'm allowed through the firewall there) and scores of other jazz-friendly countries, have been the real living dead. Well not really, because to say that would be unfair. But all of them have made their pilgrimages and come to my blog in search of news of Return to Forever's DVD. And found nothing.

Well, here's the bad news. There is no band called Return to Forever any more. If you want to know why:

1) Read or re-read the linked article cited above, "Dark Tales of the Black Forest." That gives you your first clue.

2) Ask yourself who or what could make any of this happen. Who or what would want to make it happen? Who (okay, let's skip the "or what"... "whats" don't stop anything, "whos" do) would consider his/her/its issues with self-importance to be so overwhelming that it meant leaving Return to Forever to pass into the dark black forest of Time, there to die like highlanders twisting from a garrotte's rope in the cold wind, and in the process deny all those beautiful fans of their combustible confluence of jazz and rock?

Who, indeed.

Once you have worked that out, you can fairly dismiss the real walking dead, the lawyers. They take their pounds of flesh and eat it like caviar. They're not only incapable of killing the music, they need it and come back for more. You can also dismiss the shiftless politicians the world over who repeatedly make laws that favor those lawyers, being lawyers themselves. All the insane laws that have been designed and re-designed to make it possible for the corporate hellhounds at the Big Three/Four (new math)--Universal Music Group/Sony BMG/EMI Group (recording), Sony/ATV (publishing), and Warner Music Group--to rip off all the recording artists, are actually not materially different than they ever were, no matter how they are litigated, reinterpreted and reworded. With very few exceptions, their aim has always been to enrich those companies at the expense of the recording artists, going all the way back to Edison and RCA and the others.

What changed is the world itself.

That's the badder news. Thanks to the "free" music available on YouTube and Spotify and Pandora, you and I have stopped supporting our favorite artists by not buying their CDs/records/downloads. Worse than that, we are unwittingly aiding and abetting piracy. YouTube's policy is to remove illegal posts only when they receive a formal complaint--if the pirate poster violates the copyright and uploads it again the next day, it stays until another complaint is received. But we listeners/viewers are oblivious to all this and just keep going back for more. We have died as active participants in the marketplace, and have come back as larcenous Undead Music Fans.

We can blame the Congress of the United States for the outdated and suppressive copyright laws governing artists' rights. Why not blame them for it? We're blaming them for everything else. If that's what makes your confused little head feel better, go ahead.

But until you and I start purchasing music again, the artists' fortunes will not improve.

Remember the movie Galaxy Quest? Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman and one of the finest science fiction scripts ever?

One of the finest science fiction scripts ever? How can you say that, Carl?

Here's how. A band of badly misinformed aliens convince a bunch of cynical, coddled Hollywood actors that the silly little show Galaxy Quest has been the spiritual raison d'etre that has kept their alien race believing in themselves and moving forward. And in the process, they give the actors of Galaxy Quest a reason to live again themselves. Simple plot. It's the history of every religion and every civilization since the beginning of time. We can come back to this later, and I'll fill you in on the secret of life.

In the meantime, for anyone not following along, here's the deal. Return to Forever can be brought back from the dead. No distraught guitarist jumping off the edge of the world could ever stop it. No lawyer could sue or counter-sue often enough and fast enough to delay it. No record company could fail to distribute and promote a record so long that they could keep it from happening.

As Galaxy Quest's Captain James Nesmith (Tim Allen) said, with conviction and before it was too late, "Never give up. Never surrender."

So what the hell is it that hundreds of millions of guilty non-consuming music fans can ever do about it? How can the contrite walking dead breathe a breath of fresh air and start eating apple pie a la mode and stop consuming the flesh of their own musical heroes?

Buy or download a recording of your favorite artist today! Listen to it tonight as you distribute sugary little snacks for the trick-or-treaters!

Never give up! Never surrender!