Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Government Oversight, A Defense of Government and No End to Religious Strife

Does anyone seriously believe Takata Corp. executives were ignorant of the truth that far from saving lives their airbags posed a mortal risk to drivers and passengers? When was the last time a company voluntarily admitted its output could injure or kill people? Or steal their money? That’s why we need the alphabet soup of government organizations: OSHA, FTC, FDA, EPA, NLRB, ATF, EEOC and so on.

Takata, as with General Motors and its malfunctioning ignition key switch, is the poster-company reason we need government oversight of business. Otherwise, companies would merely follow actuarial tables and determine it is cheaper to pay a few death or injury claims than fix a dangerous flaw in their product. Just look at Honda, long considered one of the gold-standard companies in the auto industry. As revealed Monday, for more than a decade Honda underreported deaths linked to possible defects in its vehicles (

To those who opine that President Obama’s unilateral action on immigration has poisoned his relationship with Congress, I ask, “Were you awake or comatose during the last six years? Did you not observe how obstructionist Republicans have been to all of his initiatives? Did you not witness their unrestrained enthusiasm to repeal Obamacare? When they talk of a mandate from the 2014 elections don’t you stop to wonder why they did not accept the mandates of 2008 and 2012?”

No, Obama was not acting as an emperor. He was merely, after six years, acting as a realist. 

The real tragedy in this political pas de deux is that it has painfully revealed how pitiful Democrats are compared to Republicans in framing national debates. Instead of hammering away at positive results in such areas as health care, minimum wage, income inequality, immigration, alternative energy, gun control, unemployment, economic recovery, inflation control and lowering of the national debt, Dems have had to defend (poorly, I might add) GOP lies and distortions that have poisoned political dialogue.

Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi might be good politicos and legislators but they lack dynamic speaking personas. Democrats need more combative, yes combative, spokespeople to carry the good fight to the public. Democrats must learn to control the debate, not react to it. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but they need more outspoken leaders like Sen. Charles Schumer. In a speech to the National Press Club Tuesday, New York’s senior senator argued Democrats need to more vigorously defend the role of government ( 

The horrific murders inside a synagogue in Jerusalem last week are all the more repugnant because they reinforced stereotypical behavior that Muslims do not respect other religions, not even that practiced by different Islamic sects. It is no more or less abhorrent that repeated attacks on mosques and funerals by competing Islamic sects.

Truth is, Western religions (Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy) went through their own sectarian purges as they evolved into their present formats. So it’s not unique to the Muslim world that Shia kill Sunni, and Sunni kill Shia. Nor is it unique that they kill them during times of congregation inside religious buildings. 

Twenty-first century sensibilities are affronted by the Dark Ages values of Islamic militants, be they ISIS, Boko Haram or any other group that claims it is acting in the name of Allah or his prophet. I hate to be a Debbie-Downer, but we are destined to live with these extreme militants for the foreseeable future, and beyond, as it is impossible to totally eradicate individual or collective irrational behavior. Fanatics do not listen to reason. They are crazy with their own perceptions and ideas. We can only hope that saner minds within the Muslim community help us limit the evil the extremists hope to wreak on the rest of humanity.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanksgiving Need Not Be a Celebration of Consumerism

Just two more days until we “celebrate” the most repressive, exploitive, selfish holiday of the year. Yes, I’m talking about Thanksgiving. What was intended to be a commemoration of our national heritage and good fortune to reside in the country most people in the world aspire to live in has turned into a day of consumerism, a day when the retail industry chooses sales over family, when shoppers display crass, even criminal, behavior to snag trinkets and big ticket items before other desperate souls can get their grubby hands on the goods.

My antipathy toward the commercialization of Thanksgiving is long-standing. I railed against holiday store hours while publishing a retail industry magazine. I reasoned it was an anti-family imposition on retail workers and infused meanness and frenzy to shopping that consumers really need not endure. 

Perhaps you saw the article in The New York Times 10 days ago, “Spending Thanksgiving, Retail Stores Are Facing Off Over Closing or Opening On the Holiday” ({%221%22%3A%22RI%3A10%22}&_r=0). Apparently, more retailers are coming around to my way of thinking. But the curve is a long one.

Consider the comments from Dan Evans, a spokesman for Nordstrom, a company that stays closed on Thanksgiving. He told The Times, “If our customers really wanted us to open on Thanksgiving, that’s what we’ll do. We used to be closed on the Fourth of July. We used to be closed on New Year’s Day, but customers wanted us to be open on those days, so now we’re open on those days. Our customers guide us. We don’t guide them.”

That last sentence says a lot about leadership in this country and our collective mores. Instead of setting a values standard, corporate America is willing to cede responsibility to a vocal group that, like the Queen song, screams, “I want it now, I want it all.” And I don’t give a damn how it inconveniences your workers. 

At the end of the day, is it really worth fighting over a few doorbusters at the expense of your dignity and the ability of mostly underpaid retail workers to spend quality time with their families? 

Enjoy your turkey. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

My Inner Lumberjack, SleepIQ and Does Hollywood Think the Bible Is a True Story?

You probably wouldn’t assume it by looking at me but I have a streak of lumberjack in me. It’s not just the flannel and chamois shirts I favor once the air becomes nippy.

My constant gardener, aka Gilda, loves her compost and mulch, resulting in many an afternoon spent by yours truly collecting fallen leaves to be pulverized in my Sears Craftsman Leafwacker Plus. One day last week after chopping up 15 bags of leaves I filled another 18 black, 40-gallon Hefty bags with the discards from maple and oak trees. I shredded those leaves this afternoon. 

A few years ago I bought the Leafwacker from a Craig’s List poster in New Jersey for $25 and have enjoyed the annual autumn ritual of mulching leaves. It’s a lot less laborious than my two decades-ago lumberjack toil of collecting, chainsawing, chopping and stacking tree limbs culled from the roadside for our wood-burning stove.

Anyway, there’s a back-to-nature type of pleasure I get from this exercise, which almost got stopped in its tracks this year. Shortly after starting last week, the Leafwacker ground to a halt. I thought it might have shorted out on the foil wrapper of a Twix bar that had infiltrated the leaves. I took the machine to the Sears repair shop. They said it would cost some $125 with no guarantee they could fix it. 

I passed on that “reassuring” estimate and turned to Google. Sure enough, there were several posts about sudden stoppages of a Leafwacker, including one suggestion to hit the reset button on the bottom of the inverted machine. Who knew there was a reset button? Again sure enough, the Leafwacker sprung back to life. A short while later the mulcher stopped again in mid-stream but this time I knew what to do. Hooray for technology. 

Sleep Tight: The good people who sold us our Sleep Number bed called over the weekend to ask how we’ve been slumbering and to suggest a technology add-on. With SleepIQ, we’d be able to monitor things like how many times we got up in the middle of the night, how often we tossed and turned, our heart rate and breathing rate, and how our diet affected our sleep. All this for $499.

I respectfully declined, though I would have liked to find out how SleepIQ distinguishes normal tossing and turning from the bodily movements of two people making love. 

Here’s another question I’d like the answer to—when Gilda and I recently went to the movies, we saw a preview for "50 to 1," what was said to be “based on the true story of horse racing legend Mine That Bird.”

Okay, lots of pictures these days originate from “true” stories. The next preview was for “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” It did not say the movie was based on a true story. I’m guessing the producers did not want to take sides on whether the Bible was fact- or myth-based, but I’d like to know their reasoning. 

Spoiler Alert: The movie we saw was “Gone Girl,” which contained one of the best puns I’ve heard recently. It concerned Amy Dunne who masquerades her own disappearance and possible murder. In describing missing person Amy, a TV personality said she “forged a successful career in journalism.” As the British say, brilliant.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans Day Commemorations, Good and Bad

They picked up our garbage today as they normally do on Tuesdays. Last Tuesday they didn’t. It was Election Day. An homage to the right we enjoy in a democratic country to choose our leaders. 

But I am more than a little befuddled by the choice of our local government and union officials (I’m assuming the sanitation crew and the rest of the public works team are unionized) to consider November 11 as just another ordinary garbage collection day. The day we have designated to honor those who fought on our behalf to preserve the right to vote freely and live in freedom should not be a throwaway day. Veterans fought to preserve the rights of workers to unionize. How could any union, or for that matter non-union, worker not honor their sacrifice? 

Garbage collection is suspended 10 days of the year. Memorial Day, when we remember those who died in defense of our country, is one of them. So is Columbus Day. Given all we now know about the impact discovery of the New World by Europeans had on indigenous populations, perhaps we might want to rethink our commitment to the Great Admiral and instead rededicate our devotion to those who served and protected our freedom and way of life by giving Veterans Day its proper respect. 

Despite being of the optimal age for service during the Vietnam War, I am not a veteran. I earned a deferment for being underweight for my height (for details. Follow this link:

I thought I’d share with you a recent post on the Web site about who served in the Vietnam War:

The first American casualty of the Vietnam War was killed during a training mission on October 21 in 1957. Of the 58,193 Americans in the military who died in that war, only 269 were Jewish. Jews were protesting instead of fighting: In 1964, they were twice as likely as Protestants and Catholics to favor a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam; by 1970, when a majority of Protestants and Catholics still favored fighting or even escalating the war, half of American Jews favored an immediate pullout. A 1966-67 survey by the American Council of Education revealed that the best single predictor of anti-war campus protests was a high proportion of Jewish students.

Have you seen the new Air Force TV commercial? It’s a slap in the face of Barack Obama. The ad features inspirational quotes from four presidents: Reagan, Kennedy, Bush II and Clinton. Not a word from, or even an image of, Obama. Shameful! I’ll resist detailing why each of those presidents had tarnished times as commander-in-chief. Like it or not, Obama has been a wartime president. He should have been included in that ad. 

Speaking of shameful, what’s with all the recent Nazi memorabilia stories? In the last six weeks three tasteless Nazi-related stories surfaced:

First, a supplier to Sears and Amazon placed on their Web sites rings bearing the Nazi swastika. Though quickly removed, it was a stunning example of poor taste topped by the second example, that of a Swiss company that somehow felt it appropriate to put pictures of Hitler and Mussolini on packages of its coffee creamer. 

The third incident is more sinister. Unknown parties earlier this month stole a sign above the gate to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. The sign bore the infamous slogan, “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free), that the Nazis placed in their forced labor and death camps. 

It’s a chilling reminder that reactionary forces are on the rise in Europe, again.

One year before the guns of the Great War went silent at 11 am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 my mother was born in Lodg, Poland. With two sisters (a third would be born in America) and a brother, she traveled to New York in 1921 with their mother to join their father who had emigrated earlier. She would be 97 if alive today.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Recalling History at the Berlin Wall

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the breach in the Berlin Wall, when East Germans streamed across the unnatural divide that kept them apart from West Berliners. It would be another three months before the Wall was torn down with a little, read that miniscule, assist by yours truly. I’ve reprinted my chiseling exploits from a blog posting five years ago. 


Chipping Away at History 

Today marks the official twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the climactic events of the last century.

I wasn’t present when East Germany relaxed the rules on border crossings on Nov. 9, 1989. East and West Berliners rushed to the Wall, climbing atop the 12-foot high barrier to celebrate. But I did make a side trip to Berlin on February 16, 1990, just three days before the section of the Wall near the Brandenburg Gate was to be torn down.

I had been attending a conference in Dusseldorf, inside Germany’s western border. It was a no-brainer to make a quick, one-day jaunt to Berlin and back, to be able to walk through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin, to say, “I was there.”

I knew in advance people were chipping away at the Wall, so I stopped at a Woolworth store in Berlin to buy a small chisel and standard-sized hammer. When I arrived at the Wall that rainy and snowy day, I discovered how pitiful my purchases were to the task at hand. The reinforced concrete gave no quarter. You couldn’t even classify as pebbles the pieces I managed to dislodge.

Standing next to me was a man with a huge sledgehammer and 30-inch chisel. He was breaking off softball-size or larger chunks. He took pity on me and offered me his tools. As I remember it today, my new efforts were hardly more rewarding. He took pity on me once more, and gave the Wall a few choice whacks for me. I left Berlin with a bagful of souvenirs, most of which I gave away to family, friends and colleagues at work. I kept the two largest pieces, one to display in our living room, the other to be mounted on a plaque and hung in my office.

For the April 1990 issue of Chain Store Age, I wrote a column about my exploits, aptly titled, “Chipping Away at History.” Berlin today is a vibrant city, unified and culturally important. It’s hard to reconcile the Berlin of today with what I saw 20 years ago. But all I have to do is pick up the piece of the Wall in my living room to recall the divisions of an earlier era. And recall that I was there when at least part of it ended.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Supreme Court May Well Decide Next President. Again

History may be poised to repeat itself. For the second time in the last five presidential elections, the U.S. Supreme Court may well decide who will sit in the Oval Office.

The Court has accepted for review another challenge to the Affordable Care Act. The question before it—does the law permit federal government subsidies to the needy in states that do not have their own health exchange programs. In those states the federal government has stepped in to provide subsidies (

If the Supremes declare the subsidies to be illegal, Obamacare may tumble down from lack of sufficient funding. It also would mean millions would lose health care coverage. It’s pretty certain the four justices who voted against Obamacare two years ago would do so again, meaning Chief Justice John Roberts would be the deciding judge. Again.

If Roberts blocks the subsidies and the ACA ultimately succumbs to a Republican-led attack, universal health care once more would become a key campaign issue in 2016. As they have championed it for decades, Democrats, most prominently their presidential candidate, would benefit from such an outcome. 

Given a June 2015 court decision, Republicans would have just over a year to forge an acceptable alternative to a law that has extended health coverage to more Americans than at any other time in our history. That’s unlikely to transpire given the venomous reaction many conservatives have to such a program.

A negative decision and Republican antipathy toward a replacement ACA might also provide incentive to voters to elect more Democrats to the Senate and even possibly return the Dems to the majority in the House. 

It’s an intriguing state of affairs. Having injected itself into state election law in Florida and chosen George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000, the Supreme Court may wind up influencing who gets elected to the White House in 2016. 

Ah, I’d love to be a fly on the wall in Democratic leadership meetings as they discuss what would be better for the party, and the country, come next June.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Election Blues with a Silver Lining

Tip O’Neill, the oversized Democratic Speaker of the House during the Reagan years, used to say, “All politics is local.” And that is as good an explanation as any as to why my blog has been mostly silent leading up to the mid-term elections. While I voted Tuesday, I can readily understand and empathize with voter apathy, disillusionment, even revulsion, to the state of politics and government in America. Even when it resulted in electing candidates who clearly identify with and promote the causes of the rich, the general population made their voices heard, that they were dissatisfied with Democrats being ensconced in governors’ chairs and the majority of the U.S. Senate. 

The politics of fear—Ebola and ISIS—trumped any benefits they saw from Obamacare, revitalized car and housing industries, lower unemployment, higher job creation. Democrats and Independents chose to sit this election out, as they often do in non-presidential years. They were aided by Republican efforts to keep voters out through restrictive election laws that required IDs and limited voting times. 

But GOP tactics might not have mattered if Democrats ran smarter campaigns. One of the first laws of politics is that a candidate must define him- or herself, otherwise the opposition would do it for you. Sadly, too many Democrats chose to distance themselves from the achievements of the Obama administration, and let’s not have any snarky comments about “what achievements.” In a nutshell, Democrats lacked a distinctive message of positive accomplishments.

Despite early sound bites that they want to lead America toward future exceptionalism, Republicans will be hard pressed to act on that lofty ideal. House Speaker John Boehner and presumptive Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will have to wield sharp party discipline swords to contain slash and burn members of their own caucuses. It is not beyond reason to postulate that on critical bills, such as raising the national debt ceiling, rogue Republicans will add unacceptable-to-the-president amendments aimed at killing ObamaCare, thus forcing repeated vetoes. Heck, in their Op-Ed piece in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal Boehner and McConnell pledged to renew efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. 

What will Republicans do on such controversial issues as global warming, reproductive rights, income inequality, immigration reform, financial markets oversight, environmental protections, court appointments? How will McConnell react to filibuster threats? 

All this will lead to two repetitively revolting years of Washington insider news but very little advancement of the country’s good and welfare. There is, however, at least one silver lining from Tuesday’s election: Have you noticed your telephone is not ringing as often with those disruptive and annoying robo calls? Except, that is, from telemarketers who continue to call during dinner time despite your number being on the federal NO Call list.