Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Have You Heard of These Taxes?

The October of the stock market crash on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, did not have to lead to the Great Depression, but it did. History tells us that Black Tuesday had help in bringing about the global financial collapse.

The facilitating, and essential, causes include loose credit and a housing collapse (especially in Florida), followed by tight credit, protectionism (especially the Smoot-Harley Tariff), and high taxes. Sound familiar?

In the immortal words of Santayana: “Those who don’t learn from the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them.”

As the economy is struggling to right itself, government at all levels is falling over itself in a rush to raise taxes. State and local governments have been in the lead, but President Obama and the large Democratic majorities in Congress are chomping at the bit.

Broad visions have large costs. Not billions, but trillions of dollars! The only three options are taxing, borrowing, or printing.

Have you hard of these taxes?

These are some of the ideas being kicked around by President Obama and the Democrats:

Bottle tax
Bonus taxes
Botux tax
Capital gains
Capping itemized deductions (a stealth increase)
Carbon tax
Dividend tax
Employer provided health benefits tax
Energy tax
Estate taxes
Fat tax (they may not call it that)
Financial transactions
Gas tax
Health insurance tax
Income earned abroad
Income tax
Insurance companies
Junk food tax
Limiting charitable deductions
Limiting mortgage deductions
Marginal tax rates
Millionaire Surtax
Oil and gas
Plastic surgery
Repealing the Bush tax cuts
Social security tax
Soda tax
Tanning tax
Tobacco tax (done that)
Value added tax
Wealth tax

Many of these are not actually intended to raise revenue. When informed that a cut in the capital gains tax resulted in increased tax revenues, Senator Obama responded that “it is a matter of fairness.”

When asked recently what he thought a fair tax rate would be, he responded that the top marginal rate in the Clinton Administration “struck the right balance.” That was 39.6%. When you throw in the tax rates of some states and cities, like New York, and limit deductions, the top marginal tax rate becomes 60%. At that point, the government runs out of millionaires to tax.

The issue with fairness is simply that to make everyone fair and equal you must drive the achievers to the bottom, because only at the economic bottom can everyone be equal. The effect would be, of course, to impoverish everyone, except as in Animal House, a few privileged ones. “All animals are equal, but some are more equal,” such as members of Congress who get to keep their gold-plated plans.

The power to tax is the power to destroy, and the power to tax is the power to equalize.
Some taxes are more destructive of capital formation than other. Capital gains and dividend taxes can crush capital.

All taxes though will suck discretionary spending out of the hands of consumers, and let government decide the winners and losers in society. Bear Stearns was saved, but Lehman Brothers tossed into the gutter. The UAW was bailed out but bondholders, especially at Chrysler, tossed into the gutter.

Monday, July 20, 2009

You're Love ObamaCare If ...

If you like the waiting lines at emergency and trauma rooms, then you’ll love ObamaCare

If you like HMO/PPO gatekeepers, you’ll love ObamaCare

If you believe Congress can suspend the basic laws of supply and demand, you’ll love ObamaCare

If you’re not bothered by the recent electrical and gas shortages, you’ll love ObamaCare

If you believe that we can add 42 million Americans and immigrants to the demand for medical care, while shrinking the supply of providers, you’ll love ObamaCare

If you believe that monopolies lead to economic success, efficiency, great service, innovation, and lower costs, you'll love ObamaCare

If you like the medical care at VA hospitals, you’ll love ObamaCare

If you believe that government can bring competition to a competitive, but highly regulated, health insurance industry, you’ll love ObamaCare

If you like that Medicare is running out of money, you’ll love ObamaCare

If you believe that we can lower the cost of medical care without controlling the drivers of escalating costs, then you will love ObamaCare

If you believe that squeezing doctors, hospitals, and pharma will improve the quality of medical care, you will love ObamaCare

If you’re not bothered by the increasing shortage in primary care providers, general surgeons, and other specialties, you’ll love ObamaCare

If you don't like medical savings accounts, then ObamaCare is for you

If you like the increasing lack of competition in vaccines, you’ll love ObamaCare

If you don’t want health care innovations and new pharmaceuticals, then you’ll love ObamaCare

If you like the rationing for organ transplants, you’ll love ObamaCare

If you believe trial lawyers should continue to drive up the cost of health care, then you’ll love ObamaCare

If you like the rampant fraud in Medicaid, you'll love ObamaCare

If you like the nationalized health care in Canada and England, you will love ObamaCare

If you ignore Tennessee’s failure a few years ago with universal health care, you’ll love ObamaCare

If you ignore Hawaii's failed seven month experiment with universal health care for children, you'll love ObamaCare

If you ignore Massachusetts’ unfolding failure with universal health care, you’ll love ObamaCare

If you ignore why a willing governor and a willing legislature pulled the plug last year on a proposed universal health care bill in California, you’ll love ObamaCare

If you don’t want to curb the mandates which substantially raise the cost of health insurance, you’ll love ObamaCare

If you believe that substantial cost savings can be achieved through limiting care to the elderly and terminally ill, then you’ll love ObamaCare

If you agree with Governor Dick Lamm that "We've got a duty to die and get out of the way with all of our machines and artificial hearts and evrything else like that and let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life," you'll love ObamaCare

If you love Kafka and bureaucracy, you’ll love ObamaCare

If you don’t believe in freedom of choice, you’ll love ObamaCare

If you believe in the Tooth Fairy, you deserve ObamaCare

Sunday, July 19, 2009

POTUS Needs a TOTUS Tsar

President Obama has been experiencing reliability problems with his teleprompter. While delivering a speech on his non-stimulus Stimulus Bill, TOTUS fell over, crashed to the floor, and shattered in pieces. How symbolic!

POTUS has appointed a horde of tsars for almost everything, but he needs one for the TOTUS. The TOTUS is chronically unreliable, leaving POTUS verbally naked.

President Obama is a gifted orator, but he is speechless without his teleprompter. POTUS without his TOTUS sometimes sounds like a Doofus. He becomes a collection of “ahs” and “uhs” and “ohs”. On one occasion he ad libbed a tasteless remark. He taped a segment on Jay Leno’s show, and commented that he had improved his bowling on the White House bowling alley. He said he even bowled a 129, to which Jay responded “That’s very good Mr. President.” The TOTUSless POTUS had the last word; to wit “It’s like the Special Olympics or something.”

On another occasion he was well into his remarks before the National Academy of Sciences, diligently reading from TOTUS when it finally dawned on POTUS that he was repeating himself. On St Patrick’ Day TOTUS told POTUS to thank himself for inviting himself, which POTUS dutiably did.

So far, President Obama is the POTUS with the Mostus TOTUS. SCOTUS doesn’t even use a TOTUS.

TOTUS is a clutch he cannot do without. In essence he is addicted to it. Attempts to wean him from the teleprompter last year failed.

POTUS has made a bargain with Faustus over TOTUS.

Mass rallies, small appearances, country fairs, even his opening remarks at a press conference, have to be read from TOTUS. He cannot leave home without it. Too bad the great actor Karl Malden just passed away. He could have taped an ad for TOTUS’ manufacturer: “TOTUS: Don’t leave home without it.”

At press conferences, he even maps out the order of questions by reporters, and at a recent press conference, the second question went to a blogger whose question had been planted by the White House.

Had President George W. Bush experienced any of these gaffes or practices, the media would have excoriated him. Pretty soon, they will start saying “That’s just Obama.”

By way of comparison, Governor Palin’s electrifying convention speech was not disrupted when her teleprompter malfunctioned. Her delivery was flawless even if the teleprompter was not. Similarly, President Sextus Clinton was delivering a speech once when his teleprompter failed. He didn’t miss a beat, delivering the rest of his speech from memory.

At some point the public will realize that no matter how soaring the President’s speeches are, he is not eye balling the people when he talks to them. His eyes are simply flickering between the twin TOTUS’ and talking at the public – not to them. Eye contact with TOTUS is not eye contact by POTUS with the people.

Even Vice president Biden, who should glue himself to a teleprompter, got into the act. One of his two teleprompters fell over during heavy winds at the Air Force Academy graduation. Biden quipped: “What am I going to tell the president when I tell him his TelePrompTer is broken. What will he do then?”

POTUS needs a tsar to ride rein on TOTUS. If a tsar can deliver GM and Chrysler from the jaws of bankruptcy, then clearly a tsar can control a simple mechanical device.

President Obama has appointed a host of tsars and tsarinas so far – somewhere between 19 and 39 – it’s hard to count, since some are not formally labeled as tsars, and most tsars do not have to be confirmed by Congress. We do know that President Obama has appointed more tsars than tax cheats to his cabinet.

We have an Afghanistan-Pakistan, AIDs, bailout pay, bank bailout, border, cybersecurity, Darfur, domestic violence, energy and environment, faith based, Gitmo closure, green jobs, health reform, infotech, intelligence, Iran, Middle East, millennium bug, non-proliferation, regulatory, stimulus accountability, TARP, terrorism, trade, and urban tsars, but no TOTUS tsar.

Not all tsars are successful. For example, we now have the sixth drug tsar in the War Against Drugs. His predecessors were as successful as many of the Russian tsars. Nicholas II was, of course, executed with his family by the Bolsheviks on July 17, 1918. His grandfather, Alexander II, survived four previous attempts on his life, but was assassinated on March 13, 1881. Paul I was assassinated on March 23, 1801.

Peter III was assassinated in prison by guards, who may or may not have been acting on the behest of his non-Russian wife, Catherine the Great.

Ivan VI was also killed in prison, but only after 20 years of imprisonment. Peter the Great had his oldest son, and successor, Alexei imprisoned and killed.

Nicholas I is suspected of having committed suicide.

The fate of the Russian tsars is not a good omen for Obama’s tsars. The President has already in just six months lost two tsars. Former Senator Tom Daschle withdrew as health tsar because of tax issues and Steven Rattner, the car tsar, has just resigned, perhaps because of his involvement in a pay to play scandal in New York.

President Obama’s biggest challenge is not Afghanistan, Blue Dog Democrats, deficits, Detroit, the economy, global climate change, healthcare, Iran, Iraq, Limbaugh, Republicans, Sotomayor, stimulus, Tarp, terrorism, or Gitmo. It’s communications; without his ability to communicate, he succeeds at nothing.

He needs a TOTUS tsar. Caesar was betrayed by his close friend Brutus. POTUS runs the same risk with TOTUS.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

We Got Our $4.03 Warrant/IOU From the State of California

An envelope came in the mail yesterday from John Chiang, Comptroller of California.

What now? We paid our taxes. We paid the $4.03 the State claimed. They even cashed the check, so what now?

It was a warrant for $4.03 payable whenever by California – the same $4.03 they claimed we owed the State. California didn’t want our money!

Let’s back up. We sent in our California tax return on April 15 with a check to cover the taxes due, which exceeded withholding.

About two months later, California sent a deficiency notice, claiming we owed $39.89 in penalties for under payments during the year.

No problem. I wrote out a check, but misread the “.89” for “.87” and sent in a check for $39.87 a week before the deadline. The check wasn’t immediately cashed, so we received last month a new deficiency notice from the State, claiming an additional $.10 in interest.

How much did that notice claiming an additional ten cents cost the State’s computers to print and mail?

The original check cleared, and upon viewing the cancelled checks (Yes, I still like cancelled checks), it was clear that someone at the Franchise Tax Board (interesting name for the tax collectors) had keyed it as $35.87.

I thereupon phoned the Franchise Tax Board, waited patiently 20 minutes to speak to a representative, and then politely explained to the agent that far from complaining, if she could tell me how much I still owed the State, we’ll immediately send a check. She was very nice and said $4.03, whereupon I sent the check.

The State was thereby only claiming a penny in interest rather than the full dime - a 90% savings to us. I didn't even need to consult one of those tax lawyers, who advertise, to cut the claim by 90%.

Now we have a warrant for $4.03, which my bank won’t accept. Even WalMart isn't advertising that it will accept the warrants of the great State of califonria.

It probably cost the State more than $4.03 to process and mail.

I’m scared of what next month’s mail may bring as a deficiency notice, but the United States Postal Service also needs the business.

What to do? What to do?

Third parties are offering to buy up the warrants for anywhere from 10-95% of face value, redeem them when the State has money, and also collect interest on them, just like speculators in continental currency and state debts at the end of The Revolutionary War. California could use an Alexander Hamilton around now, but his is only a ten dollar bill.

10% of $4.03 doesn’t even cover the cost of a first cent stamp.

What’s $4.03 compared to the other 130,000 warrants issued to date, totaling $436 million?

What’s $4.03 compared to the almost $2.9 billion the State expects to issue by the end of July?

$4.03 is nothing to the state "vendors", the small merchants and the publicly funded social services agencies, who will have to cut back, lay off employees, and perhaps discontinue operations because the State has essentially stiffed them.

California is clearly broke, but not because of our $4.03, but it is symbolic of the mess California is in.

Maybe I’ll frame the warrant. It might be valuable as a collectible some day.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Round 4 of the Ward Churchill - University of Colorado Heavyweight Match Goes to the University

Round 1 of the title match went to Churchill by default. His 2001 intemperate remarks about the 9/11 victims, labeling them as “Little Eichmann’s” did not surface until 2005.

Round 2 was the University’s response, resulting in his termination as a tenured professor at Colorado after the University extended him extensive due process in 2007.

Round 3 occurred last April when a Denver jury ruled in his favor, awarding him $1 in nominal damages. The trial itself bloodied both sides in the public eye. Reputations were damaged.

Round 4 was decided last Tuesday when Colorado District Judge Larry J. Naves overturned the jury verdict and denied Churchill’s motion for reinstatement.

At least two more rounds in state courts and up to three in federal courts remain as neither side is willing to concede. Churchill has stated he will “continue to deal with it until the day” he “drops.” Rumors are that negotiations had broken done in the past over the amount of a settlement.

This match could go the distance.

Ward Churchill is an academic fraud. He was unqualified to be hired, promoted, tenured, or made a department chair. He lied about his ethnicity, falsely claiming to be Native American.

However, the University either knew, or reasonably should have known, all this, but consistently looked the other way. To some extent the University was hosted on its own petard when it stated Ward Churchill was not hired because of affirmative action.

Churchill’s remarks were especially untimely for the University of Colorado which was trying to dig itself out from scandals involving the athletic department/football team. The president (partially because of Churchill), chancellor, athletic director, and football coach all lost their jobs, and then Churchill brings more negative publicity to the University, an otherwise excellent university.

The University also had to concede for First Amendment purposes that Churchill was not terminated for his 9/11 statements, which are protected speech, but for academic misconduct, which should not have been a surprise to the University.

Judge Naves’ opinion is well-written and well-reasoned, but whether it is upheld through potentially 5 appeals remains to be seen.

I am not going to review it in depth, but simply point out some interesting aspects of it. First, Judge Naves held that pursuant to the $1 verdict, Churchill suffered no actual damages. He’s been off elsewhere getting paid to deliver speeches. Second, he did nothing to mitigate damages by seeking employment elsewhere.

The opinion spent little time on the underlying First Amendment issue: Was Churchill fired because of his remarks, which prompted the academic investigation?

Judge Naves believed that reinstatement would constitute an undue interference with the academic process, which is recognized by the Supreme Court as one of the essential features of a university.

Churchill’s own remarks came back to haunt him. He simply doesn’t know when to shut up. His comments about the University and the academic community would soil any attempt at a harmonious relationship.

His post verdict remarks included the University as having “degenerated to a not very glorified vo-tec, a trade school;” the University’s administration and witnesses as “the string of unprincipled liars the university called to the stand …:’ a statement “that a random group of homeless people under a bridge would be far more intellectually sound and principled than anything I’ve encountered at the university so far,” and a reference to the faculty as the “ostrich factory.”

He also filed and supported grievances against members of the committee that investigated him. He may have had the right to do so, but these petty, retaliatory acts clearly show an error in judgment.

Obviously Judge Naves found that “only a minuscule possibility that his return to the university will be amicable and productive” exists.

Ward Churchill and his supporters can blame his fall on the vast right wing conspiracy, turning Churchill into a self-proclaimed martyr. The real problem is that he cannot control his mouth. He may still snatch defeat from the jaws of first amendment victory.

For Churchill the issue is one of First Amendment and academic freedom. For the University, it’s academic integrity and faculty governance. For the state of Colorado, it’s a national embarrassment. For those of us in the Academy, it raises major questions of academic freedom and the power of tenure. For most Americans, it’s a sheer, spectator sport.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Where's Waldo? Where's Karen Bass?

Tomorrow, Friday, July 10, 2009, California’s large banks will stop accepting California’s IOU’s. The state is out of money, and the bankers see no prospect of the state solving its problems.

Leadership steps up in a crisis. A vacuum exists in the California Assembly. The Speaker of the Assembly, Karen Bass, walked out of a budget negotiation last Wednesday, June 30. She couldn’t stand the pressure. July 1 is the start of the new fiscal year. Had an agreement been reached on Wednesday, an additional $3 billion increase in the 2009-10 deficit would have been averted. Speaker Bass walked. She is AWOL, MIA, a quitter. She's earning $133,000 to walk.

Speaker Bass’s response to the pressures was to storm out of the Big 5 budget meeting within half an hour, exclaiming about the governor: “He broke it; he should fix it.”

Obviously no agreement was reached on June 30 so July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, resulted in the state issuing IOU’s because it was running out of money.

So much for leadership!

The previous Saturday, June 27, 2009 she expressed some interesting and sad comments. She was asked the question: “How do you think conservative talk radio affected the legislature’s work?”

Her answer was: “The republicans were essentially threatened and terrorized against voting for revenue. Now [some] are facing recalls. They operate under a terrorist threat. “You vote for revenue and your career is over.” I don’t know why we allow that kind of terrorism to exist. I guess it’s about free speech, but it’s extremely unfair.”

Note that the Speaker won’t even use the phrase tax increases. It’s arrogant to treat voters with such contempt. Twice in recent elections they insulted the intelligence of voters, first by camouflaging extending term limits by calling it legislative reform” and then in May by hiding tax increases as spending limits. The voters rejected both actions.

The tax increases lost in every county on May 19 in California, all 58 counties, including the City and County of San Francisco, where conservative talk radio has little impact.

On the Democrtaic side, the public employee unions are rumored to have told Democratic legislators that if they vote for certain budget cuts, they will be defeated in their next primary.

She boycotted the budget talks last Monday and today, Thursday, she flew in the afternoon from Sacramento to Los Angeles to give a live interview on NBC 4 TV. She blamed the Senate for not approving the Assembly’s budget bill.

The Assembly had spent the two weeks prior to June 30 in passing a budget which they knew was dead on arrival before the Senate and the Governor. It included $2 billion in tax increases, to wit a 9.9% oil excise tax, an increase of $1.50 in cigarette taxes, and another increase in the car tax.

Speaker Bass’ qualifications for the office are simple. Just 5 years ago, Karen Bass was in her own words, a community agitator”, also known as a community organizer. She understands as much about economics as President Obama, another community organizer.

The problem in California, as well as nationally and in most states, is that the legislators, both Democratic and Republican, have long since stopped viewing the public funds as a public trust, but instead view it as the pubic trough.

The budget agreement reached in February was essentially dead the second it was signed into law. The supposedly solved deficit was immediately $16 billion, $24 billion on June 30, and $27 billion on July 1. Her temper tantrum cost the state $3 billion.

How bad is the budget picture? Corporate income tax revenues have dropped $531 million from July 2008 through May 2009, personal income taxes $10.2 billion, and sales taxes $2 billion, while the unemployment rate has risen to 11.5%, chasing Michigan which has an excuse.

Yet, the sales tax is now 9.75% in Los Angeles, and higher in some smaller communities, the income tax is now surpassed only by Hawaii, and the car tax was doubled. High taxes often result in lower revenues, as taxpayers and businesses adjust, often voting with their feet.

Karen Bass walked out of the meeting. Businesses are walking out of the state.

The state’s manufacturing base lost 79,000 jobs from 2003 to 2007, while Minnesota, Oregon, Texas, and Washington gained 62,000 manufacturing jobs. Texas and Washington lack an income tax and Oregon a sales tax. California is now about to lose its last automobile manufacturing plant. GM is pulling out of its half of the NUMMI assembly plant in Fremont, which means Toyota is probably going to close the high cost facility. The plant employs 5,400, including 4,100 UAW workers.

High taxes, high workers compensation costs, high labor costs, entrenched bureaucracies drive businesses out of the state.

Taxpayers are fleeing the state, from millionaires on down. The state’s population is still growing, but in births and immigration.

The state is doing little to promote growth.

Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed budget cuts that are severe in their application: elimination of Cal Grants for college students; curbing growth in MediCal, and increased use of computers in lieu of pen and papers in the enrollment process; tightened enrollment procedures for food stamps and welfare; reduced services in the multi-billion dollar, and ripe for fraud, home health care program; reporting requirements for CalWorks; and changing pension benefits for new employees.

Make no mistake about it, the proposed cuts are draconian; the safety net will be shattered. The state can no longer afford its promises of a safety net, government employee salaries, pensions, and gold plated medical benefits. Absent a federal bailout, the situation will be even worse next year.

UCLA has recently run a national advertising campaign featuring its programs and distinguished alumni. One of the ads featured Speaker Bass. If the state legislature is going to cut the budget of the state institutions of higher education, then it make sense to curry favor with a powerful legislator.

Speaker Bass’ pressure is understandable. She probably feels like the hamster on the exercise wheel in the glass box. No matter how hard she runs, the wheel only goes one way – to nowhere.

Plunging revenues, opposition to tax increases by the Governor, Republican legislators, and especially the voters, declining manufacturing, fleeing businesses and tax payers, opposition to budget cuts by the public employee unions, and a plunging credit rating. lower than even Louisiana, puts her in a box she can see no exit from.

I know where Waldo is, I know where Speaker Bass came from, I’m not sure where she is, but I know she’s not going anywhere unless she thinks out of the box.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Did You Know That Michael Jackson Died?

Did You Know That Michael Jackson Died?

Of course you did; you couldn’t miss it. 12 days of media memorials and we still don’t know where he will be buried, if at all.

3,000 police officers, swat teams guarding his $25,000 gold plated casket, freeways closed to accommodate the hearse and 30 limos going the 12 miles from Forest Lawn Cemetary to Staples. The City of Angels spent an estimated $1.4 million on the 12 day Jackson Memorial, much of which went for police overtime. Every network carried the memorial yesterday. If you didn’t win the lottery to attend, you could always watch on TV, or in churches, movie theatres and hair salons. It could have been the memorial for a beloved President.

Not exactly, even President Ronald Reagan’s tightly scripted 2004 service at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley didn’t receive this much attention. Reagan had only been President of the United States, Governor of California, and President of the Screen Actors Guild, as well as a successful actor. But he never did Thriller.

Jackson's memorial was the biggest "funeral" in America since Elvis' death. It was outshown only by Princess Diana's memorial. Mother Teresa, one of the greatest humanitarians of the past half century, died on September 5, 1997. Hardly anyone noticed because Princess Di died tragically in an auto accident on August 31, 1997. Elton John even sang a song for her.

Did you know that Michael Jackson died?

How about Farrah Fawcett, the most popular pinup of all time? How about that great actor of the people, Karl Malden? Or Gale Storm, a pioneer of TV? What about Billy Mays? If only he could have sold the Jackson Memorial on DVD’s, probably coming soon courtesy of Joe Jackson. If you want real music and musicals, did anyone else notice that Harve Presnell passed away? Fed Travalena was great for impersonations and voice overs, but his was muted by Jackson. You may have seen Steve McNair, courtesy of his 20 year old girl friend, or perhaps Robert Strange McNamara, but what about Herb Klein, or Allen Klein who produced some of the great Rolling Stones and Beatles songs?

How about the deaths of 12 of our finest in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 12 days?

Michael Jackson’s death sucked the oxygen out of the air.

How about the celebrities who managed to get arrested during this period - Joyce DeWitt, Coolio, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Eddie Mekka, Nicole Bobek, and Rowdy Roddy Piper? Yes, many were past their prime, but Michael Jackson hadn’t done anything in a decade, except winning an acquittal in a pedophile trial.

I am sorry about his untimely death; I wished his upcoming revival in Europe would have been a success. He had tremendous talent, some of which was wasted, but could have redeemed much of his legacy.

Michael Jackson was not though the greatest entertainer of the past half century. He could sing, dance, and write. Sammy Davis, Jr. could do all that as well as being an accomplished musician, actor (both in movies and plays), and a comedian without personal scandal in his life, aside from being a pioneer in interracial marriages.

Michael Jackson is another celebrity who died early in life directly or indirectly from drug abuse. The list includes John Belushi, Lenny Bruce, Paul Butterfield, Kurt Cobain, John Entwistle, Brian Epstein, Chris Farley, Andy Gibb, Jimi Hendrix, Abbie Hoffman, Rich James, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger, Bruce Lee, Keith Moon, Jim Morrison, Marilyn Monroe, Gram Parsons, River Phoenix, Dana Plato, Freddie Prinze, Brad Renfro, Don Simpson, Anna Nicole Smith, and even Elvis Presley. We can also add Len Bias and Reggie Lewis to the list.

Unlike many of these celebrities, Michael was not using the drugs, as best as we know, for recreational purposes, but because he became addicted to pain killers and had trouble sleeping.

Still, he could have sought treatment.

He led a self-destructive life style, which apparently killed him at all too early an age.

While not a convicted pedophile, he certainly led a weird life style, partially explainable in that, like many a childstar, he never had a normal childhood. He was a man-child of arrested development. Sammy Davis, Jr. was also a child star, born to vaudeville parents, but he grew up fine.

Where though was all this support for Michael Jackson during the Santa Barbara trial?

We hope that his three children can grow up to lead a normal life.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Listening is the Key to Good Writing: Let the Words Sing to You

Listening is the Key to Good Writing: Let the Words Sing to You

Listen to the words as you write them.

They should speak softly to you; indeed, they will sing softly to you. They will sing a melody, a cadence, a flow. They will sing music to your ears.

A song is beauty, a mummer a warning, and gibberish an outrage.

Beethoven was deaf, but he could hear the music of his words and notes.

You don’t have to carry a tune, as long as you can hear one.

Grammar, nouns, verbs, syntax should sing to you softly.

And if they don’t sing to you, it’s poor writing.

A word must fit, a phrase should flow naturally, a sentence exists independently, and a paragraph must be thematic.

Listen to them. If the melody screams out at you, it’s bad writing. A shrill note is no note.

If there’s a cacophony of voices, you’ll never get to the chorus. Stream of consciousness is for Joyce – not you. No one actually reads him.

If there’s no melody, there’s no tune, much less theme.

Jingles are catchy, but can they carry a tune? The flow must sing also.

Play with words, but make them sing.

Unless you are writing a lullaby, think of the poor reader if listening to your own words puts you to sleep.

A monotone is no tone.

Terse or verbose, how’s the tune?

Perfect tense is not always a good tune. Listen to the flow of the words.

Music is a song; so is prose, but perhaps not prosaic prose.

Affidavits, articles, blogs, books, briefs, commentaries, comments, credos, critiques, debates, declarations, dialogues, discourse, edicts, editorials, epistles, essays, epics, eulogies, farces, harangues, letters, memos, missives, monologue, notes, oaths, odes, op-eds, opinions, plays, poems, postings, post-its, prayers, proclamations, psalms, reviews, sagas, satires, sermons, short stories, soliloquies, speeches, statements, tomes, tributes, vows, should all sing. Hear the music of their words.

Contracts, without boilerplate legalese, can sing to you, if only you will let them.

Even the most turgid treatise wants to sing to you. It’s crying to be released from its style book.

Questions and answers should have their own melodies.

Be chary of multi-syllabic words; they don’t sing well.

Yes, you can use tricks, such as alliteration, but bad alliteration does not make the words sing. You can turn a phrase, but it better be in tune. “Nattering nabobs of negativity” (not my phrase) is wonderfully alliterative but what does it mean?

A chorus, choir, barbershop quartet all sing in tune, words in tune. The Who was always in tune. The Beatles, Judy Collins, Simon & Garfunkel, Martina McBride all sing words with amazing grace.

Writing is becoming a lost art; word processing, spell check and grammar check are killing it, but it does not have to be. They are computerized tone deaf, but you are not.

You don’t have to be a great orator to write.

You don’t have to read music; just listen.

You don’t have to be a singer to compose; sing to yourself with your words.

It’s not what you know, but how you sing it.

Language, and thus writing, is a fundamental sign of civilization.

Listen and you can write.

Writing, like any other skill, is natural to a few, but for most of us it is an acquired art. Labor over the words, and they will start to sing. Listen to the melody flow.

Once you get into the flow, it won’t matter how long because it will always be short.

One final chord; listen carefully to the words before you touch the send key, or you will be out of key.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Minnesota Trumps California With Al Franken, a Comedian

California has elected two actors as Governor (Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger), but never a comedian as Senator

California has elected a semanticist (S. I. Hayakawa) as Senator, but never a comedian

California has elected a song and dance man (George Murphy) as Senator, but never a comedian

California had a press flack (Pierre Salinger), but never a comedian

California had a Senator (David Broderick) killed in a duel at Lake Merced on September 13, 1859 by former California Supreme Court Chief Justice (David Terry), but never elected a comedian, who died on his radio program, as a Senator

California has elected a university president (Hayakawa) and a university founder (Leland Stanford) as Senator, but never a comedian

Minnesota has elected a pro wrestler as Governor (James George Janos, AKA Jesse Ventura), but California can match the wrestler with the Governator, but never a comedian

California elected a stiff (Gray Davis) as Governor, but never a comedian.

California’s governors and senators hold degrees from such institutions as Berkeley, Brooklyn College, BYU, Chico State, Columbia, Duke, Hastings, McGill, Michigan, San Francisco Law School, Siena, St’ Johns, Tennessee, UCLA, USC, USF, Virginia, Whittier, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and Yale, but never from Harvard, much less a Harvard educated comedian.

Both California and Minnesota have Senators who became Vice Presidents (Nixon, Humphrey, and Mondale), and while California had a disgraced President leave office, we’ve never elected a comedian

California had Armenians and thespians, but never a comedian

California elected Austrians and Canadians, but never a comedian

California elects celebrities, but never a comedian

California elected a boxer’s son (John Tunney), but never a comedian

California had a Senator (Hayakawa) who slept through Senate sessions, but never a comedian who put listeners to sleep

The California Supreme Court has never selected the Governor or Senator, but the Minnesota Supreme Court selected a comedian

California has elected many tax increasers, but never a tax-evading comedian

Who’s laughing now?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Avoiding Being Hustled At the Taj Mahal

The lone impala, separated from his herd, grazes on the sweet grasses of the African savannah. Instinct tells him to look out for predators, but he has little chance of survival. He has to outrun the chic cheetah, elude the lions, escape the elusive leopard, and spot the band of harping hyenas, not to mention the occasional African wild dogs. The odds are not with him. The life expectancy of the lone impala is short.

Replace the lone impala with the lone traveler on the trek to the Taj Mahal in Agra. He doesn’t stand a fiscal chance against the Agra hustlers. Bring in an extra supply of rupees and your platinum card; you’ll need them.

It begins on the drive to Agra. The driver asks if you want lunch, as he pulls off into a restaurant/gift shop. I’m used to this on the island tours of the Hawaiian Islands. The driver deserves a meal and break on the arduous drive. Besides I found some beautiful gifts to bring back. Make sure you tip the guy hanging out in the restroom. He keeps it clean. He also won’t let you out without a tip.

The real hustle begins in Agra. The driver pulls into a small, private parking lot near one of the Taj’s gates. As soon as he pulls into the lot, you’re trapped like the impala surrounded by the pride of lions. A young rickshaw driver suddenly knocks on your window, and two competing rides magically appear.

You like to walk, but in 120° you accept the ride. Then a relative (they’re all related) hands you his laminated business card, and offers to serve as your guide at the Taj. If you like his services, you can pay at the end. Suddenly hats are foisted on you, to shade your balding head from the blazing sun. Rupees are consumed in the heat.

Your rickshaw driver stops and hands you over to his father, who will do the heavy peddling. And then Johnny and Raja appear selling t-shirts and booklets. Raja’s good; he has great potential as a politician. Both Johnny and Raja said to remember them as I leave the Taj. I promise them I will be back.

The guide was great navigating the entrance process and security, and very informative on his personalized tour. He warned me to keep control of my wallet as I entered the Taj itself because things can happen in crowded quarters. He speaks perfect English, but obviously has never been on the New York City subway.

The tour was great, retracing our steps in exiting. Therein lies a problem. He did not mention The Taj Mahal Museum, which I assume either includes a gift shop or unrelated private vendors. It would have been nice, especially if air conditioned.

Instead he took me to the Agra Marble shop on the way out. The ambience included two urchins spinning wheels, as if they were really producing china and marble. I bought three expensive items.

Was I hustled?


Did I know I was being hustled?


Did I overpay?


Did I know I was overpaying?


Would I do it again?

Yes, it was the Taj, and I probably will never be back.

The hustle was not over. Outside the Agra Marble Shop, my carriage/rickshaw awaited. And so did Johnny and Raja. The insistent, incessant urchins, straight out of Dickens, could not take no for an answer as they shoved t-shirts and booklets onto me, with the prices ever changing as we got closer to the parking lot. “You promised; you promised!” they exclaimed.

I promised to remember them, and if you read this posting, you will concur that I kept my promise.

Finally the road back to Delhi.

Lessons from the Taj:

1) Do not go alone;
2) Go preferably with at least one Indian who knows how to run interference.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The American Legion Wants Me

The American Legion has nominated me for membership. I am truly honored. I have the highest respect for the American Legion, VFW, and all the men and women who have served our country.

But I’m not eligible.

The nomination letters states: “Not everyone qualifies for membership. But your status as a wartime veteran entitles you to the full benefits of membership.” Enclosed was an actual certificate of membership, which I could frame and hang on the wall. I am honored. I would love to eat at the Legion Halls and drink a few beers at the VFW.

The American Legion must know something I don’t.

I’m not eligible.

I did not dodge the draft, flee to Canada, burn the American flag, or my draft card. I did not bomb ROTC buildings or draft centers. I didn’t protest in front of induction centers or overseas

I also never feared the Viet Cong, Viet Minh, Khmer Rouge, Pathet Lao, or fragging. “Terminate with extreme prejudice” is a wonderful phrase I never worried about in reality.

I’m not eligible.

Both my father and father in law were wounded in the European theatre in World War II. My best friend was killed in Vietnam, and another friend was wounded in Vietnam.

I was safely ensconced in law school in America.

All the letter asked me to do was attach a check for $25.00 and check two boxes: the branch of the service I served in (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Navy, Marines, and the Merchant Marine during World War II) and the years I served. It didn’t even request my serial number or any proof of actual service.

Simple enough, check the two boxes, attach the check, and wait. I could lie; certainly some politicians lie about their military service, but those politicos would probably lie about anything.

I have too much respect for our veterans. They placed their lives on the line in serving our great country

Admiral Jeremy Boorda was quite the American success story. He is the only sailor to have entered the Navy as an enlisted man and then rise to become the Chief of Naval Operations. He is also the first CNO not to have attended Annapolis. He enlisted in May 1956, attended OCS in 1962. He became CNO on April 23, 1994.

His American Dream ended on May 16, 1996. A media exposure was going to claim that he did not earn the two “V” for "combat valor" pins he attached to two of his ribbons. He legitimately believed he was entitled to the two V’s. If though he wasn’t, then he dishonored his fellow sailors, the Navy, the military, and all the honorable men and women who have served under our nation’s flag.

He could not live with that dishonor.

I will not dishonor any of them by claiming membership in the American Legion.

But what mailing list am I on?

I didn’t burn my draft card, I should have bronzed it. It had the most magical wording on it: 4-F.