Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Warning, Will Robinson!

That was of course the Robot's routine warning to his human master of approaching danger on the TV show Lost in Space, an icon of my youth. And this piece, even though it appears in a lightly regarded conservative rag, the Boston Herald, is receiving plenty of notice on the Internet today, since it taps into larger concerns about the radical nature of the Bush crew. After all, even the staunchest Republican has to have been unnerved a bit at how severely the U.S. dollar immediately started to fall after the election. Those who vote with their wallets around the world know this crowd, freed from ever again having to face the voters, is likely to continue to cut the country's tax base even further, leaving structural deficits in place for generations. That could potentially do to the entire country what the ill-advised Proposition 87 began doing to California when it was first passed in 1978--undercut the very underpinnings of the economy by making it impossible to raise enough taxes to cover reasonable public needs. You don't have to be an tweed-jacketed economist to understand how dangerous this all is. (And "Old Europe," as Rumsfeld the Ignorant so contemptuously labeled our historic Western European allies, is no doubt having a good laugh watching the dollar plunge against their Euro, as if people all around the world were delivering a vote of confidence for the cautious European approach over the rash, know-nothing Ugly Americans). Unfortunately, Bush has no one steady like Clinton's sidekick, Bob Rubin, to help calm Wall Street jitters. Instead, his Treasury Secretary is a bumbling former CEO of a railroad(!), who seems to have little clue that trillions of dollars can electronically slosh around the world, prompted by no less than a single ill-advised remark from his mouth. Last week, PBS' great Frontline program on Wal-Mart was an eye-opener even for those who know much of this story about the ultimate Darwinian capitalist company. That's because host Hedrick Smith, a former NYT correspondent, is especially adept at freshly reporting the human element, laying out a sprawling story in simple but powerful detail. For me, the key aha moment came when he interviewed a woman who oversees the West Coast port of Long Beach, the busiest in the U.S., about the massive imbalance between what the U.S. exports through her facility and what it imports from China. "Like a Third World country," he says, referring to the U.S. "Like a Third World country," she repeats in agreement.

Congressional Pork for the Rock Hall. But even as taxes are cut, federal spending won't be, for two major reasons. For one thing, too much of the federal budget is devoted to non-discretionary items (those things, such as Social Security benefits, which Congress is obligated by statute to pay). For another, members of Congress, emboldened by the lame duck prez, are ignoring the White House. Just today, we learn the new spending bill contains the traditional "earmark" items (those things inserted into the bill through cynical, lobbying-intensive, last-minute end runs by influential power brokers rather than through the deliberative legislative process you've read about in your myth-laden civics textbooks). One of the more outrageous bits of pork this time: $350,000 for "music education programs" at the Rock Hall, courtesy of local reps Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Steve LaTourette. That's a wise and brilliant use of scarce federal funds in the nation's poorest city, isn't it? So the spending beat goes on, even as the gush of tax money continues to wane. Wave that dollar goodbye on its way down the drain...

Hitting the Moviehouse or Visiting Blockbuster This Holiday Weekend? Okay, so with looming problems such as these, who could fault you for seeking hours of pure escapism over the holiday weekend? If that's your plan, check out these two priceless (both freebies) resources for reviews: The New Yorker has just placed online a film file, containing about 2,000 small movie reviews it has printed since 1990. An older classic film-buff site, Rotten Tomatoes, compiles reviews from around the country. I'd recommend them both.

A Thankful Couple. My brother Paul and his wife Jen are rare birds. The (kind of still) newlyweds, residents of Ohio City, are expected to travel east a bit for the holiday. Anyway, this piece speaks better about their generous instincts than I ever could. The ever-capable Jay Miller nicely refers to the piece in this week's Crain's (in that back-page "Reporter's Notebook" feature I recently mentioned as a nice injection of personality into the pub). J&P, take a Thanksgiving bow...

Bill Maher & George W. Equally Clueless About the Web. In an especially telling moment for which he will forever be (rightly) ridiculed, George W. added an "s" to the end of the word Internet during one of the recent presidential debates. It's since become one of the hallmark examples of George W.'s perceived intellectual dimness, a depressing reminder that in America we may have decided to install one of the most intellectually challenged presidents ever right after electing one of our brightest (Clinton). So much for our vaunted meritocracy. But I was reminded of that "Internets" gaffe while watching comedian Bill Maher's otherwise compelling appearance on CNN's Larry King last night. Toward the end of their chat, a caller asked if Maher had a website where she might find his email address and write to him. His face went blank, as he tried to remember where to send her. After a moment, he tried to give her the address, but couldn't recall whether it was at HBO or at some site bearing his name (a producer quickly checked and piped it into King's earpiece, where he relayed it to the audience). The guy didn't know anything about his own website! Sorry to be biased toward the web, but with this possibly unprecedented bit of ignorance, Maher took a quick nosedive in my book as a serious observer of the culture. C'mon, Bill, hire a 10-year-old to occasionally tutor you in your dressing room, if you must. But do spend a little time investigating the present world (to say nothing of the future) every now and again. That goes double if you're going to have any credibility at all in commenting on the backwardness of the right wing. By the way, his site is indeed found at And it's a pretty good guess that his so-called blog is ghostwritten.

Finally, this bit of brilliantly observed and beautifully rendered prose poetry masquerading as election reportage explains why the hyperliterate British historian Simon Schama was always one of Tina Brown's favorites when she ran the roost at the New Yorker. Here, from a recent piece in Guardian Weekly, an American version of which you'll newly find on some newstands, he riffs on the "Divided States of America," comprised of "Worldly America" (blue) and Godly America (red):

'By the lights of the psephology manuals, Ohio ought to have been a natural for the Democrats: aging industrial cities such as Dayton and Akron, with big concentrations of minorities, suffering prolonged economic pain from outsourced industries. Cleveland and Cincinnati are classic cites of the Worldly plain: half-decayed, incompletely revived; great art museums, a rock 'n roll hall of fame, a terrific symphony orchestra. But drive a bit and you're in deep Zion, where the Holsteins graze by billboards urging the sinful to return to the bosom of the Almighty, the church of Friday Night high school football shouts its hosannas at the touchdowns, and Support Our Troops signs grow as thick as rutabaga.'

Anyway, do please have yourself a pleasant Thanksgiving holiday, gentle reader.


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