Computers will take all our jobs away. And other Fairy Tales

For a while, all I could read in the newspapers was some story about how robots, computers, some form of automation, was going to steal all our jobs. In vain I have tried to persuade people that this isn’t really good economics–a kind of “just so” story that Americans seem to thrive on. Please. Think. All our jobs disappear. All our income disappears. Then we have nothing to spend. And then no one has anything to sell. So there won’t be any need for robots, computers, UPCs, whatever the latest bogeyman is. Because no one will be able to sell anything to people with no income. There will be no production. Therefore, no one will be buying job destroying technology–because there will be no demand. Therefore, no supply. Was that so hard? Even Americans should be able to get this.

Ah, a typical economic fable retailed by someone who never met a payroll! You pinheads all think you are so smart.

Au contraire, friend of the worker. I just got out of CVS. And CVS proves that robotic, automatic, swipe and go technology–whatever it is, will not destroy jobs. And here’s the reason why. Upon discussion, I find that absolutely the same thing has happened to my sweet spouse. So, this is not a sample of one. Two, maybe, but not one.

So you go into CVS looking for a couple of things. Not just any CVS, mind you, but the CVS by The Pearl Brewery. In San Antonio, this is where the quality are. Like the Cellars apartments at the Pearl start at $2600 a month and go up to $3700. Median income in San Antonio is about 27 thou a year. So a cheapo at the Cellar would require 100 percent of San Antonio median income. You get the picture? Not exactly Section 8 level stuff. In any event, the CVS is Pearl level. The employees are not only nice, they actually seem to know what the Hell they are doing. Like, “Yes, that is on the Second Floor, Aisle 18.” And, by golly, it was. In a place where “We sure don’t have that sir,” is the most likely answer to a question about a particular item in stock, a lapidary response fills you with dread and respect. These guys don’t mess around. They deal with the Beautiful People, and the BP expect to be served.

Ok, so I pick up the antacid I’m looking for, and remember that Linda tells me she has a CVS card and be sure to use it, because it’s got a good coupon. Don’t sneer. Like Hyman Roth, I am a pensioner living on a fixed income. I pinch pennies. So does Linda. So what else is new?

So I go down to check out. There are two check out thingies. Scanner with bags and card readers. One is busy–and audibly announcing “Help is on the way!”. The other is at rest. I approach this job-killer cautiously. I know I’m not supposed to like it. I’m a Democrat. So I scan the first item. It works. Damn. The machine asks me for my CVS card or code. I remember Linda’s and punch it in–but I’m not done. I try to scan in a second item, same as the first. It don’t scan. Damn thing just looks at me. Hell, I don’t know. I stick the UPC in its face. Nothing. Ok, I scan the antacid in. Ok. Then the damn thing starts calling for my CVS card again. Wait, I did that already. And before I can do anything else, the monster says “You’re finished, inset credit card.” But wait a minute, the order isn’t right, unless CVS intendeds to lay an item on me. I stand there, frozen. Now wtf. Do I comply and end up ripping off CVS? But wait, there’s more. 20 seconds of deer-in-the-scanner inaction activates an alarm: “Help is on the Way!” the job killer starts. Wait. I didn’t ask for help. Besides, I thought the idea was for the thing to eliminate help.

Never fear. The same young woman who instantly told me where to find my proton pump stuff is right there, helping me. She eyes the receipt, the screen and my pile of goodies. BUSTED. There’s only one dishwasher cleaner. But I have two. Not to fear. She examines the device, presses a scan button, and rescans the errant item. Now the thing goes crazy and recomputes the total and asks me for me CVS code. Again. Ok. I can do this. I key it in and it’s like jackpot time in Reno. The scanner starts spewing out an endless spool of coupons for future use. I’m standing there swatting them away. The young woman bags my stuff. She smiles and says, bless her, “Young man, you’re all set.” Young man. As Maxwell Smart used to say, “Check.”

As I step outside, it is pouring rain. Like no tomorrow. I can’t remember the last time I saw it rain so hard here. Figures. My car is two blocks away. Oh well, it’s only water.

When I finally link up with Linda, who has been shopping with the BP, she pauses to tell me how wonderfully trained the staff at Hotel Emily are. I take it Hotel Emily is some kind of national world class level hotel. In San Antonio? Why? Well, Linda is telling me this because she was waiting out the rain on their portico in the Pearl and admiring their service. Good help, it appears, is still around. You just have to pay to get it. She then tells me HER CVS story. Oh, yeah, same thing that happened to me, but at a lower rent store. Took three tries to get the scanner to work assisted by at least one employee. Oh, I see. I stop and think of the times I’ve tried to use one of these things at the supermarket and had a bottle of wine (it’s Texas) to scan. Emergency!!!! Flashing red light. Friendly employee has to come and verify I’m over 21. Check.

Are you beginning to see a pattern here? If you are, you can skip the next few paragraphs. If not, I’m gonna spell the moral of the story out.

If you are a historically literate American (they exist) you have heard of Ned Ludd and the Luddites, the British handloom weavers who supposedly went after mechanized weaving in 1779 out of fear that machines were stealing their jobs. I believe Eric Hobsbawm called their actions collective bargaining with sledge hammers, or something like that.

Economic historians, starting with good old David Landes, have always had an interesting take on machine breakers and employment in the Industrial Revolution in England. Their argument was that the early machines were not only unreliable, but finicky, and called forth a whole new class of mechanics to attend them. Otherwise the damn things wouldn’t work. So, in the fantasy world of neoclassical economics (I said it before you did), labor was released from one less productive and skilled occupation to pursue higher value work in another occupation–mechanics. Of course, mechanics had transferable skills (spillovers) and they were like the bees in the apple orchard. They ended up inadvertently raising productivity in other industries even as hand loom weavers disappeared. And they all lived happily ever after. It’s called progress. Dickens might have said otherwise, but honestly, history is not fiction, whatever the pomos said.

Obviously, the smooth and costless redeployment of resources that the Econ (especially in the South) like to wax eloquent over is a little more complicated in the real world, and, guess what, there are losers in the process. But, in theory at least, the gains to the winners could be redistributed to compensate the losers–you know, like in trade adjustment dollars that Congress under centrist Democrats loved to stick into free trade legislation. Oh, sorry. Sore point. But I am sympathetic to the idea that markets don’t just costlessly do things. No one with any sense believes that. In fact, if it costs too much for a market to solve a problem, well, the market isn’t likely to solve it. That’s not socialism. That’s just reality.

So if you worry that these job-killing Demons aren’t going to just lead to a smooth adjustment in the labor market, you probably have some reason to worry. Let’s not overdo it, though. Scanning groceries at the market probably reduced the number of old-style cashiers, but we got a whole generation of big data crunchers to drive us crazy with questions we never dreamed of asking. Things do evolve. We don’t worship low skill jobs for the Hell of it. Unless we’re Spartacists from Oakland who thought Shining Path in Peru was way cool.

But this is the troubling part. Helping markets reallocate resources is politically fraught. Somebody has to recognize that progressive tax codes, social insurance and the rest are not the enemy, but a necessary part of the way a market economy will function. Margaret Thatcher notwithstanding, there is such a thing as society. There is a reason for worrying about a fraying social fabric in which the only thing someone seems to care about is his or her “freedom” and “rights.” If you haven’t noticed, the political consequences are horrendous, and in this Covid mess, we are seeing one of them. We need to educate Americans in basic economics, and not the cowboy capitalism that our Republican friends seem enamored of. It’s not only bad economics, it’s bad politics. Forget counting jobs. Start counting what it takes to have a good society in which everyone has a shot at getting ahead. The cashiers will then, to paraphrase Christ, take care of themselves.

Hurricanes (and other stuff) I have known

I was reading a fabulous (well, it is ok) book called Three Days at Camp David by Jeffrey Garten. Super nerd alert: it recounts the decisions that went into bringing an end to the gold-exchange standard in August 1971. I’m sure you’re just dying to know the details, but I’ll spare you. It is one of those really crucial events in financial history that about 15 people actually give a damn about, but that affects everyone. They just don’t happen to know it. Most of us are too busy obsessing over the NFL or some stuff. It’s ok. Turns out that Richard Nixon was obsessing over the Washington Redskins (I had to use the name, since that’s what they were called in the Dark Ages) even as he was eviscerating the dollar. And it was Nixon who was famously taped observing “I don’t give a shit about the lira.” Except the transcript at the time said “expletive deleted” instead of “shit.” So you’re in good company, if you consider Nixon good company, in your indifference. Incidentally, rumor has it that the Washington Football Team may soon be known as the WFT. Right. This from the No Fun League. Fcuk You, as the British brand, French Connection-UK has it. I’ll believe it when Carson Wentz rises from the Dead in a Cowboys uniform.

In any event, I was a 20 year old “sort of history sort of econ” student at Villanova, and I hadn’t gotten around to International Trade or Finance yet, so I’m not certain exactly how I was processing this at the time, other than I was about to embark on my first trip overseas (Spain, not Vietnam), and I do recall a cabbie in Madrid at the airport asking me “Que pasa con el Dollar?” God only knows what I told him, because I’m sure the idea that a fixed exchange rate didn’t just get set by God hadn’t yet occurred to me. How about you?

Back to Camp David. I was struck by a remark that George Schultz (remember him?) made in summoning up his memories of that historic weekend. He told Garten not to place much faith on his recollections because, basically, we tend to remember things better than they were. You know, remember the good and suppress the bad. He’s the second economist I’ve heard say that, the first being Albert Fishlow. Now, if Al and George Schultz both said something, it must be true, right?

Sorry, it doesn’t work that way with me. Not entirely at least. I’m not saying I don’t remember the good stuff from my past, because I certainly do. But I’d also say I don’t forget the bad stuff either. You know, I am part Sicilian, and we’re reputed to hold a grudge about as well as any primitive race on Earth. That, my friend, requires memory, because I do. Hold a grudge, that is. It took a great effort of the Five Families, shepherded by Don Vito Corleone, to get them to forget the past and stop killing each other. You know, get back to making money. Need I point out that Michael, at that very moment, chasing Appolonia in Sicily, was not a party to the agreement? Is your name Barzini or Tataglia? I didn’t think so. I read that psychologists who do memory research figure that our earliest childhood memories go back to about 3.5 years, although some now w think it may be a bitt earlier. No, you probably don’t remember being born, although that would be too cool. Or maybe too traumatic. For me, 3.5 years sounds about right, and I can document it.

Now, if you can remember Hurricane Hazel, you’ve probably got a little mileage on you. A lot, actually. I remember Hazel hitting Philadelphia. That was on October 15, 1954, and the storm was a doozy. It brought 90 mile per hour winds to Philly, because the eye of the storm passed just to the West of the city. Now, I don’t remember the storm, but I do remember the excitement in the run up to Hazel’s appearance. I would have been about 3.5 years old, as it turns out.

I remember sitting on the radiator cover in the kitchen of my grandparents stone house in West Philly looking out the window. The view was urban, driveway, Reale’s bakery, you know, really scenic. But that day, the sky caught my attention. I can still see it. It was sort of grayish green, muddy, and vaguely threatening. Admittedly, at the age of 3 you don’t have a vast body of experience with which to draw comparisons, but I don’t think I’ve ever quite seen the sky that color again, anytime, anywhere. I remember when Hurricane Donna came through in 1960, I was in class at Prisontation. The overhead lights were on because it was sort of night time dark outside and raining like Hell. It wasn’t scary or anything, just dark. I can’t say that Hurricane Agnes made much of an impression in 1972, other than it clobbered upstate Pennsylvania, flooded Wilkes Barre, and produced a genre of automobiles in Philly known as “flood cars” that were, eh, flooding the market because their wiring harnesses had gotten screwed up and they tended to behave erratically.

I think I remember taking the 44 bus (still Red Arrow?) into Philly along the Expressway and thinking I had never seen the river quite so high–which was accurate. I hadn’t. On the other hand, it wasn’t Philly’s problem, so I didn’t care. Pottstown flooded, but, like, quid boni, you know? It’s Pottstown. No one lives there.

This memory stuff intrigues me because while my long-term memory remains very good, my short term memory is slowly becoming that of an old dude. I can remember getting predictably hammered my first time out with champagne, but I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast. Or my first cigarette. Walking down Karakung Drive like a stud in high school, safely away from Devon Prep, where even the possession of a cigarette could get you tossed. I was 15 and quite fly. And, obviously, very, very stupid. That one, I’d like to get back. There are other firsts I can recall, but this is a PG site.

Thing is, I don’t think I only remember the good stuff, because if that’s the case, I had a strange notion of what fun was. I’m positive my earliest memory actually goes back to about 2. My Mom had me all dressed up in some ridiculous outfit, and I think we had gone out to Triangle Park, near my Grandparents’ home, so as to take pictures. I still have the pictures, but more to the point, I remember the day, because I stepped in dog crap. Now, you’d think a little kid stepping in dog crap would be no big deal, right? I mean, it’s stuff little kids do. I remember it smelled rank and all that. But most of all I remember my Mom absolutely hitting the roof and yelling at me. LOL. This was a theme in my childhood, and it probably is a key to my adult personality. Whenever an accident befell little Richard, little Richard caught Hell. From Mom. I don’t think there was anything malicious about this. I know there wasn’t, in fact. It was just my Mother, who was, er, excitable. And fastidious. And, like, everything–and I mean everything–had to be in its proper place. I remember once the nuns told us to put our shoes under the bed so we would remember to get down on our knees at night and pray. Uh, huh. Mom was having none of it. That’s not where shoes went. She was, so to speak, more concerned about my soles than my soul. And pulled rank on the nuns to show it. That’s just the way she was.

This one’s even better. As a kid at Prisontation, I was playing football at recess. Big deal, right? We all wanted to be Sonny Jurgensen or Tommy McDonald (look it up). Well, while I was into my Jurgy routine, one of my thuggy classmates (I have already written a bit about them) came crashing into me and managed to twist my arm into some odd position. Whereupon it broke. Yup. Broke.

Well, I knew I had a problem because it hurt like Hell, and I spent the afternoon in school in some pain. When I went home, I told Mom I hurt my arm playing football. She was not amused. Nor sympathetic We put some ice on it and she preceded to treat me as if I had contracted VD. She was not happy, to put it mildly. And every time I moved the damn thing, it hurt. A lot.

When my Dad got home–Mom didn’t drive–he took me over to Lankenau Hospital, where they did the x-ray thing. Dude: kid broke a wing. It’s gotta be reset and put in a cast. Do you remember those casts, man? They were something else. They put a stocking around your arm, then they encased it in some kind of plaster thing and solemnly told you not to wash it, wet it, crack it, spit on it, anything. Because, well, you wouldn’t want to have to go through this again. So, for six weeks, I wore it proudly on my right arm (dammit, I wrote left-handed, so it did me no good). I wasn’t playing trumpet yet, so I must have been no more than 11 or 12 years old, cause that would’ve been interesting. Maybe I would have learned to play left-handed. You know, that could’ve made all the difference in the world. Well, it didn’t.

When we got home, my Dad shepherding me into the kitchen said something to my Mom like “It’s broken.” He did not sound too pleased, although I don’t think his displeasure was completely directed at his son. My Mother went into some kind of shocked reaction. And then. Yup. You guessed it. She started yelling. Or at least raised her voice. I don’t recall the exact words, but it was something like I can’t believe you broke your arm, or something to that effect. I think I was sort of gratified, because the fact that I was in some pain didn’t elicit much sympathy. So, it was like, “See. It did hurt.” Funny the crap you remember. Bad as well as good. That was a particularly memorable moment.

I’ll treat you to one more, because this one has also influenced my subsequent existence. And I was pretty damn lucky.

I went to a birthday party at Hornet’s house. You’ll remember Hornet, my late, lamented classmate who had a way of attracting problems. Well, he had a birthday, and his parents tossed a party in the backyard of their house in Beechwood. Beechwood was, like an exurb of Penn Wynne and Wynnewood Valley, just to situate this properly. Well, it was the usual crummy kids’ party, you know stuff off the grill, including hot dogs.

I bet you can tell what’s coming. Like so many hyper kids, I always ate too fast, and I guess I was in the process of scarfing down a hot dog that day.

I choked on it.

All of a sudden, I remember it wouldn’t go down, wouldn’t come back, and I couldn’t breathe or talk or anything. But I was in trouble. For what seemed like an eternity, the damn thing just lodged there, blocking my windpipe. There was no Heimlich Maneuver in those days, but my heart was pounding furiously. Somehow, and I have no idea how, I guess I had a strong enough gag reflex to bring the damn thing up. And I did, whereupon said hot dog promptly fell to the ground. I was like (yeah, I was like) too terrified to be relieved, and I was covered in a cold sweat. My friends were sort of regarding me curiously. And laughing. Like “Ha, ha, doofuss almost choked to death.” Uber-cafone. And to raise the hilarity level even more, Hornet’s mutt, Cindy, fell upon the expelled hot dog with gusto, prompting even more laughter accompanies by “Cindy’s eating it!”

Well, no one made anything of it. I think only I knew what I thought had almost happened. Did it scare me. Man, I can still visualize the whole scene, including Cindy, and this has got to be more than 55 years ago. If Mom had been there, bets on whether she would have yelled?

Ever since, I have been deathly afraid of choking to death on food. And it really does affect the way I eat. I will eat hot dogs, but I never forgot that one almost killed me. When my kids were little, I’d insist on cutting them up in small pieces, much to the amusement of some of my tougher friends, who thought I was terribly overprotective. I was.

Break your arm and catch Hell. Damn near choke on a hotdog. Get a B on an English exam and be told you’re doing poorly in school. Total a car in a parking lot and watch it explode in slow motion around you. Yeah. I’m crazy. And there’s plenty more where that came from. I had fun for sure and no priest ever molested me. But my memory somehow refuses to suppress all the times when I screwed up but good. And didn’t get a prize or a redo. We all remember the past better than it was? Really? I think I remember it pretty much as it was. Good and bad. Better a realist than a fool.

Decent Interval

Boy, there’s nothing worse than a Democrat caught with his pants down. Remember Bill “I don’t not have sex with that woman” Clinton? He did denial pretty well, didn’t he. And outrage. Faux, as it happened, but, Hell, it worked in Arkansas. Why not on a the Big Stage? He also went down to Haiti to peddle his line there too, but you see how that worked out? Not too well. Like my Dad, Lou Larkins used to say, “The truth hurts, but at least you don’t look like a jackass.” Pop, meet Joe Biden and the same old, same old, otherwise known as the Democratic Party. In case you didn’t notice, they do outrage pretty well too. And, withal, manage to look like jackasses. About their amour propre, frankly, I could care less. But I do worry a little about collateral damage. Said damage being what otherwise looked to be a very promising start to a Democratic administration that faced one of the most serious challenges in American history, like maybe since the Civil War, or 1850, to be exact. And those guys didn’t have to deal with the climate change that the Republicans somehow miss, fire and flood, Hell, even the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse might have been impressed. You know. It’s in the Bible. But what would the Republicans know about the Bible? It’s a good prop for political theater, but come off you tired old ethics. Anyway, Biden had his work cut out for him. And he still does.

Now, some of us are old enough to remember Lyndon Johnson. Hey, some of us are even lucky enough to live cheek by jowl to the cool waters of the Pedernales, where LBJ had a homestead. I guess the judgment of history might be that, while an asshole, Johnson had a poor Texan’s sense of what it was like to be on the outside looking in–economical, racially, socially. Believe me, the kind of genetic defensiveness that accompanies the “they’re all laughing at me” reflex that a Southern sense of inferiority begets is powerful motivation. Johnson had his Ivy League bastards, inherited from JFK, to whom he was accidental successor. He didn’t much like ’em, but they could toss big words around in furrin tongues and do linear programing and stuff, all of which was guaranteed to win us that war in Veet Nam. Poor Lyndon. “Hey Hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?” Somehow, I bet Joe wakes up at night hearing “Biden, Biden, don’t be hiden….Afghanistan is on your watch.” Damn, we don’t do foreign policy and wars. Haven’t since FDR. And that, boys and girls, was a long time ago. Just as we’re about to try getting the New Deal rolling again–and God knows, we need it–some tawny buggers in funny clothes and jabbering in a strange tongue while praying to some false God, well, jeez, they made Joe look bad. Real bad. And I think he and his supporters know it. The truth hurts, said my old man, but at least you don’t look like a jackass while you’re lying.

Now Joe’s problem here is what I call the “decent interval” trope. I know that even if you are old enough to remember Woodstock, you may not remember “decent interval.” And if you’re under the age of 50, well, unless you had some pretty good history teaching come your way, you won’t know. Since this is America, and we don’t do history–proudly, you may recall one of Obama’s hires (Susan Rice) at the UN lecturing all us old dudes stuck, and I mean, sir, stuck in the past, well, you probably don’t know much history. That’s ok. Join the club. This is America. You don’t have to know anything to be a member of the club. Just your rights and yore “freedom.” That’ll do, thank you.

So what is this “decent interval” stuff, and what does it have to do with Biden and Afghanistan. Well, nothing and everything, cause it’s just the take of an obscure college professor in South Texas (but I live near Johnson City!!), but it isn’t entirely speculative. First, let’s define our terms.

What is a “decent interval?” No, it’s not how long it took Bill Clinton to get warmed up again after his first go-round with some bimbo. Let’s start with the phrase, which provided the title for Frank Snepp’s book on the United States withdrawal from Viet Nam. Rather than deal with me, why don’t we lap Snepp have the floor

April 29, 1975: the evacuation of Saigon. It’s every man for himself; thousands of panic-stricken Vietnamese clawing at the Embassy gates, begging not to be left behind as the last of the Americans save themselves

If you were there that last day it was like being at a funeral where all the mourners are battling each other to avoid being abandoned at graveside.

I was one of those mourners: an operative for the Central Intelligence Agency and the CIA’s chief strategy analyst on the scene. I’d been in Vietnam five and half years when the end came. It was one of the most shameful moments I’ve ever lived through.

The reason it ended that way was wishful thinking on the part of a lot of American officials. Few wanted to admit the war was lost. So we waited too long to plan for the exit.

The final unraveling began two years before with the ceasefire negotiated by White House National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. It got the last of the American troops out of South Vietnam, but left 140,000 North Vietnamese forces in the south. They wouldn’t get out because we hadn’t beaten them. And now they turned on the Saigon government itself…a government corrupt, inefficient, riddled with Communist spies, possibly as many as fourteen thousand of them according to intelligence estimates. A government about as solid and durable as Swiss cheese.

The first year of the so-called “cease-fire war” Congress tipped the odds hard against our allies by halting all U.S. bombing in Indochina, and a year later President Nixon resigned because of Watergate. The Communists were particularly encouraged by that event. They’d always seen Nixon as a madman whose unpredictability terrified them. With his departure they decided the road to Saigon was open.

In early 1975 they began chipping away at real estate close to the capital to test U.S. resolve and Saigon’s resiliency. The president of South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu panicked, and in mid-March without telling any of us in the Embassy he ordered his forces to pull back in two crucial areas, the northernmost provinces of the country and the western highlands. The withdrawal — meant to preserve his best forces and strengthen his hand against potential coup-makers — quickly turned into a rout as terrified civilians became entangled in the retreating units. Over the next two weeks their Communist pursuers sliced the country in two and obliterated half of Saigon’s army.

It was too much for some Embassy officials to believe, including Ambassador Graham Martin. He was a Cold Warrior of the old stripe. He’d lost a son in Vietnam and he wasn’t going to lose Saigon to the Communists.

In early April, a month before the collapse, I briefed Martin, who had long considered me a trusted protege, on the destruction of government forces. He wouldn’t believe me. He insisted Saigon still had a chance.

In the next four weeks, he convinced himself and many in Washington that the Communists could be lured into another cease-fire and a new negotiated settlement that would leave South Vietnam intact though shorn of less “productive” territory. He refused to plan in earnest for an accelerated evacuation and many of us in the Embassy were forced to begin sneaking Vietnamese friends out of the country on cargo aircraft.

Four days before the end, in an effort to appease the Communists and sweeten the prospects for a last-minute political deal, the Ambassador persuaded President Thieu himself to step down and get out of Vietnam.

That night I drove Thieu to a secret airbase outside Saigon to catch his “black” flight out. Tracers lit the night sky, small arms fire crackled along the perimeters, and rumors of a murderous coup, like the one that had toppled and killed President Diem in 1963, were rampant. When Thieu showed up at the pick-up point, he was wearing a gray sharkskin suit, his hair slicked back and he looked like a model for an Asian edition of Gentleman’s Quarterly. He’d been weeping and drinking, but he had one consolation: he’d just slipped most of his gold out of the country.

As it turned out, Thieu made his escape safely. But it didn’t give the Communists a moment’s pause, any more than I’d expected it to. Indeed for weeks our intelligence had indicated they would stop for nothing, though the Ambassador wouldn’t believe it.

The latest and most definitive report had come two weeks before from a Vietnamese agent who’d never been wrong. This time he’d met with me at a safehouse near the capital and after chugging a beer – he loved Budweiser – had given me the bad news straight up: the Communists were going to overrun Saigon by the end of April, bringing in airstrikes and artillery, without any pause for a political fix.

That’s exactly what happened.

On April 28 Communist aircraft bombed the Saigon airbase, and that night their artillery began pounding the edges of the city, the concussion hurling many of us out of bed.

But still Ambassador Martin was hopeful. He thought we could evacuate by fixed-wing aircraft at a leisurely pace. He wouldn’t even chop down a large Tamarind tree in the embassy courtyard to make way for helicopters. That was a mistake. The landing strips were soon blown apart, and with one hundred forty thousand Communist troops now within an hour’s drive of downtown Saigon, we clearly had not a moment to waste.

Mid-morning of the 29th, the White House finally overrode Martin and decided to send in helicopters from the evacuation fleet offshore. The signal to evacuate: a Saigon radio broadcast of Bing Crosby’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.”

For all of the advance warning the evacuation order caught the Embassy staff off guard – so much so we didn’t even have a master list of the Vietnamese employees, agents and collaborators who desperately needed to be rescued. So we spent the day rescuing ourselves and whatever lucky Vietnamese could sneak, beat or cajole their way onto a U.S. helicopter or sailing vessel.

At the Embassy walls Marine guards played God, picking those who would be saved, kicking back those who wouldn’t. Mothers were separated from children, some were trampled, others abandoned just outside the gates

Meanwhile remnants of the South Vietnamese army and air force fled into our arms, abandoning boats and aircraft at sea as they struggled to reach the evacuation fleet.

By mid-afternoon the Embassy compound itself was jammed with desperate Vietnamese waiting to be choppered off the roof or from the courtyard which had now been cleared of Martin’s Tamarind. I walked among them, handing out water and often- vain encouragement. At one point, the downdraft from an overladen chopper tore open bags of secret documents discarded in the courtyard and flung them into nearby treetops. The North Vietnamese would later use these and other abandoned files to identify agents and collaborators we’d left behind.

As the pace of the airlift accelerated, more and more Vietnamese were crammed inside the Embassy to hasten departures from the roof. Some were cradling animals, others clutched wailing children and as the air conditioning system broke down the heat and stench became unspeakable. Explosions rocked the building periodically as thermite grenades were used to destroy sensitive equipment, and through much of the day the walls shook as from a creeping case of nerves as rooftop incinerators gobbled up tons of classified files that had been left till the last moment to be destroyed.

From time to time I stopped by the CIA operations room to listen in horror at the radios as stranded Vietnamese agents pleaded over the circuits for help, begging not to be forgotten. Some would be picked up by Air America helicopters that CIA colleagues and I sent shuttling around the city. Most would be forgotten.

At one point a Vietnamese woman who had borne a child she said was my own called to say she would kill herself and the boy if I couldn’t rescue them. I told her to call back in an hour — I’d help her then. But when she called back I was downstairs briefing the Ambassador on another useless piece of intelligence, and she made good on her promise, adding two more deaths to those already weighing on my conscience.

When my time came to leave that night, with the last CIA contingent in the Embassy, we had to push Vietnamese out of the way in the halls to get to the chopper on the roof. I couldn’t look into their eyes.

Retreat is the most difficult of all military operations. But as a matter of honor you do not leave friends on the battlefield. In the evacuation of Saigon over half of the Vietnamese who finally got out escaped on their own with no help from us until they were far at sea.

The last CIA message from the Embassy declared: Let’s hope we do not repeat history. This is Saigon station signing off.

Sound familiar, y’all? Oh, wait, you ain’t seen nothing. I want you to take a look at Anthony Cordesman’s analysis of Afghanistan, which is available for download, if you want to read it (y’all can read, even if you’re a Democrat, right). I won’t download the whole thing. Just Cordesman’s introduction.

The sudden collapse of the Afghan central government and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) has occurred with stunning speed. It has clearly been driven by the fact that both President Trump and President Biden not only announced deadlines for the withdrawal of U.S. military support, but they then cut that support to levels where Afghan forces could not survive and where many Afghan politicians and government figures were willing to stand aside or surrender.

It also, however, is the collapse of a house of cards that took some twenty years to build and that was driven as much by failures at the civil level as the military level. It is a bipartisan failure, and one that was ultimately driven by a U.S. inability to provide objective and effective assessments of the developments in the Afghan government it was trying to aid and of the Taliban threat.

This analysis attempts to list the many factors that made both defeat and a sudden collapse possible, and it attempts to make it clear that any valid analysis must examine all of these factors and not simply the events that have taken place in the months since President Trump first set a deadline for U.S. and allied withdrawals in February 2020 or during the weeks in July and August 2021 that gave the Taliban control over most of the country.

It does highlight a wide range of issues and actions for which the U.S. must take responsibility, but it also highlights the fact that many of the failures were caused by Afghans. It also focuses on a lesson that is all too clear from other successful insurgencies that range from the rise of communism in Russia and China to the collapse of Vietnam – and most other successful insurgencies since the end of World War II. No outside power can help a failed government that cannot help itself.

This report entitled, The Reasons for the Collapse of Afghan Forces, is available for download at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/210816_Cordesman_Sudden_Collapse.pdf?8G.OilPH6D9mfPnqBJ4HpitDeh1k2Xaw

Now, obviously, Cordesman and Snepp aren’t talking about exactly the same thing. But you might say there is a ring of familiarity, no, especially in the chaotic circumstances of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the mendacious behavior of Biden’s Secretary of State who made everything even worse (if possible) by calling Afghanistan a successful mission. Please don’t force me to upload clips of Biden and Blinken (and Nod?) yelling out to their Amen corner in righteous indignation about we had accomplished. You don’t need it. and I don’t want to do it. My only observation is that if Biden and Company were caught with their pants down–they didn’t see this coming, well, then, none of them belong where they are–and believe me, I think Biden’s economic program and attempts to do something about mitigating climate change are not only necessary, but maybe too late. You know, the horse is out of the barn sort of thing? The real issue is that they too were counting on a decent interval. And, dammit, the Taliban didn’t give it to them. Can you believe it? The nerve. Just like those damned North Veet Nameeses. Like my hero Michael Corleone liked to say, “Don’t insult my intelligence.” Yeah. Please. They didn’t get the decent interval. Well, imagine that…….

Look, I gotta level with you. I don’t give a rat’s backside about Biden or the Democrats. But I do care about the country. And I know damn well that if this shit show continues, the Democrats will first lose the House, and, then, God knows, probably the Presidency. The infrastructure stuff will probably simply come to a halt. If we get some clown in Trump’s mold (and why wouldn’t we?), the patient reversal of all the damage that he and his cabal of criminals did to environmental regulations, the EPA, NOAA, State, and probably the Congressional dining room will simply bite the dust. And then where are we? Back to square one, having wasted even more time while the “progressives” slug it out over who has the most compelling grievance story? Don’t insult my intelligence. After all, it’s only the future.

I voted for Biden and the Democrats not because I particularly liked them or respected them, but because I was truly afraid that they might be the last chance we have to save America’s sorry backside. I still think that, but evidently, the sense of urgency that has been giving me insomnia doesn’t quite seem to have taken hold in some quarters. Instead, I am told I expect too much. Oh, really? Define too much.

If y’all want to know what’s around the bend for America, come to Texas. I’ll be happy to explain it to you, because I have been here for 30 years. Not that that means anything. After all, it doesn’t make me an expert, but at least I can find Mexico on a map. And I know they don’t want Texas back. Believe me, they were better off with everything they lost. They weren’t using it. Meanwhile, what Mexico lost turned into the basis of a Civil War for those ingenious Yankees and their Southern kin. Slavery in the territories? Really? I think the Mexicans got the better end of the deal, whether they know it or not.

The Irony of American History. Never ceases to enthrall me. We’ll probably have to wait another century to see how this all turns out. Thank God I won’t be here to say “I told you so.”

We Share Your World With You

Now that I am retired from teaching (I know, no one noticed), I have a little more time than I did before to pursue various projects. Some are serious: an economic history of Mexico (about 60 percent drafted, but the worst is yet to come); and publications on the Lizardi family of Mexico, New Orleans, London, and Paris (maybe a book, if I can make things cohere. God forbid I find their business records in one piece and in one place). Some are just because I enjoy doing them–more jazz stories, lots of jazz reviews (the secret to no price CDs). And some are serious mischief: college internet splash pages. You know, a splash page is where you land when you enter “greatuniversity.edu” (I hope that isn’t a porn site). I’m just itching to see what colleges and universities think will bring them skipped heartbeats among prospective scholars. Attracting students is serious business these days. There’s always a suit who does “Enrollment Management.” There are other, less polite terms for these people, but this is a PG site.

Now, as an econ wannabee, I know something about what the guild calls “imperfect competition.” That basically means you try to find a price that makes life worth living. Clearly, different strokes. Some houses of study will have a bit of latitude in this department, because they have, like, ten applicants for each seat. So you figure they could pretty much ask whatever they want. Some do. The “sticker price” (I had a Chair who routinely used such tasteless commercial metaphors) of the University of Chicago is over 60k per year for undergraduates. You read that right. 60K. That’s more than a loaded Alfa Romeo Giulia costs, dude. So, in theory, you could buy four–or maybe five if you are unlucky. My son attended the University of Chicago. He got a fantastic education. He is fearsome in an argument. One of the brightest people I know. Chicago did good by him.

I do not have an Alfa Romeo. Not one, let alone four. I drive a Volkswagen. Draw your own conclusions. Why the Hell would I need four of them anyway? One would have done, but hey, it isn’t a car, it’s a Volkswagen.

Anyway, most colleges are not U of C. Huh? You noticed? Your local red brick doesn’t account for or claim affiliation with 33 Nobels in Economics? Well, sniff, they are overrated. My former employer brings in one a year to hobnob with the hoi polloi. Ain’t that enough? You too can be the Harvard of your Block just by coughing up speakers’ fees. Honestly, the only Chicago dude I was impressed with was Ron Coase. When I pass from this Earth and go jauntily into the next world, aside from my family, I want to hang with Ron Coase. He was every bit as smart as you’d think, and unlike Paul Samuelson, he had a delightful personality. Hell, he had a personality and his wife was a trip. Anyway, Harvard of the South or no, we can’t lay claim to any Nobels. Yet. But we’ll let you know when that happens. We had a week of snow in San Antonio last February, so, yes, Hell can freeze over.

Most other places don’t glitter like Chicago, or Berkeley, or the other Harvard, you know, the Harvard of The Cambridge. They have to make do with the lesser lights of the firmament. And far less impressive installations paid for by various alumnx (no, that’s not an error, you sexist scum) robber barons looking for a tax write off and respectability. They have to make do with an Oldsmobile dealer and not the Pritzker family. And with faculty like, well, like me, who never even rose to the level of Distinguished. I brought no luster to my university. Alas. But this isn’t about me.

Now, econ theory (you’re about to see why I never got a Nobel) says you don’t want to get to far from the center of a distribution–the median, for nerds. Because the median is where the money is. You know, it’s the most convenient ice cream stand on the beach. Or the Most Like To Succeed type. Like Willie Sutton supposedly said, you rob banks because that’s where the money is, so you don’t want to be too different. Or make people walk too far for their ice cream.

On the other hand, you don’t want to be indistinguishable from crowd, because if you are, no one will notice you. Or want to spend 53K to send you off to the wilds of Wisconsin, which is sticker for Beloit College, also, apparently, where “The world needs more imagination, more ingenuity, more humanity. At Beloit, we find a way.” Hell, for 53K a year, they better find a way. They better find lots of ways. That’s ony 7k less a year than Chicago. You’d think Old Beloit would have at least One Nobel on offer. Oh, wait, they do. Elinor Ostrom, who dealt with an aspect of the “tragedy of the commons” problem (why your garage usually looks like Hell) went to Beloit. But, alas, she passed away before she or Beloit could make much of her gong. She shared a NobelEcon. Dude. That’s more than the Harvard of your block can say, right. So shut up.

So what’s an also ran to do in the struggle for warm bodies and even warmer minds (one hopes at least that portion of the anatomy is on fire in your students)? Well, go to the splash pages. Do your own experiment? Now, I’d suggest you compare like with like, so don’t be comparing Berkeley with its “Blue and Gold” Satellites headed somewhere into the Great Beyond with Hofstra’s “cutting edge research.” It’s Long Island, not the Bay Area. And besides, EVERYONE blathers on about their cutting edge research, especially cutting edge research done by students in conjunction with local faculty members–like me, of whom you’ve never heard. You know, that same student who doesn’t know that a complete sentence has a subject and a predicate. They’re gonna turn the world upside with some genius time idea that they can’t even express in a complete sentence. Small matter. Why nit-pick when the general theory of relativity is in that snoring kid’s research gunsite. Eech, poor choice of words. No guns on campus, except in Texas.

One of the big features of this year’s splash page (aside from diversity, oh man, is there ever Diversity) is like, movies. Yeah, they contain animated film clips that walk you around Old Desegregated so you can get a real feel for earnestness in action: idealistic, fresh faced scholars gazing at statues (no, not their pudenda) getting wisdom by osmosis or something, running track in the heat of D3 competition, or looking at some old white guy–the token perfesser from Hell–while the interesting class is being run by some hirsute person of color. Yeah, these clips are everywhere. In fact, I suspect there is an inverse correlation between standard measures of academic respectability and the prevalence of glitz on splash pages, but I have to run some tests first before I can falsify the hypothesis. That’s science, by the way.

The other thing is that it’s tough to distinguish between most colleges and a Chinese restaurant anymore. “We have 50+ majors” to choose from!” Yeah, 50 seems to be some kind of magic number, even if the major is cobbled together by three dudes who never met before this year’s first Faculty Assembly. And, you know, it’s like you have to choose one from Column A and One from Column B, and no substitutions allowed. Is this a curriculum or the menu at Kung Fu? I don’t know, you tell me. They look pretty much alike. So there’s lots of majors–you can have more than one–lots of research, which, of course, will change your life–lots of people who don’t look or think a thing like you, lots of cool facilities that remind you of Gymboree, and lots of seeking after Truth (with plenty of personal attention from that world class scholar who’s just dying to hear from you while he or she is trying to get a paper out to some journal with an acceptance rate of 50 percent). World class.

If you have the feeling that I am a little sceptical of all this stuff, why would you think that. I lived in a world of “sticker prices” “ratings” (the name a particularly Philistine chair gave to student evaluations), “consumer satisfaction,” and “unhappy customers.” Somehow, I never knew I was tasked with imparting the Wisdom of the Ages to curious young minds who were going to think deep thoughts in entrepreneurial companies that would Change the World. Imagine That. Go look at a bunch of splash pages. It’s a kick, for sure.

Oh, “We Share Your World With You.” That was the jingle that WCAU TV used in 1980 in Philadelphia as it tried to induce folks to watch the evening “news” that bore a now suspicious resemblance to the average day in the life a student at a world class, focus on you, university right in your own hometown. God help us, but if you wonder why a nation full of college graduates can’t figure out why masking prevents the spread of an airborne virus, remember the model for a lot of modern American colleges.

WCAU, Channel 10. We share your world with you. Now pay up.

Your rights make me sick

“The struggle between liberty and authority is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar…”

Don’t take my word for it. That is from one of the most famous works on the subject published in the English language, On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill, and published in 1859. It’s been on my mind a great deal lately. I wonder what it would cost to send copies to Ron de Santis and Greg Abbott. But then why would they read it again? I thought all conservatives had made their peace with Mill, just as you suppose they had done with Burke, or even Rousseau. I suppose Yale and Texas aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. I wouldn’t know. My AB is from Villanova, one of them Catholic sinks of ignorance where the card catalog still contained the stamp “on Church Index” and in which old Falvey Library still had a cage in which the books on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum were, ah, housed. I guess I’m glad I started in 1969. We may have still had a Draft, but there was no longer an Index. Besides you could always sneak over to Haverford or Penn if you were desperate. They had big boy books. And I had to read Mill.

I can’t assume the mantle of a social philosopher. I’m not qualified. Yet I do remember Mill defining a private act as one that had no public consequences. So if I sit here and quietly chant Satanic verses about Texas Republicans, it’s a private act. Other than my cat, and maybe my spouse, I bother no one. In economics, if I and I alone bear the cost of action, it’s private. There are no spillovers. More or less the same idea. Sometimes it gets tricky, you know, because a private action in economics rarely has no other public consequences, but you draw the line somewhere, or, at worst, you practice tolerance and negotiate, especially over trivial matters. A society in which everyone insists on their absolute right to do something or other is usually not a pleasant one. Like America in 2021. We’ve been headed in this direction for several decades. And the consequences are all too clear. This is no way to live, because constant conflict is the result. You’re probably sick of it. So am I. If the private solution doesn’t work because the cost of trying to herd all the cats is simply too high, a society delegates the right to the state (government) to make a uniform decision for all of us. It’s efficient–it consumes far fewer resources. And it’s “fair.” Because everyone who is a citizen is affected. You know, that incomprehensible line in Rousseau about “forcing people to be free.” Well, there you go. That’s how a modern liberal society is supposed to function. As we used to say, if you don’t like it, leave. We settled this in 1865, supposedly. Except, obviously, in the South. Oh, wait……

Not to put too fine a point on things, but if you ask an partner in intimacy to wear a condom and they refuse, you can do something. Obviously, you can simply refuse to have sex with them. End of story. Their STD is not your problem. Period. But for obvious reasons, our current mask and vaccination wars are a bit different.

If I say the state has no right to compel me to be vaccinated–as a matter of personal autonomy (liberty)–I may well contract Covid and die. If I do, it’s no one else’s problem. I made the choice. But suppose, given the highly infectious nature of the Delta variant, I insist the state has no right to require me to be vaccinated. I survive, but I infect someone else who dies. Then what? I have no right to kill you of which I am aware. I’d suppose–and I’d ask my lawyer friends for help–if you could prove that I infected a person who subsequently died (I have no idea how), I could well be liable, perhaps even criminally, for that person’s death. Alas, the same problem attends the willingness to wear a mask or not. The general sense is that we wear masks not only to protect ourselves, but to protect others who may be vulnerable. Do we really think that state has no interest in preventing me from killing others by refusing to wear a mask? Really?

If we look at the source of this anti-masking idiocy–and it is idiocy–we will find that much of it goes back to you know who, Donald Trump. Once it became apparent to serious physicians and epidemiologists that masks reduced the transmission of Covid, they recommended masks in all the circumstances of which you are probably aware. Joe Biden wore a mask. But Donald Trump refused to wear a mask. Why? Was there some compelling medical reason. Not exactly. Trump is quoted repeatedly in “I alone Can Fix It” as complaining making a mask made him look “weak.” Weak. Yes. I have absolutely no interest in the armchair analyses of Trump as some sort of psychoneurotic, although a number of serious people believe him to be so. He does appear to enjoy acting like a bully, and the worst fear of a bully is not actually weakness, but the appearance of weakness. The appearance invites inevitable challenge, and the bully may likely know just how tough he (or she) is or isn’t. So why risk it?

When I read Bagehot’s The English Constitution, I actually began to get why some of my British friends were monarchists. The Crown is supposed to set the tone for the rest of society, particularly where deference is valued. You may scoff at some of the birds who our British friends were supposed to regard as models, but there you have it. You may say we don’t have a king, so what does it matter what behavior the President models? You may even believe that. If you do, I pity you.

I remember thinking that much of the real damage Richard Nixon did as President came from his clear willingness to violate the law, as if, to paraphrase Leona Helmsley, only the little people obey the law (or pay taxes). I hardly agreed with everything Barack Obama did, but I appreciated the manner in which he conducted himself. I detested Bill Clinton for the same reason. I often wonder if we don’t owe certain changing sexual practices as much to Mr Clinton as we do to films shot in the San Fernando Valley. Hey, Bill and Monica do it…..

Trump tried to discredit wearing masks for political reasons. And the ilk that took their cue from him became America’s little army of super-spreaders. I don’t know about you, but I try to see public health measures for what they are–and not as political signals of some sort. If you do, please, stay away from me and my family. When I was a kid in Philly, the subways had signs saying “No spitting.” They were a holdover from the days of the scourge of TB. You might refrain from spitting too, as a favor to my liberal sensibilities, right? God help us.

Each Wage-Earner is Expected to Contract Covid AND “Tijuana”: A Review

Click to access NJP-Statement-Regarding-the-Obligation-to-Attend-Sunday-Mass_-July-15-2021.pdf

I promised to give this Catholic stuff a rest, and I will. I just want to to remind my readers that, in its infinite wisdom, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia expects you to attend Mass on Sundays in person starting August 15, 2021, the Feast of the Assumption. Nice. I think San Antonio has gotten with the program as well, but when did reality ever interfere with the sacral intentions of the Roman Catholic Church? We made JP II Santo Subito although he was cognizant of the cloud hanging over the abuser, Cardinal McCarrick. Not to mention the Legion of Mary’s Marcial Maciel, a real dirtball, even by Vatican standards. Can we decanonize someone? Deprive them of the Beatific Vision? Instead, we instruct the faithful to return to the pews–pray, pay and obey–even as the Delta variant of Covid II is just getting rolling. It gives new meaning to the old phrase, “Vatican Roulette.” That was the informal name we gave the “I’ve got rhythm” method of birth control under which a good number of Catholic boomers were conceived. Never mind. It’s something or other over the dam. This game of chance is about the end of life, not its frantic beginnings.

Actually, my intention is to give you a brief but professional summary of the Netflix series, “Tijuana.” When I say professional, I mean coming from someone who not only studies Mexican history, but who generally likes Mexican films. Mexico, with its distinctive cultural personality, is easily subject to caricature. Mexican film makers are as susceptible to the temptation to caricature as any–“they are in love with catsup,” a friend of mine says, euphemizing the B-movies penchant for blood and gore. “Tijuana” is, for the most part, an exception. If anything, it goes overboard in its effort to establish some novel positive cliches–like the crusading press, hungering for truth. It’s also awfully, sometimes pointlessly, long. And quite predictably, when the going gets slow, someone gets their rocks off or shows a little skin. At one point, ugh, accompanied by a saxophone solo. C’mon guys. No one does that any more, guys. I mean use the sexophone that way.

It’s also pretty funny to read one of those boilerplate notices on screen that “Tijuana”, which was filmed in Tijuana, is not supposed to bear any resemblance to any real place, person or thing. So I’m supposed to imagine this takes place in Peoria? And the politicans are local Rotarians? Dumb. Another cliche.

I may get into hot water with the four or five people who take the time to read this, but the series struct me as unimpeachably chairo. Neta, as the Mexicans say, chairo has no exact translation (“neta”: long story short, doesn’t either). Chairo, in contemporary Mexico, is a rather derogatory term for someone who is an unconditional supporter of left-wing populism, especially the brand retailed by the President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Or just plain AMLO. Or Andres Manuel. One of the nastiest scenes in “Tijuana” involves a struggling lesbian photojournalist, Malu, trying to explain her work from an exposition mounted by her partner, a gallery owner, who caters to what Mexicans now term “gente fifi” (accent on the second fi). Fifi comes out much the same way in Mexico as “Alamo Heights Blonde” rolls off my lips. A contemptuous way of characterizing intellectual wannabees who have more money or silicone than brains, or who take their pet ocelots for walks in once-fashionable Polanco. You know, vulgar. And obnoxious. “Tijuana” seemed unimpeachably chairo, if only because its central character, Antonio Borja, the crusading newspaper editor, is played–and well played–by Damian Alcazar.

Alcazar is a major star in Mexico, and he’s made a lot of films. The ones I’ve seen are well known: “La Ley de Herodes,” “Infierno,” and “La Dictadura Perfecta.” In “La Dictadura,” he plays a thuggishly corrupt, not to say murderous northern governor, who climbs the greasy pole of Mexican–especially PRI–politics by collaborating with an equally corrupt broadcast network (Televisa a clef, for cognoscenti) in a staged kidnapping of a the twin girls of a middle class, very white couple (if you think race in the USA is complicated, try Mexico) on his way to the Presidency. Alcazar plays a pig, no kinder way to put it, closely matched by those of the slim suit crowd from psuedo-Televisa, whose “journalistic” ethics are precisely what the ratings would dictate. Venal. I hadn’t realize that Alcazar was involved in AMLO’s MORENA (it means sort of dark skinned, among other things) all purpose political movement. Learning that he was put “Tijuana” into perspective. You know, so that’s what’s going on.

Neta, the main theme around which “Tijuana” revolves is the murder of a reformist “PTI” (PRI) candidate for governor by dark forces. What dark forces? Ho boy, take your pick. Narcos. Right-wing businessmen. Rival politicians. All of the above? This is what I would call a “Colosio-scenario”, the murder of the PRI presidential candidate in 1994 by said dark forces who feared he might put Mexico on a more virtuous, clearly less criminally profitable path. The PRI had a history of killing off ambitious reformers, although plane crashes had been the favored means (eg Carlos Madrazo, 1969, whose name is now a pun so dark I couldn’t possibly explain it). In this case, the reformist candidate was a union leader from out of the maquiladoras of the Otay Mesa, who simply got gunned down in the company of an aspiring and idealistic reporter, Gabriela, who ends up working for Borja. She is, truth be told, a reckless idiot, who manages to get the newspaper headquarters shot up as a warning that it’s not nice to fool with Dark Forces. Borja knows that, but then again, he values truth and courage and stuff. The reporter is the daughter Borja never had, because his son, Andy, is a spoiled brat (called a “nini” in Mexico, as in “neither a student nor employed”) who likes drinking, sex and working for a character named Mueller who bears a striking physical resemblance to a former mayor of…..you guessed, Tijuana, Jorge Hank Rhon. (Mueller is a gambling tycoon; so was Hank Rhon). A subplot revolves around Andy’s feckless efforts be an investigative cinema guy whom Borja ends up disowning. I guess family estrangement must be a thing in Mexico with this generation, but Andy, dimly self-aware that he is a jerk, elicits little sympathy. In fact, at a climactic moment in “Tijuana” when Borja is in mortal danger, Andy is bogeying the night away with his Gabriela, the pseudo-daughter. If you sense all kinds of Freudian crap going on here, join the club. I do economic history and would have no idea.

Interestingly, Borja has a friendly relation with a Catholic priest. No, he doesn’t attend Mass. No, he doesn’t ask for absolution in Confession. They play chess (cue heavy symbolism) and the priest, who seems awfully grown up and world weary, gives Borja advice. As usual, walking into a Catholic Church in Mexico can get you into deep trouble. I’ll let it go at that, cause I don’t want to be a spoiler.

Alcazar/Borja plays against type in this series, a decent, serious journalist who cares about truth, justice, and the Mexican Way. He has some good supporting characters, including Lalo, a functioning alcoholic and senior reporter, who has the inevitable heart of gold as well as the sketch police contacts. I kept thinking he reminded me of someone I actually knew, but I’m sure the suspect wouldn’t be pleased.

Netflix is also currently running a broadcast about Manuel Buendia, probably the first reporter rubbed out in Mexico for truly pissing off narcos. It’s pretty good, and you can get a sense of just how dangerous a profession journalism in Mexico has become. Once upon a time, reporters were mostly in the pay of the government, unless they fouled up big time. One of them, Carlos Denegri, is the subject of a very recent novel, and most interesting. He was not a nice man, but perhaps more representative of his type than Antonio Borja, who is sort of a cross between Ben Bradlee and Julio Scherer. If you have the time, you could probably find worse uses for it than “Tijuana”. Or you could read a book.

Altar Boyz

Enough of the “I survived a Catholic childhood” right? True enough. I’ll say no more. But after all the cynicism and all the cliches, I thought I might take a serious pass at the whole business one last time. This inspired by the current flap in the Church about the “extraordinary form” of the Mass, otherwise known as the “Latin Mass”. If you are RC and younger than 55, you may want to skip over the entire business. You may have never heard a Latin Mass. If you did, you may have had no idea what was going on since the entire performance differs quite a bit from what the people in the pews hear today when they attend Mass.

And this is not about carrying a torch for a antiquated rite that is apparently yet another flashpoint for Old Style versus Woke Catholics. I confess my sympathies for the Old Style types, in part along aesthetic grounds. I always thought that the post-Vatican II rite in English was lame, from the choice of music to the hip vestments the celebrant now wore. Maybe the older guys were sending me to Eternal Damnation every week or so in Confession, but they seemed to appreciate they had a duty to point out the proverbial slippery slope in the moral life. To the extent that I think about what we termed categories of degrees of sin, venial and mortal, I owe it to the pre-Vatican Church and its shock troops. And mostly to my apprenticeship as an altar boy. I wasn’t good enough to make the CYO football team, but on Good Friday, I kicked ass at the Superbowl of Ceremonies where we prayed for the perfidious heathens. Those were the days. Now we are the perfidious heathens.

At some parochial schools, the really big city ones, getting to be an altar boy (there were no….girls) was a stiff competition, sort of like getting into Notre Dame. There was none of that at Prisontation. There weren’t that many of us, so Fr. Whoever had to pretty much take what he could get. That included the likes of my late, lamented friend Hornet, who inevitably screwed up even the ordinary ceremonies of daily mass. Shessh, Hornet couldn’t even manage to shake a decent sound out of the consecration bells. Talk about no chops. He inevitably rolled in wearing a wrinkled cassock and surplice, and he once produced a two-toned ceremony with me vested in red and old Hornet in black. The celebrant was not amused, seeing as how there was no conceivable explanation for the happy/sad combo. Talk about getting the ray from on high. It was a good thing it was at 7 AM on a winter’s morning, because only the truly devout were there. They didn’t really care, or joined me in mute amusement. They knew we were going to catch Holy Hell afterward.

But actually, this is about the truly devout, rather than about our slaughtering lingua Latina or nearly setting ourselves on fire whenever we were in the neighborhood of good old beeswax candles, not these feeb electric things in use today. Yeah, we messed up a lot, especially when we had to switch from the Latin dative to accusative in the Confiteor. One of the poor parish priests used to wince as we interchanged the two, which must have been like playing out of tune around a musician who had perfect pitch. Beatae Mariae….beatam Mariam semper virgine (-ae, -a), right, whatever. After all, this was a commemoration of the Crucifixion, and if it was Fr. Flaherty on the Cross, well, tough incense. It’s not like we were working on Cicero. Besides, no one took as much altar wine at 7:10 AM as that guy did. But you could see why he drank.

What I really wanted to write about were two very different people I remember at early Mass. And if you think I’m exaggerating, remember, we are talking sixty years after the events. So they made some impression on altar boy Salvucci.

One of them was a physician. I do remember his name, but I’d prefer not to use it, even though he’s now long departed. He was a daily communicant, which means he attended Mass every day and received the sacrament of the Eucharist. Even in the old days, this was no small thing, especially at 7 AM. It meant you were fasting, so no Tastycake beforehand. And, it meant you were in a state of grace. This was pretty impressive to a Catholic kid hitting puberty, because I couldn’t walk down the street and stay in a state of grace, or so I thought. Like Jimmy Carter said, you sinned in your heart, frequently, which was the same as actually…..Any event, it was a pretty rigorous program even for a devout Catholic, and not too many could manage it.

The doctor’s appearance was striking. He was about 5’7″ or so. He was olive skinned and not handsome, but boyish looking, probably in his late 30s or early 40s. He inevitably wore a dark jacket, white shirt and a tie, which was the only part of him you could see him kneeling. And he was crew cut, not quite military style, but a brush cut. What I remember about him was his face. It was like something out of a baroque painting, you know. How the artists manage to create an impression of light radiating from the canvas, usually centered on the principal figure’s face. He was like that. He looked straight ahead, with his eyes slightly elevated. He wasn’t trying to look pious or anything. In fact, he looked some combination of inquisitive, surprised and interested, watching the old Tridentine rite Mass–which could be pretty mundane at that hour of the day–but into it, really. No, he wasn’t obviously talking to the Man, but he was getting charged up for the day. Some people did it on coffee and cigarettes, but this guy did it with daily Mass. I don’t think I consciously envied him, but I do remember telling his daughter, whom I slightly knew–and this was years later–that I could see him as clearly as if the whole scene had played out the day before. And that was the truth. All I can say is, if you were his patient, you were both lucky and blessed. If he took medicine as seriously as he did Catholicism–and I suspect he did, because he was active in a Catholic doctors’ group in Philly–you were in good hands. I suppose you may be rolling your eyes and thinking he was as likely to be some tortured physician working out the principle of double effect on some poor pregnant Catholic girl in a novel like “The Cardinal,” and maybe he was. But this guy just radiated serenity. Man, what a gift.

One of the perks of being an altar boy at Prisontation was you got detailed to other gigs in the immediate neighborhood. The prize assignment was a bit of work, at least for me, because it involved a week of getting myself to the Convent of the Sacred Heart at City Line and Haverford for a week at 6:30 or 7:00 AM once every couple of months. (Note: It is now a Jewish Community Center) This was not a terribly long hike. In the Spring, it was, in fact, delightful, because you got to smell the azaleas and morning glories on the way from my home. But winters–and yes, there were winters in those days, dude: I know, because I’ve gone back and checked the records–man, that was another story. Dark, cold, windy, even snowy sometimes, and getting to the Convent was no fun.

Once you were there, though, man, it was another world. The nuns were not cloistered. In fact, they ran a convent school for girls, some of whom were resident there. Talk about mixed feelings. Here you are trying to look cool for the ladies while you’re wearing a dress, which was not easy to pull off. And you couldn’t stare either, especially at communion, when you got to approach some goddess who would never look twice at you in real life. The chapel looked like something out of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with carved woodwork and a sort of medieval choir, even though I think the place was built in the 1920s. The famous Mexican author Elena Poniatowska attended school there, before my time I gather. So did a well known radio personality on the WMMR of my later days, who went by the name Shelley. Maybe some of you will remember if you wrack your brains hard enough. Anyway, she was also part of the show, so I knew her when, sort of. But back to Elena and Mexico.

In those days, I didn’t know Mexico from Margate, NJ, so I never drew any connections. But the nun who watched over our altar boyly efforts was named Mother Mejilla. Man, she was a pill. Her name aside, I now figure she was probably Mexican, maybe even a refugee from the bad old days of Calles and stuff, because she was incessantly correcting our foul ups–you know, failure to go to the right spot, being asleep at the switch for the Canon of the Mass, that sort of thing, deking the celebrant into the wrong move on the altar–with a loudly audible “Tsssssssssssssss” that sounded liked one of the pipes in the chapel had burst. She must’ve done that at least three times a day, and recently, it hit me that this is a classic Mexican gesture of disapproval. But, like, I was from South-West-near suburban Philly, so how was I supposed to know that in 1963? I now wonder if there wasn’t some kind of pipeline to Mexico with the Order on the Sacred Heart Nuns? It would’ve never occurred to me then.

But this is all prologue. What I recall most of all was an ancient nun who received communion every day, which was not so unusual for a nun, after all. I guess even Mother Mejilla did, between hisses. But this one was different. She had to have been in her eighties then, maybe even more, because even though I was a young kid, she looked genuinely old. When she knelt at the rail–and the communion rail was a beautiful, marble topped affair, if I remember correctly–that’s where the magic happened. We’d go from person to person with the celebrant intoning “Corpus Domini” and the attendants, exclusively women, all had their own style. Some lingered a moment, some arose immediately, some averted their gaze, and one or two of the students brazenly made eye contact (no, unfortunately, not Shelley). But this one nun, I never learned her name, my God, I think I actually saw someone go into ecstasy at Communion. I mean that literally. The beatific smile that transformed her face was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. Her eyes were closed and she was gone somewhere else. Even a dopey kid like me knew that. You know all that stuff you read about angels descending to the altar and the rest that the regular nuns dished out in religion class. Well, for this one, I’m pretty sure it actually happened. She just went into rapture. I could never hang around long enough to follow up, because by the time we had finished, she had gone back to her pew. Where I am certain she had her daily chat with My Lord and Saviour, for real. Man, I never got over it. It didn’t spook me or anything, but it clued me into the fact that for some believers, this was no game. I wish I could have talked to her now, but stupid me, I never even asked. No, I was too busy fending off the audible wrath of Mother Mejilla.

Mother Mejilla. The young doctor. The ancient nun. For too many Catholics of my generation, the Church was Mother Mejilla, all fussy rules and empty gestures to satisfy some pantocratic God that only a truly deranged person could worship, even then. You know, the kind who wanted to see a nuclear war break out so she could see Jesus coming on the Cloud, because it had to be the end of the World. Meanwhile, the people we should have been learning from we barely knew. Think about it. I still do. It explains a lot.

We Deserve The Truth, Dammit

Back in the Fall, I said to a friend of mine that I was afraid we were spiraling out of control in the United States. That we were headed toward violence. That I prayed to God there were still a few grownups left in the house. And that I had never been as depressed by what I had seen going in America. I lived through the Cuban missile crisis, scared to death. I lived through Watergate, angrier than Hell. And I lived through the disgrace of Reagan’s murderous intervention in Central America. I didn’t feel as if I could face my friends in Latin America. Oh, guess where most of my friends live? You’re not surprised, are you. I left Southeastern Pennsylvania 40 years ago. I have notional loyalties there, but my heart is somewhere else. And it ain’t in Texas.

Anyone who had spent much time reading the history of the twentieth century, or who had lived in Latin America–not visited–but lived–would’ve understand why I and more than a few of my remaining USA-friends were growing increasingly apprehensive.

There was–and is, by the way–the Pandemic. It’s not over, but that’s not for today. The sheer incompetence with which the Trump administration handled events–the denial, the lying, the self-deception, the partisan chest pounding, and the callous disregard for human life–was enough to make anyone sick, whether they claimed to be “very political” or not. I often wondered how some people would’ve reacted to the Nazi take-over in Germany. “Oh, sorry, I’m not interested. I’m not very political.” Not a good look is it?

And then there was the famous violation of “norms.” While it was never entirely clear who established the political norms that the Trump Administration was said to be violating (I had the amused suspicion that The Atlantic Magazine may have codified them), it was pretty clear that if, by violation of norms, the President of the United States would say or do anything in pursuit of maintaining his clique of gangsters in power, blood relations or no, then he’d do it. Subvert the Justice Department. Why not? Corrupt the Judiciary? Ok. Destroy the professional bureaucracy needed to manage a complex country in the midst of severe financial and ecological crises? Hell, yes. And most of all, whip its ignorant supporters into a frenzy of misogyny, racism, jingoism, all in the name of “Making America Great Again.” Sure. Go ahead. As JR Ewing once famously said, “Once integrity is gone, the rest is easy.” Welcome to America as Nightmare Theater. Enjoy the ride, if you can. Trump will keep the right people out of the country, and he’ll be sure that the right people get to hold on to their wealth, because, after all, that’s why he was President. It’s not as if he stood for anything palatable.

One of the particularly disgusting features of this little odyssey is its complete predictability. Early on in the sideshow, I can recall having one of those typically feckless FB conversations with a very old friend of mine, Gabriel Haslip Viera, who is a distinguished student of the Caribbean and knows a little history, or at least much as a PhD from Columbia University is likely to get from our mutual dear friend, Herb Klein. Gabe and I go back to the 1970s, and while we don’t agree on everything, our disagreements are of the old-fashioned, “Well, I take your point” kind. Both of us were deeply worried about Trump, and one of us, I don’t know who, brought up Hitler and the Reichstag. The thread went something like, so when do you thing Mr Trump is going to pull his Reichstag act? Who knew, other than there was pretty certain to be one, because Trump was Trump. Well, you would’ve thought we took the name of God in vain, especially in some quarters. I had to laugh the other night when I saw [ that the Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff apparently said “This is a Reichstag moment,” (Gen.) Milley told aides… “The gospel of the Führer.”

What can you expect from pigs but grunts? It was like watching the assault on the Capitol on January 6. Was I surprised? No. Trump and some of his minions in Congress had done everything but tell these lowlifes to go out and kill someone. Liz Cheyney’s reported reaction to Jim Jordan, “SOB, you fucking did this” is exactly correct. What the Hell did you expect? I used to tell some of my academic colleagues, “You play with rats, you get bit.”

Congressperson Cheyney, of course, has raised the 64,000 dollar question. “You did this.” You did this can, of course, be susceptible of diverse interpretation. I don’t think Jordan was actually out there with the creatures of the night looking to lynch Mike Pentz, was he? But then again, to create an atmosphere in which violence and insurrection is possible, what exactly do you have to do? Stroll down the land with a clench fist raised in sympathy with “the people” as one United States Senator actually did? Isn’t that encouraging rioters by signalling “I’m with you”? Or is simply encouraging not enough? I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not really certain how one becomes a co-conspirator in an insurrection, so perhaps a lawyer could explain this to me? Or if you give a tour to a group who show up as rioters a few days later–after you helpfully point out means of ingress and egress, you know, soft spots in the otherwise impregnable defenses of of the Capitol, well, are you just as culpable as the dude who used as flagpole as a deadly weapon? I don’t know.

I do know one Big Thing. We need to get to the bottom of this. Insurrection is no joke. It’s not a day of fun and games for bored Know Nothings. Or their facilitators, whether they are in the Legislative or the Executive or the Judicial . It is a federal crime, and it has to be rooted out and prosecuted. The people behind what happened–all of them–have to be exposed, tried, and if appropriate, convicted. The people engaged in this rebellion have to know that their civil existence in at stake. They have to know that you make a deliberate choice to exclude yourself from civil society if the rules of the game don’t suit you and you try to change them extra-judicially. Permanently. It’s not going to stop otherwise. Look at Texas. Look at the failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War.

The Republican Party has here–and elsewhere–undertaken a program of deliberate rescission of voting rights. The right that makes democracy ostensibly operative. That’s because they know they can’t win in a fair fight. So they don’t scruple about arranging an unfair one. Reality–the correspondence of existing things to their perceived status–no longer matters to them. It’s about power and wealth and holding on to them by any means possible. In Latin America, they used to call it the death rattle of the ruling class.

Welcome to Latin America.

Act accordingly. And wake the Hell up. Or it will happen again. And next time we may not be so lucky.

Come Fly With Me

The average market capitalization of Virgin Galactic Holdings over the past five years was approximately 2.8 billion dollars. If we look at the economic cost of Project Mercury over its life, and using the “Measuring Worth” internet site, which is fairly sophisticated, and convert 1965 dollars into 2020 values, we come out with roughly 8 billion dollars. Tomorrow, when a gazillion more or less sophisticated talking heads–probably less–are waxing eloquent over Mr Branson’s achievement, the Virgin’s market capitalization will probably jump to 14 billion dollars are so.

Think about it.

Not to take anything away from Mr Branson–it may not have been Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight of 60 years ago, but we’ve all seen what can go wrong with these stunts–it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the cost of getting up into the wild blue yonder has really come down. In 1965, they figured it cost roughly 383 million per flight to get a dude into space, a la project Mercury. Virgin Galactic is currently asking 250 thousand per seat. Yeah, you got that right. Basically zilch in Project Mercury terms. So the next time someone tells you prices never come down, they only go up, you might want to gently correct him or her. John Glenn never had it so good.

Now, I know, Glenn and Shepard had space capsules, for Heaven’s sake. Glenn was taking a wild ride on an Atlas Missile that could have well blown up. Hell, it’s general purpose was to rain nuclear Hell down on the USSR, and it looked it. Clunky, kludge, mean, smoking at every orefice. By comparison, Branson’s buggy looks like a modified Cessna riding a rocket engine. Not only does it not radiate testosterone from its phallic bluntness, but it even carried two women. What is this world coming to? Next thing you know, we’ll have a MickeyD on Mars, for those Big Mac Attacks that sneak up on you when you’re looking wistfully back at Planet Gaia. Just wait.

Anyway, you immediately notice that there appears to be a lot less overhead associated with Virgin than there was with NASA. I always had the impression that NASA and its appendages had more of a relation with the military than I wanted to think about, and if there was any part of the government that knew had to spend money, well, they didn’t call it Pentagon capitalism for nothing. Branson, as far as I know, has got none of that. I don’t think his Mission Control is set up for interplanetary travel quite yet. It’s more like a high tech theme park for high rollers, Astro Hertz or something. They put you in the driver’s seat, and, oh, the wonderful places you will go.

But there’s another, I guess, more serious point to be made about the declining cost of fly me to the moon. NASA and its crew cut military pilots and German scientists could only take so much technology off the shelf. Not being an expert in this stuff, I can only interpret some of the horrendous screw ups that occurred as evidence of just that. Branson’s earlier efforts involved a few lives. As late as the Space Shuttle, people were working at the frontiers of technology, and when you’re out there, the costs are high. Rockets explode. Capsules have short circuits and go up in flames. People (like Gus Grissom) die. I don’t know how close we really came to losing Apollo 13, but whenever I read sensational stories about Russian cosmonauts who ended up on a one-way trip to God knows where–and may still be going half a century later–I tend to think were may have been good, but we were also lucky. I could never understand the idea of sending an elementary school teacher into space for grins. Christa McAuliffe would’ve stood a better chance in the classroom, for a change. At least you can see it coming.

I can’t tell you exactly how much technology Virgin Galactic has been able to make use of as a result of not being a pioneer, with all due respect. I assume that whole business of command, control and communication is now pretty much “routine” as opposed to what it was back in the exciting days when you wondered if a capsule coming down in the ocean would ever respond, let alone sink. Someone told me once that a high-end laptop has more computing power that we used to send guys to the Moon. If that’s true, well, go back and read the story of the first moon landing and the malfunctioning computer that made the last 30 seconds to one small step exciting (little did we know). I’m not saying it doesn’t take guts, brains and a lot of nerve to go up in Branson’s Beautiful Balloon. But it’s nothing like what had to be done from scratch years ago. And for that, you can thank the military-industrial-aerospace complex. Branson ought to be giving some of us free rides. After all, in some ways, he’s getting one.

So when you hear all the grousing from certain quarters about government overreach, how the government is the enemy, builds bridges to nowhere, and all that, you might want to think again. About the Internet; civilian airliners, especially from Boeing; GPS, and now, for God’s sake, affordable space travel. It’s not a joke. The worst kept secret in economics–and even some big names like Ed Phelps seem to miss it–is how much the government and its economic spillovers have contributed to a rising civilian standard of living in the United States, and the world, in the last century.

You have a degree in Entrepreneurship? Oh Goody. Now all you need is for someone to show you the money and make sure the property rights in your creation are secure. And then, you too can be a “self-made” person. Just like Richard Branson. Maybe Branson will turn ought to be another Wilbur or Orville Wright. But it’s not like anyone is going to know for at least another century, so for God’s sake, let History decide.

My apologies if this is sort of a duplicate. Technical difficulties here.