Pay me or trade me

Man, if you want to stop rational conversation in the United States, talk about rent control, taxes, or the minimum wage. “If we don’t do this, the world will end.” “If we do this, the world will end.” And in the background, some talking head, usually male, but nowadays, maybe a woman, saying the exact opposite to some befuddled broadcaster. What’s a good citizen to do? You could say “They’re all full of crap.” And maybe you’re right. Of if you’re in a seance with Harry Truman, you could ask for a “one handed economist.” On the other hand, you could say, as a friend of mine does, “two economists, three opinions.” That appeals to the cynical pomo in me. What, Pilate said, is truth? Good question, dude. Especially when redemption is on the line. Isn’t it always.

The Dems have tied themselves to the mast of raising the minimum wage to $15.00 an hour. That bald statement doesn’t tell you much. Joe Biden has said, incorrectly, its not a issue that has anything to do with the federal budget, so it merits separate treatment. Smart move, Joe. This way, you leave your credentials a sensible moderate intact. I get it.

But, really, why is the issue so controversial? I mean, really, unless you’re an Unpalatable or a Filthy Capitalist, how could you demur? I’ve seen the hurt in my Liberal friends’ eyes when I suggest the Neanderthals may have a point. Et tu, Salvucci? You can actually side with those people? Well, not exactly, but I know from which cave they spring. It is called a demand curve, and if you can get any closer to a religious dogma in neoclassical economics than “demand curves slope down,” you got to tell me what it is. Spare me the free lunch. No less an economist than Joel Mokyr insists that technology provides one, and he’s a Big Deal and I’m not. Besides, that’s not the issue.

Any economist trained anywhere other than a Red Roof Inn will tell you price and quantity are inversely related when it comes to demand. Forget all the nerd reasons that your econ teacher laid on you. It comes down to substitution. In the purest flavor of neoclassical stuff, no one needs anything, because there are substitutes for everything. If gin gets too expensive relative to other spirituous liquors, then you’ll switch to something else. Like vodka. It doesn’t have to be a perfect substitute. After all, the goal is to get buzzed, not to improve Scotland’s balance of trade. I know, not much finesse there for the connoisseur, but this isn’t The New Yorker. So if there are substitutes for everything, consumption is not an all or nothing proposition. You can always use a little less or a little more, depending on relative price. And, horror of horrors, that describes the labor market as well

For some reason, applying the theory of demand to people and jobs really ticks people off. Hey, that’s my brother you’re talking about. And he’s not a pineapple. We don’t traffic in human labor in the same way we traffic in kumquats. Really? Explain the Atlantic Slave Trade. Are you saying the enslaved were kumquats? No. Hardly. But it’s odd how the use of slave labor and the theory of demand make odd bedfellows. You think planters were happier when African slaves were cheap or expensive. You just answered my question. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s true. And saying it doesn’t make me a reactionary. Or a defender of slavery. Just an economic historian, which is much less sensational.

The idea that relatively high wages will make an employer think twice about hiring is hardly a stretch, especially if you’re talking about unskilled labor. By definition, unskilled workers have nothing distinctive about them (but they’re people, man! I know). If you’re picking up fruit at the market, and it’s all the same, which do you choose? Chances are, the cheapest one. Why pay a premium for something that has no distinctive qualities? Unskilled labor, alas, is like a generic fruit in the market. Push up its price and people start to look for a substitute. Saying you are going to help unskilled labor rise from poverty by raising the minimum wage is naive. What you’re gonna do is give someone an incentive to find a substitute for it. So, ultimately, at a certain level, the minimum wage is self-defeating. When I went to McDonald’s in France, there was no smiling employee to greet me and take my order. I got to talk to a screen. And collected my order by number. The Europeans have tougher labor laws than we do, and you can’t just fire someone because you’re in a bad mood. High wages have the same effect: they encourage substitution of capital for labor.

This isn’t politics, or shouldn’t be. In the same way face masks aren’t politics, or shouldn’t be. The virus doesn’t care, and, alas, the market tends not to either. “That’s why I hate capitalism.” Yeah. Your complaint is registered.

So you’d probably say, “Hey, you’re opposed to raising the minimum wage, right?” Ah, not exactly and not per se. For one thing, I was taught that inflation adjusted wages and prices do the heavy lifting in markets, and I’ll wager the real (inflation adjusted) minimum wage has fallen in the United States, so pushing the number of dollars up some is not likely to break any employer. And that’s what the studies all say, lately. Chicago, Seattle, Jersey, whatever. They strain to find substantial employment effects. The explanations are many and varied; if you’re that curious, go look at the current Congressional Budget Office report on the pending increase ( Yeah, I know, boring. Facts always are. Remember, find me a one-handed economist.

For another, I’m not sure I trust the studies because looking for an effect from a minimum wage increase after it’s happened is like trying to find the horse after someone unlocked the barn. Employers aren’t stupid, and even as we argue, I’ll bet a lot of them are figuring out ways to preemptively deal with an increase before it happens. Expectations matter, and people adjust. We know that. So Heaven knows how good the data is. At a local supermarket, the cart jockeys disappeared before the ACA went into effect. I know. But it’s Texas. I don’t disagree. The moral high ground has very little value here. It ain’t Seattle.

I guess my reaction to the CBO study is, well, how big is big, how bad is bad. Will the benefits, broadly measured, justify the costs. That is a very, very difficult question to answer, because a lot depends on who gets what of each. You pay, I benefit. I’m for it. If not, NIMBY. It depends.

It also strongly suggests that economic questions end up as political issues, as this one obviously is. Do you really think this one is any different? You think Trump made any sense when he said exports good imports bad? Like so much else the guy spouted, that was backward. Completely wrong. Who cared. You saw what happened. In his world, Lies Trumped Good Economics.

I suspect this is going to be decided politically as well, and believe me, the world won’t end if the Democrats get what they want. I believe in the principal of “This is not necessarily a great idea, but it’s time has come.” And an increase in the minimum wage sort of falls there. It will lift some people out of poverty, and there’s far too much of that in the United States. It will hurt some workers, and I suspect it will also act as a wealth tax of sorts, about which I am also vaguely supportive. Why? Because the alternative is worse. I don’t want to watch more people get talked into the idea that they don’t matter. And that invading the Capitol is their only way to make the point. Some mistakes you have to make. Welcome to the real world.

Stan the Man

“A car is a weapon. Weapons kill. They have killed and will kill. When you get into a car, remember, you are using a weapon.” That was a great moment in driver’s ed, old school style. Not exactly Montessori, huh. My “instructor” was a World War II veteran of the First Army, the Big Red One. He worked at Westinghouse in Lester, PA, in the Steam Turbine Division. He was a union guy. He smoked Camel cigarettes. I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think he drank Ortlieb’s beer, although I know he was both a Gretz and Schmidt’s aficionado. He played violin so badly that when he visited my cousin, who played fiddle with the Pittsburgh Symphony, someone told me my cousin ran around shutting the windows to make sure none of the neighbors heard the ensuing racket. God forbid they should think it was coming from him.

Stan came up the hard way. He came from a Polish-Hungarian family in North Philadelphia, and was a high school graduate. He had two brothers and a sister, as far as I know. Before World War II broke out, he was selling sporting goods at a store in Philadelphia on Arch Street named Passon’s. The place was famous, and I’m pretty sure my first baseball glove come from there courtesy of Stan. He was my uncle. I worshiped him. You want to talk about favorites. I had a lot of uncles and aunts. Stan and his wife, Dot, my Mom’s sister (Domenica) were my favorite people. I bore a distinct resemblance to Dot, so much so that people often thought I was her son. I can only imagine how much my Mom enjoyed that. She and Dot had been known to, er, lock horns a bit in their day. Like my Mom would spell her maiden name Vallari at South Philadelphia High to distinguish herself from Domenica Villari, who spelled it properly. God knows that that was about.

In any event, Stan met Dot before the war, and they were married when he came home. I have some of his letters because I have his scapbook from the army, as well as lots of pictures. They are really something. Stan was then known as Lutz, and he called Domenica “Dot” and wrote her when he could. Does this sound like a scene from The Best Years of Our Lives? Maybe it was.

Stan went everywhere on what he ironically termed “my last visit to the continent.” He was in Africa, Italy, France, Belgium and Germany. He was a radio operator and I have his citation for Bronze Star. His unit was getting hammered somewhere by heavy artillery fire, and, Stan being Stan, he stayed at his post, did his job, and probably kept a lot of guys from getting killed by coordinating movements and maybe helping direct return fire. I never asked and Stan never talked about it. He didn’t want to be thanked for his service. He disliked the VFW types and never, never went. I did ask him about that once and he said something to the effect that the people who had been in it–really been in it–didn’t want to talk about what they saw. And that was that. His only souvenir from the war was a case of malaria that I gather he picked up in Italy. I can still remember him getting sick in the 1950s with relapses of the disease. He never complained. Never.

Stan was an average guy, but not your average person, let alone your average Philadelphian. He was not a sports nut. He could’ve cared about the Phillies or the Birds, although he was proud of coming from the same neighborhood as Angelo Coia, who played for the Washington Football Team (oh God). He spoke some Hungarian and some Polish, and taught me how to pronounce the names of some of my Hungarian teachers at the Piarist high school I attended. I guess that was all he had, and if he knew how to swear, I never got any of it, thank God. I can imagine getting thrown out for running a Hungarian obscenity past the Headmaster.

What Stan did do was reinforce something already going on in my life. Stan loved swing bands. He loved Glen Miller (which I never really got into) and he loved Gene Krupa (which I did). When Stan finally managed to move into Delaware County and a new home, he had a Music Room built. The wall was plastered with autographed publicity photos of musicians and bandleaders from the 1930s and 1940s, including a signed one from Benny Goodman. Stan had a pretty fair record collection, and it was always fun going over there and listening to music. I first heard Roy Eldridge play “Rockin Chair” with Gene Krupa at Stan’s house, something I never quite got over. Together, Stan and my Dad were a one-two punch. While I got into rock like everyone did in high school, I also got into Goodman and James and Shaw and Tommy Dorsey. I know I spent as much time listening to those bands as I did to the Stones or The Temptations. To be honest, probably more. When I started learning trumpet, some of this got to be like study sessions. The first time I managed to play along with the trumpet section in Dorsey’s “Yes Indeed” was beyond cool. No, it isn’t difficult, but when you’re 14, you don’t care.

The really amazing thing about Stan was that he knew Gene Krupa personally, and spent time with Gene whenever he was in the Philadelphia area or South Jersey. He’d go up to the Metropole in New York City to see Gene as well, which I thought was just impossibly awesome. Cause it was. Stan had a cigarette lighter (remember those) from Gene, inscribed, a Zippo. Boy would I like to know where that ended up. I’d probably still be smoking if I had gotten it.

I’m not really certain how Gene and Stan became friends and I was too young to inquire much. The absolute high point of my early teenage life was when Stan took me to the Steel Pier in Atlantic City to see Gene with a small group, I think it was Summer of 1965. Stan brought Gene a bottle of Cutty Sark, which was apparently Gene’s beverage of choice, and between sets, we sat in his dressing room while he and Stan shot the breeze. I can’t remember what I did because I was so astounded to be there. Actually, I do remember talking to Jimmy Palmer, who led the House band at the Steel Pier. I was kind of asking him if I could take a crack at at one of the trumpet parts. Since Jimmy didn’t need any subs, and, at all odds, was too busy ogling Diana Ross to be much interested in any conversation with me, it didn’t happen. I did get to have a nice conversation with the pianist Dyl Jones, who was amazingly friendly and more than willing to answer all my idiot questions about what he was doing and how he did it. Gene’s regular pianist was John Bunch, whom Stan also knew well, but John wasn’t on the gig that time. I also got to see Carmen Leggio, who must have been between stints with Woody Herman. He didn’t say much, but man could he play.

Stan was a very, very generous guy. I know he was soft touch for hard-up musicians (isn’t that redundant?). At his funeral, I remember talking to my Aunt Dot, who was crushed. Apropos of nothing, she told me that a certain famous Philly tenor player had borrowed $100 from Stan, which went unpaid as Stan joined the departed at Sts Peter and Paul. Any Philly musician I tell that story to–of the few remaining from that guy’s generation–crack up when I tell the story. I take it our friend had a long-standing, dubious financial history, of which Stan was merely a part. The rest I pass over in silence.

When Jack Kennedy gave his New Frontier speech at the LA Democratic Convention, I listened from Stan’s basement. When I was home from grad school one summer and without wheels, Stan lent me his. He would pretty much do anything for anybody, even though he was making the transition to Reagan Democrat as the Party decided guys like him were dispensable. Believe me, Stan said a lot of stuff my academic friends would have been horrified by, but he was a working class white guy for whom generalizations quickly gave way to individual assessments. So most of the time, I just shook my head as I got older. What the Hell. He had a habit of being around at some of the most memorable times of my life, and that alone made up for anything else.

Stan died relatively young from mesothelioma, aka ship fitters’ cancer. He worked around steam turbines at Westinghouse, and I’m certain that’s where he got it. These days, he would’ve been part of a class action suit. The Nazis couldn’t kill him, but American industry did. I always found that very ironic. His death broke up a lot of people very badly, my Dad included, because Stan was a traveling companion, raconteur, and occasional partner in whatever crime my Dad could actually scare up, which couldn’t have been much. So when I hear people ranting about white privilege and Trump’s people, I bite my tongue. You can say what you want about white working class guys of his generation, but I know what I saw. I can’t listen to Krupa without thinking about him. And next to my father, I can’t think of anyone I miss more.

Lizardi, Egania (sic) and Forstall

One of the nice things about what I do–what exactly is it that I do?–is that I get to poke in around people’s lives. These people, God love ’em, are usually long departed. They had no idea that anyone would ever care about them, much less write about them, although I suspect a couple wouldn’t have been surprised. Some of them were important in their day–although lots weren’t–and a couple were important but obscure. Which was probably what they intended, because some of their doings were, ah, a bit louche, if not downright illegal, and not the sort of thing you’d want well documented. That, alas, is a bit of a problem, because I started life as a historian. Even in a profession drenched in a love of the demotic (I gotta tell you the humble annals of the poor are less attractive if you have some first-hand acquaintance with them), you can’t just make it up as you go along. You need evidence. I realize that is, alas, now a controversial statement among a large share of the American people, but I ain’t gonna get their vote anyway. What we consider evidence or how we interpret it may well be a product of consensus, pragmatism, I think it’s called, but there are even guidelines for that, or used to be, anyway, so spare me alternative facts. In my world, that phrase is equivalent to “bullshit.”

I have before me one such piece of evidence. It is a copy (not certified, cause that was cheaper) of a birth certificate dated May 12, 1833. It is from the state of Louisiana, Parish of Orleans. Said document legally records the birth of one Maria Ramona Manuela Lizardi, who entered the world on April 4, 1833. She was the legitimate daughter of one Francisco de Paula de Lizardi and Elena Gutierrez Cubas. Her father was a resident of the city of Veracruz, in Mexico, and I think Elena (or Helen, as she often appears in other documents) was too. At any rate, if I go through my now overflowing stack of semi-organized notes, scans, photostatic copies, and other miscellanea that I’ve been assembling for at least fifteen years, I know I’ll find Francisco and Elena were married there. At some point, around 1829, maybe earlier, they came, with no great fuss, to Louisiana.

This is important, because a lot of Americans think you always had to have a fingerprint, the benediction of ICE, means aplenty, and a sure sense of boundaries and borders before they’d let you into these United States. I hate to break it to you, but in those days, when the great state of Texas was part of Coahuila y Tejas and Coahuila y Tejas was part one of the states of what was then Republic of Mexico, borders got traced out on some map without much regard to stuff on the ground. So when I used to hear some of my now estranged classmates from Devon Preparatory School ’69 bang on about “let them come in the right way like we did” (whatever on Earth that meant to someone carried to full term in Conshocken PA in 1950), I got a little irritated. And what would that be, and where would that be? Even in the 1890s, you could walk across the United-States-Mexico border without knowing it. And without anyone much caring. I gotta tell you, “Mexican go home” may sound great in Hazelton, PA, but it don’t mean much in Texas. Let me break it to you. WE are the outsiders, dude. We may have stolen Texas fair and square, but before it was USA, it was Mexico, and before that, New Spain. Full stop.

Thing about Ms Lizardi, my friend, is that she is buried in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the graveyard of Old St Mary’s Church, in Section F. Her headstone is barely legible, and you sort of have to crawl around looking for it, but it’s there. She died on September 11, 1854. Now, for all the Schmidt’s beer you can drink. Here’s the question? What was she doing there? And to make matters even curiouser, she had a brother, one Miguel Genaro de Lizardi, who had been born in Philadelphia in 1834 where their family was in residence there Now, for even more Schmidt’s, what was Francisco de Lizardi doing in Philadelphia in 1834, because that was a long way from New Orleans and even farther from Veracruz? And, dah dah, Miguel Genaro had an uncle, one Manuel Julian de Lizardi, who was probably at that very moment visiting his Mother in New York. And he was a long way from anyone of his several homes, nationalities (and for all I know, families although I doubt it). What was he doing? These guys didn’t travel for grins.

Now, I could be wrong about this, and I really have to go back and dig through my early notes for this project, but I do believe that Manuela (and I may be wrong, I emphasize) had become the object of affection of one Benito Gomez Farias, who was in London, where Francisco’s family (Francisco was by this point, sadly deceased) on His Government’s Service. Benito was the son of a very famous Mexican politico, Valentin Gomez Farias, who, in the politics of the day, was styled a Liberal in Mexico. The Lizardi family, of course, was Conservative. Or at least, Don Manuel Julian was, and he, in turn, was one of the wealthier people in the world, a kind of one man Treasury to the Mexican government during the era of President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Yes, that Santa Anna, of the Alamo and all that. To whom the Lizardi were kin by way of Veracruz.

Oh, to finish off this installment of what will be a continuing series, Manuel Julian had threatened to strangle Manuela before he would allow her to wed Benito Gomez Farias. That wasn’t very nice, was it? This was because Manuel Julian thought Don Valentin had done him dirty in a scurrilous bond deal in the 1840s that nearly sunk Manuel Julian’s London-based merchant bank. So there was no love lost between Lizardi and the Gomez Farias, or at least, between that small part of what turns out to have been a vast extended kin group, a tribe, more to the point.

So, please, do me a solid. Can you tell me what these Lizardi guys (and the name is Basque and has nothing to do with lizard, sorry) were doing in Philly in the 1830s, or what Ramona was doing buried there in the 1850s? I have a theory that the family may have been circling the wagons abroad in anticipation of a very nasty cabal assembled against Mr Santa Anna that went down in Mexican history starting in 1854, and the enemy of Santa Anna was the enemy of the Lizardi. Take my word for it. 1854, for those who know their Mexican history, was the outbreak of the so-called Ayutla movement that ultimately sent Santa Anna packing, after a good thirty-year run in making a plague of himself in Mexico. So there’s that too.

And I haven’t even gotten to Forstall or Egania (sic) yet. Can you imagine? Namesakes of New Orleans’ unfortunate Ninth Ward, where they all have streets named after them. See. Study history and learn something other than Trump was a very big loser even by American standards. You can’t wait, right? Neither can I. If you want a taste of a “peer reviewed” slice of this (and who wouldn’t), you can go to

The Lizardi Brothers: A Mexican Family Business and the Expansion of New Orleans, 1825-1846 Journal of Southern History (2016) which was actually co-written by Linda Salvucci and your humble servant. Those details can be cited, because the Editors of the Journal earned their pay making us document every detail. Ask me before citing names and dates from this post, because I really will have to go through the same checking and verification before I (probably we) get some reputable academical journal to publish it.

We start with facts. The established kind. Welcome back to reality.

NB I’m gonna have to learn how to do accents and tildes in Word Press, because Egania thus rendered in New Orleans was Egana with a tilde. I really want to get better with this stuff, but screwing up is easy. Also, I corrected the son of Francisco born in Philadelphia to Miguel Genaro. I apologize for the error. I know if I’m not staring directly at a genealogical tree of these people, I mess up. Miguel was probably named after another uncle, and, if memory serves, his paternal grandfather, but that may be incorrect. These aren’t trivial mistakes, unfortunately.


Lord of the Bus

Yesterday I learned that one of my Devon classmates had gone to the next world. It happens, right. Like Jim Morrison said, no one gets out of here alive, and besides, the pain is over then. Good point. But this particular guy had a a certain bond with me. In fact, we first met inContinue reading “Lord of the Bus”


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Baghdad on the Potomac

It snowed in Southeastern Pennsylvania on January 19 and 20, 1961. A lot. You remember snow.

What we used to get back in the winter days of Global Normal, when the heating season began in Philly on October 15 (our steam heat went on that day in Penn Wynne, PA, courtesy of Lewis C Jones Company, with billowing columns of damp, vaguely musty smelling steam bubbling up through cracks in the pipes and sidewalk joints. Trust me, it was cool. And some sidewalks got automatic snow removal. Called steam melting. (That would have been along Hampstead Road.) I remember a lot because, in the prior fall, my family had moved from the mean streets of West and South Philly to the meaner ones of Lower Merion about 6 months earlier. But that’s for another post.

Anyway, in those gelid winters of the 60s and 70s, there were “snow days.” Usually 5 or 6 inches was enough to get your public or parochial school shut down for the day in the Philly suburbs. Even in high school–especially then, when we had genuinely snowy stretches–you could count on sleeping in, going sledding, and watching your three channels of black and white. Where, indeed, are the snows of yesteryear? More fake news, I guess, but I didn’t imagine shovelling it.

In any event, I was home on January 20, 1961. I sat on a braided rug in the mostly empty living room of my parents’ modest suburban Meloney and McWilliams cottage style twin home. By my reckoning, I think they were the fourth owners since the place had gone up in the 1910s We had a small black and white console model tv that sat in an alcove on an inexpensive metal frame. It was a little chilly, but I didn’t care. I was home. And I was watching the inauguration of the President of the United States on live television. I had never done that before. I was ten years old. It seems like yesterday, but it was 60 years ago.

Up on the screen in front of the Capitol was my hero. You can laugh all you want, but I was a ten-year old Catholic kid who was watching the inauguration of the first Roman Catholic President. I had seen John Kennedy in person on the steps of the Upper Darby City hall on a rainy afternoon a few months earlier with my grandmother. Kennedy, I recall, had shockingly red hair. He was a good-looking guy, a war hero, and, most of all, young. To my kid self, the product of a working class immigrant family, Kennedy said all the right things. I had watched him debate Richard Nixon on the same television. He was as articulate and dynamic as Nixon was dreary and uninspiring. Yup. I was a Democrat. And I had been delighted by Kennedy’s win. I remember the morning after election night when Chet Huntley said it was all over on a live NBC broadcast. That had been a first for me too. I remembered events of Eisenhower’s presidency, but Ike was impossibly old and he seemed to spend a lot of time at Burning Tree Golf Club. Or so I thought. Worse, he had let America fall behind the Soviet Union. In like everything, but especially missiles. Yeah, and in something called Quemoy and Matsu. Who knew, right? Must have been bad.

There had been a short circuit in the podium where Kennedy was going to speak, and a brief burst of smoke. But no big deal. As far as Kennedy was concerned, there was no big deal. Hey, he had single handedly saved one of his crew from PT 109, right? By swimming to some island in some place called the Solomon Islands, I thought. You really think a fire, or, for that matter, snow and cold was gonna stop President Kennedy? He took the oath of office in a suit jacket while everybody else had top coats, top hats, and frozen breath. He was tough. And it was a good thing. Because the Cold War was as real as the snow on the ground in DC. And then there was The Speech.

Oh, yeah, The Speech. Now everybody knows what Kennedy said (or used to, when we actually had to memorize such stuff in history classes), so I won’t presume to repeat it. There was high drama, Bostonish sounding cadences, and a lot of challenges. I thought I was one of the New Generation to whom the torch had been passed. I had no clue, of course, but bearing any burden and fighting any foe (read them lousy Russians) sounded good to me. Stuff was gonna happen, good stuff. And like any good immigrant Catholic kid, I wanted a piece of the action. Even at the age of ten. The future had arrived.

Now fast forward six decades. I’m pretty sure I’m gonna watch Joe Biden’ s inauguration, but with a radically different set of expectations. That’s partly because I ain’t ten years old any more; because Mr Kennedy, he dead; and so pretty much is the world that he ushered in. And, hey, we won the Cold War. Great, right? Except today I sit here and wonder if we lost our souls in the process. American “can do”? Can do what? Screw up? Vietnam, the Middle East, the War on Poverty, Katrina, the Fierce Urgency of Now? Make America Great Again, right. Oh. My. God.

I have to pinch myself to remember that my parents were registered Republicans. You could be decent and a Republican then. Now the South Philly family was all in with FDR, because, as my grandfather explained to me, the Democrats were for the workin’ man, and the Republicans, ugh, those were the stiffs you went on strike AGAINST. My Mom had been a Republican to get a City Hall job back in the days when Philadelphia had a Republican Mayor ( Samuels was his name, I think, before Joe Clark). My Dad, I don’t know. We didn’t fight about politics until Vietnam. And I never asked, and didn’t care. Families didn’t fight over politics. We fought over, what, cigarette brands? Not even that. Maybe over Ocean City versus Wildwood. Or Maris versus Mantle. We didn’t fight over politics. Especially when Kennedy came along. Even if my Dad voted for Nixon. Which I never knew then. I didn’t like Nixon, but I didn’t think he was Satan.

Do you know what it is to be really sick to your stomach? How about living in the one state (guess) where the Attorney General (himself a wannabee felon on the lam) refused to sign off on a letter (endorsed by 49 others) that condemned the “insurrection” that he (Ken Paxton) had personally egged on with his criminal patron, Donald Trump? How about training, in part, as a professional historian only to conclude that Abraham Lincoln had gotten things dead wrong in 1861? That he should have let the South secede as some then urged and then let the British worry about slavery. Because that way the United States would’ve been rid of this racist, reactionary cancer we can never quite excise. And, as if to make the irony more sickening, has once again forced troops into the United States Capitol for the first time since the Civil War, to make sure the “rebels” don’t string up Mike Pence or Nancy Pelosi? While we get to impeach Agent Orange AGAIN. Hell, Jeff Davis will probably end up having a better historical reputation than Trump. And deservedly so. Davis at least fought for the United States in the Mexican War. A sense of duty that mafioso in the White House would never understand. He is, after all, not a loser. He had medical issues.

The other day, my doctor told me, if I laid off the bean burgers, that I would probably live to a ripe old age. I should be delighted, right? I’ll get more than the Biblical Threescore and Ten. You know what’s sad? I don’t know if I care to stick around that long. I’m not ten years old any longer, and somehow, the future, such as it is, doesn’t seem particularly appealing. Maybe Joe can pull a rabbit out of his hat and start turning things around. Wanna bet the gun nuts in the Republican Party won’t shoot the rabbit for dinner, or even just for the sheer Hell of it? I wouldn’t, if I were you. Maybe you can’t fix stupid, but you can’t fix mean, constipated and ugly either.

PS I misspelled Pence the first time around. Spelling is no longer my strong point.

It Can’t Happen Here

Back in 2005, the Harvard macroeconomist Benjamin Friedman published a wonderful book called The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. There were no equations. No Greek letters. No models. This is Economics? Yeah, and readable too. Unless you think it’s obvious, but then you hardly need it. Friedman’s point was that when you have an expanding economy, there is less rent-seeking, and far fewer zero-sum games. In plain English, if the pie is growing, and if the rules of dividing it up include some means of ensuring that everyone gets something, life is better. Sure. People don’t squabble over small increments to product–they don’t fight over scraps–because they don’t have to. There is less partisan division, less social conflict, more cooperation, a greater largeness of spirit. It’s not just culture, you know. It’s the logic of scarcity, or to put it differently, it’s economics. It’s an erudite, well written and highly relevant book. I often wonder how many people read it. Very few economists, to be sure. No Star Wars math and stat moves to impress the credulous. Just words.

Watching the storm over Washington unfold yesterday, Friedman’s book ran through my mind. One of the things that seemingly distinguished America from its neighbors in Latin America was a sort of implicit “labor peace.” To put it bluntly, class conflict had been muted because the economic pie had grown fast enough since the Depression to assure that most everyone got a share. There were “unassimilables”, like Black Americans, but hey, hadn’t we agreed in the 1960s we were gonna fix that? There was poverty, but Jesus aside, poverty is part of the human condition. Some enthusiasts will tell you it is an indispensable part of the human condition; it gives the poor something to shoot for. Be that as it may, we weren’t oblivious. If you grew up with Michael Harrington (and I did), you weren’t kidding yourself. But the system seemed elastic enough and prosperous to handle poverty too. At least until LBJ got himself caught up in Viet Nam. Then guns and butter and the tradeoff–inevitable, like it or not–began to bind. And someone was gonna get left behind. And did. Boy did they.

But still, until the late 1960s, we seemed to have it figured out. Ok, there were gross disparities in the way men and women were treated, but even there, you could see signs of change. A bright cousin of mine went to MSU and became a successful lawyer. She did. Emphasis on she. Stuff was changing. Maybe too slowly, but change–and therefore, hope, there was. We thought we could do more. We thought we could be better. There was, to put it in flowery terms, a largeness of spirit that people like Bobby Kennedy and MLK captured. Before they got killed.

You’re not gonna find much agreement about any of what went wrong, but I have my own theories. Richard Nixon, a louse, but no fool, knew an opportunity when he saw one. And civil rights, hippies, drugs, miniskirts, oh Lord–Woodstock–could shock some people who were already uneasy about what the changes afoot meant for them–white, working class, blue collar Democrats uneasy with the new world. I remember watching the movie Joe on a cold night in college and thinking it was way too much. It couldn’t happen here. No way white status anxiety and resentment could produce that kind of self-destructive violence. Right?

Nixon and George Wallace saw an opportunity, and they ran with it. 1968 was a big year. You can draw a line from 1968 to Donald Trump. Not a straight line, because as my historian colleagues remind me, history doesn’t go in straight lines. Ok. I’m gonna run a regression. And force a straight line. Close enough for government work. And let you worry about explaining the errors. You got do some thinking here.

In 1971, Crafty Richard took the USA off the gold exchange standard. He didn’t have much choice, and the post-world economic world, called Bretton Woods by cognoscenti, was falling apart quickly. It didn’t just hit the US, as any of our Friendly Neighbors in Mexico could tell you. That’s when the rot really set in but it took until 1976 to become obvious there. In between 1971 and 1976 was the first big OPEC oil shock. You can’t prove it by most conventional means, but that’s when the economic tide really began to turn. And when the West joined the Rest, as David Landes, my other favorite Harvard economist, liked to provocatively say. Something happened. Maybe 2 percent of western GDP got shifted out of our orbit and into other pockets in the Middle East. And Benjamin Friedman’s Edenic world fell apart because that was just enough of a disturbance to upset the economic applecart. Maybe you’re old enough to remember brawls at gas stations (especially in Jersey, God Bless them)? I am. A taste of what awaited God’s Country.

I know this is kind of long and horribly oversimplified, but I have to throw in a couple more critical moments in the line from 68 to Insurrection. My choices would be Reagan and George H.W. Bush. No, not W. Just wait. Uncle Ronnie blew up the labor peace, such as it was, in the US, by busting PATCO, the air traffic controllers’ union. Economists applauded, cause this was all part of the de-regulatory strategy that would bring the magic of the market to bear on an increasingly sclerotic American economy. And hey, who, other than John Nash, would argue with Adam Smith? And look what happened to poor Nash. (Watch the movie, ok? Entertainment, if not great econ) Of course, sending poorly educated and unhealthy people into a market economy is like sending unarmed troops into battle. You can’t expect much, can you? I’ll answer that for you. You can’t, other than a slaughter.

Now, I know there is this dopey reverence for George Bush. War Hero. Entrepreneur. Primo Number One White Boy. Please take it somewhere else. “Read my lips. No new taxes.” And Lee Atwater, his muse, who made genteel locker room racism acceptable in American politics because it avoided the “N word” while invoking its substance. See, complaining about taxes is essentially complaining about something someone else gets that you don’t. It is essentially invidious and divisive while masquerading (like insider trading, as American as apple pie or violence). Total nonsense, but the well was truly poisoned. Thou shalt cut taxes to join the Club of the Unpalatables. Thanks, George. Like your feckless offspring said, “Mission Accomplished.”

See, these guys broke the labor peace because, in the context of slower growth, it was breakable. They broke the the intergenerational compact about government spending because “deficits don’t matter” as Dick Cheney pointed out: “as Reagan showed us.” Oh yeah, and tax cuts birth surpluses by magic. In some other universe. You give to the rich and screw the poor. You can only cut taxes. That’s how you build political coalitions now. You set people against each other. Because you can. It’s all about incentives.

So, we end up where? With the top 0.01 percent of the US wealth distribution holding over 20 percent of the nation’s wealth. Cause tax cuts for the rich make the rich richer, silly. With a toxic racial atmosphere because, well, because “they get into law school and I don’t” (former student…..he’s a lawyer now, his gift of prophecy evidently tainted by Fox News). Because them Messicans take away jobs from God-fearing white Americans who are just lining up to work in the fields or under houses or doing roofing in the South Texas summer. And lots of women nurturing genuine grievances about the way society expects them to put out and shut up, and for less money. You see much largeness of spirit these days in America? A whole lot of generosity outside of food banks run by good people. It’s tough when the pie doesn’t grow and some unprincipled politician sees an opportunity to use it to their own advantage. Especially the kind who went to Harvard. You think Cruz and Hawley are stupid? They know exactly what they’re doing. Benjamin Friedman taught at Harvard. Hell, maybe he taught them.

I know we can’t push a button and go back to the 1960s again. I’m so disgusted with the ability of Americans since Katrina to do anything right that I strongly suspect we need another New Deal, but probably can’t pull it off with anything approaching middling success. But I do know one thing. Unless we start, and now, to reverse the social, economic and political rot that has set in over the past half century, yesterday’s “insurrection” was a day at the beach. Hey, talk to a Mexican or a Peruvian or an Argentine. They’ll tell you what a real revolution looks like. And why yesterday was nothing. And if we don’t wake up, we’ll find out the hard way. Unless you like blood in the streets, because you’ll get plenty of it. It can and will happen here.

Correction: Hawley never went to Harvard. I guess no one can monopolize the Federalist Society crackpots.


18 U.S.C. § 2385 – U.S. Code – Unannotated Title 18. Crimes and Criminal Procedure § 2385. Advocating overthrow of Government

Whoever knowingly or willfully advocates, abets, advises, or teaches the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States or the government of any State, Territory, District or Possession thereof, or the government of any political subdivision therein, by force or violence, or by the assassination of any officer of any such government;  or

Whoever, with intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of any such government, prints, publishes, edits, issues, circulates, sells, distributes, or publicly displays any written or printed matter advocating, advising, or teaching the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence, or attempts to do so;  or

Whoever organizes or helps or attempts to organize any society, group, or assembly of persons who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of any such government by force or violence;  or becomes or is a member of, or affiliates with, any such society, group, or assembly of persons, knowing the purposes thereof–

Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both, and shall be ineligible for employment by the United States or any department or agency thereof, for the five years next following his conviction.

If two or more persons conspire to commit any offense named in this section, each shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both, and shall be ineligible for employment by the United States or any department or agency thereof, for the five years next following his conviction.

As used in this section, the terms “organizes” and “organize”, with respect to any society, group, or assembly of persons, include the recruiting of new members, the forming of new units, and the regrouping or expansion of existing clubs, classes, and other units of such society, group, or assembly of persons.


The People’s Money, Again

Aging, many honest people will tell you, is no fun. Aside from the usual stuff that accompanies physical decline, there is often an element of deja vu. Or something akin to it. You been around long enough, you think you’ve seen or heard pretty much everything. And sometimes, you have.

Now we’re about to be treated to a particularly egregious example of recycling, courtesy of the Party of the Unpalatables. The way it normally works is they screw things up, lose an election, point to the incoming Democrats, and say, “He (soon She) did it. He is the reason why all these bad things are happening.” And, bingo, at least a third of your fellow Americans believe it. They’re clueless, of course, but they vote, so now you have the political equivalent of a Quarterback Controversy. These are no fun. They usually distract from other deeper problems, like a lousy offensive line or dyslexic receivers. But then you’d have to be from Philadelphia to know that. And you probably aren’t. Your loss.

Now that we’re ridin’ with Biden, you’re about to get treated to another edition of a Golden Oldie, which I call “The People’s Money.” Actually, I didn’t make that up. W, or Bush Minor, came up with it in 2001. Since you may not have been paying attention, or not even been born then, I’m gonna remind you what this involves. And why it matters.

A little history. When Hillary Clinton’s husband was elected President in 1992, overnight interest rates were around 3 percent. By the time he was reelected in 1996, they had risen to over 5 percent. At the same time, the federal budget deficit, which hadn’t been in surplus since 1969, came steadily down (a negative negative) and after he was reelected, the budget went into surplus (a negative-negative equals a positive) in 1998. Without making this too complicated, the economy (total demand) was actually growing, so while while supply of federal debt (think credit which is basically borrowing ) was falling, you got rising short term rates This may seem odd, but believe me, we would get back to normal soon. Because the Unpalatables were gonna give the People back their Money.

Some of you may recall Jim (“It’s the Economy, Stupid”) Carville saying he wanted to be reincarnated as the bond market–cause it could intimidate everyone. Political guys don’t like rising interest rates, even if they are consequence of fiscal virtue. Cause they tend to slow commerce down and maybe get the other party elected. Which is almost what happened in the “Selection of 2000.” Maybe Gore really won, but who knows? The Unpalatables were just warming their fraud chops up, so it was messy. Anyhow, W got selected over Gore. And W, being the scion of Read My Lips (“No New Taxes”), Bush Major, promptly started cutting taxes again. Because we had a surplus under Mr. Clinton, and that meant Uncle Sam was taking in more than he was paying out, imagine. Uncle Sam was reducing the national debt by saving! Other catastrophes followed, including 9/11, and an unfinanced war in the Middle East. But no matter. Because with a tax cut (more borrowing) and lots of red ink, the People had their money back again. Confused? You must be a Democrat or something.

Ok. What on Earth does this have to do with Biden, the Unpalatables and other things fiscal? Well, I read the other day that the paragon of rectitude and virtue, Lindsey Graham, thinks we need to have a serious conversation about the national debt. Now according to Investopedia, where I did deep research, the ratio of debt to GDP in the US is over 100 percent. That is held to be a Bad Thing, especially since the ratio had fallen to 30 percent in the 1970s after maxing out over–100 percent–at the end of World War II. Now, you see, 100 percent is some kind of Magic Number (it used to be 70 percent, but magic has to keep up with the times). And the reason it’s back up to levels last seen by FDR is because of THE DEFICIT. See, this year’s deficit becomes next year’s debt–what you borrow now you owe next month. Unless, for example, you run a SURPLUS (you save instead of borrow), but then, but government saving is…stealing the people’s money.. Because a government has to borrow and tax to raise money, having essentially no other means to sustain itself (what you think, it raises corn and tomatoes on national parkland and sells it?) If it’s taxing, it’s stealing. If it’s paying off debt, it’s stealing. So unless you blow up the government, it’s stealing. Ah……Now it’s starting to make sense. This is why the Unpalatables hate government. Because Government, to paraphrase Rousseau, is theft. No, that’s the Trump Administration, but I digress.

The reason why Lindsey thinks it’s time to have a birds ‘n bees talk about the national debt is because he’s afraid that Joe Biden may want to steal from you by rebuilding infrastructure (think municipal water systems like Flint), or even preparing the interstate network for the inevitable future of electric vehicles, or funding health care so that parts of the South don’t look like the Third World (no, this is not socialism), or any one of any other socially useful goals that could make us more productive. And if we become more productive, we can reduce the debt as if by magic (kind of, relatively speaking). By growing out of it. But what fun would that be? Sort of like Eisenhower and the 1950s, but woke. Imagine a Woke Republican. Who spends your money. We don’t want spending, do we? Give us back Flint, rural hookworm, and Covid-19. Keep us great.

We have to have rational, educated conversations about taxes, government spending, efficiency, social cohesion (yes, Mrs Thatcher, there is a Society), rent seeking, consumption versus investment, incentives, property rights, all them boring things that they made you do in Econ 1. But you all know that stuff, right? You had it in high school. Your football coach covered it. And, bless your heart, you got a 4 on the AP test.

And you wonder why a pandemic is killing us?

Everyone Has a Christmas Album

A few days ago, I was chatting with bassist Jimmy Haslip. While our conversation was, alas, mostly serious, there were a few lighter moments. Turns out that the Yellowjackets, a jazz-rock fusion band Jimmy spent decades with, had recorded a Christmas album. As it happens, the album, “Peace Round”, was the first Christmas recording I played this season. It’s a very good one, although in a genre dominated by Andy Williams, Mariah Carey, The Chipmunks, or even The Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, the Jackets might not be an obvious first choice. When I mentioned this, we both burst out laughing and said simultaneously, “Everyone has a Christmas album!” Ain’t it the truth? I really had no idea. And I’ll bet you didn’t either. Not only have I not heard most of this stuff, I hadn’t heard of many of the recording artists. Can ANYONE make a Christmas album? Looks that way. I thought I had listened to a lot of music and I have. But this is, well, amazing.

Let’s start with a little quiz. Which of the following artists, in no particular order, has not made a Christmas album? Don’t be a prig. It can be called Holiday Hip-Hop or something like that, but it’s the thought that counts. So don’t be splitting hairs. This isn’t a Princeton seminar. Ok. No cheating. The names are in no order, and all of them are, or were, real people or groups. There’s some bias here because I readily admit to listening to very little recent vocal (i.e., recorded after 2010). Sorry, Boomer Bias, but I can only take so much Drake. Or is it Drek?

Ferlin Husky. Englebert Humperdink. Theresa Brewer. Ed Ames. Jim Nabors. Oscar Peterson. The Beach Boys. Rosemary Clooney. The Temptations. Roseanne Barr. Regis Philbin. David Hasselhoff. Al Hirt. Wynton Marsalis. Dave Brubeck. Dr John. The Swingle Singers. Bobby Rydell. Marian McPartland. June Christy. Enough? You want more? Ok. Trick quiz. Everyone there released a Christmas album, albeit Marian MacPartland did hers through National Public Radio. Understand, I’m not putting Oscar Peterson on the same level as David Hasselhoff. I’m just sayin’. Everyone has a Christmas Album. Except for maybe Miles and Monk. I’d have paid a lot to see Miles decked out as Santa and glaring over a horn. If you know of any such photo, contact me.

The simple discovery that everyone has a Christmas album was comforting in its way. For years now, or so it seems, the Season needs a Reason, and a war on something or other (why not Christmas) seems appropriate. I know this is another one of those Trump things, a bs grenade to convince his followers that their White Christmas world (literally) is under attack. But I think it’s pre-Trump. And it’s not the only seasonal controversy. I haven’t heard much about “Baby it’s cold outside” as an ode to sexual harassment lately. Maybe because it isn’t cold outside, or because, for once, we have bigger things to worry about, like the “fake” Covid 19 that’s carried off 300,000 plus souls. But really, if you’re worried about Festivus, Eid, Kwanzaa or some other heathen ritual, cool it. There are a lot of Christmas recordings because there is a lot of money in Christmas. Duh? So as long as there is commerce, or capitalism, there will be a Christmas. And there will be Christmas records. Many recorded by people you had no idea existed. And for good reason. Anyone trying to make a living as a musician will explain it to you. Incentives matter.

Now, so as this is not a total waste of your time, I am gonna give a list of a few of my Christmas favorites. They are all drawn from some variant of jazz because that’s what I mostly listen to. And maybe I can help a starving artist (or their estate) since my list doesn’t really look like the better known ones.

  • Joe Pass, Six String Santa. Joe was another gift from Pittsburgh to the world. There are other wonderful guitar players from the Burgh, Joe Negri, for one, but Pass landed on me first.
  • God Rest Ye Merry, Jazzmen. An Anthology. My favorite all-time Christmas recording is Dexter Gordon doing Merry Little Christmas. LTD could have played Tantum Ergo in whole notes and it would have been sensational.
  • Joe Williams, That Holiday Feeling. This is for grown ups with Scotch and a fireplace. His ironic version of What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? sounds just weary enough to let you know Joe knew a lot disappointment in his day. The version of A Child is Born is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard in any genre of music
  • Rosemary Clooney, White Christmas (Concord). When she was really a kid, she starred in the movie with Bing Crosby. She did not have an easy life and probably had more Christmas recordings than Louis Armstrong. She made some wonderful recordings toward the end of her career on Concord that really rose to the level of her talent. This was one of them
  • Manhattan Transfer, The Christmas Album. From moody snowfalls to screech lead big band on Happy Holidays. And how can you miss with Sweets Edison making an appearance?
  • Yellowjackets, Peace Round. If you don’t like Bob Mintzer or Jimmy Haslip, you should be watching Welk reruns (did he have a Christmas recording? Of course he did!!! Champagne Ladies Just Want to Have Fun……)

I’m gonna stop there. My antiquated CD carousel only holds five, so I’m already out of room.

Feliz Navidad!!! From Dr. John and NOLA

I am not a Crook

No. This is not entitled Georgia on My Mind. Or A Rainy Night in Georgia. Or even Sweet Georgia Brown. They’ve been done. To death, I’m sure. I’m thinking more along the lines of I’ve Heard That Song Before. Or maybe, Do Nothing ’til You Hear From Me. Cause It’s Been A Long Long Time. Since the days of Richard M. Nixon, my previous candidate for “President I’d most like teleport to another galaxy.” If you weren’t around for Tricky Dick, he said exactly that on November 17, 1973. When He Was President. During the Watergate scandal. Which seems like child’s play now. Somehow, I even miss Nixon. He might have inhabited his own Tricky Dick World, but at least he knew–or admitted under prodding–that a lot of his fellow citizens thought he was indeed a crook. And since he was a lawyer, we’ll leave it at that. It would sort of be like Trump saying “I’m not nuts.” Or Rudy Giuliani saying “I’ll follow my conscience.” Right. Amusing, but plainly incorrect. And absurd on the face of it.

You watch this stuff going on in Georgia, if you watch anything connected with politics, with mounting disbelief, disgust and despair. Gee, Georgia has not one but two Senatorial Crooks. Come January, both are going to be involved in a runoff election. And not just any runoff. Why should anyone care what goes on in Georgia with David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler? Ordinarily, washing your trash can would be more edifying. Or worthwhile. But this isn’t just any runoff. Or any crook or crook aspirant. These guys are really unpalatable, even for a Party of Unpalatables. And on their reelection or rejection, a lot, a whole lot, is a stake.

If you’re reading this rant, you know that if Perdue and Loeffler both lose in their runoffs, the Senate will be 50-50. At that point, the VP casts the tie-breaker, and presumably, she’s not going to forget who brought her to the dance. This means, horror of horrors, it gets a lot easier for Joe Biden to get legislation through. While we all know the Moscow Mitch has made a habit of blocking everything that comes his way as Majority Leader, he won’t have that burden any longer. Oh, my. Socialism is on the way, right? Sure.

Under ordinary circumstances, I might agree that voting for a “divided government” is not necessarily a bad thing. But then, that sort of assumes that the division is about keeping the President honest. That worked real well with Agent Orange and his Gangster Regime, didn’t it? Maybe we need to try something different. Like a government that can actually do stuff that makes us all better off. Not just a few wingnuts fantasizing about their right to play with guns on your front lawn, or America’s Top Fifty Families who have more money than God. I know all about government failure. I am an economic historian. But now I think it’s time to turn the page on a very bad chapter in American history. It’s called market failure. And even in America, it may be time to admit that that when a crook calls insider trading “the American Dream” (see Kelly Loeffler and thrice-recounted Georgia), it’s time to blow the whistle. I am not a crook is a nightmare, not the American dream.