30 May 2008

Obit on The Other Side

My grandmother, Elinor Sachs Mandelson, died last Wednesday, May 21, 2008; she was 95, and in an advanced state of decline both physically and mentally.

Read more here.

25 May 2008

Two Book Notes

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

David Liss’ novel A Conspiracy of Paper is a delightful mystery set in early 18th century London, in the period preceding the bubble-and-crash of South Sea Company stock. Liss weaves together four thematic elements quite effectively: the rollicking nature of London; the tenuousness of Jewish life in London at the time; the development of the modern stock market and its corresponding manipulation; and the evolution of philosophy and deductive reasoning. All four themes play important roles here, as the Jewish boxer Benjamin Weaver (né Lienzo) and his Scottish friend Elias Gordon unravel the secrets behind several murders, including that of Weaver’s father.

In the back of my edition of the book (published by Ballantine Books, 2001), Liss talks about some aspects of the story, and notes that at the time he wrote the book, our society (and much of the world) was experiencing the technology stocks bubble – not dissimilar to the fantasies about the South Sea Company. Reading the story now, in mid-2008, it is also hard not to think about the current mortgage crisis, and the “conspiracy of paper” of banks and investors buying willy-nilly anything related to American homes. Willing to suspend disbelief while trading paper for paper, and even more paper, they have created a series of unsustainable financial promises for which we are now paying a heavy price.

Liss won a well-deserved Edgar Award for best first novel for A Conspiracy of Paper. Anyone needing an engaging read this summer – an intellectual beach book – would do well with this one.


Currently, I am deep into Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which is challenging my assumptions about the nature of agriculture and food production more than anything else I have ever read. The book is simultaneously making me reconsider my own role in the completely cockamamie ecology of the planet, and making me feel that there is virtually nothing that a single individual can do to challenge or alter the problems we face. Pollan has induced in me a kind of hopeful hopelessness.

I will save a full review for a more appropriate time (like, when I have finished reading the book), but two passages caught my attention and are worth noting now. Towards the end of part I, titled “Industrial Corn,” Pollan writes “It worked: The price of food is no longer a political issue. Since the Nixon administration, farmers in the United States have managed to produce 500 additional calories per person every day (up from 3,300, already substantially more than we need)...” (Page 103) Several pages later, he notes “While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.” (Page 108)

If those quotes feel out of context, consider the current political environment: in which President Bush vetoed a farm bill – and food prices are reaching new highs, causing rampant speculation on price fluctuations and, in some countries, panic over the availability of staples like rice. Of course, Bush’s veto is politics at its most base, considering that he has passed similar legislation before with no pangs of conscience (and he has rarely wielded his veto pen anyway). And the food crisis is more complicated than any single factor, whether that’s the over-production of corn or the under-production of other core foods. Still, thinking about my sense of hopeful hopelessness, I cannot help but wonder if a continued escalation of food prices might eventually prompt the necessary change in our agricultural policy, not so much to lower the cost as to shift the underlying mechanics of food production, the impact of which is much broader than we typically think – as Pollan so effectively reveals.

10 May 2008

GOP Mothers

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

In today’s New York Times, columnist Gail Collins writes (apropos Vito Fossella’s second-family scandal):

As The Washington Post noted, this was on the same day that House Republicans moved to reconsider a unanimous vote commemorating Mother’s Day. It all had something to do with a procedural rebellion, but I think we can file that under the extremely large category of Unfortunate Republican Ideas.

Well, probably unfortunate, because one doubts the GOP’s motives. Still, a vote commemorating Mother’s Day had no place in Congress to begin with! The nation remains at war in two countries, we have major economic issues to face, and a mighty long list of other problems stemming from seven years of George W. Bush as president. So why is anyone in Congress, from either party, spending any time at all holding votes – symbolic or otherwise – about Mother’s Day?

Because Mother’s Day, alas, will happen with or without Congressional approval.

Though now that the door has been opened, perhaps we should push through it: perhaps Congress formally revoking Mother’s Day is not a bad idea – as long as it’s equal opportunity legislation and we scrap Father’s Day, too.

My thoughts on the holiday are here (and my thoughts from last year are here).

07 May 2008

Dumb Debacles

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Debacle #1: Delusional proposals for a gas tax holiday

Seriously: the Clinton and McCain proposals to suspend the federal gas tax for summer 2008 have very little likelihood of becoming law. There are so many problems with this proposal – from encouraging more driving rather than more fuel conservation to draining millions of dollars from federal highway maintenance funds – and so few real benefits, that even Congress will have trouble getting behind this giant ball of sickly-sweet pandering.

Still, on the off chance that it does succeed – at either the state or federal level – and if prices do drop (contrary to predictions), Americans should know that they will not simply be buying gas on a free market. That market will be played by investors who will see in the declining prices an opportunity to hedge certain bets against future prices and supplies of gasoline.

And so? Americans should hedge their bets, too. If the gas tax is suspended, people in communities across the country should pool their resources and buy large quantities of gasoline to store and save for later – for some time after Labor Day 2008, when the taxes on gasoline will have resumed. Buying five or 10 gallons for personal use, for a lawnmower or a chainsaw or an ATV, is quite normal. Buying five or 10 times that amount is less normal, but is also manageable – especially in the many suburban and rural locations in the United States where storage space is readily available.

In effect, Americans who buy and store gasoline for later would be participating in the commodities market the way that traders in Chicago and New York do, hedging their bets about the future price of fuel (which seems likely only to increase). In fact, enterprising Americans might even be able to engage local fuel companies in helping them, in exchange for a small profit (a profit smaller than the tax itself) in exchange for safely storing this fuel.

And the results? Two things would happen. First, Americans who do this would ensure for themselves a greater supply of cheaper gasoline well-past the expiration of the tax holiday, thus putting even more pennies in their pocket. Second, since Americans who support the tax holiday clearly believe that the tax should not be in effect anyway ... well, buying gasoline “futures” this way would deprive the tax authorities of even more revenue, by artificially extending the scope of untaxed gasoline beyond the planned time frame.

In fact, even for ardent conservationists who try hard not to use gasoline: if there’s a gas tax holiday, this idea still makes sense. So prepare to “save” up, America! Plus, it’s a great way to stick it to the man (or woman) running for president who might some day need the tax revenue they are currently and cavalierly trying to eliminate.


Debacle #2: Senator Hillary Clinton’s refusal to quit, Senator Barack Obama’s inability to finish her off

Last night, Senator Hillary Clinton lost her opportunity to surge ahead; she failed miserably, by losing North Carolina broadly, and by winning Indiana according to the slimmest of margins. (And thanks to the Democratic Party’s rules, such slim victories have only proportionate value.) With this latest pair of wins and losses, a few news reports note that the Clinton campaign is preparing to do battle in the one place where Mrs. Clinton stands any chance at all: the boardroom of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). She wants the party to count the delegates she claims to have won, from Florida and Michigan, which violated party rules and had non-competitive primaries.

If, like me, you believe that the DNC needs to make this decision according to rules – and not politics – please e-mail DNC chairman Howard Dean at Deanh@DNC.org to make your thoughts known. Here is the text of the e-mail I sent earlier today:

Dear Howard Dean:

This morning’s news carries several stories regarding the Clinton campaign’s plans to push to seat delegates from Florida and Michigan. While the Clinton gang claims that this is only “fair,” it hardly seems fair to either candidate since neither formally campaigned in both states, and Senator Obama was not even on the ballot in Michigan.

Regardless, it is time for you – as leader of this increasingly divided and preparing-to-lose political party – to take a stand on this issue.

The question of these delegates is (clearly) of the utmost importance to Senator Clinton, because she is not winning other state delegates the way she expected. The question of these delegates is also (clearly) of the utmost importance to Senator Obama because including Michigan and Florida would change his current lead in the race.

But Democratic voters – like me – need to be able to believe that whatever the decision on these delegates, it was made not by the candidate with the biggest arm-twisting ability, or the biggest perceived advantage in November. It needs to be very clear that the decision has been made by the leadership of the Democratic National Committee and according to an open, clear, and understandable set of rules. And that is, after all, what the rules are there for in the first place.

What are you waiting for?

02 May 2008

It Won’t Happen

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Yom Ha-ha-ha: A very personal response, or, Why We Will Never Obliterate Iran

Regardless of whatever Senator Hillary Clinton says, the United States will not “obliterate” Iran if it attacks Israel. There are close to 70 million people in Iran; there are about 7 million in Israel. There are, in total, about 10 million living Jews, primarily in Israel and the U.S. – versus something on the order of 1 billion Muslims, throughout the Middle East, Asia, and the U.S., too. Based on the numbers alone, it is clear that the U.S. would never nuke (or otherwise “obliterate”) Iran: the prospect of inciting that much anger and political instability on a nearly global scale, is too great. But more on all this later. First...

Thursday, May 8, 2008 is Yom Ha’atzmaut, when Jews around the world will celebrate Israel’s independence day. If it isn’t clear to my readers already, well: I have take issue with such things. Ironically, my biggest concern lately has been one of allegiances. I say “ironically” because in general I do not like jingoistic approaches to questions of citizenship and national allegiance, or the idea of reducing complicated questions of people’s cultural heritage to simplistic questions of whether they wear a flag pin on their lapel, or what passport they carry. Nor do I necessarily buy into the kind of apocalyptic scenario outlined by books like Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” with its retro sensibility of a fascist and anti-Semitic America.

Nonetheless, I find the American Jewish fetishization of Israel, and its anniversary, upsetting. I take issue with the fact that American Jewish organizations send newsletters and e-mails regarding their Yom Ha’atzmaut events, but not about their July 4th celebrations. Wait; maybe that is because many of them don't have July 4th celebrations. Remind me: in which country do we live? If there is, within the American Jewish community, one issue that is perhaps more taboo than any other, this is it. Pro- and anti-Israel positions are debated, but questioning the whole premise of the Israeli enterprise and our role in sustaining it is largely off limits. This is undoubtedly a complicated subject; no one wants nuance, and I get that; nuance is complicated, and takes time. I will try anyway.

In my heart-of-hearts, I believe in the Zionist idea. But I do not believe that its implementation and maintenance can or should come at the expense of other (non-Jewish) human lives – that makes us Jews as bad as, yes, the Nazis. As the child of a Nazi refugee, that is a comparison that makes me deeply uncomfortable. Moreover, I find it sad that American Jews go to such lengths in using a kind of Talmudic logic to define and defend why ghettoizing and oppressing the Palestinian people is acceptable. Somehow, I really don’t think a nation-state that oppresses others, or is dependent on a superpower capable of threatening to “obliterate” its enemies, was really what Theodor Herzl had in mind back in 1896.

Nor do I believe that being a Zionist is, or needs to be, about changing my national allegiances. I am an American, and I say that with pride. Let the Israelis celebrate their anniversary. Just because I’m Jewish – even a Zionist Jew! -- does not mean it is “my” anniversary. It is not, any more than Hatikvah is my national anthem.


Now, back to Iran. Senator Clinton’s idiotic remark does usefully highlight a few important points. First, no matter what else she says, she can pander like the best of them – because if that remark isn’t pandering, to American Jews and to non-Jewish “friends” of Israel, I don’t know what is. The United States has rarely acted for so-called humanitarian reasons; we did not do so in World War II, we did not do so for Iraq, and we won't in the event that Israel is attacked. Second, and even more critically, the remark suggests how little Senator Clinton has learned despite five years of our failed war in Iraq: it is simply unimaginable that any clear-thinking person would propose attacking Iran after the hash we have made in next door Iraq. (Readers can drawn their own inferences from this regarding my views on Senator McCain.) Clinton voted for the war, a vote for which she has refused to apologize; and in this context, that makes more sense. Either that or, again, she is simply pandering for votes. Neither prospect makes her a better candidate for president.

Worse, though, is that it makes me truly and deeply sad to see American Jews so intellectually and emotionally misled by such statements. Saying that the U.S. is a fairweather friend to Israel is a bit of a hypothetical; we do not really know, one way or the other. In its 60 year history, the U.S. has done much to “support” Israel: by blocking votes against it at the United Nations, by giving it money to use to by American-made weapons, and notionally by keeping it under its security umbrella. It is that last bit that is truly untested, for the U.S. has never been called on to act in a protective capacity. (Actually, the one instance when it might have – during the Suez Crisis in 1956 – it declined, forcing Israel and its other allies, the British and the French, to retreat.)

This is not a cynical argument to suggest that Jews in the U.S. are not safe. Rather, it is an argument against the continued delusion and dual-allegiances of American Jews, whose “support” for Israel has long since crossed the line from deep philanthropic generosity to a perversely entangled sense of entitlement vis-a-vis the American-Israeli relationship. A delusion most recently manifested in an absurd posturing of the proposed annihilation of millions of people by a candidate for American president. As pathetic as this is for Senator Clinton, it speaks even more badly of the inadequacies and insecurities of American Jews.