The Thinker

Two book reviews: “After Lincoln” and “City of Dreams”

I’m back home after 19 days away. I’d like to say I was on the road but most of it was on a cruise ship so technically I was on the seas. When not at ports of call, cruise ships does give you downtime. With no Internet, there was time to do something I should do more of: read books. I completed two books on the trip, both worth your time if you are into histories.

After Lincoln: How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace
By A. J. Langguth
ISBN 978-1-4516-1733-7

It’s curious how many books you can find on the Civil War but how few you will find about Reconstruction: the time after the Civil War when the slaves were technically freed but not quite equal citizens. This book by the late USC professor A.J. Langguth (1933-2014) finished in the year of his death delves into the messiness of the post Civil War years. You are introduced to a cast of characters including a number of rogues. The title gives away the ending, in case you are unfamiliar with U.S. history. What is truly heartbreaking is how much overt discrimination remains 140 years later. Moreover, the parallels between Andrew Johnson (who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination) and Donald Trump are more than a little creepy. (Trump though is actually worse.)

The book does not start immediately after Lincoln’s murder. Most chapters delve into particular historical figures, fills in their biographies before reconstruction and tell the roles that they played. It’s quite a gamut of figures: from Nathan Bedford Forest who founded the KKK (and led a very successful cavalry for the Confederacy) to Pickney Pinchback, half black by birth (white slaveowner, black slave) but all black in the eyes of society. He won election to the U.S. House and Senate for Louisiana, but was not permitted by Congress to actually be seated. There are also names that might ring bells from newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, to Secretary of State William Henry Seward (who bought Alaska for the U.S.) to presidents that served during this time. Johnson is the most infamous since he was impeached (but not convicted), but the book also covers Ulysses S. Grant’s eight years as president and ends with his more obscure successor: Rutherford B. Hayes.

Langguth’s approach works pretty well because it illuminates these figures while constantly adding backstory and connecting characters. The chapters are just the right size to be comfortable reads without feeling overwhelming. They also draw you in. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were progressive tools that should have made most of these class and race issues moot. By dropping out of the Union, states of the Confederacy gave power to the Republican Party to pass these progressive amendments freeing the slaves, giving them full enfranchisement and equal protection. To say the least the Southern states were put out. They became experts in passive and overt resistance that was occasionally quelled by the introduction of federal troops.

Langguth gets into all the details of how we lost the peace. Basically the South sort of won the Civil War after it lost it for two reasons: Jim Crow laws that courts were reluctant to strike down and northern Democrats who tired of the whole equal enfranchisement business. Essentially a critical mass of white America stopped caring.

At 375 pages (without appendices) it’s an appropriately sized history that should sustain your interest despite the known outcome. The movie Lincoln gave us a taste of some of these figures (like Thaddeus Stevens played by Tommy Lee Jones). Langguth colors in these characters and exposes the macro and micro forces at work during this time. In short, you’d have a hard time finding better book to read about Reconstruction, in part because so few have been written.

City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York
By Tyler Ambinder
ISBN 978-1-328-74551-4

Published in 2016, this book is one that I don’t think has been done before: a deep dive into New York City’s 400 years of history with a special emphasis on its many immigrant communities: who came, how they interacted, where they settled, who succeeded, who failed and the many tensions of living in this biggest of cities. Ambinder, a professor of history at George Washington University, fills out the story in part by documenting his own relatives’ paths.

This is a real tome: 738 pages, 570 pages without the appendices. It’s also the kind of history that I like best: that tells me things I would never learn otherwise. It’s a work of immense scholarship but written so well that at times you can’t put it down. To me the most interesting and appalling part of the book is its discussion of immigrants transit to America in the mid 19th century, which for most of our ancestors meant steerage class on a sailing ship: a slow trip to America in the bowels of the ship where sickness, overcrowding, darkness, dysentery and literal bowels made the journey hellish with many casualties along the way. The fetid atmosphere describe almost rises from those pages.

Curiously it intersects frequently with After Lincoln since the era around and after the Civil War forms a significant chunk of this tome. You see some of the same characters in both books, such as Horace Greeley and cartoonist Thomas Nast. Both books cover the draft riots in New York during the Civil War too. New York started out as New Amsterdam and was hence a Dutch colony, but the Dutch couldn’t hold onto it particularly as colonies around it became British possessions. People arrived by the boatloads. New York quickly became the largest city in the world. Jamming so many people into the city was done poorly at best. Most immigrants ended up in crazily crowded tenement housing, with populations per square mile so dense that they rivaled anything ever seen before. Ambinder also shines with his extensive look into tenement housing, whose details are equally as appalling as the passage of people in steerage class during the days of the sailing ships.

New York first previewed America’s coming ethnic tensions. How could it be otherwise when so many ethnicities were jammed together into so small a space? Then as now people self segregated themselves by ethnicity. For a very long time the Irish dominated the city. If the word Tammany Hall rings a bell, you’ll learn a lot about the Irish that ran it mostly corruptly while also giving employment to huge numbers of immigrants.

Ambinder though shows us that regardless of the time it’s always the same story. It’s only the cast of characters that rotate. In the 19th century the Irish were oppressed. The cartoonist Nast even drew them with gorilla foreheads. The No Nothing Party of the 19th Century was formed principally to keep the wrong kind of immigrants (the Irish in particular) out. Like Trump today, the No Nothings wanted only the right people to be Americans. Eventually though it was the Irish that saw themselves the most legitimate of New Yorkers and they worked to repress other groups, like the Italians. Having felt discriminated they seem to delight in dishing it out.

Ambinder’s detail is often staggering, but mostly it’s an engaging read. If it drags, it is only near the end where we see New York’s latest immigrants (mostly from the West Indies) going through this pattern yet again. As recently as the 1990s, whites in Queens were bashing in the heads of West Indies immigrants when they happened to stray into their ethnic enclaves. With Muslims pouring in today, Ambinder makes it clear that they too will become part of our fabric and that our fear of them is ridiculous.

I read a lot of history books and City of Dreams is definitely in the top ten percent of my favorites. It may be a tome, but it is definitely worth your time.

The Thinker

Report from some so-called “shithole” countries

Seeing Central America has been on my bucket list of a long time. Curiously Central America is largely not visited by cruise ships, but that’s changing. This Holland America 15-day cruise we’re on is mostly about getting up close and personal with Central America, or as close as you can get given that you will see it generally through shore excursions provided by Holland America.

I have been to so-called “shithole” countries before. Nothing I’ve seen so far quite compares with what I saw in the Philippines in 1987, when I was sent there on a business trip. It’s been thirty years and fortunately I’ve heard that tremendous progress has occurred there since then. I was quite appalled by the trip, even though I knew what to expect. A “shithole” country should almost by definition lack modern sewage systems. That was true of the Philippines back then, with some exceptions in Manila. Waste was generally dumped into the street and sewage for the most part into the rivers and tributaries, and most of the shacks that compromised housing lined these water sources. Cars had no emissions system so the atmosphere too was simply a toxic dumping ground, making areas in Manila in particular toxic to the lungs. The most appalling part was the lack of public education. It was a privilege available only to those who could afford it for their kids and most could not. So kids mostly grew up in the street, and were tempted into the abundant trade of services for the American seamen that I encountered. If you wanted to have sex with someone underage, it was not a problem. It was a grinding poverty where kids often smoked in the streets and worked hard to part us Americans from our money.

I was informed by some of the U.S. Navy people I worked with that as bad as the Philippines was, nearby Thailand was worse. Lots of people died there from completely preventable diseases. Things like netting to keep the mosquitoes off their bodies at night was unaffordable. People literally starved in the streets. Everyone was too inured to it all to care about it. I never saw any bloated bellies in the Philippines, except from many a pregnant teen, some of who I suspect were pregnant due to the presence of frequently visiting U.S. sailors.

On this cruise we have visited Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico. The closest country here to what I witnessed in the Philippines thirty years ago was Nicaragua. But Nicaragua was still an improvement. They have a public education system, not a stellar one, but it exists. They also have universal health care, again not great health care, but it’s there and can be used by anyone though with some delays and perhaps some issues with the quality of health care. In that sense Nicaragua is ahead of the United States. There are still people in our country that cannot get health insurance, and if Republicans get their way the uninsured rate is likely to soar again. In that sense some reverse migration may be in order.

Nicaragua is the largest and most populous country in Central America. You can see in the local markets sanitation standards that would be unacceptable in the States. You can see stray dogs in the street and sometimes malnourished horses along the sides of the road. For most, housing consists of a shack or shanty with a corrugated metal roof, often with cinder block walls but often less. But unlike other countries I’ve visited, there are plenty of reasonably maintained highways and there are lots of cars, buses and trucks running around. Unlike the Dominican Republic that we visited four years ago, most of the roads are paved. If the potholes aren’t fixed they aren’t too bad and you can drive around them.

Guatemala is not that much better than Nicaragua, at least if you look at their statistics. We saw security guards in most establishments. But the roads are quite good and well marked and it’s clear there is a significant middle class, who often drive to the coast on the weekend to enjoy the beaches there. They cause traffic jams too, and we were caught up in one on Sunday. There are plenty of first-world establishments along the sides of the roads too, and we stopped for lunch at one classy place (Pueblo Real) along the Pan American highway. Few can afford new cars, but plenty of people have after-market automobiles that were crashed in the United States and restored and look new. A car is something of a status symbol and plenty of families have them. Obviously it’s beyond the reach of many, so these depend on private bus systems instead. They are everywhere but unlike the jitneys I witnessed in the Philippines, these are essentially blinged school buses that are well maintained and presumably quite affordable. There was some air pollution, but it was mostly due to burning the sugar cane so it can be harvested. The automobiles all seemed to come with their emissions control systems intact.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Costa Rica is the jewel of Central America, such as it is. If Central Americans aspire to live somewhere in the area, Costa Rica is probably it. Costa Rica would still be seen as somewhat rough by most American standards. But the curious fact is that if anyone’s standards are slipping, it’s the United States’. Our educational standards are beginning to resemble Nicaragua’s more than Costa Rica’s. This is symptomatic of our refusal to invest adequately in our own human capital and infrastructure. And Donald Trump’s disdain for “shithole” countries has the effect of making us more like one of these countries every day.

As I have noted in many other posts, immigrants both legal and illegal have allowed Americans to maintain much of their standard of living. To the extent the Trump Administration succeeds in its war on immigrants, expect it to drag our economy down. Immigrants keep our productivity booming and inflation away. In any event, it’s unlikely Trump has visited some of these countries that I’ve visited on this cruise. He would probably refer to them as “shithole” countries, but I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t characterize the people there as lazy either. What they mostly lack is fertile educational soil to reach their potential, which is generally denied to them by the landed aristocracy that is essentially in charge in most of these countries. Some countries like Costa Rica have made huge strides, but most seem mired in slow progress at best. The real obscenity is that systematic forces by people like Donald Trump are keeping them from realizing their full worth.

As for Trump, his ignorance is appalling but not the least bit surprising. He and his fellow Republicans though are exacerbating their problems, not helping to solve them.

The Thinker

Is Trump a racist? Is the pope Catholic?

You can get thousands of miles from the United States and still not quite leave it. Such is the case here on the cruise ship MS Westerdam. As I write this (Tuesday) it is making its way toward Baja California for one last port of call before our cruise ends Saturday at San Diego. Excerpts of the New York Times are provided at various places on the ship, and if so inclined you can also watch a few American news channels like Fox News and MSNBC in your stateroom. You can also read the New York Times online at no extra charge.

In any event, while at sea I am informed enough about American politics to understand that things are just as fouled up as they were when we left the States on January 5th. Trump continues to bumble his way through his so-called presidency, now approaching the one year mark. I was actually watching MSNBC when his remarks about “shithole countries” first made news. The news cycle has pretty much stayed in this track since. As usual Trump keeps changing his mind about his remarks. At first he seemed not to dispute them, then said the exact words were not correct, then decided he never said them at all all while carrying out policies that do their best to bar people from these types of countries. Lately, the line is he used “shithouse” rather than “shithole.” More amusingly, yesterday he decided that no one was less of a racist than he was, remarks made on Martin Luther King’s birthday. Trump celebrated the holiday by playing golf and of course doing nothing that resembled performing community service. You can see where his real values lie.

It really doesn’t matter if Trump uttered these words or not. It sounds like something he would say because he has said things like this over and over again. Why would anyone believe otherwise? That’s why when I heard them I said, “Why is this news?” He based his campaign on racism. During it he explicitly criticized a Hispanic American judge because he believed due to his enthnicity he could not be unbiased adjudicating a case against him. Now somehow the “shithole” remark suddenly proved he was a racist as if there was some doubt before? When he’s obviously been a racist all of his life? He’s just taking after his father who was arrested in the 1920s at a KKK rally in Queens, New York.

If a man isn’t a racist, you might think he would be comfortable with all races and have friends with every hue of the human spectrum. Trump has no black friends, but really he has no friends at all. Believing him when he says he is not a racist, or really about pretty much anything, is a complete waste of time. He will change his opinion on a dime. It’s clear that most of what he is told goes right through him. To the extent he learns it has to be visually. So when you brief him give him a Powerpoint chart with one bullet. He still probably won’t retain it. According to news reports he cites this disruptive aspect of his personality that is the source of his “genius”. By this standard anyone who constantly vaccilates and acts like an asshole most of the time is also a genius.

So just in case you are wondering, our president is a racist and likely one of the most racist people that you will ever learn about. Racism was the foundation of his campaign and it’s why his caught on when others did not. He assumed the worst about Republicans, not the best and was proved right. But long before he became a candidate racism still formed his center. He spent years attacking Obama for not being a real American, asserting that he was actually born in Kenya. He has promoted whites at the expense of all other races. Moreover, he has consistently made racism an integral part of his business, starting early when he refused to rent apartments to non-whites. He surrounds himself with rich white men.

The core of racism though is simply the belief that certain races inherently deserve privileges and have superiority that other races do not. That’s been Trump throughout his entire life! It’s baked into his personality. The only thing that would surprise me is if he went against his own biases. For Trump, this would qualify as genius.

The Thinker

Costa Rica vs. Nicaragua

Costa Rica is supposed to be the jewel of Central America. Disembarking at Puertarenas on Friday, it didn’t give that impression. Puertarenas is on the west coast of the country. Its black sand beaches made it look sort of dirty. A recent tropical storm has left a lot of deadwood along its beaches too. The black sand comes courtesy of the many volcanoes in the country, a couple of which are usually glowing on any given night. A drive on our tour bus showed a city that looked at best second world. After completing a short train excursion along a track lined with shanties, the Costa Rica we saw gave more of an impression of Haiti than Central America’s shining jewel.

It’s likely true that had we disembarked at the ritzier and more touristy areas a bit north and west of where we were docked our experience would have been more positive. As our train also wended its way through melon fields and coffee plantations, our tour guide explained why things were not quite what they seemed. The shanties we saw were overwhelmingly put up by Nicaraguans, citizens of Costa Rica’s country to its north. Just as in the United States it is beneath most Americans to do farm work, so it is today for most Costa Ricans to engage in that kind of labor. Some of these guest workers were here legally. Many more were not. In any event, Costa Rican law allows for squatters to at least try to construct homes on available plots of land. If after ten years the property owner doesn’t throw them off it and they can prove they have lived there that long, they can claim ownership of the land. Given that you could be thrown out at any moment, there’s not much point in overdoing your house. In any event, many of these Nicaraguans worked the nearby fields. Without their presence and the willingness to work for wages that can’t be paid to a citizen, like migrant workers in the United States, the melon fields we saw would not get harvested and probably not planted.

It wasn’t always this was for Costa Ricans. In the 1940s after a civil war started within the army, two things happened. First, the populace was so upset by the civil war that they abolished their army, the only country to do so in the Americas. Second, they elected a progressive who introduced social security and universal health care. Nine percent of a Costa Rican’s wages go into this system. Employers pay twenty percent of an employee’s wages into it. The money not spent on the military was channeled into education instead. A middle class that was virtually nonexistent in the 1940s emerged, took root and now consists of most of the population. Like the Scots, Costa Ricans learned that investing in education pays long term dividends. Basically these progressive policies totally transformed the country.

Costa Rica is thus a country that hovers somewhere between second world and first world status. Our first impressions were definitely wrong. Even the most modest shanties have satellite antennas on the roofs and Internet access. So what we saw was actually a country on the rise with a high cost of living but where most were upwardly mobile, and expecting things to remain that way. It’s also a country blessed by a peace that seems to elude the rest of Central America. This plus its tropical climate, rich soil made possible from its many volcanoes and its abundant rainfall makes it the place to be in Central America. And in truth, if you’ve traversed places like Detroit or rural parts of Alabama and Mississippi, the United States looks just as bad, if not worse. So we’ll be back to explore more of Costa Rica.

Nicaragua on the other hand is Central America’s poorest and largest country. If so if doesn’t look it. Its shanties looked comparable to Costa Rica’s, but were perhaps more numerous. Most roads were paved. The port city of Corinta where we docked seemed busy, in spite of its fifty percent unemployment rate. You can find a stray dog or two in the streets or a wild horse along the sides of the road, but also plenty of cars, trucks and motorcycles, as well as people on bikes.

What you might expect to find in such a poor country but won’t is much of a crime problem. Nicaragua has the lowest crime rate in Central America, in spite of its poverty. There is no drug trade here because (as our guide told us) no one can afford drugs anyhow. If people have a vice, it’s alcohol, not cigarettes. It does have plenty of corruption. The most profitable profession is not businessman or lawyer, but politician. The corruption seems endemic. Daniel Ortega, a former Sandinista, is now in his sixteenth year of rule, having originally led the communist Sandinistas to overthrow the country’s long-reigning Somoza regime. Ortega is now largely not seen, as he has Lupus which makes him avoid daylight. His wife was elevated to Vice President and is effectively running the country. In short today there is little difference between the right-wing Somoza regime and life under Ortega and the Sandinistas, except a lot less repression of dissent. There is a public health service and a free public school education is available to all. But the public schools are poor and under funded. Their health care system while universal also suffers from issues, mainly timely access to services. It’s perhaps not surprising then that the influence of the Catholic Church is waning and evangelical churches are moving in. Approximately sixty percent of Nicaraguans are now Catholic.

You would think then that Nicaragua should be avoided, but its tourism business is booming. If you are looking for a cheap place to retire, Nicaragua should be on your list. Real estate is dirt cheap, prices are low, crime in low, gangs that inhabit nearby countries like El Salvador and Honduras don’t exist and you get a drier climate than in Costa Rica, at least along its west coast. I can’t see retiring there, but I can see why Americans who like tropical climates and need to stretch their retirement dollars might want to find a gated community in the country and call it home instead. You might say that Nicaragua is something of a bargain if you can deal with the general poverty and corruption. It’s quite a pretty country too.

The Thinker

Transit of Panama

Circuiting the Panama Canal is pretty awesome, but probably more awesome if you are an engineer, since it’s easier to appreciate the feat accomplishment. These days we tend to take engineering for granted. But having traversed the Panama Canal Wednesday for my first and likely last time, it was still impressive. Opened in 1914 it suddenly made getting between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans much faster and less hassle. The transit is hardly free. It cost our cruise ship about $120,000 to make the journey just one way. You can’t charge it to your business AmEx card. You can’t wire Panama the money either. It must be paid in cash in Panama using an agent.

Considering we went through the same locks the first ship used more than 100 years ago and with little in the way of obvious improvements, my immediate reason for being impressed is that it has been working reliably for more than a century. That in itself is stellar engineering. Even the Brooklyn Bridge has undergone major maintenance that shut it down from time to time. Our cruise ship, the MS Westerdam is more than 800 feet long and about 140 feet wide. It fit snugly but completely inside the locks. Turned over to Panama in 2000, the American presence is still obvious during your transit. The locks were built to accommodate 1000 foot ships and you can still see along the locks distances measured in feet along the side of the locks. There is some new stuff, though. Just two years ago, in 2016, a new set of locks was opened for even longer and wider ships.

We have a historian on board who gave us an abridged history of its history and construction. It was standing room only at the Main Stage of our cruise ship for the lecture, but it was still impressive to go through the locks in person. As you sail in through its Caribbean entrance at Colon, what you mostly notice is the vertical distance covered by each lock. It takes three locks to ascend the eighty or so feet to reach Gatun Lake, a lake created as part of engineering the canal. The original intent was simply to not use any locks. That turned out to not be viable because of Panama’s consistent rain and the continuous erosion issue that introduced. Speaking of rain, it rained when we went through, but only briefly. It rains pretty much every day in Panama, so it’s not usually a question of whether it will rain, but how much. How much is usually a lot.

They have the equivalent of a cog railroad along the side of the locks to tow vessels through the canal with no worry that the ships will hit the sides of the locks. It’s old tech but pretty impressive nonetheless to watch. It was hard from our ship to see the lock fill with water due to its girth. But you can still feel the effect as you move a significant vertical distance over about eight minutes. Eventually you end up on Gatun Lake and for a while transit becomes serene and predictable. There are two more sets of locks to transit before you hit the Pacific Ocean.

You would think that you would head east to west coming from the Caribbean Sea, but in fact you go north to south due to the shape of the isthmus. Panama, like Colombia that we visited briefly the day before, is very much a tropical rainforest.

So much of the magic of the Panama Canal has to do with how they solved the basic issue of its hydraulics: create artificial lakes and make huge, indestructible locks. One of the biggest engineering challenges was cutting through what remains of the continental divide when it goes through Panama: the Culebra Cut. It took a lot of dynamite, a lot of hauling away rocks with a portable railway of sorts, and a lot of lives lost. About 5000 people, mostly from the Caribbean, died constructing the American attempt to build the canal. Many more died in an earlier attempt by the French But its completion signaled a new age in history: the end of an age dominated by Europe and one dominated by the United States. With the completion of the canal, the U.S. proved it had the right stuff.

When you’ve completed passage perhaps the most impressive part is looking out at the vista of the Pacific Ocean: seemingly limitless and in our case sunny and under fair seas. Considering that twelve hours earlier you were in the Caribbean Sea, it’s an impressive transition. It’s not hard to understand why the Panama Canal is seen as one of the ten wonders of the modern world. So scratch that off my bucket list. In addition, this is my first excursion by ship on the Pacific Ocean.

We had a brief stop in Cartagena, Columbia, so brief that we elected not to take a tour and didn’t make it past the cruise terminal. It is a thoroughly modern city, just thoroughly tropical. For our ship to make its date with the Pamana Canal, we had to leave shortly after noon.

Our next stop is Puntarenas, Costa Rica and some exciting tours there. We won’t arrive in San Diego until January 20. You might think we could get there a lot sooner, but there are 5000 miles or so of coastline to traverse with plenty of port stops in between.

The Thinker

Storms, sea and salty air

If you want to escape winter this year, it’s not easy. We were one of the lucky ones to escape on one of the few flights allowed out of Bradley International Airport (Hartford CT) Thursday morning. I’ve done a lot of traveling but I can’t recall a flight quite like this one. A Nor’easter was moving up the east coast bringing a ton of snow and high winds. Our original flight Thursday got canceled. We were agile enough to quickly book another Southwest flight that left around 7 AM. To improve our chances, we booked a room at the airport’s Sheraton the night before.

For once luck was with us. Only two commercial flights made it out of Bradley after ours on Thursday. While blizzard conditions mounted outside, a deicing truck gave our aircraft a quick shower. While we left the gate the storm worsened and it became hard to see out the window. When the aircraft made it airborne, the passengers spontaneously applauded. With 4500 flights canceled due to the storm, we were lucky indeed. We even made it into our gate at Tampa International five minutes early. Our connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale was uneventful as well.

You would think that in Florida you might be able to escape winter, but snow had made it as far south as Tallahassee. Tampa was in the forties on our arrival, and Fort Lauderdale was breezy and a bit warmer in the low fifties. This was likely as cold as it was going to get in south Florida all year, but at least there was no snow. There was the occasional report of falling iguanas, who like to inhabit the trees and were literally stunned by the cold weather. Floridians donned their rarely used coats to go outside. Holed up at my sister and brother in law’s house in nearby Hollywood, we too found reason to stay indoors, eat Thai and play endless games of hearts.

Winter proved hard to escape. The cool temperatures and stiff winds continued on Friday but at least it was better than at home where ten inches of new snow hand fallen. Negative temperatures were also in the forecast there, so by comparison the weather seemed balmy. By mid afternoon when we had boarded the MS Westerdam (of the Holland America cruiseline) at the Port Everglades Cruise Terminal, winds had dropped somewhat and temperatures hovered in the mid 60s. Leaving port brought back memories of a similar cruise four years ago from the same port. Aside from the ship (then the Noordam) little had changed.

Back home airports like JFK are still recovering from the storm, as are we. The Nor’easter had effects both north and south. On our overnight trip to the Bahamas it meant eight foot seas and quickly acquiring sea legs. We spent Saturday at Holland America’s private island in the Bahamas, Half Moon Cay. It had changed so little in four years that it didn’t take me long to walk the island and reboard the tender back to the ship. One surprise was to find I had Internet access. We didn’t intend to pay Holland America’s usury rates for its Internet.

The effects of the Nor’easter though just got worse. Moving south Saturday we pushed through the front, which made Friday night’s seas look relatively mild. We were rocking and rolling all night long. Normally I don’t use seasick medicine, but Sunday morning I popped a Bonine just to be proactive. Swells appeared to max out around twelve feet. With our cabin far forward, we could feel the keel bottom against the sea occasionally, making a huge noise. There were also other strange noises that may have been doors on the Promenade shutting from the wind or deck chairs skittering across the deck. By mid morning Sunday the worst of the waves had ebbed as we cut our way through tropical gloom and rain between Haiti and Cuba.

Today (Monday as I write this) feels like the first proper day of our cruise. We are heading south at fifteen knots toward a brief visit at Cartegena, Colombia before going through the Panama Canal on Wednesday. The skies are mostly sunny, the air moist and the feeling is definitely tropical. You can walk around the Promenade and feel like you actually are in the tropics again. We are settling into a cruising routine at last on this lengthy 15-day voyage. On January 20 we should arrive at San Diego where we will finally disembark.

This is our sixth cruise and the first in four years. It is both similar and new. The Westerdam is not much different than the Noordam we were on four years ago. Most cruise ships are similar in both style and layout, so much so that you can usually find your way around without a map. Main stage is forward, Decks 2-4. Dining is way aft, Decks 2-3. The Promenade is on Deck 3, and there is always a Lido deck on Deck 9 with pools, hot tubs, bars serving tropical drinks and an enormous food court open day and night.

It’s impossible to lose weight on a cruise, so the challenge is not to gain weight. Mainly you avoid the food court on the Lido deck as much as possible and eat meals in the Dining Room. Weather permitting you make regular circuits of the Promenade. I’ve walked two miles on the Promenade already today and plan to do two miles more later.

All the cruiselines serve terrific food. One thing I like about Holland America is they serve reasonable portions. In addition, the food arrives so slowly that you partially digest one part of the meal before the second part arrives. Allow two hours or more for dinner in the dining room.

The Westerdam was built in 2004 but is already showing signs of age. You can find rust spots in places, spots they try to hide with coats of paint. Somehow the rust still leaches through the paint. The crew is always busy doing something, but standards may have slipped a bit. I am seeing things I haven’t seen on other cruises, things that amount to annoyances more than complaints, like finding no soap in the soap dispensers in certain public restrooms. Like other cruiselines, there is a lot of surreal happiness from the crew, who of course have orders to always bend over backward to be friendly and helpful.

Still, there is more than a little overt class division among the crew. I have carefully surveyed the dining and cabin crews. They are all Indonesian. Considering they never get a day off and must work at least twelve hours a day, it’s perhaps understandable that Indonesians have these jobs. Then there are the “white” jobs. You probably won’t see an Indonesian behind the desk at Guest Services. Positions like these seem reserved for whites. Speaking of whites, we passengers are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly senior. At 60, I am still probably well below the mean passenger age.

It’s a great life while the cruise lasts. Holland American cruises have innovated by adding Lincoln Center Stage, where you can indulge your love of classical music three times a day if you want. The entertainment is a bit less fancy than on other cruise lines, but only snobs will care. Their ships are smaller than most these days, which I find nice because it feels more intimate. Still, there is always something to do here, although the most popular activities tend to be the most passive and involve sitting on deck chairs on the Lido deck in front the pool and ordering tropical drinks.

At least it is far, far away from the bitter cold and snow back in New England. Exotic ports of call await.

The Thinker


In case you haven’t noticed, it’s cold out there … at least across most of the country. In western Massachusetts where we live we’ve been bearing much of the worst of it, enduring temperatures more familiar to North Dakota in January than even here in snowy New England. We’ve only been residents here two years, but we hear from the locals that this is cold even by New England’s winter standards. Cold and snowy. Christmas was picture perfect, with four inches falling starting around midnight. Since then we got above freezing just once, and very briefly. Mostly though it’s been cold and getting colder with daily highs in the low teens Fahrenheit if it makes it that far. When I went to bed last night, it was -4F. Overnight it got down to -12F, breaking the -11F low from the day before.

This kind of cold pretty much makes you stay indoors. Some poor buggers have no choice but to endure the elements. Workers spent last week at a house next to us under construction, doing what looks like putting in plumbing. With strong gusts of wind the wind chill was frequently in the minus teens. Even inside our house with the gas furnace going it still feels cold. Perhaps it’s aging, but unless I am under the covers my legs feel cold.

Which is why New Englanders with money hie thee hither this time of year rather than endure it. On our cul-de-sac except for a widow across the street we are the remaining residents. Fortunately this arctic blast that won’t go away is at least well timed enough to make us appreciate our first attempt at being snowbirds in many years. Come Thursday we fly south to Fort Lauderdale. Come Friday we board the MS Westerman of the Holland America line and spend 15 days and nights on southern seas. I am hoping when we return eighteen days later it might be somewhat seasonal around here again, which means highs around freezing and lows around 20F. Then I can do things like walk outdoors again. Right now when I go anywhere I’m almost immobile in my many layers of coats, scarfs, hats and gloves. I resemble a larger version of Ralphie’s kid brother Randy from A Christmas Story.

It’s going to take a lot of time in tropical climes and sitting on deck chairs for me to thaw out. Of course, to Donald Trump this is all evidence that there is no global warming. Being a moron of course anything that agrees with his predispositions proves him right. There are mostly higher than average temperatures elsewhere across the planet but these reports of course Trump cannot acknowledge. Doubtless he would call these reports Fake News. So what we are enduring this winter is likely to become even more exceptional, which suits me fine. I’m okay with winter as long as it doesn’t become crazy winter. This is crazy winter.

Since we have the means, we’ll escape it for a while and I’ll try to keep you posted. Cruise ships theoretically have Internet, but it’s cost prohibitive for all but the wealthiest. I have discovered that you can rent WiFi hot spots that should work when we are in port. This beats the alternative of trying to find a free WiFi spot somewhere in port. We’ll see if it works out. So expect pictures and remarks of various ports of call over the next few weeks as we slowly sail through the Panama Canal eventually ending up in San Diego. It’s the longest cruise we’ve ever taken, with plenty of days at sea to enjoy on a desk chair and watch mighty oceans slowly slip by.

It’s not too hard to see us following the pattern here in our 55+ community of snowbirding for the winter. Winter in New England can be cruel and it is exceptionally cruel this year. The desire to get away to warmer climes is strong. I’m just hoping my shaking knees can make it two more days until we head south to Fort Lauderdale.

Happy 2018 everyone!

The Thinker

Raise our taxes!

Merry Christmas everyone! And it’s a merry one here as we had actual snow for Christmas, about five inches locally. So yes, we have a white Christmas, which was a rarity but now that I live in New England maybe not so much. It still seems kind of magical.

Can it be a downer to get money for Christmas? We don’t collect on this money for a while, but as part of my 2018 planning I have been trying to figure out our budget. Trump promised Americans a big fat tax cut for Christmas. Now that this tax bill has become law, I decided I needed to crunch the numbers. The bill is still being digested but based on one online calculator I figure that our federal taxes will be $3352 less than what it would be had Congress not passed the law.

And yet it is a downer. It is true that I could take that $3352 and write a check to the U.S. Treasury and they would be happy to take the extra money. If I did this I would be in the top .01% … of taxpayers who actually send money to the U.S. Treasury in excess of what they owe. (Hmm, maybe not, considering how many undocumented send in payroll taxes from which they will never derive any benefits.) Unfortunately, it wouldn’t patch the nation’s roof.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about spending tax money to fix what’s desperately in need of repair. We could start with our crumbling infrastructure, something even Republicans in the age of so-called “fake news” cannot deny. Where I live they recently closed yet another bridge over the Mill River because it was too dangerous to actually use. Another one across the Connecticut River went down to one lane for more than a year while it was slowly repaired. With the tax bill now law Trump wants to make a “deal” with Democrats to spend on infrastructure. We know two things about this: it will be paid for with borrowed money if it happens at all and it will go to enrich Trump’s friends, if not Trump himself. So as desperate as the need is, maybe Democrats should take a pass for now.

Our lack of political will has resulted in crazy solutions. In Northern Virginia where we used to live the solution to the traffic problems is not quite to actually solve it, but to add HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes to the capital beltway and other places. Those with the money can escape a lot of the crushing traffic. Since the pricing is usually dynamic, it depends on supply and demand. Recently I-66 between the beltway and D.C. was opened for HOT traffic. It got so crazy that recently a one-way toll reached $44 dollars. That works out to more than $4 a mile.

Even in the rich D.C. suburbs, that’s a lot of dough. In most cases these HOT lanes don’t feed the government’s coffers. Instead, they go to private companies given very long-term leases to construct these extra lanes. So they may make traffic flow for those who few that can afford it. But they don’t really solve the problem of crumbling highways and bridges elsewhere.

Needless to say, the Trump Administration’s infrastructure “solution” involves a lot of what they are doing in Northern Virginia. In short, driving is becoming a privilege for the wealthy. As for the rest of us, we don’t get to eat cake: we get to sit in more traffic and get stuck in more potholes.

I really don’t think the United States qualifies as a first world country anymore. Perhaps I can say it’s true about certain things we elect to fund adequately, which is basically only the military. We’re the best at waging high tech wars and blowing stuff up. It’s pretty much all the other stuff that we won’t pay the freight on. I recently finished teaching another dispiriting class at a local community college. My students were incurious, clearly didn’t study and usually didn’t seek me out when they were having problems. Granted that these are students who probably got by with C’s in high school, but it’s clear we have huge problems with our educational system. The general problem though is we won’t make the investment required for education. We pay teachers scandalously low wages while overworking them. And now teachers can’t even claim a deduction for school supplies. Yep, that’s part of the $3352 extra we expect from the tax bill: basically we’ve taking money out of the pockets of teachers!

I wish the federal government operated a lot more like New England towns. Here towns practice real democracy. Across the river in Hadley, Massachusetts there were a number of town meetings to debate issues like construction of a new senior center and a new fire engine purchase. Basically the issues are publicly debated and if you show up you can vote. These tax overrides are not trivial. It means citizens pay extra property taxes. Both issues though won.

Not in our current Congress. The tax bill’s process was just shameful. There were at best cursory hearings. Leadership behind closed doors wrote most of the bill. There was no attempt to even consider ideas from Democrats. It was narrowly tailored to technically qualify under Senate budget reconciliation rules, which required only 51 votes. Hand written amendments were inserted into the bill from lobbyists sitting outside the Senate chambers. It was the complete opposite of a New England town meeting. The process could not have been any more opaque, less democratic, or less republican either for that matter.

Republicans are hoping that taxpayers will be bought off by temporary tax cuts in the bill. Our share looks to be $3352. In reality, it buys us nothing. However, it makes the debt worse, makes our infrastructure worse and gives money to those who need it least. And we are on that list. For goodness sakes, we’re retirees with a very comfortable income! $3352 a year means nothing to my standard of living. We can’t give it to our employees as bonuses; we don’t any of them. It’s not enough money to coax us to buy a private jet or even a fancy car. The truth is there is really nothing more for us to buy that we want or crave. We have a paid off house, two cars, free electricity from solar panels and good pension plus plenty of savings and investments. We take a couple of really nice vacations every year too.

If we can afford to contribute more, certainly those that make more money that we do can too, and they likely wouldn’t notice it either. And it’s not like there aren’t lots of things that would make productive use of our tax money.

But it only works if it is done nationally. The .01% of us who might give extra to the U.S. Treasury can’t fix this problem. It must be done nationally and it really can only be done if richer people give proportionately more, and the even richer people give even more. And the truth is they won’t notice the extra taxes either. And that’s because (a) they’re rich (duh!) and (b) the rich don’t trickle down anything of consequence. Trickle down is a lie. Putting money into things like a crumbling infrastructure, education and allowing poor people to just get buy though buys a whole lot and improves everyone’s lots.

Raise our taxes!

The Thinker

Boy, Republicans passed one really nasty tax bill!

I mentioned recently about the audaciousness of the new tax bill expected to become law soon. Some years back I also mentioned that Republicans are basically sadists. This newest version of the bill that passed Congress this week proves Republicans have doubled down on both their bill’s audacity and its egregious sadism. I really hope they don’t believe their own rhetoric that this will actually grow the economy and make the middle class prosperous, since all previous attempts have proven trickle down simply doesn’t work. So I prefer to believe they are simply mendacious.

Apparently the House-Senate conferees decided to go through the bill and look for ways to make their tax bill even more in their favor and to screw the working classes even more. Now there are new tax break for real estate investors. It’s hard to believe Trump and his cronies didn’t phone this one in, not that Trump was not going to profit handsomely even before the addition of these provisions.

This bill has all the hallmarks of legalized bribery. Basically it’s a scheme to foist $1.5T in new debt on the American taxpayer and redirect the vast majority of this debt directly into their pockets. It’s like going to the Federal Reserve, taking $1.5T out of their vaults and doling out $1.4T of it to rich people and corporations over the next ten years.

Ah, but not for us little people. They have dangled some candy in front of us, but those who taste it are going to discover its initial sweet state will soon turn bitter. Consider:

  • You may pay a few hundred dollars less in taxes per year over the next ten years. But by getting rid of the individual mandate, the rising cost of health insurance premiums are going to quickly negate any of this extra money. After all, it’s not how much you are taxed; it’s how much you keep. Those who figure they can’t afford health insurance will opt out now that the penalty for not having insurance has gone away. These are illusory savings. Medical debt is likely to wipe out any savings they accrue by dropping health insurance. As for the rest of us with health insurance our costs will go up and up until we too decide we can’t afford it either, leading to ever-higher levels of working class impoverishment. This makes a lot of sense though if you are sadistic, and Republicans are sadists.
  • As a Disney heiress points out because of “pass through” provisions in the bill her income (none of it earned) will be taxed at a rate lower than most you saps who must work for a living. This is not entirely new. Those living off of capital gains and dividends have been tax-advantaged over those most of us who earn wages for a long time while doing nothing to earn it other than occasionally discussing their portfolios with their financial adviser. This just widens the hole. Remember how Trump was going to drain the swamp? He’s making it deeper. However, this makes a lot of sense though if you are sadistic, and Republicans are sadists.
  • Remember that Alternative Minimum Tax that made sure that many of these loopholes for the rich were mitigated by requiring them to pay at least some reasonable tax? It’s gone. Oh, and fewer wealthy people will have to bother their executors with the duty of paying estate taxes. The estate tax limit has been doubled meaning more money will go to their kids who earned none of it. Leona Helmsley once famously said only the little people pay taxes. Republicans are proving her right. This makes a lot of sense though if you are sadistic, and Republicans are sadists.
  • Why do Republicans hate charities? The charitable deduction is effectively gone for most of us, because they have doubled the standard deduction. This dries up any incentive other than pure kindness and a philanthropic nature for anyone but the richest to give any money to charity. If I had to guess we’ll see a lot more money going to Koch-funded charities and a lot less to the American Red Cross. It’s a likely red alert for charities across the country, who can almost certainly count on fewer donations in 2018 and basically forever. But this makes a lot of sense if you are sadistic, and Republicans are sadists.
  • Republicans don’t like blue states. How dare they vote for people they don’t like! Now to add insult to injury by capping deductions for property taxes they are effectively screwing the bluest of the blue states. States where property values are high (predominantly blue states) charge the most in property taxes. Since most states base state income taxes on the adjusted gross income on your federal return, this effectively cuts revenue for these states, which means fewer state services like money to public schools, police and food stamps. Blue states already send more federal revenue to red states than they receive. This actually makes it worse, and makes it permanent. This makes a lot of sense thought if you are sadistic, and Republicans are sadists.
  • Who doesn’t like teachers? Republicans don’t, perhaps because they suspect them of teaching subversive liberal ideology. Anyhow, our teachers who are already vastly overworked and vastly underpaid while serving an incredibly vital role in our nation’s future prosperity and going to be screwed some more. The expenses they paid out of their own pocked for school supplies for their own students that their own school districts were too chintzy to pay are no longer deductible. Apparently, Republicans loathe teachers and look forward to future generations of even stupider Americans. This makes a lot of sense thought if you are sadistic, and Republicans are sadists.
  • Apparently Republicans also hate people with business expenses. It used to be that you could deduct these expenses in excess of 2% of your AGI. That deduction is gone with the wind too. So if your employer does not reimburse your business expenses, essentially Republicans in Congress have reduced your salary. This makes a lot of sense thought if you are sadistic, and Republicans are sadists.

There are also indirect ways the bill will further screw over the rest of us. Republicans are already making noises about how the $1.5T deficit that’s part of their tax reform means we need more austerity because … omigosh, the deficit’s so high! They obviously won’t repeal their tax cuts or defense spending so they are talking about “entitlement reform” instead. First out the gate will be automatic cuts to Medicare that will start in 2019. These would start on January 1, 2018 but Trump will wait until January 1 to sign the bill so these cuts start in 2019, conveniently after the midterms. Update: reports are that Trump signed the bill today so presumably that means Medicare cuts would begin in 2018, not 2019.

Thankfully, Americans aren’t nearly as stupid as Republicans think that we are. This is borne out by polls that show the law is deeply unpopular, in spite of the fact that most people will initially pay fewer federal taxes. It’s the most unpopular bill polled in the last forty year.

They will get their comeuppance next November 6.

The Thinker

The coming blue wave

To my surprise, Roy Moore lost his bid to be Alabama’s next senator last Tuesday to Democrat Doug Jones. Jones won, but not decisively, by a 1.5% margin over Moore. One of the more curious aspects of the election was that 1.7% of the votes were cast as write-ins. It’s reasonable to assume that virtually all of these were from people who would normally vote Republican, but couldn’t stomach Moore but could not vote for a Democrat.

This is the first example I’ve seen of a “reverse Green Party effect”. It’s usually Democrats that shoot themselves in the foot. We do this by being so principled that we get the exact opposite result instead. In Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, three states that swung for Trump last year, had Jill Stein’s (Green Party) votes gone for Hillary Clinton instead then Hillary Clinton would now be president of the United States.

What’s appalling in Alabama is that apparently almost all Republicans voted for the pedophile Moore anyhow. Those who voted for a write-in plus those who stayed home apparently gave Jones the edge. Huge kudos goes to blacks and women in Alabama that showed up to vote, which was the edge Jones needed. I can see why both would have incentive to vote. After all, Moore said he’d like to get rid of constitutional amendments after the 10th amendment. This would make slavery legal again and take away women’s right to vote.

When a Democrat can win a statewide office in Alabama again, that’s pretty much all you need to know about which way the political winds in this country are blowing. Granted that Jones’s victory pretty much is a fluke. There was literally no one worse in the whole state of Alabama that Republicans could have nominated. As one Republican wag put it, Republicans could have picked any other name out of the phone book and have won the election by at least 10%.

Unfortunately for Republicans, Steve Bannon seems serious about fielding a Trump Republican in every Republican primary next year. Moreover, Trump plans to aggressively campaign for Republican candidates. Given Trump’s track record recently promoting Ed Gillespie in Virginia, Luther Strange in Alabama and then Roy Moore, all who lost, it’s clear his endorsement is toxic. These tactics enflame Democrats, which is likely to have them coming out to vote in droves. A Trump endorsement also keeps establishment Republicans lukewarm about voting for any Trump Republican that survives the primaries and caucuses.

In short the 2018 elections are likely to be a blowout, ending eight years of Republican control of Congress. The House should flip. One scenario suggests that when the dust settles Democrats could take the chamber 255 seats to 177 Republican seats. Retaking the Senate no longer seems improbable, particularly if Trump Republicans run against Democrats. Democrats should not take this for granted. It depends on maintaining their enthusiasm, a skill at which Trump will predictably excel.

Moreover there are so many issues beyond Trump that will encourage not just Democrats to come out, but to lean independents toward Democratic candidates and even pull away many Republicans. Last week’s vote to end net neutrality is one example. Support for net neutrality is overwhelmingly bipartisan but changing it clearly won’t happen with Republicans in charge. Republicans’ tax bill that looks likely to pass is another animus as it clearly shifts yet more income toward the rich. Rank and file Republicans don’t like it either. On so many issues voting Republicans tend to side with Democrats but even where they don’t, independents do. Some of these include addressing climate change, shrinking our national monuments and the rank incompetence in the people that Trump is nominating. This included a recent judicial nominee who had never tried a case. Even Congressional Republicans seem to be blanching at this.

It’s unknown where the Mueller investigation will be come November. Rumors abound that Trump is about to fire Mueller, although he cannot without firing a whole lot of other people and putting in place sycophants to do the deed. In any event, when Richard Nixon tried this approach it was hugely counterproductive and led to his eventual resignation. It certainly would inflame voters even more and make Washington even more chaotic than it currently is.

So it’s not hard at all to predict that the political heat will continue to rise in our nation’s pressure cooker. Next November the pent up frustration should be overwhelming. So I for one hope that Trump keeps endorsing Republican candidates, as he is now toxic. Please proceed.


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