A Welcome Decison

In a decision ending decades of irrationality and brining the United States squarely into the 21st century, President Obama has wisely decided to recognize Cuba. The fact that Cuba is a mere 90 miles from the U.S. mainland attests to how silly this non-recognition policy has been ever since the 1960s. Of course, we had to punish Fidel Castro for his rebel-led rebellion that thwarted the best efforts of the CIA back in the ’50s, when that agency was overthrowing legitimately elected governments all over Latin America. Surely you didn’t think CIA torture program was the agency’s only mishap, did you? Try reading “The Brothers” by New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer for a grim and revealing look at the CIA’s work with the enthusiastic backing of the government back in the ’50s and early ’60s.

But back to Cuba. The President’s action is being hailed by everyone with some common sense, which of course excludes the anti-Castro community in South florida, Which has held this country’s policy hostage for five depressing decades. Representative of that is Florida Rep. Marco Rubio, who, sounding like a Cold War relic, warns of how this decision will threaten America’s national security (a Cuban military invasion of Key West?). Rubio, naturally, is just spouting politics; he wants to secure the electoral votes of Florida for his 2016 presidential bid. Ironically and entertainingly, incoming Senate President Mitch McConnell says his thoughts about Cuba are whatever Marco Rubio thinks “because he’s the expert.” So much for Mitch’s intellectual chops; whatever someone else thinks works fine for him. Keeps him from having to think very much, which apparently is both painful and too often comes up empty.

Anyhow, re-establishing relations with Cuba will prove a boon to the Cuban people our policy has professed to help but which has in actuality only hurt economically. Of course Cubans are happy about it along with the prospect of an end of lessening of the fault-ridden and unsuccessful boycott. It will ultimately prove good for U.S. businesses and tourists. It already is having a positive impact on U.S. relations with the rest of the continent. Think about that, Mitch.

Of course a lot of Republicans will oppose this. After all, it comes from President Obama, who is the Satan of America. Maybe, just maybe, common sense will win out. It’s long overdue.

One Christmas at a Time, Santa Belichick

Imagine the scene. It’s almost Christmas at the North Pole. The elves are scrambling here and there on their many tasks, and ‘ol Santa Claus himself is overseeing the blur of activities. During a break in the afternoon, Santa agrees to hold a press conference to answer questions about the holiday preparations from eager members of the media.

Here’s a transcript of that press conference between media members and Santa, who is disguised as Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, wearing a Christmas hoodie and an impatient scowl.

Santa (Belichick): OK, let’s go.

Media: Santa, how are the preparations coming?

Santa: Everything is fine. We’re taking it one toy at a time.

Media: How would you characterize your mood Santa?

Santa: I’m not interested in moods, only in the job we have to do.

Media: Oh come on, Santa, how is your mood on this eve of the big holiday.

Santa: (unsmiling) Jolly.

Media: What special things are your elves up to today?

Santa: We want to keep everyone focused on getting ready.

Media: Are some toys in demand this season?

Santa: I’m just focused on getting ready.

Media: We notice one of the elves appears to be hurt. Will he miss out on the fun?

Santa: I’m not going to talk about that.

Media: Why not?

Santa: We are focusing on the upcoming holiday.

Media: How is Mrs. Claus doing this year?

Santa: (extra scowling) No comment.

Media: Will Mrs. Claus be making you some cookies and cakes for your long journey?

Santa: We are taking it one toy at a time.

Media: How is Rudolf? Will he join the other reindeers this season?

Santa: I’m not going to talk about personnel.

Media: What are you willing to talk about Santa?

Santa: Staying focused on the job we have to do.

Media: Could you tell us how you plan to get down all those chimneys in one night?

Santa: I’m not going to say anything that might give away our game plan. Are there any more questions?

Media: How do you manage to get everything done year after year Santa?

Santa: We’re making one toy at a time.

Santa: Is everything alright here Santa?

Santa: Next question?

Media: Santa, how come you’re wearing a hoodie and not that red suit.

Santa: (Silence) (Serious scowling)

Media: Is there anything else you want to say, Santa?

Santa: No.

Media: Well then, Merry Christmas, Santa.

Santa: We’ll see.

(End of Transcript)

Helping the Few

The Manchester (NH) Union Leader, our state’s comically Republican newspaper, is on a mission. Fix the economy. Fix it while there’s still time before the Granite state becomes a New England economic afterthought. Bring back the heady days of the 1980s and 1990s when we were a leader among our neighbors.

That’s the clarion call, urged in a front-page editorial by the newspaper’s publisher in support of an interesting Republican/Libertarian column written by Charles Arlinghaus, who is identified as associated with a free-market (surprise!) think tank in Concord. His column contrasts the days of yore when the state’s economy surged to the last 10 years when it has lagged. Let’s see now — does that reflect economic trends at any other state in the Union? Well, generally speaking, about 38 of them, nearly all outside the South and Southwest.

The column by a no doubt well-intentioned and intelligent man — and the publisher’s declaration — pinpoint New Hampshire’s high business tax rate as the prime mover in the state’s “disintegrating” business economy. And the solution, they write in phrases that could easily have come from any chamber of commerce manifesto — is to lower the tax rates so more businesses will come here, more jobs will be created, high energy costs will evaporate and everyone will be happier. It’s a win-=win proposition if you don’t involve the people of New Hampshire who aren’t well-off Republicans (or like-minded) like the newspaper publisher and his columnist.

How will cutting the tax rates for business help maintain the expanded Medicaid program that provides at least some health coverage for 50,000 or so Granite Staters? How will be pay for getting our roads and bridges — indeed, our entire infrastructure — repaired and maintained? And where’s the evidence that the number of these new high-paying jobs to be created will amount to anything meaningful for the unemployed, minimally employed or elderly population? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to talk about minimum wage increases to help New Hampshire’s most needy get by a little easier?

Actually, no, not in the plans espoused in the Union Leader. Theirs is a simple Republican agenda that hasn’t worked in the past: help those so-called “job creators” make work for others. There’s been precious little work as a result of these efforts, and no one in the white, well-off, entitled community of Republicans and their sympathizers has shown that these job creators do anything other than improve their own situations.

Wouldn’t it be nice to read a front-page editorial that called for anything — anything — that would actually help the profound majority of Granite Staters and not just the privileged few? It won’t be coming anytime soon from the editorial pages of the Union Leader.

Handicapping the handicapped (politically speaking)

Now that the 2014 mid-terms are over, who can resist launching the conversation about the 2016 presidential hopefuls? Actually I can, but I choose not to — it’s much more fun to handicap the potential Republican candidates for the White House, even if at this point they are lacking a bit in the glorious wackiness of the 2012 wannabes. Who can forget Michele Bachman? Or Herman Cain? Or Rick Santorum? Or Rick Perry? Wait a minute — Rick Perry may be back in 2016 — so let’s get on with the preview.

Listed in no particular order of success, mostly because it is doubtful any of them will be the party’s candidate much less the nation’s President:

Rand Paul: Appealing looking guy who says interesting things. Interestingly, most of them will assure he doesn’t win the nomination, notably his dovish, neo-isolationist foreign policy ideas in a party dominated by war hawks. Odds of success: 500-1.

Mitt Romney: Honestly, in hindsight absolutely EVERYONE seems better. Look at George Bush. Odds: 1,000-1.

Rick Perry: Oh please, please, let him run again. Perry was an amusing lightweight on the national stage in 2012, and there’s no evidence he’s gotten brighter. He apparently appeals mostly to Texans. Odds :200-1.

Ted Cruz: Speaking of Texans, here the over-educated, unprincipled Tex Party delight, lusting for another government shutdown. Given the Tea Party’s lack of influence in the 2014 Republican races, his fate in 2016 would seem dashed. But count on him to make a lot of noise — and weirder things have happened (remember Sarah Palin as vice presidential candidate)? Odds: 500-1.

Marco Rubio: A hot commodity for a lot of GOPers. He’s a smart and appealing guy with some centrist positions that may deny him the nomination if Tea Party types control the ballots. Odds: 50-1.

Jeb Bush: Another Bush offers about the same appeal for many people as another Clinton. Surely our political dynasties can do better? Bush has been out of office for a few years now and his enthusiasm for a race would seem limited. If he gets in, he’ll have his brother’s aide to help. I just don;t think it will help that much. Odds: 50-1.

Bobby Jindal: Really? He comes from Louisiana, and while he’s smarter than the average bear, he evokes little national interest. Still, he’s a bona fide conservative with some ethnic appeal, so it’s hard to rule him out completely. Odds 200-1.

Rick Santorum: Really? The odds are better that we’ll elect our first four-leged President. Odds: Seriously.

Scott Walker: As Wisconsin goes, so goes the nation? Walked alienated liberals and union backers in his home state, meaning he is a favorite of a lot of Republicans. Does he have enough name recognition or enough knowledge about anything outside of Madison? Odds: 700-1

It’s Grits

We were in Vermont recently for a visit to the factory where they make Ben and Jerry’s ice cream — it’s among the most popular tourist destinations in New England — and decided to stop for dinner at a restaurant a few miles away in Waterbury. When we opened the menu, we were surprised — ok, jaw-dropping astonished — to discover the presence of grits in the listings!

Now, you have to bear in mind Waterbury VT is just a little over an hour driving time away from Canada. Nine hours north of the Mason-Dixon line. Eleven hours south of the Arctic Circle (you do have to fly). And almost 16 hours north of Columbia, SC, where Anson Mills produces authentic stone-ground grits.
Which brings up the question: what the heck was on that menu in Waterbury?
And the answer is: grits from Anson Mills. “That’s where we’ve always gotten our grits,” said a young woman behind the hostess desk at the Prohibition Pig restaurant, which also specializes in North Carolina pulled pork barbecue and varieties of another southern favorite, mac and cheese.

Is this a wonderful world or what?

We’ve missed grits since moving to New Hampshire from South Carolina and Georgia not long ago. We’ve ordered from Anson for our own use from time to time, to be sure. But finding restaurants that serve them has been difficult. And we’ve been reassuring some New Englanders that the use of “grits” is both singular and plural, as acknowledged by the authority of no less than The New York Times.

The word “grit,” however, can be a piece of sand or stone, a country bumpkin, a grinding of teeth, a statement of character or several other things. And “True Grit” was a movie. But they have nothing to do with corn and are not something you smear with butter or salt and pepper and whisk down your grateful gullet.

As native-born Southerners who took grits for granted along with okra, humidity and bourbon, we knew there would be some cultural challenges living in New England: snow, dirt roads, lobster, baked beans, snow, the E-Z Pass, no Civil war battlefields, maple syrup, snow and ice. And did I mention it gets pretty cold, too?
Anyhow, for many southerners, eating grits is one of those things you just did, like going to church, turning on the air conditioner or watching college football. And most committed grits eaters want only the long-cooked, stone-ground grits. Around New Hampshire, though, we’ve encountered people who assume the instant things like cream of wheat are the equivalent of grits. We have not laughed at those people — and it’s been hard sometimes — but we have pitied them.

The history of grits, I reminded anyone I could get to listen, goes back to the first discoveries of our country, in the late 16th century when Sir Walter Raleigh arrived in Virginia, and when the Mayflower Pilgrims landed at Plymouth a few years later. The Europeans found the Native Americans making several foods from corn, among them a boiled corn which became hominy grits.

The rest is history, albeit rather tangled, except that the Pilgrims apparently failed to get hooked on grits while the tasty dish spread like slavery in the South. Fortunately, the South eventually figured out that slavery was very bad, even though it took a war to finally convince everyone, and grits were very good. I can only assume now that New Englanders are envious that their ancestors never got the grits part right.
South Carolina recognized what a good thing it had in 1976 when legislators passed a bill that named grits as the official state food and declared that “given enough of it, the inhabitants of planet Earth would have nothing to fight about. A man full of grits is a man of peace.” South Carolina may have shed slavery, but it has not been able to do much about hyperbole.

These days, of course, you can find shrimp and grits — a creation of distinctly southern origins — on menus even in some New England restaurants. Sadly, the establishments serving it don’t always have the right sort of grits. And occasionally they give the dish a uniquely New England flavor that seems about as misplaced and welcome as an ice storm in Key West.

In a magazine aimed at New Englanders recently, we came across a recipe for grits and homemade sausages — something we’d be prepared to indulge — but then found the author added this: “Let’s put those sausages with a traditional southern dish, made my way! With good ol’ cheddar cheese and apples, not to mention maple syrup, this is a great way to taste your first grits.”

Yep, you read that correctly. Maple syrup in the grits.

I’m afraid we may have more cultural challenges facing us than I had ever imagined.

Election 2014

What are we to make of the 2014 mid-term elections now that the political dust has settled? Mostly what we’ve heard so far is a bunch of hooey.

For instance, numerous analysts have pointed to the Republican dominance in the elections as evidence of the diminishing role of the Democrats nationally. And Democrats themselves largely have bemoaned the results and wondered if there is a future for the party as currently constituted.Now if any of that sounds familiar, think back — way back as far as the presidential election of 2012 — when Barack Obama was re-elected and Republicans launched an orgy of self-criticism in an effort to find any remaining relevance for their party. The words they used then are almost exactly what we’re hearing from Democrats in the wake of 2014 results.

So let’s forget the notion that the Democrats are now irrelevant in the nation’s politics. They still control the White House and they have enough presence in the Congress — especially the Senate — to maintain a balance against the GOP majority. The business of governing will require two parties, although we await evidence that Republicans will use their majorities to accomplish anything. Remember — the Tea Party is still looming, and unprincipled zealots like Ted Cruz can and likely will cause trouble for Republicans, and indeed, for the entire country.

The election was a costly mess: a record $4 billion spent overall. In a declaration of near lunacy, a pair of Wall Street Journal analysts have concluded that the $4 billion was actually not all that much because it merely reflects the growth in the size of running the government. In their words, if government were smaller, people wouldn’t spend as much much to get into a position to run it. Historically that doesn’t wash; we’re spending much more because the Supreme Court permits unlimited spending. A notion that the size of government determines how much people want to be part of it is patently nonsense.

So, is the conservative philosophy now ascendant nationally? On the surface, I suppose so. But underneath, I’m not so sure. A number of ballot initiatives backing more progressive causes prevailed, including additional states legalizing marijuana and raising the minimum wage. And I’m not convinced that the Republicans have put together any sort of national constituency that can win the White House in 2016. When voter turnout gets larger as it will in a presidential election year — with more African American, Hispanic and women voters — Republican chances go down given the party’s abandonment of those categories.

Bottom line? We’re in for two years of difficulties governing this country. Republicans haven’t shown any interest in abandoning their goals: less regulation for businesses, less regulation of energy programs, less attention to the middle class and continuing efforts to do away with the existing core of Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare. It’s a miserably selfish program focused almost entirely on the well-off. It’s also a shame. Many people in this country want something better; sadly, some of them voted this year to maintain the very same gridlock they profess to dislike.

Sweet and Sour

Voters in San Francisco and Berkeley will decide this month whether to place a new tax on sugary non-alcoholic beverages. Supporters, including lots of pubic health groups, say the beverages are major contributors to the epidemic of obesity in this country, especially for children. Opponents — mostly the beverage industry — argue the proposals unfairly single out beverages and would raise prices for consumers. In a nutshell, that’s the issue.

In San Francisco, where the tax levy would be two cents an ounce, the money would go to nutrition and fitness programs in the schools. In Berkeley, revenues from the proposed one-cent per ounce tax would go for similar public services. these are commendable purposes, to be sure. If these measures should pass, there likely will be increased calls for similar measures in other cities and states, which is something the beverage industry fears and has already spent more than $100 million to defeat soda-tax proposals in other locations over the last five years, according to the Wall Street Journal.

So the stakes are big here. And potentially, so are the results. Obesity is by any measure a significant health problem for Americans, and hardly just the young. Consumption of sugary beverages, while falling in recent years, remains alarmingly high. And public health officials have no doubts about connecting the dots between obesity and sugary beverage consumption.

The American Beverage Association contends that consumers are already taxed to the limit, and there is some agreement with that. They warn that in San Francisco the tax would mean a 40-cent increase to a 20-ounce can of soda. They also argue that their industry is being singled out in this issue, a claim that is considerably more dubious (the Germans argued that they weren’t the only ones killing Jews, the Soviets were, too, so why not get them?). And let’s also recall that this is the same argument put forth by the cigarette industry some years before warnings finally on packs.

As for raising prices for consumers because of the tax, well, beverage producers will want to do that to maintain their profits, which are already astoundingly good (Coca-Cola says it may miss its profit targets for shareholders this year; heavens, could mean a salary reduction for the CEO? Believe me, Coke isn’t going out of business during my or your lifetime. But a price increase will diminish consumption — San Francisco officials suggest this could happen by some 30-per cent. So the results of these votes will be significant.

We’ll see how voters feel about this, though voters in liberal-minded Berkeley and San Francisco may not accurately the sentiment in many other places in the country. Me? I don’t drink those sugar-filled beverages, but I’m concerned for those who do so in large amounts. Of course, many of them would tell me that it’s their health not mine, so butt out. Again, the same thing we heard about cigarettes. And the response then — and now — remains the same: the results of smoking and of drinking sugar beverages constitutes a major public health problem and resulting expense. That does affect me and give me a legitimate voice in this discussion. We’ll see …..

A Look at the Far Side

Short takes . . . .

1) The New York Times reports that Republicans running for election or re-election to the US House of representatives don’t need to be concerned about the Hispanic vote. That’s because they don’t need them. Geography and the population distribution have taken care of that issue. And so — while GOP strategists warn that alienating Hispanics will prove costly in the 2016 presidential election — local Republican in many districts candidates are basing their hopes of why we have to keep immigrants (they mean mostly Hispanics from Mexico and other Latin American nations) out with restrictive new laws and building that fence higher and longer.

We get some of that even in New Hampshire, which is hardly beset by immigration issues Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown, the truck-driving former losing politician candidate from Massachusetts, keeps urging that we must “Save the Borders.” Perhaps he means keep out anyone from Massachusetts? Or Vermont? Not sure. Whatever, it’s a cry that makes little sense when it serves in place of sensible, considered immigration reform. Shame on Scott.

2) The Republican’s ludicrous demand for a travel ban from West African nations to save American from Ebola has been pretty much abandoned now. I wonder if the publisher of the Manchester Union-Leader here in NH has realized that yet and so altered his position to fit into the newly stated position of the Republican party (which wants travel visas instead of a ban)? The notion of a travel ban was always far-fetched and part of the GOP’s lunacy over Ebola. (Can we calmly remember that as of today we have one death and two reported cases in the United States?).

Certainly there has been a bungled response to Ebola in several areas, at the state, local and federal levels. But we are nor unsafe. And comments we read the other day from a woman who lives Louisiana expressing fear because she’s only 300 miles from Dallas is unbelievable. Sort of like Union-Leader editorials.

3) Speaking of idiots, consider Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, who is — regrettably — a state representative in our friendly little state. He was quoted the other day as calling DemocraticCongresswoman Annie Kuster is “ugly as sin.” Yep, not a misogynistic bone in his body, eh? and apparently not much in his brain. His comment was presumably aimed at helping Kuster’s opponent, Marilinda Garcia, who promptly and to her credit denounced Vaillancourt’s words.

Vaillancourt, of course is something of a creep. Several years ago he gave the Nazi salute in the chamber of the state house. But here’s what worse: have you taken a look at Vaillancourt’s photos? They show a fat, balding, baggy-eyed, middle-aged man whose smile resembles nothing as much as a sleazy used car salesman. I’d call it ugly as sin except that I don’t want to appear sexist.

A Journalistic Shame

The quality of journalism in New Hampshire takes a serious hit almost every time the publisher of the state’s largest paper, The Union Leader, picks up his pen. Or launches his keyboard. Joseph W. McQuaid has demonstrated time and again that his grasp of complicated issues is tenuous and his processing of them is challenged. His latest editorial offers ample documentation.

In an editorial he ordered placed on the front page of this morning paper — possibly to the embarrassment of some very good, thoughtful employees — McQuaid offered some dense thoughts about Ebola highlighted by calling President Obama’s policies in confronting the epidemic “crazy.”

Mr. McQuaid is upset about the potential spread of Ebola, which is a reasonable thing to do. But he’s flaming hot about the President’s failure to ban all travel to and from West Africa to the United States. He believes this because — and here he leans on right-wing columnist Thomas Sowell’s savage, witless conjecture — that Obama no longer cares about protecting the American people. That’s right. The President who drives Republicans crazy doesn’t care about letting loose a medical epidemic in his own nation (do try and remember he wasn’t born in Kenya, Mr. McQuaid).

This is lunacy. It is irresponsible, shameless, unprofessional journalism. It makes the editorial page of this newspaper seem even more juvenile and empty than it often appears. Although, reading its editorial page — imagined by Mr. McQuaid and his legions structured as sort of a junior version of the Wall Street Journal albeit minus intelligence, reason, insight and logical opinion — leaves readers with the impression that serious issues routinely can be dealt with with brevity abetted by simple-mindedness.

Here’s what’s behind it: Republican strategy, although slightly perverted. Few mainstream Republicans are calling the President crazy. But the party’s extreme conservative hirelings have devised a strategy to make everyone fearful in general terms. They want voters to see the nation is not working because there are so many threats and our President is overwhelmed (or maybe underwhelmed).

Do you doubt this? Consider the words of Sen. Rand Paul, speaking to conservatives, presumably Mr. McQuaid among them, “The problem of government now is getting government to work.” Really? Who keeps it from working? Who shuts down the government? Who refuses to pass legislation? Who refuses to govern? The answer to all those questions is conservative Republicans, or rather conservatives like Mr. McQuaid who have a ludicrous, childish sense of government.

Rigorous thought, opinion shaped by facts, a far-reaching intelligence and curiosity should be the hallmarks of a good, edifying and challenging editorial page. Those qualities are as conspicuously absent at the Union Leader as common sense and decency are missing from Mr. Sowell’s column. Mr. McQuaid’s front-page plea is strictly politics. Low-down, dirty, cringing politics.

The Union Leader’s editorial page and Mr. Sowell’s column are nothing less than a disgrace. Shame on their perpetrators. They do no honor to the people and policies they endeavor to support.

Back to You, GM

Headline: General Motors has issued 74 recalls covering almost 30 million vehicles.

Which answers the question: What is the worst business organization in the world?

And which brings up the second question: Why would anyone buy a GM vehicle?

Seriously. There’s a darn good chance any GM-made car you purchase is going to be seriously compromised, regardless of whether it’s old or new. And if you have any doubts about that, consider this: General Motors has stopped shipping some of its 2015 models to dealers because of concerns they may stop unexpectedly, speed up unexpectedly, catch fire unexpectedly or just somehow crash into something.

Why not just put your money in bitcoins and buy a bike with what’s left?

These recalls, lest you forget, cover just about every vehicle Gm makes. If they still made Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles, you can bet they’d be back in the shop, too. Actually, if you still have one of those models, it’s probably back in the shop anyway. At General Motors, quality is an occasional thing not to be confused with coffee breaks.

Here’s what really seems amazing about this to me: Mary T. Barra, GM’s CEO, still has her job. Of course not everything horrible at GM has happened during her watch — there’s blame to be spread among inept and callous executives aplenty — but her insistence before Congress that GM has a new culture dedicated to safety doesn’t preclude that culture seemingly quite leaky. If she worked for Toyota, she would already have had the good sense and human decency to resign, if not to consider hara-kiri (just kidding about that).

Every change of seasons brings with it news of more GM recalls. And don’t think these recalls involve only the cheapest of brands. Nope, not at all. There are a bunch of Cadillacs — the model that passes for the best GM produces — included. And — get this — police cars are now involved! What a relief that must be to the nation’s cops: their cars will now have less chance to explode unexpectedly while they’re in pursuit of criminals. Who, by the way, ought to include all those GM executives who refused to heed warnings from their engineers about defects in all of these vehicles.

In fact, couldn’t we get a new TV reality show going in which GM cars race toward GM executives and we see which cars can brake in time to avoid striking them? OK, just kidding about that.

I guess.