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.

You’d Better Believe It

Some of the more unusual news items spotted in recent weeks:

Carnival Cruises reported a 34% rise in earnings for the last quarter. Really? I’m going to guess that none of that came from passengers who boarded Carnival cruises over the last year or so and found themselves trapped by illnesses on board, mechanical malfunctions or perhaps by the Carnival-owned ship that capsized off the Italian coast. Carnival ought to refund that profit to all those who got stuck on the company’s ships.

Cadillac is moving its headquarters from Detroit to New York City. The company says the move will help it reach more luxury car buyers. Really? Maybe if Cadillac made better cars, they could sell more of them, regardless of where the headquarters building is located. The facts are — as anyone who drives them can attest — there are many brands much superior in manufactured quality than Cadillac, among them Mercedes, BMW, Infiniti, Audi, Lexus … and more. I can remember the good old days when Cadillac was a synonym for classy. And Dwight Eisenhower was President.

Scientists report extreme weather caused by climate changes will endanger both coasts and make Detroit a “desirable garden city.” Great timing, Cadillac.

Apple says it has sold more than 10 million iphone6 smartphones in less than one week. Really? Darn, and I thought it was going to be a collector’s item. Does Apple practice some form of mass hypnosis, or how else are we explain such a huge national craving for a product that is overpriced and so patently unnecessary?

Researchers in Italy have completed a far-reaching study about the benefits of art. This sounds really good, until you read about the exact nature of the study: scientists found that looking at a beautiful painting while being shot in the hand with a painful laser beam hurts less than when looking at an ugly painting. Yes, but did they try Andy Warhol?

NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell says the league is going to crack down on players who are involved in domestic violence. And in other news, the Pope has moved the Vatican to Las Vegas in order to get closer to sinners.

Re-Elect Sen. Jeanne Shaheen

We’re seeing a relentless succession of television ads for candidates these days, almost every one of them either negative, out of context or totally lacking in truth. Take it for a fact that when a candidate in a political ad says he or she is going to tell you the facts that the facts will be nowhere in evidence. No political party and no candidate in my hearing escapes this regrettable observation in election 2014.

Still, there are a couple of things that we ought to be aware of in going through these ads. And let me be specific about one race: the election for U.S. Senate between the incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and the Republican challenger Scott Brown. Their campaigns have mostly focused on what’s wrong with the other candidate, and a lot is said about Brown being a carpetbagger from Massachusetts and Shaheen being an Obama clone. Never mind that. In as civil a way as I can view it, here’s what’s important about this race.

Brown is a Republican who claims he will be an independent. Unfortunately I don’t find much evidence to back this up, and it seems likely that if and when he arrives in the Senate, he will join a party who whose members have largely been unwilling or unable to participate in the governing of the country for the last six years, so earnest has been their determination to keep President Obama from doing so.

The Republican Party is currently the party of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, who are, sadly, among the least formidable intellects to have led the GOP in in recent times. The party includes the likes of Ted Cruz and his Tea Party colleagues, whose brand of convervatism has done created more alienation than affection in America. I don’t doubt anyone’s belief that they are acting in the nation’s best interests, but the results so far suggest that interest has not been well served by their style of governing, or rather their disinclination to govern.

I don’t believe Scott Brown is a bad person. I disagree with much of what he says, but then political advertisements don’t exactly encourage strict adherence to truth. As a person, Scott Brown seems reasonable and likable. But how that might translate into a senator from New Hampshire who is part of a Republican Party which projects a negative, exclusive philosophy and which seems to have no serious focus beyond opposing the President leaves me wondering if this is really the best thing for our country.

So we come down to the bottom line: while Jeanne Shaheen may provoke some measure of disappointment — she is a politician, after all — she has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to look beyond provincialism and partisanship to vote often for what she believes is better for America. I don’t agree with all those votes, and I’m a Democrat. But I have respect for her. I have some respect for Scott Brown as well, but I’m not convinced Scott Brown will be able to rise above the partisanship of his party.

The Last Straw?

Way past the point you imagined the nation’s airlines couldn’t get any more disdainful of the traveling public, they have managed to do exactly that.

In case you missed it, here’s the headline: American Airlines has just re-configured the schedule at its Miami hub to put its hundreds of daily landings and departures closer together, what is called delicately “peak scheduling.” The airline says this will enable it to put more passengers from connecting flights on board and thereby earn more money. “An additional person per flight will make a difference,” a spokesman for the airline told The Wall Street Journal (whose reporter Scott McCartney does a terrific job of keeping up with these shenanigans).

Think about the meaning of this for passengers this for a moment, please. There now will be much less time for passengers to make connections (imagine how bad weather will complicate that throughout the entire system). It’s not enough that American crams passengers into tiny seats on crowded flights, now they want more. You can bet that additional rows of minuscule seats in the generously named coach section will soon be a part of all of their flights. Do you have some sense of how difficult this is going to make the process of transferring bags from one flight to the next? Less time means more bags won’t make the connecting flights. Enjoy.

And this incredibly irresponsible corporate decision means that the airport will now have periods of intense activity followed by periods of not much. How wasteful is that? Vendors in the Miami airport are already unhappy, reducing employment because passengers no longer have any time to stop. On a cheerful note, however, Americans says it will be hiring more people to deal with those hectic scheduled moments. Wow.

This is happening at Miami, but other airlines are apparently planning the same thing for their hubs. Mmmm, makes you want to climb on a plane, doesn’t it?

Last year when I wrote about the awful idea of merging of American and USAir — which of course is now a fact of life — I didn’t see this coming. The crowded flights, crappy seats, rising airfares and increased fees I did correctly forecast (being right still doesn’t feel very good) at the time. But this was a bad surprise, sort of like the sushi that leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.

Frankly, I can’t think of another corporate entity in this country that has so little regard and respect for its customers, that treats them as animals. Unless, of course, they have lots of money and are willing to spend it. I think it’s shameful, and I think we need a serious dose of federal regulation of the industry, in spite of my lack of faith in the federal process.

I’ve said for well over a decade that the airlines are not your friends. Don’t be deceived by anything they do. They are not on your side unless you are wealthy. And if you’re smart, you’ll do everything possible to avoid giving them your money. Think about it.