RARWRITER PUBLISHING GROUP PRESENTS
Index of Reviews:
Posted January 16, 2010
Posted December 2009
"In just twenty-five years we have gone from the American Century to the American Crisis. That is an astonishing turnaround - perhaps the shortest parabola in history."
Those were the words of financier and social critic Felix Rohatyn1 spoken to Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Halberstam and published in Halberstam's 1986 treatise on the world automotive industry, The Reckoning (William Morrow and Company).
The first thing that hits one about that quote is that it is from more than two decades ago, and yet it seems ripped from today's headlines and today's sense of dawning realization that the U.S. auto industry is in deep trouble. In fact, the U.S. auto industry has been in deep trouble at least since the Carter administration, when Chrysler's Lee Iacocca was going to Congress (1979) for bailouts to stave off bankruptcy. It is only just becoming apparent to us hard-headed consumer Capitalists, who have been suckled on the notion of infinite American treasure, now that all of the U.S. auto companies other than Ford are making gurgling death sounds, along with the jobs of thousands of American workers.
Halberstam, who writes openly about venturing outside of his safety zone with this book in taking on a subject he had previously known nothing of, decided that the best way to understand the automobile industry was to focus on just two companies: Ford, in the U.S., and Nissan in Japan, both of which were number two and trying harder in their respective countries.
In Ford, Halberstam has the central character of Henry Ford himself, a farmer's son who went on to claim that he "invented the modern age", and in fact did with regards to industrial development. It was in the form of two significant events: the development of assembly production, and the introduction of the "$10 dollar day".
When Ford started building the Model T, it took 12 and one-half hours to build a single car. That seems remarkably fast, given that the vehicle was first manufactured in 1908, but Ford's dream was to be able to complete a car once a minute, and it took him only 12 years to reach that astonishing level of production. By 1925, Ford was churning out a new Model T every 10 seconds! They put 15,456,868 of that model onto U.S. roadways during the life of the model.
Ford's assembly line workers, meanwhile, were making the kind of money that turned them into consumers of their own products. It could be said that the American middle class expanded out from Detroit, in the small cities throughout the industrial belt where suppliers provided parts for the voracious assembly lines of GM, Ford and Chrysler, and others that came and went. (There have been automotive company failures: Studebaker, Packard, and American Motors which had formed as a union of Hudson and Nash Kelvinator, among other earlier companies.)
Ford's problem was that the Model T wouldn't change. He wouldn't have it. In fact, as Halberstam points out, Ford's intractable nature - he was famous for his quotes, one of which was "You can have the Model T in any color you want so long as its black" - became the blue print, and the Achilles Heal, of the Detroit auto industry: unwillingness to change. Henry Ford became a reclusive eccentric along the lines of his contemporary Howard Hughes, and things within his company got stranger and stranger. After making little kings of his workers, the increasingly paranoid Ford began to suspect that they had grown complacent and were taking their good fortunes for granted. He responded by filling the ranks of his supervisors with thugs whose jobs involved punching the noses of workers who weren't laboring to capacity.
Ford was equally volatile with his executive staff. Halberstam relates an incredible story about one trouble-making executive, who had been insisting on changes in Ford designs. He was tricked into crawling under the hood of an associate's car, ostensibly to check on a mysterious engine problem, and was then driven right out of the Ford plant, sprawled across the engine compartment of the car, while the gates were locked behind him. He was never to return.
Henry Ford died in 1946, but the pattern was established. The Detroit auto elite had become an insulated group of risk avoiders, and Halberstam shares popular group maxims at the auto makers like "Don't let GM do it first", meaning let some other company risk money on innovation.
In fact, some other companies did, companies in Europe and, most especially, in Japan.
Halberstam profiles interesting personalities like motor industry analyst Charlie Maxwell, who back in the '70s saw that the U.S.' 5 to 6 percent annual increase in oil consumption signaled coming disaster, and tried to warn the auto industry that it had better start to adjust from gas guzzlers to fuel efficient cars. No one listened, even to their own emissaries who were sent to investigate developments in the auto industries of other countries. They were slow to accept the advantages of the front-wheel drive autos being built in Europe, which were lighter and more fuel efficient.
Naohiru Amaya of Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), on the other hand, was keenly aware of his country's dependence on foreign oil, and when the Shah of Iran was deposed in the late '70s and that country began to hold the world's oil consuming nations hostage through the OPEC cartel, Amaya provided real leadership to the Japanese auto industry. By 1982, Japan owned 30 percent of the U.S. auto market. By contrast, in that same period things became so bleak in Detroit, with laid-off workers leaving town for the southwestern states, that a consortium of five Japanese banks loaned the state of Michigan $500 million to help it survive the financial crisis.
Halberstam points out how American auto executives blundered away the American auto market by insisting on building mid-sized cars and essentially ceding the small car market to the Japanese. There weren't the big profit margins in the smaller cars, so Detroit kept turning out more expensive cars oblivious to the realities of consumers whose focus was more and more on economy. This was particularly true after Americans got a taste of gas lines during the Carter years.
In an effort at tariff protectionism, the Americans allowed the Japanese to build their cars in the non-unionized southern states, which probably seemed like a good idea at the time. It had the effect of eroding the power of the United Auto Workers (UAW) while making certain that a percentage of the Japanese auto product sold in the U.S. was built by U.S. workers. The devastation of the native U.S. small car was almost immediate, with Americans falling in love with dependable, fuel-efficient models from Toyota and Honda.
While Halberstam spends a great deal of time tracking the rise and fall of the UAW and the Masuda labor union in Japan, he spotlights something else that undermined the American auto industry: lack of quality control in their product. He tells the interesting story of Detroit auto industry quality expert W. Edwards Deming who visited the Japanese automakers' operations and came back with reports that had a profound impact on management philosophies from the 1980s on. Japanese style management became all the rage, particularly its central feature of vesting every worker with the responsibility of quality control. In the U.S., it was packaged as "empowering the worker", but what it really meant was "you are personally responsible for the quality of our product". It was a cold, hard resetting of the social contract, and one that U.S. industry spent a huge amount of money trying to place in stone for the next generation. (It was inspired, in part, by the fact that Japanese automakers saved on overhead by getting things right the first time, where as many as 40 percent of the autos built in U.S. plants had to be pulled off the assembly line and into football stadium-sized "fix-it" bays to correct assembly problems, or otherwise to do the job a second time. This factoid has been used by anti-union activists to decry the quality of union auto workers, but in fact most of these assembly repairs are the result of improperly manufactured parts. The U.S. has been pretty lackadaisical in quality control of the supply chain.)
The other profound change that rocked the Detroit auto industry in the 1980s was one that has been mirrored in every aspect of American business ever since. Halberstam tells the story of the rise of advertising and finance men in the auto industry, and of the public stock offering of Ford. Manufacturing men, who had always been the primary drivers in Detroit, were pushed out in favor of number crunchers and spinmeisters. Detroit became a culture of Wall Street reports and adjustments in product geared to same. Detroit lost its soul in terms of turning out product designed by car-loving engineers for their car-loving consumers. Risk-averse manufacturers gave way to risk-averse, but media savvy, whiz kids from the nation's top business schools.
It hasn't worked.
Of the Big Three automakers, only Ford is presently holding its own. A report this month (April 2009) from GM showed adjusted earnings before interest and taxes, or EBIT, would show a loss of $6.3 billion, compared with its Feb. 17 forecast loss of $5.2 billion. GM's 2008 EBIT was a loss of $8.1 billion. The adjusted figure, which removes any special charges, is designed to reflect operating performance. GM reported it that burned through $12 billion in 2008. In its Feb. 17 viability plan to Treasury, GM estimated the cash burn at $8.2 billion for this year. The company is now lowering that forecast to $7.5 billion. GM is in discussions with investors interested in Hummer and Saab, AC Delco and the Strasbourg Transmission Plant in France.
GM is also on track to:
• Reduce its current nameplates to 36 from 48 by 2012 and to reduce its dealership count by 2,146 by 2014 -- to 4,100.
• Reduce its U.S. and Canadian brand count to five from eight. GM plans to have four core brands -- Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC -- with Pontiac being a niche brand.
• Find a manufacturer to supply product to Saturn, or phase out the brand in 2011.
• Make a $250 million investment to build the Chevrolet Volt's range-extending 1.4-liter engine in Flint, Mich.
• Buyout 7,500 hourly employees, or about 1,000 more than projected.
* * * * *
Back in 1976, as a cub reporter on an Indiana daily newspaper, I covered a Labor Day picnic of the UAW at which the feature speaker was a vice president, a right-hand man of Douglas Frazier, who was the UAW leader at the time. His main concern that day were the plants being built in the southern states, because everyone knew this was being done to locate the industry away from union-heavy Detroit. The UAW VP was tasked with selling the union to people who were already union members, explaining the benefits. There was not a great deal of optimism in the park that day, 30-plus years ago, and Halberstam's book was still 10 years from being published. This long decline, as the U.S. has lost its manufacturing base, and lurched closer and closer to losing the vitality of the industry that has epitomized America's promise of mobility and unlimited possibility, is interestingly chronicled in this book. I wouldn't call it a past delight, but rather a panoramic snapshot of what went wrong in the dying age of American industry. - RAR
Imagine you are a young dude guitarist, just out of your teens, and people start calling you "God," as in "Clapton is God." This was a '60s analog to the WWII era's "Kilroy Was Here," paralleling the other popular marking of the time, "Frodo Lives!", a weird cultural exclamation that presented as graffiti throughout the late '60s London tube system. "I was a bit mystified by this," writes Eric Clapton in his autobiography, "and part of me ran a mile from it. I didn't really want that kind of notoriety. I knew it would bring some kind of trouble. Another part of me really liked the idea, that what I had been fostering all these years was finally getting some recognition."
Holy Christ! Do you sense split personality? Possibly some impatience? Finally getting some recognition?
Clapton's rise toward the top of the British "modern music" hierarchy had been rapid and steady. Born in 1945, the bastard son of a Canadian airman based in war-time Britain, and a kid who was raised believing that his grandparents were his parents, Eric Clapton was only 20 years old when the band he was with, The Yardbirds, scored a huge hit single with the band's third release "For Your Love," (written "by Graham Gouldman, later of 10cc..."). Clapton's response was to storm away angrily, to quit the band, who replaced him with Jeff Beck. What most people would have gladly accepted as success just made Clapton grumpy because he was and is that most persnickety of human beings, a "purist," in his case a "blues purist." "For Your Love" was exactly the kind of pop crap that the young guitar god detested most, so he quit The Yardbirds in protest and dissolved back into the London blues community to become a protege-mentor (again, the weird "split") to the "gray beard" (not literally) John Mayall, briefly elevating Mayall's Blues Breakers to a commercial entity. It was in this period that the "Clapton Is God" graffiti started appearing. He was to eventually re-associate, dumping Mayall and re-emerging with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker as "the supergroup" Cream. Clapton came up with the descriptive name because they were "the cream of the crop, the elite of our respective domains." Bruce and Baker had been resident fixtures in the small London blues scene for a number of years, and Clapton was the kid whose hubris was apparent in his perception of the trio's eminence.
The acknowledgements in this book are sketchy, but it is an autobiography and one senses that Clapton, who is an exceedingly bright fellow, actually wrote the book himself. It is an easy, breezy read of only 328 pages. Clapton has a style of communication that is as straight forward and concise as his guitar playing, and a document from one so capable offers extraordinary insight into the guy who somehow rose from ignominious -- some might say psychologically perverse -- beginnings to become one of the most heralded musical artists of our time.
That said, what a lugubrious bore! I write this as a guy who is not a big fan of blues music, and a guy who doesn't really understand obsession with a single musical form. Clapton's history has been that of a wet blanket, smothering ranging musical accomplishment under his biases. I suspect most musicians will read this entirely differently, because exploring one's chosen form is elemental to the success of most professionals, including music professionals. Specialization works, but it is limiting.
As one reads on in this book, possibly seduced a bit by Clapton's matter of fact style, it becomes apparent that in this quiet there resides some passive explanation for why Clapton has remained a fixture in commercial popular music even while existing as an artist whose contributions have fallen far short of his own myth. Clapton, at least initially, was relentless in his dedication to his uncomplicated view of himself. This became a challenge in his later years, after he had sobered up, entered therapy, and was asked to "Tell me who you are." Writes Clapton - "...I felt the blood rush up to my face and wanted to yell at her, 'How dare you!' Don't you know who I am?' Of course, I had no idea who I was..." This book, I suppose, sets out to answer that question now that the 63-year old Clapton can get a little perspective on his life.
Young specialist Clapton was introduced to the blues through a Saturday morning BBC radio program for kids, "Children's Favourites" "...introduced by the incredible Uncle Mac."
"One particular Saturday he put on a song by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee called 'Whooping and Hollering.' It had Sonny Terry playing the harmonica, then alternately whooping in falsetto, so fast, and with perfect timing, while Brownie played fast guitar accompaniment. I guess it was the novelty element that made Uncle Mac play it, but it cut through me like a knife...Music became a healer for me and I learned to listen with all my being. I found that it could wipe away all the emotions of fear and confusion relating to my family."
Clapton became an inveterate record copier, a committed wood-shedder who sat at his record player for hours trying to duplicate the sounds he heard, first struggling with cheap guitars with poor fret action, and little by little graduating up through the ranks of local teen bands, influenced by the likes of players he could go and see, like Alexis Korner (Blues Incorporated). He was introduced to Robert Johnson's King of the Delta Blues Singers LP and he committed it to heart. He gained traction with a band called The Roosters, which had been founded by the since departed Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) with guitarist Brian Jones (Rolling Stones). The Jones were both bluesy guys, but about the time young Eric took the comb that stinking Mersey sound, popularized by The Beatles, who were headlining a once-a-week radio show ("Pop Go the Beatles," 1962-1966), started changing the face of popular music. This radio show fueled "Beatlemania" in its early days, which stuck in Clapton's craw. "All over the country people were dressing like them, playing like them, sounding like them, and looking like them. I thought it was despicable, probably because it showed how sheeplike people were, and how ready they were to elevate these players to the status of gods, when most of the artists I admired had died unheard of, sometimes penniless and alone. It also made it look like what we were trying to do was already a lost cause."
Indeed, The Beatles pushed Clapton and his blues brothers underground, just as they buried folk and traditional jazz. But underground Clapton was running into an interesting crowd, including Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, John McVie, Peter Green, Albert Lee, and others who would become notables. For a shy guy not particularly inclined to be a joiner, Clapton was networking effectively, attracting admirers. This is when he resurfaced with The Yardbirds, a band he had hoped to steer toward his strictly blues progressions, but who disappointed him with commercial success.
From that point on one reads the Eric Clapton story as a series of self absorptions with fallout for disposable people. One such is the "blues legend" Mayall, who gave Clapton a place in his home in Clapton's post-Yardbirds phase, sharing space with the Mayall wife and kids. Clapton's influence on "John Mayall and the Blues Breakers" was to elevate old John's band - Mayall was in his late-30s, old enough to be Clapton's father - to a higher level of performance. This was captured on the LP Blues Breakers: John Mayall with Eric Clapton, "the breakthrough album that really brought my playing to people's attention."
Though Clapton had not previously been a "singer" - he thought of his voice as a "high-pitched whine" - he had always yearned to be a front man like his idol Buddy Guy, to prowl and sing and play. This was not a natural behavior for the shy Clapton, but it was an impulse that he got the opportunity to act out with Cream, where he was encouraged by Disreali Gears Producer Felix Pappalardi and super engineer Tom Dowd to be Cream's featured singer - a role already in the capable vocal cords of songwriter Jack Bruce. As Cream gathered momentum we read Clapton being on the verge, once again, of pulling out just when he is on the edge of achieving stardom equal to his largely underground reputation. He hated the song "Strange Brew," which was producer Pappalardi's "pop" reworking of a number named "Lawdy Mama" from Cream's slim repertoire. It is today one of the band's signature tunes, but apparently it made Clapton want to vomit. He was only happy after being allowed to add a B.B. King type lead guitar track. Or at least that's what Clapton implies in the book, but he also expresses his disappointment at having the release of Disreali Gears be over-shadowed by Jimi Hendrix' Are You Experienced?, both released in late 1967.
At the Fillmore in San Francisco, Bill Graham tossed Cream the keys and told them to play as long as they liked. The acid dropped, the light show started and, Clapton writes, "this is where we started exploring our potential," in all night shows where the band members were just anonymous reflective surfaces for the psychedelic wash that bathed the stage and backdrop. Cream, however, was a happy experience for Clapton only while the band was on stage. Bruce and Baker, though they had worked together for years, hated each other and Clapton didn't seem to feel close to either of them, though apparently Ginger Baker took an older brother's role with Clapton and spent years threatening to pummel the young guitarist out of his heroin addiction. (Baker had one of his own.) Soon enough Clapton became disenchanted with being in a jam band and he quit, returning to his English country home and entering a 3-year period of a junky's isolation, occasionally punctuated by a high profile appearance that kept his legend alive. One such was George Harrison's 1971 concert for Bangladesh, which Clapton was only convinced to travel to and play on George Harrison's promise that he would ensure Clapton's supply of heroin. As it turned out, Harrison came up with the Horse, but it was only a weak version of the pure stuff Clapton was used to snorting. (Clapton is afraid of needles, so his heroin habit was of the far more expensive snorter's variety.) The result was that Clapton missed rehearsals, sick in his room, played the show, but wasn't really there. It is something he claims to feel bad about to this day.
In fact, the arc of Clapton's life is that he treated people with casual disregard, using them to achieve his purposes, often elevating the work of the musicians he worked with, but then walking out on them when things start to go too well. Like addicts of all stripes, Clapton had rationales for it all, but apparently for him it is has been easier to apologize later (if at all) rather than to always do the stand up thing at the time. Clapton, at one point in the book after he had sobered himself up through a 12-step program, realized that he was a middle-aged man with the emotional maturity of a 10-year old. There is one particularly weird scene in which middle-aged Clapton realizes he has to start taking responsibility for his life and his career, and so demonstrates his newfound maturity by inviting his band to dinner and then firing all but one of them on the spot. He writes that the band members were stunned speechless, providing some uncomfortable moments, but that it felt great because Eric was starting to get a handle on being a mature adult.
Clapton, a man with few close friends, was hard on everybody. His jealousy toward The Beatles was visceral and was acted out in his bizarre relationship with George Harrison, who was no sweetheart himself. Harrison famously brought Clapton into the Beatles' fold to record "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," which Clapton surmises was done by George because Harrison and Ringo Starr were becoming subject to disparagements from John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and Clapton was brought in as a means of validating Harrison's player credential via association with another great guitarist. Clapton remarked at the time that he found it odd, because he didn't play anything that Harrison couldn't have played just as well. Clapton provided a social cushion and distraction among the feuding Fabs, much as did Billy Preston .
What turns the Clapton-Harrison connection particularly weird is Clapton's relentless pursuit of Harrison's beautiful first wife, Patti Boyd, whom Harrison had met while working on the A Hard Day's Night film shoot. Though Patti was locked into a miserable marriage with the philandering Harrison, she resisted Clapton's advances for years, even withstanding Clapton's threat that he would become a heroin addict (he already was) if she didn't dump Harrison for him. When Patti held on to her marriage, Clapton descended into a madness of isolation with the teenaged blue-blood socialite Alice Ormsby-Gore, who years later would die of a drug overdose. Clapton eventually extricated himself from Ormsby-Gore and took up with Paula Boyd, Patti's sister, who soon enough came to grips with the fact that she was just a stand-in for what Clapton really wanted, which was Patti. Patti, it should be said, was rumored to have an affair with guitarist Ron Wood (Small Faces, Rolling Stones) while George Harrison buried their marriage forever by having an affair with Ringo Starr's wife, Maureen. Oh sordid mess! When Patti Boyd finally gave in to Clapton and married him after years of this subterranean "courtship," Clapton's response was to immediately cuckold her and send her on a downward path toward drug and alcohol addiction (which she denies). The two remained married until 1989.
Not to beat a dead horse, but the thing that is so off-setting about reading this book is its tone of disassociation. One wonders how Clapton can be so brilliant in so many ways, and yet so inured to the wake he leaves in peoples' lives. Until the end of the book, in which he endeavors to speak candidly and openly about "who" he has been, one could get the impression that he simply hasn't cared beyond what his solitary obsession with the blues has meant for him. It is his salvation, his touchstone, as is the guitar.
This would all be well and good if the contributions made by Eric Clapton had balanced equally with all that he took, but it would be hard to feel that it has. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in his dull retelling of the death of his 5-year old son Conor, who fell from a 54th floor apartment window that had been left open by cleaners. Conor was the off-spring of another Clapton fling; he was, in fact, a bastard just as was his father. In the outpouring of grief following Conor's death, Clapton was reunited with his daughter from another temporary romantic liaison, a child he had never known. At this point, though now sober, the detritus of Clapton's self-absorbed lifestyle was piling up, and just nothing about his steady recounting of his attempts to become less dysfunctional through therapy begin to make the reader feel better about the carnage he had wrought, the personal destruction he had cavalierly overseen. But in typical style, Clapton's tragic loss of his son put a spotlight back on to him that he exploited with his VH-1 "Unplugged" television appearance and subsequent album release, and his further descent into less a guitar god and more of a troubadour, which had been his boyhood calling. Eric Clapton began playing the guitar so he would have accompaniment for his singing, something the uncertain young Eric Clapton was really too shy to do until later in his career. He credits his time with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett as transformative in that regard.
In the end the amateur psychologist will have a field day with Eric Clapton, and particularly with his strange droning style, like that of a guy who has always been more or less comfortably numb. It is at such odds with the Clapton we see hosting the Eric Clapton Crossroads Guitar Festival. He seems, there, to have all the friends in the world, all famous and all talented. Clapton says nice things about people, introduces them on stage, and frequently joins in to "play his lick," as one of my musician friends says. Somehow he has fashioned this persona of a mature statesman of the rock'n blues, a grand old man of musical understanding.
Really, though, he is anything but.-RAR
Former Fed Chairman Explains Himself
Jazz, Objectivism, and the Dismal Science of Chicago Economics
"In my early schooling, I had learned to appreciate the theoretical elegance of competitive markets. In the six decades since, I have learned to appreciate how theories work (and sometimes don't) in the real world. I have been particularly privileged to have interacted with all the key economic policymakers of the past generation, and to have had unparalleled access to information measuring world trends, both numerical and anecdotal. It was inevitable that I would generalize on my experience. Doing so has led me to an even deeper appreciation of competitive free markets as a force for good. Indeed, short of a few ambiguous incidents, I can think of no circumstances where the expanded rule of law and enhanced property rights failed to increase material prosperity.
"Nonetheless, there is persistent widespread questioning of the justice of how unfettered competition distributes its rewards. Throughout this book I point to the continued ambivalence of people to market forces. Competition is stressful because competitive markets create winners and losers. This book will try to examine the ramifications of the collision between a rapidly changing globalized economy and unwavering human nature. The economic success of the past quarter millennium is the outcome of this struggle; so is the anxiety that such rapid change has wrought."
Oh that "unwavering human nature" that tends to value individual, personal well-being above the nation's balance sheet.
There in the excerpt above, from former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's The Age of Turbulence, is the nut of Greenspan's very personal treatise. The nerdy numbers guy has humanistic pangs and concerns, though as we learn through Greenspan's autobiographical narrative these never developed from any inherent attachment to the prevailing economic theory of his youth, which was that of the more natural humanist John Maynard Keynes. Greenspan was always more of a Milton Friedman kind of guy, and fortunately for him he had Ayn Rand around to mentor him on the appreciation and articulation of his instincts.
Keynes, you will recall from Econ 101, was concerned that free markets tend to deliver wealth to the few and uncertainty to the many. His thinking, which was the follow-on to the Enlightenment era thinking of philosopher-economist Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations), formed the basis for the progressive social economic policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "New Deal." These included stimulus packages to lift the nation out of the Great Depression and the establishment of social safety nets to protect the average Joe from circumstances beyond his control, such as fall-out from decisions made by corporate leaders and their Wall Street counterparts. This book does an unintentionally good job of describing a world of ultra powerful (mostly) men to whom we of the proletariat are both a commodity to be exploited and an expense to be managed; otherwise, "just numbers."
Greenspan was abandoned by his father, also an economist, when he was only two. Years later his father gifted him with a book he had written on economics, which included a note of hope that young Alan would follow in his father's footsteps and expand on his understanding of economics systems.
Young Alan Greenspan was a slide rule nerd who made himself useful by crunching out-of-date manufacturing statistics and extrapolating data to make "educated" guesses about future supply and demand. He was a high achiever, first as a music student at Julliard, then as an underclassman at NYU and a graduate student at Columbia.
Among his first mentors in commerce was future Fed Chairman Arthur Burns, who was his faculty adviser at Columbia and the link to his first job doing statistical analysis for the prestigious investment bank of Brown Brothers Harriman. This was the Wall Street firm founded by statesman W. Averell Harriman, who years earlier had resigned from daily operations of the firm to go to work for the FDR administration, but whose directors had since included Prescott Bush, the father of George H.W. Bush and the grandfather of our current president.
Greenspan learned business quickly. He soon started his own firm, Townsend-Greenspan, which became one of the few in New York doing statistical analyses of deliveries and supplies of raw materials, along with industry and market research. This was in the early 1950s, when American industry was trying to find its level after gearing back from breakneck WWII era production but finding the ratcheting down to be difficult. The Korean War got production revved again and then there was little enthusiasm for ever scaling back. There were world markets to be conquered and not a lot of competition at the time, with the war ravaged countries still in recovery mode.
Greenspan's early analyses had been of the steel industry, which at the time was driving America's economic machine. We were making things of quality that were built to last. And we were feeding the rapacious military industrial complex, ironically taking place under the leery watch of Dwight Eisenhower, who left the presidency warning against its appetite for consumption. Greenspan offers that the American government operated like a household finance in those days, noting that Eisenhower once gave a speech apologizing to the American people for allowing the government to run a $3 billion deficit.
Anyway, Greenspan was there doing the math, the calculations, and spotting the trends, and apparently to his surprise, people were listening to him. For a guy whose every word would eventually have tremendous resonance, Greenspan was not inherently inclined toward intellectual grappling. That changed through his association with Fountain Head author Ayn Rand, whom he was introduced to by his first wife, an art dealer.
Greenspan credits the difficult Rand with having a "stabilizing influence" on his thinking and understanding of the world around. Rand was apparently less impacted by young Greenspan, whom she referred to as "the undertaker" for his gloomy pose. What a moment that must have been, when the minds of another young visitor, Paul Volcker, the 6'-7" fly fisherman who preceded Greenspan as Fed Chairman, and Alan Greenspan met in Rand's parlor and on her weird intellectual plane, where total immersion in "self" is the only rational thing, and art is reduced to a niblet of simple explanation.
Alan Greenspan had gone through a period, after a year at Julliard, as a jazz clarinetist and saxophonist touring with the Henry Jerome dance band. He loved the music, but apparently not the lifestyle. In the book he describes the band's breaks, when the other musicians would file into the "green room" to smoke pot, while young Alan would read or sometimes work on his band mates' taxes. By the late-50s he was somewhat more affable, "hanging out" with actress Dina Merrill, the daughter of Postum Cereal Company founder Marjorie Merriweather Post and Wall Street financier E.F. Hutton, who together had founded the General Foods conglomerate. Dina was an active board member, and a client of Greenspan's. One can imagine how attending events with a crowd this toney - Greenspan eventually had Barbara Walters on his arm - might lead to more and greater opportunities.
Greenspan's ascension to Washington D.C. insider status came during Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign for the White House. He worked as an unpaid advisor on economic issues, but he declined to join the team once Nixon was elected because he had seen sides of Nixon that made him uncomfortable. Greenspan considers Nixon and Bill Clinton to be the two "smartest presidents" he worked for, but his depiction of Richard Nixon "the person" is jaw dropping:
"A member of the Clinton administration once was accusing Nixon of anti-Semitism, and I said, 'You don't understand. He wasn't exclusively anti-Semitic. He was anti-Semitic, anti-Italian, anti-Greek, anti-Slovak. I don't know anybody he was pro. He hated everybody. He would say awful things about Henry Kissinger, yet he appointed him secretary of state.' When Nixon left office, I was relieved. You didn't know what he might do, and the president of the United States has so much power that it's scary - it's very hard for a military officer sworn to uphold the Constitution to say, 'Mr. President, I'm not going to do that.'"
Greenspan's first Washington D.C. job was Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors in Gerald Ford's administration. He writes appreciatively of Ford's steady nature and integrity. There on staff with Greenspan, however, were two personalities who would be around Washington power circles for decades to come and leave an indelible stain: Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Greenspan, et al, were alpha males of D.C., guys in their middle-aged primes, and Greenspan's recollections and photographic evidence seem to indicate that these were heady times, and great for getting a handle on changing economic fortunes. Ford's administration was faced with oil shortages, high levels of inflation, unemployment levels that threatened to top 9 percent, and a recession that dragged on month after month. Greenspan counseled for a tax rebate, eventually putting $125 into the hands of individual taxpayers, coupled with spending restraint. By mid-1975 the Gross National Product began to climb and the crisis seemed to pass enough for Ford to focus on his favorite initiative, which was deregulation.
Writes Greenspan - "It's difficult to imagine how straitjacketed American business was then. Airlines, trucking, railroads, buses, pipelines, telephones, television, stockbrokers, financial markets, savings banks, utilities - all operated under heavy regulation. President Ford launched his campaign to eliminate such folly in a speech in Chicago in August 1975. He promised to 'take the shackles off American businessmen' and 'and get the federal government as far out of your business, out of your lives, out of your pocketbooks, and out of your hair as I possibly can.' The choice of Chicago seemed fitting: deregulation's economic rationale came primarily from Milton Friedman and the other mavericks of the so-called Chicago school. These economist had built a large, impressive body of work around the theory that markets and prices, not central planners, were the best allocators of society's resources... because scientific regulation was a myth.'"
(It is worth noting that the timeline of the rise of the Chicago School to dominance in economic theory closely parallels that of the demise of America's middle class.)
This was all taking place during a period when the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute were offering seminars around the country advocating for deregulation, central to Republican philosophy. Nixon had gotten the deregulation ball rolling by pushing for deregulation of much of the transportation industry, which yielded the first deregulation legislation in 1971. Ford managed to get the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976 into law, and Carter continued the trend with the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, as well as additional rail deregulation. Presidents on up through Bill Clinton, with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and George Bush have championed the deregulation cause.
* * * * *
Greenspan had the experience of having been around "economic futurists" who described the implausibility of effectively managing complex economies, and then had their anti-central planning theories apparently born out with the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union during the mid-'80s.
This cast of characters that came together during the Ford administration, redefining the Republican party following the Nixon debacle, has continued to have a profound hold on the economics of our nation through the present day. The irony, of course, is that our huge war-related budget deficits, environmental abuses, human rights abuses, defense industry contracting scandals, and the current sub-prime loan scandal, are all out-growths of their "set loose the hounds" brand of laissez-faire capitalism.
* * * * *
Alan Greenspan returned to private practice during the economically turbulent Carter administration. Carter fought a losing battle with inflation, which had become a huge issue in the late '70s following the slowdown in American productivity, an extended period of high unemployment, and chronic oil shortages. For Greenspan's predecessors at the central bank, focus was on a single entry on the Federal Reserve spreadsheet: M1.
In Fed speak, "M1" refers to the amount of "currency in circulation and demand deposits (e.g., checking accounts). When money expands faster than the totality of goods and services produced - in other words, when too many dollars chase too few goods -- everybody's money tends to be worth less; that is, prices rise."
"Monetarist like the legendary Milton Friedman had long argued that until you contained the money supply, you hadn't tamed inflation. But the medicine required to do this was thought to be extremely harsh. No one knew how tight a rein on the monetary base would be required, or how high the associated rise in short-term interest rates would have to be, before inflation was choked off. It would almost certainly mean more unemployment, probably a deep recession, and possibly a major outbreak of social unrest. President Carter backed Volcker in the spring of 1980, declaring inflation to be the nation's number one problem. That prompted Senator Ted Kennedy, then running against Carter for president, to complain that the administration wasn't paying enough attention to the poor or to tax cuts."
* * * * *
That gloomy, bruising battle for the heart of the Democratic party sealed its fate and opened the way for the oblivious optimism of Ronald Reagan, who Greenspan clearly liked. And why not? He appointed Greenspan Chairman of the Federal Reserve upon the retirement of Paul Volcker. In Reagan, Greenspan saw the embodiment of a politician who, through stories and colorful examples, could articulate a philosophy that had been coming together in Greenspan since those days in Ayn Rand's parlor.
"What attracted me to Reagan was the clarity of his conservatism. There was another line he often used on the stump: 'Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves.' A man who talks in such terms is clear on what he believes. Very rarely in those days would you find conservatives who didn't fudge on social issues.
"But Reagan's kind of conservatism was to say that tough love is good for the individual and good for society. That proposition starts with a judgment about human nature. If it's accurate, then it implies much less government support for the downtrodden. Yet mainstream Republicans were conflicted about thinking or talking in such terms, because they seemed contrary to Judeo-Christian values. Not Reagan."
* * * * *
So there you have the stone and the sword and the "greatness" of Ronald Reagan, the reason that Republicans of our generation venerate him so. He gave people a pass on anything other than personal responsibility. He sealed his deal with the devil, by edict (economic policy) securing that the rich would thereafter get richer and the poor poorer. He traded the nation's soul for an economic pattern that had been well established anyway, and offered comfort to the well healed that "we" could all feel good about our own good fortunes.
"Dutch," who was a great pitch man for free market capitalism, was supporting big theories and making big decisions that fundamentally changed the personality of the United States of America. He made us meaner, more like Ayn Rand. He skewed our sense of the possibilities and distorted our societal vision. He made concrete, in America's public policy, Rand's objectivist vision as interpreted by the leading economics spokesman of the time, Greenspan's soul mate Milton Friedman, who famously held that "social responsibility" is a communist instinct and "fundamentally subversive..." in a free society (from Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom).
One is tempted to shout "Long live the damned subversives!"
* * * * *
After the end of the Gerald Ford administration, Greenspan became in demand as a corporate director and he joined the boards of Alcoa, Mobil, JPMorgan, General Foods, Capital Cities/ABC and others. "Being a director," Greenspan writes, "gave me a chance to learn the economic workings of things that are familiar but that I've never fully understood. Like Cool Whip and Post Toasties: until I became a director at General Foods, I never knew how the processed-food business worked. Townsend-Greenspan had done a lot of analysis of wheat, corn, and soy-beans, but never of the foods you see in commercials and on supermarket shelves."
This book, in fact, does a great job of depicting the way key government decision makers like Greenspan are detached from the day-to-day work experience of regular people. Greenspan was both a "long range" and a "narrow focus" guy, if that seems possible. He understood big processes, like securities exchanges and cash flow between investing entities, and he understood specific raw materials markets and exchanges, but he was always detached from the prosaic administrative chores of running a business.
When Greenspan was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1987 to take over from Paul Volcker as Federal Reserve Chairman, his first two weeks on the job focused on "...a series of intensive tutorials diplomatically labeled 'one person seminars,' in which I was the student. This meant that for the next ten days, senior people from the professional staff gathered in the Board's fourth-floor conference room and taught me my job. I learned about sections of the Federal Reserve Act I never knew existed - and for which I was now responsible. The staff taught me the arcana about banking regulation that, having been a director of both JPMorgan and Bowery Savings, I was amazed I'd never encountered... Though I'd been a corporate director, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, as it is formally known, was an order of magnitude larger than anything I'd ever run... some two thousand employees and...an annual budget of nearly $300 million. Fortunately, running it wasn't my job - the long-standing practice is to designate one of the other Board members as the administrative governor to oversee day-to-day operations..."
The Fed Chairman manages the nation's money supply, but only as one voting member of the seven-member Board of Governors and one of five voting members of the Federal Open Market Committee, the "FOMC." (Voting membership there is rotated among the members of the Board of Governors and the presidents of the twelve regional Federal Reserve banks.)
The Fed Chair is not automatically on the FOMC - he has to be voted in every year - though tradition holds that the sitting Fed Chairman also chairs the FOMC. It is one of the byzantine practices of the Federal Reserve, a body of central bankers so elite that even the mouthpiece for the organization, the Fed Chairman, is supplicated to the enormity of the enterprise.
Greenspan's depictions of deliberations among this titanic body pull back a curtain to show tough bank execs with their fingers on the pulses of business activities germane to their regions of the country. All of these central bankers have "special interests," in that sense. Unlike the Fed Chairman, who must face elected officials and the public, the regional directors have much less public exposure and are therefore free to go toe-to-toe in the promotion of their various interests. The Fed Chairman has to make his case in rough company and report the outcomes in ways that provide direction without causing anxiety within skittish markets. It is a mine field to negotiate, and a tight-rope to walk in terms of communicating Fed decisions. And, as Greenspan points out, particularly with regard to his relationship with President George H.W. Bush, there is no affinity inherent in the relationship between Fed policy and the politically-driven machinations of any particular executive administration.
The "better Bush" - Bush the First - was famously bitter that Greenspan, whom he had reappointed as Fed Chairman, didn't reduce interest rates dramatically enough to jump start the economy, which was in a seemingly intractable recession for much of George H.W. Bush's term in office. (Bush, of course, was put out of office by Bill Clinton, running his "It's the Economy, Stupid!" campaign.) In fact, the Fed had reduced interest rates repeatedly during Bush's term, but were driven by inflation fears to limit the supply of cheap money just when the senior Bush most needed the public's favor, during his '92 re-election bid.
* * * * *
Bill Clinton and Alan Greenspan are both sax players, though from two different worlds, rock'n roll and jazz. Still, the two found common ground on the need to focus on the deficit inherited by the Clinton administration.
"To my delight, Clinton seemed fully engaged. He seemed to pick up on my sense of urgency about the deficit, and asked a lot of smart questions that politicians usually don't ask..
"...the hard truth was that Reagan had borrowed from Clinton, and Clinton was having to pay it back. There was no reason to feel sorry for Clinton -- these very problems were what had enabled him to defeat George Bush. But I was impressed that he did not seem to be trying to fudge reality to the extent politicians ordinarily do. He was forcing himself to live in the real world on the economic outlook and the monetary policy. His subsequent decision to go ahead and fight for the deficit cuts was an act of political courage..."
Greenspan doesn't really become a "friend of Bill," in fact didn't see him that often as Fed Chairman, but he writes admiringly of Clinton's stewardship of policy to pay down the nation's debt and ensure its future economic well-being. Clinton got a historic break, for just as his administration's economic policy was starting to take hold, Netscape in California's Silicon Valley delivered Internet browsing to the public and turned "what had started as a U.S.-government-funded online sandbox for scientists and engineers into a digital thoroughfare for the world... The Internet gold rush was on..." The deficit miraculously disappeared, well ahead of even Clinton's most optimistic schedule, and unexpected surpluses accrued.
Greenspan's description of Clinton's management of a government suddenly running budget surpluses should be enough to ensure the election of Hillary Clinton, if she shares any of her husband's economics savvy. On the other hand, Greenspan's description of his disbelief that Clinton could get himself involved in the Monica Lewinsky debacle is revelatory. As Greenspan writes - "It seemed so alien to the Bill Clinton I knew, and made me feel disappointed and sad. And it had a devastating effect -- you could see it, for example, in a pair of headlines that appeared side by side on CNN'w web site: 'Lewinsky Set to Provide Handwriting, Fingerprint Samples' and 'Clinton Announces $39 Billion Projected Budget Surplus.'"
* * * * *
Greenspan describes the George W. Bush administration, sweeping into Washington determined to enact their campaign promises and turn the surplus, which was heading toward $500 billion per year, as something outside of his experience with politicians. Most campaigning politicians, Greenspan notices, run on economic promises they won't be able to keep, and then get practical once they are in office. Not Bush and Cheney. They campaigned on putting the surplus back in the peoples' pockets and that is essentially what they did.
This clearly disappointed the budget balancing Greenspan, who was more in line with candidate Al Gore on the surplus issue. (The Fed pros had no playbook for handling a government surplus, the concept being virtually without precedent.)
The reader senses Greenspan's bewilderment at the change that he perceived in Cheney and Rumsfeld. Both had been cabinet appointees, elected officials, later corporate heads, but they weren't the same guys in "W's" administration whom Greenspan had known in the earlier Ford years. In fact, economic policy decisions in the new Bush administration were held in private and kept exclusively within the White House inner circle, an approach unlike that of any administration that had come before. Even the Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neil, a friend of Greenspan's and a fellow deficit hawk, was kept out of the policy process.
One feels nausea reading this historic account of a Bush administration on the brink of blowing the nation's budget surplus on tax cuts that primarily benefited the already wealthy. Here we were at the start of a new millennium with our pockets stuffed with cash and an Uncle Sam who was even richer, and the Bushies blew it. Not only blew it, but chose a path leading to economic damage designed to be difficult to reverse.
Even Greenspan seems to have lost his bearing, suddenly coming to believe that "chronic surpluses cold be almost as destabilizing as chronic deficits. Paying off the debt was not enough. I decided to propose a way for Uncle Sam to pay off his debts while leaving little or no additional surplus to invest once the debt reached zero..."
You wonder what rabbit hole Greenspan, Bush and the rest fell into. Everything our mothers told us about saving for future needs and not living beyond our means was suddenly, apparently wrong. Pay as you go? The new world is a credit world, where inevitably interests accrue to those who have the wealth to make the enterprise work in the first place.
Greenspan's reasoning regarding a government in surplus was based on rational fear, if such exists - a typically Republican fear that if surpluses were left in the government's coffers that politicians would quickly find ways to spend on new or expanded programs.
Greenspan's advice was "to put fiscal policy on what I called a 'glide path' to a balanced budget" - which means a budget balanced at figurative "0" - "...phasing out the surplus...through a combination of tax cuts and Social Security reform."
Managing the surplus, however, was destined to be a non-issue. The small-government oriented Republican dominated Congress of the Bush era sucked up the available funds, distributed them through unprecedented levels of "pork" spending, ironically growing the size of government (measured in spending) in the process. Tax cuts for the wealthy and the bursting of the dot.com bubble wiped out the remaining surplus, and special appropriations for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq put the U.S. back in the red.
* * * * *
In the back half of the book, Greenspan offers his insights and prognostications on our "turbulent" economic world, based on all the experience he detailed in the first half. His purpose is to suggest how "creative destruction" - transformation following creative innovation - might work. And he re-endorses the principal findings of Adam Smith, i.e., that economies grow through capital accumulation, free trade, and the rule of law, and that living standards rise only through the personal initiatives of a nation's citizens.
There is that personal responsibility theme again, that "unwavering" human nature issue mentioned above. Greenspan has an interesting section on "Dutch disease," which occurs when a nation begins to exploit an abundance of a highly valued natural resource only to drive up the exchange value of their currency, inadvertently making their other export products less competitive. Oil-rich Nigeria is sited as an example of a nation facing such an imbalance, which often results in an overall decline in its population's standard of living, while Hong Kong, Japan and Western Europe are "resource poor" but benefit more greatly from their involvements in world markets.
Greenspan sees the impact of easy wealth on fortunate populations and finds it corrosive: "Besides distorting the value of the currency, natural-resource wealth often has crippling social effects. Easy, unearned wealth tends to dampen productivity, it turns out. Some Gulf oil states have extended so many amenities to their citizens that those without an inbred will to work don't. Mundane tasks fall to immigrants and guest workers who gladly collect what is to them a good wage. There are political effects too: a ruling clique can use part of the resource revenue to placate the population and keep people from marching against the regime."
* * * * *
This book should be read by every young person starting down their own career path, because Greenspan effectively tells his story of applying his inherent skills to pursuits he must learn to understand as he goes. Young Greenspan just kept analyzing and absorbing information in bite-sized chunks, using his instincts, his capacity for extrapolation and educated guesswork, to bit by bit build a specific expertise. He presents a portrait of a young artist, in a way, learning not only to negotiate his canvas and his palette, but also the public / political side of his calling. He learned how to carefully use descriptive language, i.e., what to say and how to say it, constantly aware that manner in communication is as important as data. Greenspan offers a profile in how to effectively play that aspect of the game of life.-RAR
Warren Zevon and Just What Does It Mean to Be A Genius?
word "genius" is a noun that worked its way into our modern vocabulary
in the early 16th century to describe a person attended to by a tutelary
spirit, a guardian, a genii. Two hundred years later the word
"genie" showed up in French literature (génie), cadged from
the Arabic jinnī, referring to the same sort of spirit, but
one that could be conjured up and petitioned.
to describe a person attended to by a tutelary spirit, a guardian, a genii. Two hundred years later the word "genie" showed up in French literature (génie), cadged from the Arabic jinnī, referring to the same sort of spirit, but one that could be conjured up and petitioned.
Two hundred years further hence, we have Warren Zevon and a definition of "genius" more commonly skewed to a sub definition of an inflected form ("geniuses") referring to persons "endowed with transcendent mental superiority." In perfectly quantifiable terms, this would be a person with a high IQ. In the more commonly used sense, it is a person gifted - there's that genie again - with "extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity."
I owe all these definitions to those old geniuses Noah Webster, George and Charles Merriam, who were at least smart enough to write stuff like this down so a person could remember what it was he was talking about should he have a future need. A great deal of information - even really good information - just doesn't seem to stick within the folds of the cerebral cortex, a situation probably worthy of another round of parsing regarding the brain's ability to discern stimuli of naturally inherent value from that merely transitory in nature, and not meaning much at all.
But what does Warren Zevon have to do with this?
In Warren Zevon, and in that last definition of "genius," we have the y intercept that has vexed lovers of art, in all of its subjectivity, probably since people started applying primitive pigments to the stone walls of caves. That "stone" reference may seem redundant in reference to a cave, but the word helps in that sentence because we are talking here about Warren Zevon, and the stone walls of perception within his tutelarily-tattooed mind.
Zevon, who died in 2003, was one to whom the word "genius" was liberally applied, particularly by a high profile cult following that included powerful recording industry figures of the 1960s and '70s. According to his former wife Crystal, whom he asked to write his warts-and-all biography I'll Sleep When I'm Dead - The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon (Ecco, 2007), he was apparently a soul who fervently believed that the word applied to himself.
Or did he? Crystal Zevon doesn't really address Warren's base insecurities, but how he felt about his own genius truly under girds this tale of substance abuse, debauchery, mental disorder, pop culture mental disorder, gluttony, self adulation, self indulgence, and extraordinary enablement.
Crystal Zevon, who was married to Warren from 1974 to 1981, uses Warren's diary entries along with her own quotes and those of others - her parents, Jackson Browne, Waddy and Jimmy Wachtel, Jorge Calderon, Roy Marinell, Bruce Springsteen, manager Duncan Aldrich, Paul Schaffer, Thomas McGuane, and many others - to detail the life of an extraordinarily miserable sot.
With partitions more pronounced than most, Warren Zevon's life broke rather neatly into the structure of a three act play.
ACT 1: Warren was born in 1947 in Chicago, Illinois. His father, "Stumpy," was a low level mob figure who existed on the fringes of Warren's life, but served as an instateller, providing him with cash from time to time, occasionally meeting Warren in later years at "the baths," where they would steam and talk. (Now there's a warm father-son portrait.) His mother was a Utah Mormon who soon fled with Warren from Chicago to Fresno, California, where they moved in next door to her mother, whose side she would rarely leave again.
Stumpy Zevon was largely absent from young Warren's life, but reasserted himself in the Zevon family history when Warren was nine years old, gifting the boy with a piano he won playing poker. Then, as Warren was ready to start junior high, Stumpy showed up again and tempted his ex-wife to reunite with him at his palatial spread in San Pedro, California. It proved to be an impermanent arrangement, but an incredibly fortuitous one for young Warren. There, sharing a home in SoCal, were classical composer Igor Stravinsky and conductor-collaborator Robert Craft. (As an aside, Craft conducted nearly every major orchestra in the U.S. in the 1960s, and he and Stravinsky collaborated on a wide-ranging series of books. Craft is reviled by some music snobs for influencing Stravinsky toward "serialism" in the elderly composer's later compositions of the 1960s. The use of rows of notes, 12 tones or fewer, turned on their heads, played backwards and upside down and repeated thematically, was a major influence on classical composers after World War II, which is a fascinating subject in itself.) Craft and Stravinsky invited young Warren into their home and thus exposed the boy wonder to a notion of composition somewhat beyond the walls of the common. And certainly it is a tribute to how these old pros must have perceived the boy genius, though it was a brief flirtation that ended when the two men departed on a concert tour. Soon thereafter, Warren and his mom were back in Fresno, things having not panned out with Stumpy.
Back in Fresno, Warren's mother took up with an abusive alcoholic, effectively putting young Warren on the streets. We get stories of Warren sleeping on friend's couches, over-nighting in cars, doing whatever is necessary to avoid going home to the new man in their lives, who clearly resented Warren's very existence. Warren's mother encouraged her son to believe in his own specialness, but when Stumpy made a rare appearance again it was to undermine everything his former wife had been telling their precocious offspring, advising Warren to lower his expectations of what he could be in his life because "you're a Jew...don't ever forget that."
Here we have the makings of a deeply conflicted psyche. As a kid, Warren was a loner with a bad acne problem who scored well on IQ tests but got poor grades in school. (His odd boast was that he had the highest IQ ever recorded by a Fresno, California high school student.) He was a rebel with a chip on his shoulder about classical music, which he denied he liked, though he talked and thought about it routinely. Stylistically the teenaged Warren is likened by friends to a "noir detective character." We see him driving around in a Jaguar his father gifted him with, feeding the sense that Warren just wasn't "usual."
Warren flirted with high school garage bands, but mainly as a guitarist. And when next Stumpy re-entered the story it was to introduce Warren to an associate of his in San Francisco who wanted to get into the music business. Warren and some guys went to Frisco, wrote songs, cut demos and nothing happened, but soon enough Warren was on his way to L.A. to see his dad and to enroll at Fairfax High School, which was a Cadillac of a public school back when California had the best public school system in the U.S. It was January 1964, just two months after the JFK assassination, a month before Beatlemania swamped American shores.
ACT 2: Warren's first instinct was to a kind of mythology, his modus operandi being to become somebody else. He became stephen lyme, lower-cased because that's how e.e. cummings did it - and part of a Sonny & Cher-like duo called lyme & cybelle. In this early incarnation, the reader gets the first sense that Warren, who declared as a teen that he was going to be "a rock star," was possessed of extreme behaviors, odd obsessions, and weird eccentricities even beyond those of the über musical persona. stephen lyme, for instance, lived in a completely lime green world, from his clothes and sunglasses to the paint on his apartment walls.
Regardless of where you are in your music career - and a huge percentage of the population feels they have one, if only in their minds and on their websites - Warren's early life of wasted time blissfully spent getting high with friends will feel familiar. Warren was no blissful hippie, though. He was more old school, with alcohol being his real vice. Then he added prescription pills, all on top of the LSD-pot foundation of the '60s, and the cocaine-Quaalude-heroine-and-speed foundation of the '70s. Act 2 goes on for years, and it is grim stuff, because drunks are the worst. They tend toward surliness, violent mobility and volatile immobility.
Warren didn't really get far in his early career, besides writing some tunes for the B sides of Flo and Eddy (The Turtles) records. His big break came in association with The Everly Brothers, who were well past their heyday when Warren was tapped to become their music director. He was on stage with them for that storied 1973 appearance at Knotts Berry Farm in which Phil Everly smashed his guitar in a fit of anger and stomped off declaring that he would never work with brother Don again.
With one failed solo LP under his belt and his "regular" job with the Everlys kaput, Warren and Crystal, an Aspen, Colorado native, departed for Spain, where Warren played nights in a cafe and continued to develop his songwriting. The next 13 or so years found Warren Zevon making slow inroads toward songwriting success, first by providing singers like Linda Ronstadt with material ("Hasten Down the Wind", "Carmelita", "Poor Poor Pitiful Me"). Then in 1978, he scored a breakthrough with his third LP, Excitable Boy, which featured his biggest hit, "Werewolves of London," which got no higher than the 30s on the record charts, but became a rock standard.
Warren Zevon, in this middle period of his life, was an almost unremittingly awful person and a blackout drunk. There are scenes of him being physically abusive to Crystal and his friends, one of whom, David Landau, is quoted as saying "The only thing I ever saw that came close to how Warren drank was Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas." He abused nearly everyone in his life at this point, either passively or aggressively. He failed to be a father to his children and was a professional disaster, other than for continuing to write songs, many inspired by contributions of the very people he was abusing.
After about 230 pages of quotes from people depicting Warren as a guy who is all warts, I was pretty much fed up with reading about him. This part of his story leaves a nasty stain on the reader's brain, but just when the urge to purge Warren Zevon from memory forever starts to take hold, a change in the narrative occurs. Entering middle age, Warren grew up, or at least sobered.
ACT 3: In 1986, at 39 years of age, Warren Zevon started attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings. He got sober and maintained sobriety for 17 years, until the last year of his life when, faced with death, he reverted to alcohol and "my vast knowledge of pharmacopeia" and exceeded life expectations by nine months. It is an ironic twist, in that the knowledge that almost destroyed him sustained him to a degree in the end.
The book actually slows to a crawl with Warren's newfound sobriety, but there continues a banal undercurrent of grubbiness. Like many "reformed" addicts, Warren substituted one addiction with a series of others. He was always a bit of a gun nut, which got more pronounced in his last decades. He also became a sex addict and a guy who amassed a significant library of private pornography videos featuring himself and a stream of kinky partners. Always a serial womanizer, he rotated girlfriends for years, keeping each in his life about two years before moving on, always with the gaggle of sexual devotees in the shadows to satisfy his enormous lust for self satisfaction.
The two things that remain constant amid the ongoing debauchery were Warren's prodigious songwriting, which he seemed able to do regardless of his physical condition, and his long associations with friends.
There is a scene, late in the book, where Warren finally does something "good" - a quality that was noticeably absent from the re-telling of his earlier life - by spending two weeks in Fresno around the time of his grandmother's death. He cleaned his mother's house and looked after her emotional needs, and reading this feels like a breath of much-needed fresh air. Warren had clearly become humbled in the way maturing people do. He actually did something for someone other than himself.
It was in this period that Warren Zevon became lionized by one of his most stalwart supporters, David Letterman. He became an occasional guest of Paul Schaffer and the Late Night band, and took over as director of Letterman's CBS Orchestra when Paul took a two-week hiatus to work on the Blues Brothers 2000 movie. Letterman ended up being the voice yelling "hit somebody" when Zevon recorded "The Hockey Song" (with the line "What else can a farm boy from Canada do? Hit Somebody!") When Warren was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and was given three months to live, Letterman did an unprecedented full hour show in Zevon's honor, with Warren performing three songs and talking openly about his illness.
* * * * *
In the end, Warren was looked after by his daughter Ariel, who like Warren and her mother Crystal went through a long period of addiction and depression before righting herself. Warren lived long enough to hold his grandsons and to express amazement that Ariel did so much to feed and clean up after him as his days grew short. He didn't feel he deserved the attention, and there again we read this theme in Warren Zevon's life, a sense that he wasn't really proud of what he was.
There the amateur psychologist might find some explanation for the life of the excitable boy. Though surrounded by collaborators, supporters and sycophants who seemed astounded by his genius, and fully committed to a musical mythology born of his brief exposure to Stravinsky, Warren didn't seem to think much of his talents. He was generally thought of as a pianist, yet mostly saw himself as a guitarist and was confused as to why no one ever wanted him to play "lead." He was indignant at the suggestion that he play "barroom" style on the keys because he was "classically trained." So little about Zevon and people's reaction to him makes sense. Author Carl Hiaasen, who wrote the foreword to this book and seems thrilled to have known a rock star, cites as an example of Warren Zevon's "genius" that he could write notation, do charts. ("How many rock musicians could do that?" he asks.) It struck me as akin to being amazed that writers know the basic rules of grammar and can compose in their native language. But then Paul Schaffer expresses similar awe by reporting that Zevon would show up to run the CBS Orchestra with charts written for every instrument in the band. Reading that made me wonder how Paul Schaffer must do it?
Time and again there are those quoted as saying that Zevon, who never made much money and was typically deeply in debt, including to the IRS, had made some noble choice to write songs with limited commercial appeal rather than the big hits he could've cranked out like sausage. It is an odd point of view of someone who's single moderate level hit, "Werewolves of London," was as much a Roy Marinell / Waddy Wachtel composition as it was a work by Warren Zevon. (Marinell came up with the chord structure and second verse, and Wachtel the first verse and chorus.) Some of those quoted cite Zevon's extraordinary grasp of melody as proof positive of a unique talent, and for sure when one listens closely to Zevon's tunes one hears nuances in the melodic structure that seem a little un-pop-like. But one of the things that always struck me about Warren Zevon's writing was a quality of charming clunkiness. Using three distinct notes in a measure, where others might have used three of the same, does add texture and nuance, but it doesn't turn a pop song into a symphony, nor does it make a songwriter into a composer.
In fact, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is significantly annotated by the contributions of wordsmiths like Hiassen, Hunter Thompson, and Dave Barry. It is probably in the lyrics of Zevon songs that listeners find their most potent delights. Warren and his community of songwriters seemed to carry on a lifelong parlor game of coming up with odd turns of phrase around which stories and songs could be built. Zevon was skilled at morphing these contributions into a personal mythology implied through calls for lawyers, guns and money and the comic book antics of Roland the headless Thompson gunner. Why was Zevon able to attract the following he did for tunes of such an oppressively perverse nature? Why was he able to find purchase with a tune about a kid who raped and murdered his prom date and whose only explanation is that he is "just an excitable boy?" To Zevon's core group of hip fans, all of this was just funny and smart and highly entertaining. To the larger population, these stories were just weirdness with a beat.
And yet, Warren went to his rest with the knowledge that no less a wordsmith and songwriter than Bob Dylan was on the road covering his tunes.
* * * * *
A few year's back I was accosted at a self-service gas station by an agitated individual who was adamant about letting me know that I was never going to the kingdom of heaven until I first accepted the Lord Jesus Christ into my life. It was kind of a scary incident. I half expected that this stranger was going to deliver me from Satan by way of a handgun kept secret within his Bible.
It was only as I drove away from the incident that I realized what had happened. The fundamentalist fuel pumper was unhinged by the license plate frame my wife had screwed onto the back of our car. It was something she bought from a booth at a county fair on the insistence of a friend who had a similar decoration made for her own vehicle. The deal was you could choose a quote to be stamped into the chromium frame.
My wife selected "If Heaven Won't Take Me, Heaven Don't Deserve Me." She stuck it on the back of her Jaguar, a car similar to that which Warren Zevon had driven at one point in his life. And for what seemed like years we drove around with only a single CD in that car to listen to - Warren's Genius LP.
We had convinced ourselves, incorrectly as it turned out, that the license plate line was a quote from Warren Zevon, because the embodied sentiment sounded right, though upon further consideration the words aren't really up to Zevon standard (more Gordon Lightfoot). Two of his small, devoted following, we really wanted to believe in Warren's gifts, including his defiant stance in the face of doom. That, to our generation, may have been Warren Zevon's real genius. He represented something we valued, however rickety the framework upon which it was built.
In a way, tapping into a pop culture sensibility, and somehow embodying a key aspect of what people feel they need from their icons, does take a kind of a genius. (Zevon boasted that he "got to be Jim Morrison longer than Jim Morrison.") It hardly matters, on that level, that the facts don't quite line up with the reality. We humans gravitate to bright lights the way moths do to street lamps, and so some of us recognized something precious and rare in Warren Zevon, however powdery his detritus. In a world of darkness, incandescence is a gift.-RAR
READER FEEDBACK: Warren Zevon "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" Review
RAR received interesting feedback on the Warren Zevon review that tends to demonstrate the diversity of opinion on the excitable boy. RARWRITER featured artist John Manikoff shared a stage with Warren Zevon, and recalls the tortured artist and recounts spending time in his shoes, with all attendant pressures.
Wrote Manikoff - "Years ago, in the midst of Warren Zevon's meteoric career (he'd recently graced the cover of Rolling Stone), one of my bands opened for him at the University of Colorado Ballroom/Auditorium. It's a standout in my memory, not only for his incredibly powerful and whimsical songwriting, but also an honor to share the stage with the likes of Wachtel, Marotta, and Sklar. His CDs will forever live in my car. I realized then how damaged he was, and how out of control things had become for him... a train wreck right before my eyes. He had a cane filled with vodka, and would take shots from it throughout the evening, before, during and after the show. I'd see him often years later in an anonymous venue we'd both wandered into, and I was able to get a glimpse into his wonderful sensitivity and humor. Warren was a true genius, but as so often is the case, a tragic one. After my Boulder debut, I was suddenly finding myself at parties with Fogelberg, Walsh, and other Northstar and Caribou elite. Ironically, I wasn't too far behind Warren in my own right, as opportunity in those days was directly in front of me. My fear of success loomed like the childhood monster in my closet, and I wandered around Boulder in terror. Those are the days most people remember from me, but I have the inside story."
On the other side of the Zevon issue is longtime friend, the New Mexico artist Elizabeth Kay, who wrote - "I enjoyed your review of WZ. We have a CD by him someone gave me. I didn't especially take to it . . . now I know why. Thanks for the overview of a much-ado-about-nothing rocker."
While a part of me shares that opinion, Zevon is more complicated than that for me. "There are people who just worship Warren Zevon as a writer on a whole other level, but I have always had trouble getting my arms around him. Most interesting to me is that he symbolizes the need for intelligent people to enjoy the "company" of an intelligent writer, and many feel there aren't a great number of the latter in the rock world. It seems like a certain neo-intellectual set really wanted to believe in him.
"The other thing about Zevon that hits me is how fully he was embraced by the Jackson Browne-Linda Ronstadt-Waddy Wachtel wing of the L.A. music scene of the time, and how fully he embraced a general creative approach that was surfacing in the L.A. film and music business at the time. That is a focus on a 'quick pitch,' a plot summary that could be stated in a single sentence of less than eight words (made that number up). Zevon and his cronies worked top down, coming up with the odd turn of phrase, turning it into a song title and building a story to support it. It, to me, is akin to haiku, creatively restrictive but tending to over-amplify the profundity of the line.
"In the Hollywood film making business this type of thinking leads to all the formulaic crap that somehow gets funded and produced and sometimes returns big profits, but rarely rises above 'entertainment.' It probably has some value, and under some definition of 'genius' probably qualifies as formidable, but...
The other thing that interests me about Zevon was how he seemed to incorporate all these borrowed scraps of inspiration into is own personal myth. He was insane in that way that a lot of successful theater/film/music/art people are, fully immersed in their larger creation, which is his or her 'self.' It is a public facade that must be maintained constantly, without breaking. They become their own icons or Avatars, existing in a virtual world financed by the contributions of people from the real world who, like the under-nourished intellectual seeking consumers referenced above, enjoy believing that their heroes are 'special,' as indeed they are."
Elizabeth Kay's response - "People's need to find intelligence in the tribal boom-boom vibes of rock may explain Zevon's popularity, as you say. I remember a bearded English prof back in the 70s who asked us to seriously contemplate if Jimi Hendrix's lyrics were not really as good as any of the great poetry. Wellllll . . . . even then I thought he was probably pushing it. But there remains that need to find depth in one's own time and milieu (Dylan, Zappa, Morrison also come to mind, of course). Zevon's story might make an interesting 'period piece' screenplay, come to think of it, with heavy emphasis on how his illness set him straight at the end of his life."
From the November 15, 2007 Edition
RAR Reviews House of War and "Sicko"
Happy Thanksgiving and the Urge to Sleep
Happy Thanksgiving. As
we sit down to our decidedly American fare this year at Thanksgiving – it is
truly a treasonous act to serve other than America’s rightful bird, as the
clear thinking Benjamin Franklin thought of the inglorious turkey – my mind is
stirred to unrest by two recent exposures I had to creative works that may
explain why the urge to just go to sleep is such on American thing to do on
America’s thanksgiving day.
The drugged collapse of
entire families on Turkey Day is typically attributed to L-tryptophan, which
stimulates the creation of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which calms the
brain. L-tryptophan, however, is also found in eggs, milk, bananas and yogurt,
which are typically associated with breakfast and a jump-start to your day, so
you can drop that little tidbit on your Aunt Betty when she raises the Turkey
defense before falling asleep in a kitchen chair. She’s not really that
drugged, she’s either exhausted from cooking and serving, or less likely,
stuffed from over eating. Or most likely, she’s probably just bored. We
Americans are a bored lot. Not you, the reader, of course, but everybody you
know. Think about it. Don’t they all seem to be sort of weary and dazed?
History writer James Carroll is pretty convinced that we Americans dove through the rabbit hole of disorientation in perception around the middle of World War II. In a rush of new power triggered by paranoia, America gave its political will to ideas that had festered within its soul from its tortured beginnings – “Absolute War” and “Unconditional Surrender” – and which became cemented in our national character. I have been reading his 2006 book House of War, which traces the history of the U.S. war machine through the history of the Pentagon, including the building itself, the creation of its civilian overlord Department of Defense, the establishment of the National Security Act (creating the National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency), and the implementation of ideas that have taken us to the edge of disaster.
to James Carroll’s Pentagon nightmare is the embodiment of societal
dysfunction, America’s failure to commit to each other through the creation of
a universal health care system for our citizens. This is comically, albeit
sadly, portrayed in Michael Moore’s documentary “Sicko,” which I saw just
ties these two works together, beyond both having to do with public policy
topics, are lies – patterns of deliberate misrepresentations that have
gone on for so long they have become part of America’s public consciousness.
together, they explain a great deal about why we have so much to give thanks for
– and why thinking about it just makes us want to go to sleep, like depressed
of War (Houghton Mifflin Company)
2006, novelist James Carroll, who scored a big literary hit with Constantine’s
Sword, released House of War, which he had written during his time as
a scholar-in-residence at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS).
Being a scholar in residence at AAAS, which was founded during the American
Revolution by James Bowdoin, John Adams, and John Hancock to "cultivate
every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honour, dignity,
and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people," means that you
are a member in good standing of America’s intelligentsia. Indeed, James
Carroll is the son of former Lt. Gen. Joseph F. Carroll, whose experience
included the FBI and 20 years as a top Pentagon official, and James Carroll
wrote the book as an “insider,” with access to all manner of experts and
eye-witnesses to a re-shaping of American geopolitics that continues to have
ripple effects to this day. In fact, that was his reason for writing the book,
subtitled “The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power.” James is
pretty convinced that the U.S., during World War II, set in motion a calamity
that will determine our fate as it will befall us in the 21st
is a novelist, more than a historian, and he does a good job of using narrative
to rollout what is essentially a long argument that he really wants you, the
reader, to “get.” (He is constantly re-summing what we have learned so far
in the reading, as if there might be a test at the end.) There is a sense of
urgency about his approach, and in fact this is a tract that needs to be read.
While Carroll’s need is to bring the story back to his family, through
personal anecdotes and recollections, the literary strategy reinforces a conceit
that this book is finally pulling together what historians have previously tried
to uncover, which is an American foreign policy machine built on poor
intelligence, bitter infighting among competing defense agencies, a tendency to
exaggerate the power of our enemies to do evil and to mirror the perceived evil
of our enemies in our behaviors toward them. We have taken a belligerent stance.
traces a momentous string of events, beginning during World War II with the U.S.
fire bombing of German cities and on to decisions made at the Potsdam conference
and the rationale for dropping two atomic bombs on Japan, a nation that was
trying at the time to surrender. This Japanese surrender factoid has been buried
in the American mind, paved over by a generally held belief that Japan was a
nation whose people were hell-bent on suicide in the face of an American
invasion. It wasn’t true. Japan was a nation flummoxed by a U.S. demand of
“unconditional surrender” that would humiliate their beloved Emporer.
Demonized as “rodents,” they were sacrificed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as
part of an ongoing campaign of terror that was aimed squarely at our Russian
allies, whom we feared more than any other country on the planet. The U.S.
needed to change the level of the playing field to stop Soviet aggression at
Eastern Europe. Convinced that if the U.S. didn’t show that we had “the
bomb” and wouldn’t hesitate to use it first, that the Soviet’s would, the
U.S. dropped not just one demonstration weapon, but two. Could there be any
doubt after that about the new world order? Carroll finds this string of
American overkill and hubris running all the way from FDR through to the current
Bush-Cheney administration. And what we constantly get from it is a greater
insecurity, and greater paranoia until we finally have no way of gauging
the things that make Carroll’s book so interesting is its detail on the
personalities who built America’s cathedral of Jingoism. America’s first
Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, the first civilian to be put in charge of
the Army, Navy and Air Force, and who leapt from a 13th story window
to his death – UFO enthusiasts like to say he did so after seeing living
aliens pulled from the wreckage of their craft near Roswell, New Mexico – is
an intriguing case study into the task of trying to manage the competing
interests of the industrial military complex. Another is the hero madman Gen.
Curtis E. LeMay, who made his reputation in World War II as a Marianas Island
bomber before leading suicidal daytime bombing raids against Germany. LeMay
later headed the newly founded Strategic Air Command and became vilified by Viet
Nam era protesters for his suggestion that the U.S. bomb North Vietnam back to
the Stone Age. LeMay ran as Vice President on the George Wallace ticket in 1968,
which tends to put him into political perspective.
book drones on, profiling the exploits of one nutcase after the next as they
cobble together weird rationales for America to fight the urge to stand down
from the industrial war footing the nation went to in the late ‘30s and 1940s.
He traces the development of George F. Kennan’s “X Article,” which created
the foundation for the U.S. belief that “the Soviet Union” was a force
committed to the eradication of the U.S., a force with which there could be no détente
or accommodation. Carroll reveals the Pentagon as the money machine that fueled
much of America’s post World War II economic growth, as defense contractors
profited from the arms race with the Soviet Union and fed off the need for
security achieved through the principles of nuclear containment and mutually
assured destruction. There are people out there bent on killing us and we must
be ever fearful and vigilant, that is the message that the mouthpieces of the
Military Industrial Complex have repeated decade after decade, as they have
sought to raise levels of paranoia to where Americans wouldn’t dare question
our need to prioritize our state expenditures with defense being at the top of
the list. Six decades into this deceit, Carroll makes the case that in the
middle east, encouraged by the bellicosity of neo-conservatives and our present
day leaders, we may finally have come face-to-face with the specter of our own
stateside analog to the international debacle that is American foreign policy is
America’s inability, or unwillingness, to tackle our most basic “home
security” issue – the health of our citizens.
same dynamics that keep America such a mess on the international front are in
play at home – fear, systematic deception and profit motive. Using home movies
of American’s suturing their own open wounds and interviews with people who
have either been financially decimated by encounters with their health care
systems, or declined coverage based on specious pre-existing conditions, Michael
Moore reveals the shiny American health care system as being on a par with
Slovenia’s when it comes to actually delivering service to its citizens. That
makes us 37th best in the world and the only modern industrialized
nation that does not guarantee universal healthcare to its citizens.
asks the question, “Who are we?” As in, what kind of a people are so screwed
up in their thinking that they would turn health care into a profit-making
concern and deny health care services to anyone who can’t be turned into a
profit center, i.e., sick people? He traces the origin of this immoral
imperative to industrialist Henry J. Kaiser and his creation of Kaiser
Permanente, the U.S.’ first-ever Health Maintenance Organization.
(This is particularly disconcerting to the Rice family, who were just
enrolled in Kaiser Permanente through my wife’s work, after being declined
private insurance coverage by Blue Cross of California based on pre-existing
conditions we had never before been apprised of. Blue Cross is another of
Moore’s corrupt providers.) Moore plays tapes of Richard Nixon being lectured
on Kaiser’s brilliance by his domestic advisor John Ehrlichman, who would
eventually go to prison for 18 months for his Watergate involvements. Nixon
didn’t like socialized medicine, but he for damned sure liked this notion of
profiting from healthcare. It just sounds like something Nixon would like,
are Americans so afraid of when it comes to making changes that would benefit
all of our citizens? The insured – and Moore points out that many of those are
only insured to points past which they would become another liability to their
insurers – are fearful of long waits to get needed care, inability to choose
their own physician, and taxation beyond what they could bear. The uninsured are
afraid something will happen to them and they’ll be left to die or live in
diminished capacity because they can’t afford care. And there is a vast
American workforce paralyzed with fright at losing their employer-provided
health coverage, though every year they work for less and less take home pay as
rising premiums demand that more be taken out of their paychecks to cover their
employers’ rising health care costs.
are two ways to control a society, one of Moore’s interview subjects tells
him. One is by generating such fear within the citizens of a society that they are afraid to act. A fearful
people will invariably turn their fate over to a strong leader, or one they
perceive as strong, and they will surrender their “rights,” including their
right to demand services.
other control mechanism is related. Once a people have become despondent and
filled with despair, they stop striving, lose all optimism that things can get
better. (This aspect of human nature is what America as a whole has never come
to terms with as it relates to our generationally poor. We seem to cling to a
misbegotten belief that if things get bad enough, any human of good character
will somehow rise above him or herself to overcome the obstacles in their way.)
Fear instills the notion in people that they will lose what little it is they have if they rock the boat, and these people don’t mobilize to challenge the status quo. They just convince themselves that they should be thankful for what they have, even though it is not enough.
If they are poor Americans, they likely just seek comfort in that they at least live in the greatest country in the world, right? It could be a lot worse.-RAR
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