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Little Mitzvahs–Assorted Writings from 2008

July 25, 2018

Little Mitzvahs

Assorted Writings from 2008

 

Our Poor State

January 17, 2008

Littman was absolutely right. Michigan’s unemployment rate at the beginning of 2008 is still highest in the U.S. Our per capita personal income has been below the national average for eight years in a row. Over 100,000 people have left the state in the last three years, almost half between the ages of 25-39, 80% of them college graduates.

David Littman, former lead economist at Comerica Bank and one of the foremost economic experts in the United States, came to Adat Shalom Synagogue on a January 11th Shabbat night. After he spoke about Michigan’s economic decline, I felt an overwhelming urge to pray for all of us who still live and work in this state.

        “Is Michigan stuck on stupid? Folks, there comes a time when economic prospects are so bleak that one must present only the unvarnished reality. Michigan isn’t yet at rock bottom…but the local and state economies will be at that point within the next 3-5 years.”

        That quote wasn’t from Littman’s January 11th speech to Adat Shalom but was instead said on October 26, 2005 in Littman’s 2006 Economic Forecast for Design and Construction. “We can be assured that Michigan will see even greater economic erosion in 2005, 2006, and beyond, compared to sister states,” he predicted.

          Littman was absolutely right. Michigan’s unemployment rate at the beginning of 2008 is still highest in the U.S. Our per capita personal income has been below the national average for eight years in a row. Over 100,000 people have left the state in the last three years, almost half between the ages of 25-39, 80% of them college graduates.

        David doesn’t blame China, the auto industry, escalating oil prices, or the subprime housing fiasco. He argues instead that Michigan’s government, taxes, and burdensome regulations are mostly to blame. According to Littman, Michigan is not a “right to work” state, is overly constricted by an “archaic” union-based economic structure with severe regulations, and has higher taxes than faster growing states.

        Over two years ago, Littman said that Michigan has been “losing ground to other states on a trend basis for half a century.” He said that we live in a “relatively poor state,” stuck with “this perpetual fiscal insanity of wanting to raise more tax revenue to enable state and local governments to toss more scarce resources into areas of their special interests…rather than improving statewide incentives for attracting capital and workers and maintaining them here.” He continued that our “own smug, complaisant, obtuse, self-made or copycat policies that contribute to an uncompetitive business climate relative to the other 49 states.”

         Littman gave this criticism before last year’s budget fiasco in which our elected officials raised the state income tax 11.5% while levying a 6% service tax on dozens of arbitrarily selected services. After severe scorn from the public and press, the legislature after desperate last-minute negotiations approved a 21% “surtax” on the taxes Michigan businesses already pay, a punishment to companies that may drive more of them away from our state.

        Littman’s words, however, were not all doom and gloom on the Sabbath. He mentioned that few people realize Michigan has tremendous resources in oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy, and more inland water than other states. Unfortunately, state laws and regulations don’t allow companies to access our economic energy potential or to sell our own water.

In essence, he said “the good news” is that eventually there will be economic blood, enough losses to force the state government to radically reduce spending on wasteful, unnecessary projects. Littman’s prayer is that Michigan will finally be forced to reduce spending and taxes which will offer incentives for companies and people to come to Michigan.

        Until then, the exodus from Michigan will accelerate as businesses continue to suffer. Those of us still loyal to Michigan can tell those remaining that Michigan became like its largest city, Detroit, which has watched over 1,150,000 of its citizens leave in the last five decades.

        I can tell my own story of my son leaving home to work in Chicago and his Jewish friends leaving for New York and California. We can commiserate on the plight of our “poor state,” remembering the glory days when we bought American cars and felt pride in Michigan.

        Now, we don’t need to feel alone. In 2004, Michigan was the only state in the U.S. to exhibit a payroll employment decline. Today, because of a weak housing market, the credit crisis, and slower retail sales, other states are joining Michigan in its economic doldrums.

        There’s little consolation watching Michigan leading the country downward financially. There is no satisfaction knowing that while our state gets poorer, there may be a lot more free time to pray.

 

Moments of Truth

January 30, 2008

How about this for punishment for Kwame and Christine? Let them go on The Moment of Truth to answer 21 increasingly personal questions honestly and “win” $500,000 for the city that Kwame loves so dearly. That would be a little more than 5% of what the mayor and his lies have already cost the city of Detroit.

The new Fox reality TV show, The Moment of Truth, began on Wednesday, January 23, 2008 with a flourish of fanfare from commercials and a coveted time slot after American Idol.

        The Moment of Truth’s website states, “THE MOMENT OF TRUTH will put participants to the test—the lie detector test—to reveal whether or not they are telling the truth for a chance to win half a million dollars. The challenge is simple: answer 21 increasingly person questions honestly, as determined by a polygraph, and win up to $500,000.”

        The next morning’s Detroit Free Press had the following headline that could have been stolen right from the television show: “Mayor lied under oath, text messages show. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his chief of staff lied about their relationship last summer at a police whistle-blower trial that has cost the cash-strapped city more than $9 million, according to records obtained by the Free Press.”

        During a long drawn-out trial, Kilpatrick answered emphatically “NO” when asked if he was romantically involved with chief of staff Beatty who had worked with Kilpatrick since 1996.

        The detailed record of Sky-Tel text messages on his city-paid cell phone showed a different story. On October 7, 2002, Kwame sent a text: “I need you sooo bad. I want to wake up in the morning and you are there.” On October 16th, he sent this text to Christine, “I’ve been dreaming all day about having you all to myself for 3 days…relaxing, laughing, talking, sleeping and making love.”

        The next May, on the 5th, Kilpatrick texted to Beatty, “That’s the first time that I couldn’t fully seduce you. My game is off. LOL! Thanx for the conversation and the QT! Love you!”

        Beatty shot back: “LOL! Your game is way on baby! ‘you had me at hello!’ Jerry McGuire 2000. LOL. I just didn’t want to get caught.”

        The big city mayor and his chief of staff have been caught. They’re caught, BUSTED big time, their web of lies finally in full view of every citizen of Detroit and the Detroit metropolitan community.

        Mayor Kilpatrick has consistently denied over the last five years that he had a sexual relationship with his chief of staff. This issue was central to claims by two former police officers who sued the city and Kilpatrick, accusing the mayor and chief of staff of retaliation partly because of what the policemen knew about the mayor’s private life. There were almost 14,000 text messages from Beatty’s city-issued pager, many of them, according to the Free Press, referring “explicitly to sex acts.”

        Here’s what the Michigan Penal Code has to say about lying in court: “Any person authorized by any statute of this state to take an oath, or any person of whom an oath shall be required by law, who shall willfully swear falsely, in regard to any matter or thing, respecting which such oath is authorized or required, shall be guilty of perjury, a felony, punishable by imprisonment in the state prison not more than 15 years.”

        How did Kwame’s wife, Carlita, and his children handle the shocking news of sex, lies, and pagers? Kwame and his wife were photographed the next day while leaving their Tallahassee, Florida home, kissing like a normal loving couple. It was like one of those uncomfortable moments from The Moment of Truth when the wife was shown with a look of confused disappointment after her husband claimed that he hadn’t inappropriately touched his exercise clients and the lie-detector-lady-voice loudly answered, “That is FALSE.” Then, the disappointed ex-football player quietly walked off the stage with his wife, mother, and friend, winners of nothing but embarrassment.

        How about this for punishment for Kwame and Christine? Let them go on The Moment of Truth to answer 21 increasingly personal questions honestly and “win” $500,000 for the city that Kwame loves so dearly. That would be a little more than 5% of what the mayor and his lies have already cost the city of Detroit.

        Detroit has wasted $9,000,000 on the trial and legal costs of the mayor. At the same time, Detroit recreation centers have been closed, workers have had benefit and job cuts, and the city began charging residents $300 a year for trash pickup to raise money. The Detroit Free Press said that $9 million could buy “143 firefighters or 126 police officers or 1,200 abandoned homes demolished, or more than 92 city parks” which the mayor wants to sell to raise $8.1 million.

        It would be unfortunate just to rail against a big city black mayor from a poverty-ridden town. On the same day as the Free Press was preparing their story and The Moment of Truth aired its first “reality show,” The Associated Press reported that “a study by two nonprofit journalism organizations found that President Bush and top administration officials issued hundreds of false statements about the national security threat from Iraq in the two years following the 2001 terrorist attacks.

        “The study counted 935 false statements in the two-year period. It found that in speeches, briefings, interviews and other venues, Bush and administration officials stated unequivocally on at least 532 occasions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or was trying to produce or obtain them or had links to al-Qaida or both.”

        As far as we know, no one died from the mayor’s indiscretions and lies and no one died in the Clinton-Lewinsky tabloid trauma either. Unlike the endless emotional, financial, physical, and psychological costs from the Iraq War, the costs of Kwame’s lies are not nearly as crippling. Nevertheless, it would be nice to strap him down, his wrists tied to a lie detector, and listen to him finally tell the truth.

         Wouldn’t it be nice if the candidates running for president would submit themselves to The Moment of Truth on television? We the people could answer surveys to submit the 21 most important and relevant questions to the contestants. The candidate who’d answer the most questions honestly would win the game show and the ultimate prize, the presidency of the United States.

         What a dream! Our president: a man or woman who would have more than a few scattered moments of truth. Imagine if you can…an elected leader with true integrity.

 

OD

February 10, 2008

Taking a multitude of prescription painkillers, sleeping pills, and and anti-anxiety pills is no solution to our fears and anxiety. We need to change our mindset first and focus on gratitude and appreciation.

It is official. The New York city medical examiner ruled that Heath Ledger, the 28-year-old actor acclaimed for his role in Brokeback Mountain, died from “acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine.”

        Painkillers, sleeping pills, and anti-anxiety drugs taken by millions were the accidental murderers. How many people are taking some kind of concoction made up of OxyContin, Valium, Xanax, and sleeping pills Restoril and Unisom? We’re not talking heroin or crack, are we?

        Can you blame Heath who was finishing production of the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, for feeling anxiety and sleep deprivation? He was reported to be distressed as he sunk into his role as the depraved and psychotic Joker in the new dark, macabre edition of the Batman series.

        Painful and sleepless anxiety are all too common these days. Consumer confidence as measured in the ABC News Consumer Comfort Index is at a 14 year low. In the disintegrating home market, the CEO of Toll Brothers, Robert Toll, said that the market was still very weak and that “we are not yet seeing much light at the end of the tunnel.” The Dow Industrial Index went down another 370 points yesterday and is down again today.

        If we aren’t worried enough about recession and a sinking stock market, we can always think about Osama Bin Laden’s organization using Pakistan’s tribal region to train militants for attacks on the U.S., Afghanistan, the Mideast and Africa. According to U.S. intelligence chief Mike McConnell, the terror group is establishing cells outside Iraq in the “undergoverned regions of Pakistan.” While most of our troops are occupying Iraq, terrorists in Pakistan are training to kill us.

        That doesn’t faze Republican John McCain who took a major lead in delegates after Super Tuesday, winning New York, California, and most of the 22 states that voted. He has said that we will stay in Iraq as long as we have to, even if it’s “100 years” and is ready to attack Iran as well. He is primed to be the “wartime president” and believes that the fight against radical Islam is the most urgent problem in the world today. Even if he is hated by the conservative wing of the Republican Party, he is not Hillary Clinton, who is hated more.

        It is hard to believe that Pat Buchanan and Ann Coulter have said they would rather have Hillary than McCain. Coulter says Clinton is more conservative than McCain and Buchanan says that McCain has opposed the best policies of George W. Bush while supporting the worst actions of Bush, including the Iraq War.

        Not to fear…Barack Obama is just 100 delegates away from Hillary and has a chance to win the Democratic nomination. Even though he was voted the “most liberal senator in 2007” (according to the National Journal,) he and Hillary both favor an “adjustment” in taxes and more government in health care.

        If I feel like taking some Xanax and Unisom so I can relax and sleep, I can instead be happy for my mother who said she is feeling better because her doctor took her off Prozac and is now taking a different anxiety drug that doesn’t have as many side effects.

        If I still feel depressed and want to take some Valium, I can remember what happened to my cousin Michael who died mysteriously like Heath Ledger. Mike was sick with the flu and dehydrated and was taking some over-the-counter pills to feel better. Unlike Ledger, none of his family know exactly how or why he died.

        But the deaths of Heath and Mike, two young men in the prime of their lives, are too sad to think about. So I will think instead of little 3 year old Noah, who just had another bone marrow test taken and found out the bone marrow was still clear. His mother, Diana, was so proud of how Noah handled the tests. After he was tested for blood, weight, and temperature, “he told the nurse that she could only put the IV in his right hand. Then he looked at me and told me that he was ready for the mask so he could go to sleep. I put the mask on his face, he went to sleep, and that was it!!!”

        I am thankful that Noah is still free from disease and able to sleep well.

        I am nostalgic for the political optimism, humor, and strength of Ronald Reagan, who would have turned 97 tomorrow. John McCain says he is a “Reagan Republican” but conservatives are not convinced. Reagan wouldn’t have needed Prozac or Valium to feel good. He would have been like Jon Gordon whom I now read to stay positive.

        In his newsletter, Gordon writes, “The key is to start paying attention to your feelings and thoughts and when you are feeling bad, switch to a thought that feels good. And if you are unsure of as to what positive thoughts you should be thinking, all you have to remember is gratitude and appreciation. Being grateful and appreciative will always make you feel pepped. You may not like your job but you can be thankful you have one. You may have to drive in traffic but thank God you can while others can’t. And while your life my not be where you want it to be, you can choose to believe that the future is bright and great things are happening every day.”

        Let’s close our eyes and try to overdose on this medication of optimism.

        We are still alive and well.

        Amen.

       

 

Miserable

February 13, 2008

High school students today have been through middle and high school during the administrations of Kilpatrick, Granholm, and Bush, while the reputations and economies of the city of Detroit, state of Michigan, and the United States have eroded.

Our Town is the Thornton Wilder play written and first produced in the depression years of the 1930s about a fictional American town, not a big city like Detroit. That hasn’t stopped North Farmington High School from naming its interdisciplinary study this year, “Our Town, Detroit: There’s No Place Like Home” which is designed to teach its students and families about the city that Farmington Hills and dozens of other suburbs surround.

        A Forbes report can’t make North Farmington students or any of Metropolitan Detroit’s citizens feel like Detroit should be “our town.” “Imagine living in a city with the country’s highest rate for violent crime and the second-highest unemployment rate,” the article begins. “As an added kicker you need more Superfund dollars allocated to your city to clean up contaminated toxic waste sites than just about any other metro.”

        “Unfortunately, this nightmare is a reality for the residents of Detroit. The Motor City grabs the top spot on Forbes’ inaugural list of America’s Most Miserable Cities.” And what is misery? “Misery is defined as a state of great unhappiness and emotional distress,” according to Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes.com. It is comprised of the Misery Index created by economist Arthur Okun which adds the unemployment rate to the inflation rate and the Misery Score which is the sum of corporate, personal, employer and sales taxes.

        That’s not enough for Forbes which has added their “very own Forbes Misery Measure” which includes “four more factors that can make people miserable: commute times, weather, crime and that toxic waste dump in your backyard.”

        Detroit is tops. For the 150 largest metropolitan areas with a minimum population of 371,000. Detroit is Number 1, which is slightly worse than Flint which is rated Number 3, with Stockton, California between the two.

        Detroit, the largest city in Michigan, leads Michigan, which has been leading the country in unemployment for the last six years. You have to have a twisted sense of humor to feel proud of these new accomplishments but you don’t have to have a paranoid streak to know that America’s most miserable city is in a miserable heap of trouble. Look at foreclosures. A new survey rates Wayne County, home of Detroit, with the highest foreclosure rate in the country, ahead of Stockton, California and Las Vegas, Nevada.

        The 2007 rate for Wayne County was 4.9% of households entering some stage of the foreclosure process.

        It is bad enough to read all these miserable economic statistics but throw in a lying, cheating mayor on top of the mess. Yesterday, the Detroit City Council voted to demand that the administration of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his outside attorneys provide to the council all of the documents that were part of the secret agreement the mayor made to settle a whistle-blower lawsuit. The request includes the text messages exchanged between Kilpatrick and former chief of staff Christine Beatty that showed they lied under oath when they denied having an affair and when they denied firing one of the three former police officers that sued the city.

        It doesn’t end there. An attorney for a 14-year-old son of a stripper named Strawberry who was fatally shot in 2003 is suing for all the text messages and global positioning coordinates of city employees in the four hour period of her death, including the mayor, his bodyguards, chief of staff, and policemen. Tammy Greene, a.k.a. Strawberry, was killed in a drive-by shooting a few months after dancing at Kilpatrick’s Manoogian Mansion party in the fall of 2002. Former Lt. Alvin Bowman charged in a lawsuit against the city that city officials transferred him out of the homicide division because he was investigating what happened to Greene.

        A Wayne County Circuit Court jury awarded Bowman $200,000 after a trial ended Oct. 21, 2005.

        How do you think North Farmington and Detroit Public School students feel about their city now? North Farmington High School has been trying to celebrate the glories and legends of the motor city since September. Principal Rick Jones brought the Motown group, The Contours, to entertain and delight students and the community. Legendary baseball announcer Ernie Harwell was featured in a discussion about the Detroit Tigers and baseball. And soon, former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer will be coming to the school to speak to students and their parents.

        Who will ask Dennis how he feels about the leadership of Kilpatrick or the infamous mayor of the 70s and 80s, Coleman Young? And will anyone ask him who can bring the city back to some sense of decency and economic viability?

        High school students today have been through middle and high school during the administrations of Kilpatrick, Granholm, and Bush, while the reputations and economies of the city of Detroit, state of Michigan, and the United States have eroded.

        What will Barack Obama or John McCain, assuming one of them gets elected, do to restore the honor of our country? What will the leaders of tomorrow do to bring us out of our misery?

        Is there any room for optimism? After GM, its RenCen towers highlighting the Detroit skyline, just announced the largest annual loss for a United States corporation with $38.7 billion in red ink for 2007 and offered to buy out all of their 74,000 U.S. employees, we have to wonder, is there any future for Detroit and Michigan? The Obama political operation is out selling the message of hope for change. But as economist Robert Samuelson points out, no one running for president faces the grim economic truth. The new Bush budget for the U.S. optimistically projects a budget deficit of $407 billion and few seem to care. McCain wants to keep us in Iraq and the Middle East and Obama wants new spending for health care and other social programs. And no one talks about the rising costs of entitlements that are growing ever higher.

        You can be filled with hope for America and a change of leadership. I would rather relive the nostalgia for Our Town’s 1938 America, 19 years before I was born.  Or I could listen to the Who song, “We Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and stay miserable, waiting for Godot or maybe Ross Perot to once again rise from the ashes of memory. Who will waken us from misery?

 

Beware of Potholes

March 11, 2008

The long, twisted, bumpy road ahead is filled with deep and jarring potholes. But we can’t stay in our sinking-in-value homes forever, even if we are petrified of what we will find outside.

A Macomb County Commissioner is offering “the person who reports the most menacing, tire-chewing, alignment-ruining, road gash in Macomb County” a new set of tires.

        We could have quite a contest if we had the same offer in Oakland County. On just a one-mile stretch on Orchard Lake Road between 14 Mile and Maple, the minefield of potholes is inescapable. Can anyone answer which one is the most shocking shock-absorber-destroying pothole in Oakland County?

        In Metropolitan Detroit and Michigan, potholes are everywhere, literally and metaphorically. Even with the United States sinking into recession, it hurts to know that Michigan is still ranked 51st in GDP growth rate and employment. If we turn to the latest Forbes survey of “America’s Most Miserable Cities,” it is depressing to see our town, Detroit, rated Number 1. This survey is based on a “Misery Index” which adds the unemployment rate to the inflation rate and a “Misery Score” which is the sum of corporate, personal, employer and sales taxes. According to Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes.com, “Misery is defined as a state of great unhappiness and emotional distress.”

        The pothole of misery doesn’t end with statistics. No matter how bad the local economy is, we can’t dodge the corruption saga of Detroit’s mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, facing the firestorm of courts and the media. Kilpatrick and Detroit’s $9 million settlement to pay off attorneys to cover up the lies about his text-messaged affair with his chief of staff have pushed the city council, suburbs, and state to swerve away from him. Even though the scandal has tarnished the already poor reputation of Detroit and the city’s legal costs escalate, the mayor refuses to resign.  

        You can’t avoid potholes driving on national highways either. The U.S. dollar is at a record low, a barrel of oil is at a record high, and the price of gold, wheat, and other commodities are driving inflation up while the national economy wilts. Domestic auto sales are down, national housing is in a deep decline, foreclosures are all around us, and the credit markets are in turmoil. Whether we call it a “slowdown” or a recession matters only to linguists.

        Should we get excited about election year prospects when the projected U.S. 2009 budget deficit will be over $400 billion as the costs of the Iraq War and rising entitlements continue unabated? The democratic candidates promise to spend more of our national debt on national health care and the republican candidate promises to keep fighting wars until we are “victorious”.

        We can’t be optimistic that our wars will help Israel either. Did anyone notice that a 73 year old woman was killed and 40 people wounded last month when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a shopping center in Dimona and that both Hamas and Fatah claimed responsibility for the attack? Should we be thankful that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah has said he will soon return to “peace negotiations” with Israel?

        The long, twisted, bumpy road ahead is filled with deep and jarring potholes. But we can’t stay in our sinking-in-value homes forever, even if we are petrified of what we will find outside. Instead, we need to proceed with extreme caution, watching vigilantly to see if the dangers in front of us are shallow or deep and wide. Better yet, we can remain cautiously optimistic and search for roads that have been repaired, roads that are now flat and smooth.

        There is good news if you look for it. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), “The number of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States declined for the third consecutive year.” Following two years of decreases, there was another 13 percent decline in 2007 in the incidents of vandalism, harassment and other acts of hate against Jewish individuals, property and community institutions.

        We’ll take good news wherever we can find it. We may have to look for dirt or snow-covered roads to find something good and lasting. At Adat Shalom Synagogue in early March, dozens of Jews drove on a snowy night to learn about organic farming, how to get the best locally grown organic vegetables directly to our neighborhoods and synagogues. Michelle Lutz of Maple Creek Farms drove from the thumb city of Yale to teach us how locally grown organic farming can not only produce highly nutritious, kosher, pesticide-free food but how local organic farming can sustain the earth, allowing us both energy independence and economic development. We learned how to get a season full of fresh produce directly from her farm.

        On the way home, the snow covered the potholes but didn’t stop the long, slippery journey of Michelle back home to Yale, Michigan.  It was just refreshing to share in the spirit of someone trying to do something good for people and the planet. It was inspiring to know that in a small way, we can also make a difference.

        Yes, the future is scary, with potholes all around us. But whether there is recession, war, inflation, or terrorism, we ourselves always have the power to do some good.

 

Cohen Makes Fun of We Laugh is Weeks Lesson

April 15, 2008

We need to change our mood and stop worrying about bombs, Iraq, Israel, and Al-Qaeda. And who should lead this change of spirit? JEWS, that’s who.

When I woke early on Shabbat morning, I had my chance to watch the new DVD I’d bought that week, Borat—Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit of Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

        I don’t think God had that in mind when he bellowed on the seventh day, “Pray to me, relax, and don’t do any work!” Not that watching a fictitious documentary written and starring an observant Jew as an anti-semitic diplomat in a satirized Jew-hating country is work.

        But I felt weird anyways, watching this movie before my wife, youngest daughter preparing for her bat mitzvah, her friend, and I were ready to go to the synagogue and pray. We had not been going often enough to Adat Shalom and had decided, as a family, to go and get ready for Marlee’s bat mitzvah at the end of the summer.

        I had wanted to see Borat when it opened in American cinemas to surprisingly large box office numbers but I was worried to sit with large gentile-filled audiences laughing with satiric scorn at Jews. I’d read that audiences often howled at the crazy scenes in which Sasha Baron Cohen planted unsuspecting Americans who had no clue they were part of a film making fun of them. But when non-Jews laughed at Jews: were they laughing at them or with them? That was the question.

        I’m just glad I didn’t hear any laughter around me in my family room, except myself. And laughing at American political correctness, Southern rednecks, upper-class snobs, Hollywood, and the entire viewing audience’s polite “good sense,” was a welcomed delight.

        As Stephen King wrote in the March 16th Entertainment Weekly, “Too many of the people you see on the street look like their ma just died and someone shot their puppy.” In his back page essay, “All in Good Fun,” he continues, “The country that invented the Three Stooges and elevated pie-in-the-face humor to high art has become an emotional fallout shelter filled with pessimists worried about terrorism, mad cow disease, secondhand smoke, and the possibility of Dick Cheney becoming president.” King suggests that we should have security personnel dressing up as Disney cartoons, add different terror levels like “Giggle Green (Kermit the Frog logo)” and celebrate “Washington Clown Day” in which congressmen and senators wear “red noses, baggy pants made out of Reynolds Wrap, or enormous shoes.”

        I must agree. We need to change our mood and stop worrying about bombs, Iraq, Israel, and Al-Qaeda. And who should lead this change of spirit? JEWS, that’s who.

        We need Jews to get back to their comedic routes, back to the Stooges, Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Berle, Bruce, Lewis, Seinfeld, Crystal, and now Sasha Cohen. We need our great Jewish comedy leaders to help us move from the boring, brooding Kissinger and Wolfowitz to at least the wild hilarious anger of Lewis Black.

        We must laugh away our fears. At shul, I can’t help thinking of Borat sitting in a nice old Jewish couple’s bed and breakfast and turning to utter terror when he realizes his host and hostess are Jews. He begins to sweat when he sees paintings of rabbis in kippahs and spits out his food, thinking he’s been poisoned. He and his fat Kazakhstan partner open the bedroom window to escape and flee into the night.

        I couldn’t keep my mind on the Torah portion and Haftorah about “burnt offerings,” consecrating the altar, sacral vestments, and anointing the Tabernacle. I knew it was the last chapter of Exodus, that I should study it and savor the words and praise God. But I was stuck in the ramblings of mind, listening to the pleasant melodies sung in Hebrew, watching the little kids running in the aisles, enjoying the vision of so many well-dressed Jews smiling, anticipating the sweet desserts of kiddush.

        In the Sabbath afternoon, I watched the rest of Borat and laughed at the silly music, the crazy scene at the rodeo with Borat in an American flag shirt singing the Star-Spangled Banner with his new, pro-Kazakhstan lyrics, the insanity of two naked men wrestling, the absurdity of a genteel southern lady showing Borat how to use a toilet, and Pam Anderson being bagged and chased in a parking lot. How much fun it must have been to edit this “documentary.”

        Of course, by myself, I could laugh without worrying about feeling stupid. I could look again at the New York Times and Detroit Free Press’s articles about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed confessing at a military hearing and not feel so much dread. This man who may have been the mother lode of terror, a bigger catch than even Osama Bin Laden, confessed to 31 terror attacks, including the complete 9/11 attacks, the ’93 World Trade Center bombing, the nightclub bombing in Bali, and the beheading of American Jewish journalist, Daniel Pearl. He also admitted to masterminding dozens of additional plans of terrorist attacks in the United States, Israel, Europe, and the Middle East.

        Mohammed said that he and others had been mistreated in his over-three years of captivity. He spoke in similar broken English as Borat when he said, “So, we derive from religions leading that we consider we and George Washington doing the same thing.” I could picture him saying that, wearing a big ostrich hat that my wife’s partner in Torah wore on Purim. I knew that Purim passed, the festive holiday in which even the most orthodox Jews dress in costumes, give gifts, drink and laugh. But it’s a shame Mohammed can’t get the same type of death that Haman got a few thousand years ago.

        If we can’t hang him and torture’s too brutal for our cultured sensibilities, at least we could dress him as a clown for all the world to see. How about chaining him to a post with his red nose, aluminum foil wrap, and gigantic shoes? I can imagine putting him on stage in Washington, D.C. and letting the procession begin. We could have every surviving family member who lived through the murder of their sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, and siblings that he took responsibility for, each have a minute with Khalid.

        They wouldn’t be allowed to shoot or stab him. All they would have is a minute each to bring their own homemade pies. We could all watch endless hours on cable TV, one person after another smashing a pie in Mohammed’s face and twisting it in his eyes for delight.

        There would be tears and laughs and a lot of welcomed relief. Khalid said, “War start from Adam when Cain killed Abel until now,” but he never got to face real modern warfare, American retribution, the good, old, reliable pie-in-the-face gag. Pure humiliation.

        As King would say, it’s “all in good fun.” As Borat would simply say with that sardonic smile on his face, “Nice…”

       

 

Survivors and Saviors

April 21, 2008

The secret is that we must focus on what each of us can do to fight evil, how we would act in the same horrific setting. We should meditate on what one man accomplished throughout his life and in the chaotic last few moments of breath.

We can only imagine what Liviu Librescu was wondering on the morning of Monday, April 16th. On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, did his mind flash back to his childhood when he, his family, and thousands of other Jews were transported to the Romanian ghetto city of Focsani? How many of the over-280,000 Jews killed by Romania’s Nazi-allied regime could he recall?

        He could never imagine that, at 7:15a.m. that same morning, a freshman girl and her residential advisor were shot to death in a coed dorm at the same college that he had taught at for 20 years: Virginia Tech University.

        Librescu had faced turmoil in his life, even after the Shoah, when he worked as an engineer in Romania’s aerospace agency. There, he refused to swear allegiance to Romania’s communist regime and was later fired when requesting permission to move to Israel. Thanks to Israel’s then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin who personally intervened to get his family an emigration permit, Liviu left for Israel in 1978.

        Librescu visited the United States in 1985, taught at Virginia Tech in his sabbatical year and made the move permanent soon afterward. In the next two decades, he became an internationally respected aeronautics engineer, specializing in composite structures and aeroelasticity, received several NASA grants and taught courses in Bucharest, Rome, and Israel as well as VT.

        At Liviu’s funeral in Israel, his son Arieh said at the eulogy, “All of the classes in statistics and composites are over now. Now you are starting a new career teaching heroism, and millions of people are busy studying.”

        If the movie/book, The Secret, is even remotely right that we attract what we hold in our mind’s images and that a positive thought is “100 times more powerful than a negative one,” why waste another minute contemplating the life of a mass murderer? The broadcast and print media has so saturated the news with the killer’s past, photos, videos, and psychoanalysis that we don’t need another minute about the now-immortalized destroyer of life.

        Instead, we need to think about what one man can to do in the midst of evil. We can recollect what Liviu Librescu did on the morning of Yom HaShoah as he was teaching solid mechanics. When he heard shots fired in Norris Hall, he braced his body in front of his classroom door, yelling to his students to head for the window. They pushed out the screens; they jumped, and dropped into the bushes below to escape. “I must’ve been the eighth or ninth person who jumped, and I think I was the last,” said Alec Calhoun, who landed in a bush and took off. He said that the two students behind him were shot and that as he climbed out the window, he turned and saw his teacher, who had stayed. Liviu Librescu was shot to death through the door.

        The killer fantasized that he was a hero in a violent revenge movie. In the movie in my mind, the 76-year-old teacher who survived the Holocaust is the ultimate hero, giving the greatest lesson of rabbinic teaching, “If you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world.”

        The teacher saved at least eight or nine lives but his son is right. The lessons of his life are truly immortal, this fellow Jew, this American and Israeli, our fellow human being.

        The secret is that we must focus on what each of us can do to fight evil, how we would act in the same horrific setting. We should meditate on what one man accomplished throughout his life and in the chaotic last few moments of breath.

        We need to spend our time, not thinking why someone created such havoc and grief in so many lives. Instead, we need to pray for all of the 33 families struck by this tragedy and then return our thoughts to the hero of Norris Hall.

         I close my eyes and imagine: one man summoning his strength and all of his courage to forcefully hold a door, so that others can leap out the window…to life.

 

Horror and Heroes

May 6, 2008

We need to salute and praise Irena, Sara, David, Rabbi Rosenzveig and all the other heroes who teach our children that the horrific hatred of others should not destroy us. They must make us more selfless, ready to “save a single life” and hopefully, “the entire world.”

When you walk in, the memorial flame draws you into the black silhouetted wall and its numbing number: 6,258,484. The docent explains that the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust is comparable to the number of people it would take, sitting side-by-side on the bench facing the Memorial Wall, if it stretched from Farmington Hills all the way to Los Angeles, California: 2275 miles haunted by the ghosts of the dead.

        A field trip to the Holocaust Memorial Center is not the easiest way to spend a Sunday spring morning. When Adat Shalom and Beth Shalom asked their Hebrew School students and parents to meet there a week before Pesach, I felt compelled to go.

        My 13-year-old daughter had learned a lot more about the Holocaust at Adat Shalom this year and was anxious to see the museum. I, however, couldn’t remember when I last visited the small building next to the JCC and knew I had never gone to “America’s First Freestanding Holocaust Memorial Center” since it re-opened on busy Orchard Lake Road.

        The new Zekelman Family Campus is spacious and impressive, filled with enlightening details that I couldn’t remember: Out of the six million, three million Jews killed were from Poland, 1.5 million from the U.S.S.R., and Hungary 570,000.

        The information about anti-Semitism in the Museum of Jewish European Heritage reveals what led to the destruction of 23,000 Jewish communities across Europe. We can read the words of Henry Ford that led to the rise of Nazism and view a container of cyanide-based insecticide, Zyklon B, manufactured by Bayer, the international corporation known for its aspirin. A container of Zyklon B was able to kill 500 people within 10 minutes.

        Hitler and his henchmen were masters of propaganda, making their “Final Solution” sound like an innocent government operation. Gas chambers were labeled “bath installations,” “cleansing” meant extermination, and killing was known as “special treatment.” They performed their cleansing with carbon monoxide, cyanide, starvation, and guns while the world slept-walk. Thousands were quietly killed amidst the silence of the world.

        There were heroes, however, during the carnage and there have been many since World War II. When my Livonia United Hebrew Schools teacher in 1968 instructed my 11-year-old classmates about our forefathers, we thought he was somewhat strange. I had little foresight that this same Rabbi Charles Rosenzveig would one day devote his life to creating an incredibly important institution that “exposes the evil consequences of hatred and promotes the virtues of altruism.” His contribution to the legacy of holocaust education cannot be diminished.

        The tours that he established through the horror-laden exhibits are necessary so that our children learn to raise their voices in the coming decades amidst the hatred of so many countries and the millions who despise Israel and Jews. These kids must learn about the perils of prejudice and hatred and talk to survivors while they have a chance.

        Survivors are disappearing, most of them now in their 70s and 80s. When two friends, Tom and Joey, lost their father, David Lebovic, a few weeks ago, I heard the story of his survival for the first time at his eulogy and thought of his unending smile. After visiting the Holocaust Memorial Center, I wondered, how could David have been such an incredibly positive person after living through such misery?

        The same question was asked by a 13-year-old to Sara Byer, a survivor who spoke to us on Sunday, April 13th. Sara spoke about her childhood in a shtetl in Poland living with her wealthy grandparents and family who owned breweries and factories. This was of little help in what she termed the “most anti-Semitic country in the world.” As Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland, her family was kept hidden by a German Christian in Poland and eventually moved to Russia because it was “better for Jews.” There, they were sent to a forced labor camp in the Arctic Circle where her family worked, barely surviving starvation in unbearably cold temperatures, as low as 65 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. She spoke about the hunger that felt like a sharp stone grinding inside her stomach.

        Somehow, most of her family survived and she found her parents in Paris after the war. She said that Jews returning to hometowns in Poland were greeted with the welcome, “Dirty Jews, go to Palestine!” and many were killed. Eventually, Sara moved to the Detroit area, got a doctorate in Psychology, specializing in treatment of trauma, had two children and six grandchildren. Yet, it was only four months ago that she began to tell her own Holocaust story.

        Not everyone in Poland hated Jews. In this 65th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and on Yom HaShoah, we need to remember Irena Sendler, a Polish Roman Catholic social worker who smuggled hundreds of Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto, withstood torture, was sentenced to death, but survived. Last year, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and is a “Righteous among the Nations” survivor, now 98 years old.

        We need to salute and praise Irena, Sara, David, Rabbi Rosenzveig and all the other heroes who teach our children that the horrific hatred of others should not destroy us. They must make us more selfless, ready to “save a single life” and hopefully, “the entire world.”

 

Soothing the Psyche

June 10, 2008

Who knows how long the feeling of winning lasted? I believe that our collective psyches are indelibly affected by the world, our country, our cities. We haven’t had much to celebrate in a news world filled with Iraq, Iran, Hamas, Afghanistan, wondering why the U.S. economy pales next to China and India.  And the news has been more dismal in Detroit, where the auto industry struggles and the local economy is still mired in the mud of softening sales and higher costs.

The Detroit area finally got a strong dose of medicine for the last six years of high unemployment, rising foreclosures, surging gas and food prices, a declining automobile market, and the continuing saga of Kwame Kilpatrick.

        After six long years, we finally won the Stanley Cup.

        We in Detroit had almost forgotten what good news felt like. When the Pittsburgh Penguins tied the fifth game of the championship series and won in the middle of the third overtime, many fans thought, “Not again.” And when they scored with less than two minutes to go and almost tied the Red Wings with three seconds left in the sixth game, the relief in Detroit was palpable.

        We could finally take a breath and celebrate: Detroit was a winner again. The Stanley Cup was ours.

        Forget for a moment whether Israel will attack Iran or if and when we will get out of Iraq. Forget that Ford and GM are selling fewer and fewer trucks and SUVs and that gas prices keep rising. We don’t need imaginary superheroes Iron Man, the Hulk or Batman. Instead, we are fortunate to share a group of international hockey players from Sweden, Canada, Finland, Russia, the Czech Republic, and the United States, all playing for us, the long-suffering city of Detroit.  Past heroes Chris Osgood, Nick Lidstrom, and Darren McCarty, joined by new superstars Zetterberg, Datsyk, and Franzen, showed perseverance and poise as they marched toward the sixteen wins necessary to win the NHL Championship.

        Did we need this?

        We needed it more than anyone can imagine. If you think that it’s just a sport, just high-paid athletes who happen to play for Mike Ilitch and not some other owner in some other city, think again.

        Remember 40 years ago, a year after the riots ripped through the heart of Detroit, burning building after building, block by block. I remember my father coming home from his place of employment, on Grand River, next to Wonder Bread, wondering if the building would be torched, seeing much of Detroit in flames, worried whether Detroit would survive. I remember more the miraculous comeback of the 1968 World Series, Detroit down three games to one, rising finally to beat the St. Louis Cardinals and its ace pitcher, Bob Gibson.

        A city, still reeling from riots, went wild with joy. I was only 11 but I will never forget the honking horns, the utter exhilaration of our city winning the ultimate baseball trophy.

        We lived in the heroics of Kaline, Horton, McLain, and Lolich. When they won it all, against great odds, so did we. We were at last winners.

        Who knows how long the feeling of winning lasted? I believe that our collective psyches are indelibly affected by the world, our country, our cities. We haven’t had much to celebrate in a news world filled with Iraq, Iran, Hamas, Afghanistan, wondering why the U.S. economy pales next to China and India.  And the news has been more dismal in Detroit, where the auto industry struggles and the local economy is still mired in the mud of softening sales and higher costs.

        There has been almost nothing to celebrate. Until now.

        40 years ago, the world thought Detroit was simply a city filled with hate and fire, and after the World Series, we didn’t care. We felt okay with ourselves.

        Today, the world thinks Detroit is a ghost town filled with large cars and trucks that don’t sell and plenty of crime and murder. This may be true but we also have one of the oldest and greatest hockey teams, one of the original six, a team that has now won 11 championships in 82 years, our 4th in 11 years. We have a group of good guys from all over the world, showing great camaraderie and sportsmanship, and they play for us.

        Sports can be a powerful tonic, an imaginary world that can help sustain us in difficult times. We are no longer strangers when we share the dreams and goals of our sports teams. We can swap stories about not sleeping after three overtimes and of happier moments when we can almost taste the champagne flowing from our HDTVs.

        For awhile, we can feel good about ourselves. We can feel good about Detroit.  

        If it’s just fantasy and escapism, it is still soothing for our injured psyches.

        And that makes all the difference.

 

Lessons of a Catholic Mensch

June 18, 2008

Tim Russert was a devout Catholic but I can’t think of any public or private figure who radiated the definition of menschkeit more than Tim. He was admired, respected, and trusted because of a sense of ethics, fairness, and nobility; he was just a fundamentally decent and good person.

It was not a typical Father’s Day in America. Sunday, June 15, 2008 became a day of mournful celebration. The morning began for me and millions of others viewing NBC and its’ Today Show, not normally shown on Sunday. This was followed by a Meet the Press that started by displaying an empty desk, the desk that Tim Russert had occupied for the last seventeen years. America’s preeminent “ television newsman” and writer of two best-selling books about fathers died on Friday the 13th, two days before Father’s Day.

        Once the three bells and distinctive brass instruments of the theme song from Today sounded on CNBC on my XM radio in my work office on Friday afternoon, I went home and watched TV news coverage on MSNBC, CNN, and NBC, transfixed by the recurring images of Russert from Meet the Press, his election day assignments, from his cable talk show, as well as photos of Tim’s wife and son, Luke, and his father, “Big Russ,” in a constant loop. His handwritten words, “Florida, Florida, Florida,” written on a white chalkboard on Election Night 2000, was shown at least a dozen times.

        When a public figure that we spend more time with than our extended family dies, we feel a sudden chilling loss. When that someone is a person as exuberant, passionate,  influential, and memorable as Tim Russert, the loss seems so much harder.

        I myself could hardly budge from my chair over the weekend. On Father’s Day, I hardly felt like celebrating. My father’s health has been slowly weakening in the last two years; my father-in-law has Parkinson’s disease and has had insomnia for months, and this week is discussing his funeral. I am 51 years old, have gained 20 pounds in the last year, have high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure. Over the Father’s Day weekend, my mood was exceptionally low.

        Tim died at work when a cholesterol plaque dislodged and ruptured, causing an occlusive coronary thrombus in his left anterior descending artery. He had turned 58 five weeks and two days earlier.

        Tim was one of my heroes, honest, hard-working, passionate, devoted to his family, country, and Catholic religion. He laughed and joked and cared about kids. He wanted Americans to know the truth about our politicians, our candidates. He grilled them on Meet the Press each week, always “taking the other side.” He may have been friendly and respectful but he made every guest accountable for their own words and actions, past and present.

        He was the ultimate son and father, loving, proud, always striving to communicate honestly and simply. What we thought, Tim said; what we felt inside, Tim showed outside on his face and with his tongue. Now, it’s too late for any more of his interviews and words. We are left to watch TV footage and read his books to get a dose of his exuberance and joy.

        On Father’s Day, we realized that we had lost one of the fathers of television news. He was like a father to many of his viewers and we trusted him to help take care of our country like a father should.

        Now, we can wander aimlessly, trying to learn from his life. “Go get ‘em,” he would tell his news reporters in the Washington Bureau that he managed. Now, we have to imagine him saying, “Go get ‘em” to us. Can we strive to be courageous, honest, passionate, and still believe in our country? One of Tim’s favorite phrases was “What a country!” Will we in America strive like Tim to prepare every day for work, for life, to believe that if we give every thing we have, we might reach a higher level?       

        The old catchphrase when Michael Jordan was winning championships for the Chicago Bulls was, “Be Like Mike.” Today, the mantra spinning in my mind is, “Be like Russ.” Not the Big Russ who was Tim’s dad, the man who inspired him by taking care of four kids by working two jobs, just quietly being a good father who worked and lived with honor. Russ to me and so many more is Tim Russert, and what I remember so clearly is his big smile, the way he cajoled the people he talked with to come clean and be honest about themselves.

        Tim Russert was a devout Catholic but I can’t think of any public or private figure who radiated the definition of menschkeit more than Tim. He was admired, respected, and trusted because of a sense of ethics, fairness, and nobility; he was just a fundamentally decent and good person.

        Without ever meeting him, I can still relate to Tim as a mentor. His passionate enthusiasm for America, families, and life was contagious. His smile was broad, his excited intelligence was exhilarating, and his caring for so many others was inspiring. If I can live the next seven years aspiring to the legacy of Russert, I would be satisfied to drop dead at 58. If I can live with the passion, love, and joy of “Little Russ,” I will count my life as a “noble” success.

 

Straight Talk

July 4, 2008

“The most unfair thing about life is the way it ends. I mean, life is tough. It takes up a lot of your time. What do you get at the end of it? A Death! What’s that, a bonus? I think the life cycle is all backwards. You should die first, get it out of the way. Then you live in an old age home. You get kicked out when you’re too young, you get a gold watch, you go to work. You work forty years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement. You do drugs, alcohol, you party, you get ready for high school. You go to grade school, you become a kid, you play, you have no responsibilities, you become a little baby, you go back into the womb, you spend your last nine months floating……and you finish off as an orgasm.”     George Carlin—1937-2008

June 2008, the month George Carlin died, featured all this and more: GM’s stock plummeted to its lowest in 54 years, just under $10 a share. Ford’s stock price sunk close to $4 a share. Gas was about $4.25 a gallon, food prices had risen 50-300% in the last year. Business Week published an article, “Michigan: Epicenter of Unemployment,” (Business Week, David Kiley, June 24, 2008) documenting the personal pain in a state that leads the country in joblessness.

        You might wonder what George Carlin would say if you could ask him about gas prices over $4.00 a gallon,  a shrinking economy, a dying domestic auto industry, or a banking system that is reeling from losses, while two political candidates toss out changing platitudes that seem to originate in a lost world. He would probably smirk with an I-told-you-so look and make some comment using one of his “seven dirty words” about the U.S. If he hadn’t died from heart failure last month, he might have quoted himself, “Some people see things that are and ask, Why? Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not? Some people have to go to work and don’t have time for all that…”

        Carlin was one of the few public celebrities who actually talked straight. Whether you loved him or hated him, he said what others were afraid to say. He analyzed words and their usage, he disparaged all types of politicians and every form of religion, and wasn’t afraid to rail on the United States when he felt like it. Very little escaped his sarcasm or wrath and even if you cringed, you could laugh or at least sense some bit of truth in his words.

        A few years ago, I went to my first and last George Carlin performance, with my son Kyle, four of his friends, and a friend of mine. Much of it was hilarious, some of it made me uncomfortable, and I can’t remember a lot of it. I do remember when Carlin made fun of some of the most popular American names, including Kyle. I don’t know how my son felt but I wanted to shrink. But that was what made Carlin great. He didn’t care less whom he ticked off or why.

        First, we lost Tim Russert, another straight talker who was respectful and polite when he tried to keep politicians honest. Now, after the death of George Carlin, who are we going to turn to when we want the truth?

        We are stuck in a no-man’s land, listening to two candidates mouthing inconsistent platitudes to win an election. Barack Obama tries to shift to please moderates and independents and John McCain changes his mind daily, swerving to please as many conservatives as he can. His bus is called the Straight Talk Express but in trying to please his fellow Republicans and the press, he is anything but straight.

        Carlin and Russert are gone, taking with them some of the best straight talk we’ve ever heard. When a celebrity or politician appears on TV and mouths the usual lying bull…., we can imagine a probing question from Russert and then a blistering satirical stab from Carlin.

        That’s about as good as we’re going to get.

 

Twice

July 21, 2008

…my mind is pulled to statistics such as the 381,540 people in the United States who died in fatal car accidents between 1997 and 2005. Or that every 13 minutes, there is a death caused by a motor vehicle accident or that Americans from the ages of 1-33 are more likely to die from a car accident than anything else.

July 21st is not the kind of anniversary that I like to remember but it is probably the most memorable. 26 years ago, my brother, Kenny, died in a car accident and today is the day he reached the milestone of being gone twice as long as he was here.

        It is a milestone that no one should ever remember. But I can’t help it, as my mind is pulled to statistics such as the 381,540 people in the United States who died in fatal car accidents between 1997 and 2005. Or that every 13 minutes, there is a death caused by a motor vehicle accident or that Americans from the ages of 1-33 are more likely to die from a car accident than anything else.

        It is easier to remember useless statistics than to ponder what Kenny would have witnessed if he had lived the almost 39 years and 7 months since his birth in the winter of ’68, after a long ice-stormy night. He would have lived through four Red Wing championships, three Pistons championships, one Tigers World Series win and one World Series loss.

        If he had lived this long, the only static thing in his life would have been the consistently pathetic and disappointing play of our football team, the Detroit Lions.

 

Deadly Inspiration

July 26, 2008

On the day that Barack Obama was to visit Israel, we viewed another form of madness. Was it inspired?

A few hours before presidential candidate Barack Obama’s first night in Israel, a city bus and three cars were rammed suddenly by a construction vehicle. The terror of fear and panic reigned in downtown Jerusalem a few hundred yards from the King David hotel where Obama was scheduled to sleep in just a few hours.

        Ghassan Abu Tir, a Palestinian man from east Jerusalem wearing a large, white skullcap, slammed into the side of the bus and then plowed the construction vehicle’s shovel into the bus windows, nearly killing the bus driver. According to witness Moshe Shimshi, the driver then sped away and “kept ramming into cars…and rammed them with all his might,” overturning one car and injuring sixteen people, including a mother and her baby.

        This vicious attack was very similar to one earlier in the month when another Palestinian from east Jerusalem plowed a large front-loading truck into a string of vehicles and pedestrians on a busy Jerusalem street about 3 miles away from the King David Hotel, killing three and injuring dozens of others before being killed by an off-duty soldier.

        This time, a civilian driving nearby saw what was happening, jumped out of his car, and shot the driver, before border policemen arrived on the scene. We are left to wonder how many people might have been saved by civilian Yaakov Asa-El, a father of nine. And we are left to gasp at another new method of terror.

        Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski rushed over to the commotion and commented, “They keep on inventing ways to attack us. Every work tool has become a weapon.”

        The question becomes, how many Palestinians will become inspired by such atrocities? I have to wonder if this attack was inspired by the release of Samir Kuntar from Israel on July 16th. Kuntar, who received four life sentences in 1979 for murdering an Israeli policeman, a 31-year-old civilian, and his 4-year-old daughter, was greeted in Beirut to a hero’s welcome by the Hizballah leader and his huge crowd.

        Kuntar was officially received by the Lebanese president and prime minister, members of the Lebanese parliament, as Hassan Nasrallah gave a welcoming speech to a thunderous ovation.

        “Samir! Samir!” the crowd yelled, for this “man convicted of smashing a child’s head into pieces.” Mitch Albom writes in his excellent essay, (“Israel-Hizballah trade reveals much about both sides,” Detroit Free Press, July 20, 2008), “What God would have a child’s murder on anyone’s hands? How do people celebrate such a killer?”

        Albom continues, “The total disregard for life of anyone who does not believe what Hizballah believes stands in stark contrast to the value of life—and even of its demise—that Israel demonstrated in bringing those two bodies (the two captured and killed soldiers, Goldwasser and Regev) back.”

        “To men like Kuntar,” Albom simply concedes, “Israel does not exist and should never exist.”

        So in a part of the world that desperately wants “a world in which Israel has no place,” the constant killing makes logical sense. In a perpetual war to destroy Israel, all murder is justified. Everyone who kills any Israeli of any age is a hero. Even if that means destroying an innocent child by smashing her head against a rifle butt. Even if that means taking a construction vehicle and ramming its shovel against a bus driver’s window.

        In this honorary culture of horror, every blood-stained act is condoned and praised by thousands. Every murder is another deadly inspiration.

        What must keep Jews in Israel and in the United States from despair is the thought of prayers recited amidst the candles for Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. What must keep us hopeful is the simple and noble courage of a civilian ready to stop such madness.

        We must never tolerate the deliberate destruction of the innocent. Instead, let’s celebrate the miraculous moments when an unsuspecting father of nine suddenly appears from the rubble and becomes a desperately needed hero.  

 

Death and Discrimination

August 12, 2008

Did prejudice against an observant Jew lead to the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers?

The Iraq War is not over yet but you can’t tell if you base it on its minimal news coverage. Because the numbers of American deaths are down from last year, you probably didn’t read that Sgt. Jose E. Ulloa, 23, of New York, N.Y, died Aug. 9 in Sadr City, Iraq, of “wounds suffered when his vehicle encountered an improvised explosive device.” (U.S. Department of Defense News Release, August 11, 2008.)

        How many of us realize that over 4138 Americans have been confirmed killed in over five years in Iraq, many of them trapped in exploding lightweight Humvee trucks of the Army?

        We are left to wonder how many soldiers might have been saved if the Army didn’t scrap David Tenenbaum’s 1995 project to improve the armored hull on the Humvees.

        David Tenenbaum is a Detroit-area military engineer, a Detroit-born son of a Holocaust survivor, who was hired in 1984 by TACOM (U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command), to design safer combat vehicles, and was accused thirteen years later in 1997 of passing secrets to the Israelis.

        The Department of Defense’s own Office of Inspector General admitted in a recent report that Tenenbaum was singled out because he is an observant Jew and targeted because of his Orthodox Jewish faith. The 62 page report, requested by U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was issued in July. The report said, “It was well known that Mr. Tenenbaum was Jewish, lived his religious beliefs and by his actions appeared to have a close affinity for Israel.”

        John Simonini, a retired lieutenant colonel and TACOM’s counterintelligence chief, launched an investigation after coworkers said Tenenbaum spent too much time associating with Israeli contacts, made his own travel arrangements and stayed in hotels away from colleagues, which Simonini and others regarded as signs of spying. The report said Tenenbaum wore a yarmulke and brought kosher food to work rather than joining coworkers for lunch at restaurants. Colleagues questioned why David was allowed to leave work early on Fridays to prepare for the Sabbath.

        The report concluded, “We believe that Mr. Tenenbaum was subjected to unusual and unwelcome scrutiny because of his faith and ethnic background, a practice that would undoubtedly fit a definition of discrimination.”

        Anyone who thinks that American discrimination is a thing of the past should read this report or the dozens of articles over the last ten years about the nightmare that Tenenbaum lived through.

        “You have no idea what it’s like to have your loyalty questioned, to be accused of being a traitor,” Tenenbaum told the Detroit Free Press. TACOM counterintelligence officials had Tenenbaum apply for a higher security clearance to launch a spy investigation. The clearance resulted in a 6 ½-hour polygraph examination in February 1997. Tenenbaum said the session was a “horrendous investigation session” conducted by an examiner who repeatedly accused him of passing secrets and demanded a confession. “I’ve done other Jews before, and I’ve gotten them to confess, too,” the examiner told Tenenbaum, according to the report. But the session wasn’t tape-recorded and the examiner destroyed his notes.

        The examiner’s report prompted the FBI to launch a criminal investigation, put Tenenbaum’s family under 24-hour surveillance, searched his home on Shabbat, and then removed 13 boxes of the family’s belongings, including their children’s coloring books. Because the FBI’s search warrant wasn’t sealed, the news media found out and swarmed Tenenbaum’s home. David’s wife, Madeline, admitted that, “It was terrifying. I felt totally violated.”

        After a 14 month leave of absence and no evidence of spying found, Tenenbaum was allowed to return to work in 1998, relegated to lesser duties, shunned by coworkers, stripped of his security clearance, an outcast.

        Tenenbaum’s project to improve the armor on Humvees had been scrapped. David’s lawyer, Mayer Morganroth, reflected, “The discrimination in this case ended up costing American soldiers their lives.” His associate, Daniel Harold, said that Tenenbaum’s persecutors “have blood on their hands.”

        Over 4138 Americans have died in Iraq since 2003, many in ill-equipped Humvees. We are left to wonder if the discrimination and persecution of one observant Jew may have led to the lost lives of American soldiers that the Department of Defense is supposed to protect.

        “Because they did not continue that program—by going after me,” Tenenbaum said in a 2004 interview with the Forward, “soldiers have died.” When asked if the vehicle protection project would have ultimately saved lives, Tenenbaum said, “If this program would have gone through, we would have known the problems, and we would have fixed the problems.”

        Because of blatant discrimination finally admitted by the Department of Defense, we will never know. We will never know.

 

Liquidation

September 19, 2008

I could never know when Kyle worked as an intern for Lehman Brothers that just a year later, the company would collapse, bringing the world stock market down along with it.

Last summer, I felt proud that my son, Kyle, a junior at the prestigious Wharton School of Business, was working in the summer as an intern at the also-prestigious Lehman Brothers. Lehman Brothers was founded in 1850. Its website proclaimed, “The history of Lehman Brothers parallels the growth of the United States and its energetic drive toward prosperity and international prominence. What would evolve into a global financial entity began as a general store in the American South. Henry Lehman, an immigrant from Germany, opened his small shop in the city of Montgomery, Alabama in 1844. Six years later, he was joined by brothers Emanuel and Mayer, and they named the business Lehman Brothers.”

        Today, Lehman’s website says, “Lehman Brothers, an innovator in global finance, serves the financial needs of corporations, governments and municipalities, institutional clients, and high net worth individuals worldwide. Founded in 1850, Lehman Brothers maintains leadership positions in equity and fixed income sales, trading and research, investment banking, private investment management, asset management and private equity. The Firm is headquartered in New York, with regional headquarters in London and Tokyo, and operates in a network of offices around the world.”

        They need to change their website. After 158 years in business, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection and is being liquidated. The news cameras showed hundreds of employees walking out of the tall Times Square headquarters, with their tote bags, briefcases, computers, and suitcases. It was as if hundreds of competitors on The Apprentice Show had all been fired by Trump at the same time and escorted out of the glass towers on Wall Street. The only difference is that these people had jobs, income, and wages that they had worked their lives to earn. They weren’t just television tourists on a TV “reality show.”

         A little over a year ago, Lehman’s stock was about $80 a share and the business seemed to be flourishing with mergers and acquisitions, private equity, fixed income, and investment banking. Kyle worked over 50 hours a week as an intern and was involved in one of the large company acquisitions that Lehman had been hired to manage. He felt that something might be going wrong on one of the Lehman Monday calls. He says, “When the banks went to sell the debt in the open market (for two private equity deals,) no one bought it and it was the first sign that something might be wrong with highly levered loans. The banks then had to take on all that debt on to their own balance sheet and fund it themselves. On the call were people from leveraged finance and they said we are still open for business but looking at things more cautiously now. A few weeks after I left, almost all PE (private equity) deals were on hold since the fear that no one would buy the highly levered debt—and then it tailspinned.”

        During Kyle’s last week, Lehman made him a very generous offer to come to work after college, including base pay, health insurance, travel expenses, and a large projected bonus based on past history. Kyle writes, “When I think back to during all this is all the people that tried to pitch me to stay. They were saying this is the best time in the history of the company and what a great time to start at the firm. I asked one of the MDs what would happen if the PE markets washed up and he said it wasn’t a problem since they would just do more restructuring work or sell side of companies. Everyone back then was so confident and not worried at all and even when they came back in October, when they wanted us to sign, they were saying that it was almost over and not anywhere close to what happened in 2000. I’m glad I never bought in to all the crazy things they were telling me.

        “No one possible could have forecasted this last summer—there were hundreds of things that led to this collapse—it’s just crazy how psychology and fear can destroy a company so large.”

        How right he was! The risky no-money-down mortgage business that most banks and financial companies had been making billions on became a plague that spread to Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Citigroup, Washington Mutual, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and Lehman Brothers, to name a handful. The losses spread and the merger and acquisition market dried up, banks stopped risky lending, and then the billions of write-offs began. And the stocks kept going down and down for a year.

        But don’t fear: the government is here. Move Bear Stearns to JP Morgan with the government’s help. Take over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and swallow over $250 billion in debt. Tell the businesses that the government can’t help anymore and let Lehman Brothers go under and then let a $650 billion 158-year-old company get swallowed up by Barclay in England for $2 billion. Then, change your tune and buy most of the AIG Insurance Company and give them an $85 billion dollar loan. Then, stop short-selling for awhile and discuss a government enterprise that will take over all financial institutions’ bad debt. Then, come up with a way to back-stop the trillions of money market funds that had been collapsing.

        And then the stock market rises in pandemonium.

        We need to calm down and liquidate our fears but it’s not easy when the leadership in Washington and Wall Street is so reactive and inconsistent.

        Do you feel confident that either Barack Obama or John McCain will bring the right leadership to the economy? I certainly don’t. But I am tired of worrying about it.

        Let liquidation and meltdowns take their course and let’s watch, like spectators at a sporting event…except that it’s our money, our tax dollars, our children, and we who are the athletes. And no one knows what winning looks like.

 

Turning Silence into Hope

September 25, 2008

The Janis Warren Walk is an incredibly promising cancer fundraiser because it may lead to early detection.

When my wife reminded me about the walk at Drake Park on Sunday, I said, “Yeah, sure,” my head still in the fog of the financial tsunami featuring the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the government bailout of AIG, money-market fund losses, and Treasury Secretary Paulson’s plan for the government to buy $700 billion of toxic mortgage-backed securities. I couldn’t think about the meaning of a charity walk while the economy was teetering in the midst of the worst crisis since the Great Depression.

        Shabbat came after the stock market recovered and a calm sanity seemed to reappear. On Sunday morning, we picked up our friend, Beverly Yost, who had asked if we could join her in the Janis Warren Walk to raise money to battle ovarian cancer. I had sent a donation but was not looking forward to getting up early on a chilly, cloudy morning to walk. I had silently accepted, however, knowing this was just a little mitzvah and certainly not worth making a fuss about.

        I knew that this was the first walk of its kind but understood little of ovarian cancer except that one of our dearest friends is a survivor and that her sister has been suffering for months from the same awful disease. When we arrived at Drake Park on Sunday, September 21st, the sky was gloomy but the volunteers were spirited as they passed out shirts, ribbons, bagels, donuts, coffee, fruit, and had ordered pizza for after the walk.

        I enjoyed the food and the commitments of the walkers and volunteers but was still nonchalant until the Warren family spoke about the horrors of ovarian cancer, known as “the Silent Killer.” As Janis’ son-in-law Danny, daughter Stephanie, and husband Larry Warren began to speak, the wind died down and the sun came out. The weather became nice but the facts of ovarian cancer are anything but. Over 22,000 women were diagnosed with the disease last year and over 15,500 will die this year. The chances of women getting ovarian cancer are about 1 in 67 but greater for white women over 55 and even higher for Ashkenazi Jews. Most importantly, there is NO SCREENING TEST for ovarian cancer: no Pap Smear, no blood test, nothing.

        If you don’t know whether you have ovarian cancer, what are the signs? Some signals are abdominal or pelvic discomfort, persistent gastrointestinal distress such as gas and indigestion, frequent urination, unexplained weight gain or weight loss, pelvic or abdominal swelling and bloating, and persistent fatigue. These systems are so common in women that it becomes difficult to tell if you’re just stuck in unnecessary fear or if you really have cancer: that is the terrible dilemma.

        Janis Warren was an 11-year survivor of breast cancer but she walked daily, watched her health rigorously, and had routine checkups. When she started getting “vague” abdominal discomfort and occasional stomach cramps, she thought it was just signs of getting older and didn’t complain. By the time ovarian cancer was detected, it had already spread. Chemotherapy, radiation, two surgeries, and a colostomy kept her going for awhile, but after 18 months of the war on cancer, she died. Her last words to her family were, “You will be just fine when I am gone.”

        The heart-breaking words and tears at the Sunday walk from her husband Larry and daughter Stephanie on Sunday prove what the www.janiswalk.org website claims, “We are not fine.” The website goes on: “We are not fine to think that her death might have been preventable had there been a reliable screening exam. We are not fine to think that her death might be without gain. We are not fine to think that other women have and will have the same struggles she did—the debilitating course of the cancer followed by a premature death.”

        Rather than staying silent and “moving on,” Janis’ son, Dr. Michael Warren, an obstetrician/gynecologist in New York, son Jeffrey, daughter Stephanie, and husband Larry decided to take action. They planned a walk to raise money for the awareness of ovarian cancer and to benefit a more urgent cause: to support Dr. Michael Tainsky of the Karmanos Cancer Institute and his research to develop a simple blood test to detect ovarian cancer at an early stage when it is much more treatable. Having a good, reliable early detection test could save thousands of lives. How many hours of agony and grief could be spared?

        Dr. Tainsky’s research has immense potential to accurately measure markers specific to ovarian cancer. He said at the walk that the tests he and his team of researchers have developed are already about 75% accurate. But they are pushing to make the test so accurate that it will be ready for FDA testing and approval within a year or two. He is thankful for the Warrens’ help as well as the Gail Purtan Ovarian Cancer Fund, but the researchers need more money to continue.  The U.S. government is certainly not going to have any money for this type of cancer research. It is too preoccupied with its own financial debt obligations.

        The Janis Warren 2008 walk raised over $50,000 before the walk began. But it is so easy to forget a good cause after the big event. And that we can’t do. The goal of this walk was and continues to be deadly serious. We must turn silence into hope, fear into action, uncertainty into going to your doctor and asking questions. When you feel the symptoms of discomfort, swelling, nausea, unusual weight gain or loss, and fatigue, don’t wait. Get to a doctor and ask him about ovarian cancer.

        Make the loss of Janis Warren a gain for other women around the world. Go to www.janiswalk.org or to www.karmanos.org and donate what you can. Hopefully, by the time of the Janis Warren Walk next year, the early detection blood test will be radically improved and the money raised will be substantial.

        Let’s take the grief-stained tears of the Warren family and do everything we can to stop the path of the silent killer.

 

Facing Our Fears

October 7, 2008

“I gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which I must stop and look fear in the face…I say to myself, I’ve lived through this and can take the next thing that comes along.” Eleanor Roosevelt

The baby boomer generation never had to face a real gut-wrenching financial crisis. But look at these headlines: “It’s a Worldwide Crash” (Jim Cramer, thestreet.com, Oct 6, 2008.) “A Financial Ice Age Dawns” (Business Week, page 020, Oct. 13, 2008.) This is after the president, Fed chairman, Treasury secretary, Congress, and two presidential nominees spent two weeks hashing out a $700 billion bailout of the financial markets. They yelled and blamed others about the “worst crisis since the Great Depression.” After a horrific week in the stock market, the Senate, House, and then the president signed a huge, bloated bill with $150 billion of added pork “sweeteners.”

        Just add more government debt to the already massive, growing debt burdens our children will face throughout their lifetimes and see what happens: more panic. If we think our children don’t notice our fears, we’re deluding ourselves. My 13-year-old daughter wrote for her school assignment that she prayed the “Bush bailout” would save our economy. It’s heartbreaking enough to live in Michigan and view signs like the one on Orchard Lake from a painter “desperately needing work.” It is beginning to remind me of the movies of the Great Depression but rather than “Brother, Can you Spare a Dime?” it’s “Brother, Can you Spare Three Trillion?” for Fannie, Freddie, AIG, Lehman bankruptcy leftovers and for the government to spare bad bank investments that were packaged with over-priced, under-financed mortgages mixed with other toxic financial manure.

        Nothing will save us but ourselves. The lack of calm confidence from our “leaders” is mirrored in ourselves. 75% don’t trust the president and even more people distrust Congress and the financial markets.

        We watch credit markets deteriorate while blame is scattered everywhere. Was it the greed-obsessed landscape of no-money-down lending, mortgage-backed security loans or credit default swaps? Was it the naked shorting of financial stocks or the absurd credit risks that investment banks and mortgage companies took? Was it the massive volume of borrowing and buying from the United States and its citizens on mortgages, Chinese goods, stocks, and other products on highly-leveraged credit cards and IOUs?  All of these things eventually brought down Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Washington Mutual, Countrywide Financial, and ruptured AIG and Wachovia, to name a handful.

        Each day brings a stunning new surprise. How much will this all eventually cost us taxpayers? Who is the next financial institution to be saved by the Federal Government? Maybe Ford and GM will get their requested loans from a government that is wallowing in a staggering amount of debt.

        The new documentary movie, “I.O.U.S.A.” being shown around the country, paints a grim picture that an economic disaster will befall our nation if the federal government’s $53,000,000,000,000 is left to continue to grow. Warren Buffett, viewing the premiere of “I.O.U.S.A”, commented, “I do not regard our national debt as unduly alarming. We’ve overcome things far worse than what is going on right now.”

        I’m glad the world’s richest man isn’t worried. He has always been able to make money for himself in good times and bad. But while he and a few others show calm confidence, Ben Bernanke, Hank Paulsen, and George W. Bush move desperately from one panic-driven moment to another.

        There are real reasons to fear. But what good does it do to experiment with one financial device after another and then plead for more money to buy out bad loans that banks made to one another? Now, no one trusts anyone else. Banks won’t lend to each other. People are dumping their stocks and bonds and are afraid that their money market funds will become worthless.

        After the horror of 9-11, our president didn’t ask Americans to pitch in and help the country. He said, “Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots.” The message was for us to keep shopping and buying. We have had that message drummed into us for decades: Buy with credit and keep our economy strong. And now, after years of continued buying, U.S. shoppers finally have cut spending (NY Times, “Full of Doubts, U.S. Shoppers Cut Spending,” Oct 6, 2008.)

        So here we are, drowning in debt, our house values and retirement funds plummeting, paralyzed by fear. The worry about terrorists seems so benign when the localized panic about losing our jobs and savings is so powerful. And that’s the irony: terrorists struck Western democracy and capitalism and we fought back with borrowed billions in Afghanistan and Iraq while we kept borrowing and buying more and more. We became our own worst enemies with new, exotic weapons of financial mass destruction.

        Who’s winning now? We may fear another Al Qaeda attack or whether Ahmadinejad’s Iran will get nuclear weapons and worry that Israel is as leaderless as the United States. We can fear our next president and whether he will be too weak or too strong in foreign affairs or if either has a clue about what will fix our financial mess.

        None of this fear will help our economy or us. Somehow, we need to keep living and stay positive, no matter how gloomy things look. We must focus on improving our own lives. We should pray for our “leaders and advisors” and then listen closely to the words of Adele Brockman: “Use your imagination not to scare yourself to death but to inspire yourself to life.”

        Amen.

 

Prepare for the Hate Parade

October 23, 2008

If Adolph Hitler were alive today, he might have reveled in the power and incredible speed of the Internet. Just think of his cunning and ability to distill hate-plagued propaganda and then imagine his words instantly spread through every home and computer via the World Wide Web.  

I laughed along with millions of Americans as I watched Tina Fey’s satire of Sarah Palin in the Saturday Night Live Palin-Biden debate skit on October 4th. But minutes later, I became uneasy as the satire turned to Jews: Barney Frank, billionaire investor George Soros, and Herb and Marion Sandler, the real life couple who built Golden West Financial into a subprime lending powerhouse before selling it to Wachovia Bank. After the character playing Herb Sandler claimed how well they were doing after making $24 billion, the caption below read, “People who should be shot.”

        In the vitriolic environment of the election season and the stock and credit market crisis, it didn’t take long for the satirical finger-pointing to begin. Hamas leaders have made the claim that the “Jewish lobby” is responsible for the global financial crisis. Online hate is sprouting with messages on mainstream finance chat boards about Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs such as “(Jews have) infiltrated Government and Wall Street and have ruined our country” and “They (Jews) love money nothing else, no faith or religion can be so heartless to their victims.”

        If Adolph Hitler were alive today, he might have reveled in the power and incredible speed of the Internet. Just think of his cunning and ability to distill hate-plagued propaganda and then imagine his words instantly spread through every home and computer via the World Wide Web.  

        Today, we don’t have Hitler but there are thousands of people spewing poisonous messages into the most popular of websites. If you haven’t seen You Tube videos, “A Zionist Nightmare” and “Auntie Semite USA”, you can thank the Anti-Defamation League (www.adl.org) and the Jewish Internet Defense Force (www.thejidf.org). The Jewish Internet Defense Force describes itself as a group of Jewish activists who fight anti-Semitism and terrorism trends throughout the Internet. When the JIDF asked Facebook to remove its “Israel is not a country” page, the response from Facebook was that the anti-Israel group was “legitimate political discourse.” Facebook members were exposed to what the JIDF called “one of the most vile, most anti-Semitic, most pro-Jihad and most disgusting, and most importantly, most active hate groups on the Internet.”

        The JIDF was able to technically take control of the website and removed it from Facebook. But they haven’t yet been able to remove “Auschwitz Night Fever” from the Internet, one of the most loathsome videos I have ever seen (found on YouTube and Ning). The video merges the Bee Gees singing, John Travolta dancing, and atrocities from Schindler’s List, glorifying the random murder of Jews.

        Prepare for the hate parade. Prepare for the anger that is arising post George W. Bush, spilling out as the power of the United States withers with its economy. The rise and fall of the housing, credit, and stock markets, have poisoned the world economy. Putin and other world “leaders” are castigating the United States for its financial negligence as Americans spew anger at Wall Street bankers who walk away with millions while their firms collapse. There is also plenty of blame for the last two heads of the Federal Reserve, Greenspan and Bernanke, both Jewish. It’s not surprising that the furor over the Fed, government, and Wall Street is starting to target Jews

        Thankfully, we have watch-dog organizations like the Anti-Defamation League which is committed to fight anti-Semitism hatred. In its “Agenda for the New Administration,” ADL focuses on the threat of Islamic extremism as well as the “use of the Internet as a vehicle to spread hate.” It is monitoring the new trend of hate Web sites formatted for Web-enabled cell phones and translating Hamas Web sites from Arabic into English, revealing “how Hamas glorifies violence and how it attempts to indoctrinate children.” The ADL is also challenging Professor Kevin MacDonald from California State University, widely admired by anti-Semites, who has said, “A political crisis over Jewish influence is exactly what the United States needs.”

        On Wednesday, November 5th, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman, is coming to the West Bloomfield JCC’s 2008 Jewish Book Fair to discuss his latest book, The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control and counter the bigotry of Professor MacDonald and others who believe that “Israel has the world’s one remaining military superpower completely at its bidding.” We need to join ADL and Foxman as they battle the onslaught of Jewish hatred.

        It is frightening enough to contemplate the stock market and credit collapse twisting from a recession into possibly a depression. But it’s even harder to imagine the return of worldwide extremist hatred toward Jews. We must be prepared for anything and one way is to visit the ADL Action Center at www.adl.org/actioncenter. Online, you can sign petitions and letters to world leaders with a few clicks of your mouse. You can register views on critical topics and make a donation in support of a specific ADL issue.

        We need to act now. Whether we hear Abraham Foxman at the JCC, donate to the JIDF, ADL, or take part in the Action Center, we can do something. The worst thing is to sit in silence and do nothing while the world markets falter and anti-Semitism ensues. Rather than clinging to despair and waiting for others to act, we can be vigilant and focus on what each of us can do to repair the world.

         

 

We Need a Superhero

November 3, 2008

We can only hope that the subconscious wish for a boy to be superhuman can help his immunity, making him impervious to the blasts of radioactive isotopes and chemotherapy.

Halloween fell on a Friday night, capping a month of Friday night frights. It was a month featuring a falling stock market amidst worldwide economic turmoil as banks wouldn’t lend and the government reacted by borrowing billions to get them lending again. It was a month that saw GM and Chrysler shrink even closer to bankruptcy, desperately hoping to get a government loan so that GM would buy Chrysler and shrink its workforce even more. It was a month of preparation for an historic election dividing the country.

        Halloween in Detroit was unseasonably warm and a pleasant diversion to the real frights in the world. It was a parade of little creatures in masks walking in the light of pre-daylight-savings and ending the night in darkness.

        No fear in the world can prepare a parent for the fate of a little boy facing the dreaded disease of cancer. A few hours before Halloween began, Noah’s mother got the phone call she dreaded.

        Noah’s cancer had spread. The doctors had found “many new lesions throughout the right arm and leg and one in his skull.”

        Diana wrote in her Carepages blog that “the chemo and drug did absolutely nothing—didn’t even slow it down. We have removed him from this trial.” The MIGB radiation therapy that looked promising had a backlog of waiting kids, meaning Noah was to wait for treatment for many weeks.

        Until then, the strategy is an aggressive chemo treatment of Topotecan and Cytoxin, followed by Neupogen shots to help the white blood cells. The MIBG radiation therapy scheduled hopefully by the end of the year shoots radioactive isotopes into Noah’s body. For at least five days, he will have to be in complete isolation followed by more intense chemo.

        A little boy facing such harsh treatment and such long odds seems inhuman and cruel. There is no superhero who can slay such devastation. But a terrifying phone call could not stop Noah’s mother from dressing him up in his Spiderman outfit and going trick and treating with him on Friday. And nothing could stop a mother from taking Noah to the zoo on a warm November Monday.

        We can only hope that the subconscious wish for a boy to be superhuman can help his immunity, making him impervious to the blasts of radioactive isotopes and chemotherapy.

        We need a superhero who can save a child. We need another miracle.

 

It’s the End of Detroit as We Know it

November 10, 2008

The country hopes Barack Obama, like an imaginary superhero, can save the American auto industry, rescue Wall Street, and “give money to Main Street,” all before he’s even sworn into office.

Detroit is begging the U.S. government to allow them to pull from the $700 bailout while the last mayor of Detroit sits in jail. The losses of GM, Ford, and Chrysler have deepened as the cash burned from the three companies last quarter exceeded 14 billion dollars. And today, Deutsche Bank of Germany is recommending that everyone sell GM bonds and stock, down 22-30% today to as low as $3.02 per share, the lowest price in 60 years. Deutsche is predicting the stock will end at Zero.

      The path to bankruptcy seems closer than ever. Even the $50 billion the “Big 3” asks in loans from the government will only give them a few extra months of survival.

        No one is buying cars, not just American cars but cars, period. Even Toyota, the worldwide leader in the auto industry, expects its profits this year to be 73% less than last year because of the sudden worldwide drop in sales. At least, Toyota still has profits, something Detroit’s “Big 3” haven’t seen in awhile.

        The confidence of the American consumer is at a 27 year low and the availability of credit is limited. Foreclosures are still rising as the value of American houses falls as has the stock market which is down 35% from its peak a year ago. In this financial cataclysm, purchases of “big ticket” items like cars and houses are virtually non-existent.

        Showrooms are ghost towns. As you listen to the frightening news about the future of American automobile companies, who is confident enough to go out and get a loan to buy a car from a company that may not be there in the future? That is the really scary question. Loan or no loan from the government: is the path to non-existence inevitable?

        Companies that flourished in the 20th century, for over the last hundred years, are in a life and death battle for survival. Circuit City, an American icon in electronic product sales, is the latest company to declare bankruptcy, following Linens & Things and Mervyn’s. And though the country can survive without those retailers, how will it survive the collapse of GM and Ford?

        The car companies’ hopes and ours is a government that is in bleeding in astronomical debt levels. But that doesn’t stop the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve from offering bailout after bailout to keep companies like AIG, Fannie Mae, and Goldman Sachs alive.

        We are all dependent and hopeful for the “new guy”, the inexperienced African American from Chicago to lead us to the Promised Land.

        The fury over George W. Bush, accelerated by his weak and uninspired efforts while the financial and stock markets shrunk, and the uncertainty over a 72-year-old war hero senator with an inexperienced governor sidekick who often seemed simply stupid, made it easy to elect a liberal, well-spoken Democrat who seems to have a consistent, unruffled temperament.

        The country hopes Barack Obama, like an imaginary superhero, can save the American auto industry, rescue Wall Street, and “give money to Main Street,” all before he’s even sworn into office.

        Economist Robert J. Samuelson writes in the Newsweek cover story, “A Darker Future for us” (November 10, 2008) that “We Americans are progress junkies. We think that today should be better than yesterday and that tomorrow should be better than today. Compared with most other peoples, we place more faith in ‘opportunity’ and ‘getting ahead.’ We may now be on the cusp of a new era that frustrates these widespread expectations. It is not just the present financial crisis and its astonishing side effects, from bank rescues to frenzied stock-market swings. The crisis coincides with a series of other challenges—an aging society, runaway health spending, global warming—that imperil economic growth. America’s next president takes office facing the most daunting economic conditions in decades: certainly since Ronald Reagan and double-digit inflation, and perhaps since Franklin Roosevelt and 25 percent unemployment.”

        Investor Doug Kass writes, “As we approach the next decade, our social, economic and political future has materially changed, owing to the deep and muddy financial ditch in which we are now squarely stuck. Moreover, the scope and duration of the financial meltdown has placed our economy well past the tipping point, and it will have an enduring and negative effect. Consider that U.S. home prices have dropped by over $5 trillion in the last one and a half years and that, during the month of October alone, nearly $10 trillion has been lost in the global equity markets. Quite frankly, that ditch is so deep right now that we are in big trouble if our policymakers get it wrong over the next 12 months. My concern is that we might even be in trouble for a long period of time if they get it right.” (“Welcome to Dystopia,” 11/03/08, thestreet.com.)

        The outlook is bleak in Detroit and it’s not much better in the other main streets in America. Kass and Samuelson look realistically at social, political, and economic scenarios and their conclusions are that we will face what Samuelson calls “affluent deprivation,” fighting over “pieces of a fairly fixed economic pie rather than sharing ever-larger pieces of an expanding pie.”

        It is the end of Detroit as we know it, and probably the end of increasing affluence many Americans felt in the last few decades.

        Even with the prevalent fears, we need to be somewhat optimistic. Like much of America, we have to have hope in our new president and the government of the United States. It is easy to be cynical and pessimistic but it’s also important to realize the passionate excitement of so many in America who have celebrated this historic election.

         Instead of brooding on the future of GM, Ford, and American affluence, let’s look at some of the joyous photos from Grant Park on Election Night 2008. My son, Kyle, a recent graduate of Wharton Business School and an ardent supporter of Obama, went to Grant Park to take part in the celebration.

        My wife, Judy, and daughter, Marlee, were in Washington D.C. on Election Day with our daughter’s eighth grade class. In their two days in this memorable time, they went from Gettysburg to the White House, to the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, viewed the actual Declaration of Independence, visited the Smithsonian, and were moved at Arlington National Cemetery and at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The eighth graders, especially our daughter’s black friends, were especially excited that an African American was elected president for the first time. To them and so many others, this is the New Day in America.

        We must be like these eighth graders and pray that the new leader of America will help stop the spread of fear and bring optimism back to a nation that is sorely lacking it. We must hope that the death of the Detroit we knew is not the end of the America we cherish.

 

Fear and Loathing in Detroit

November 19, 2008

The air in Michigan is filled with fear and the hot air in Washington is filled with loathing. If the senators would speak honestly, they would say this, “Let Detroit and its car companies go to hell!”

“Region braces for car crash,” is the headline from this week’s Crain’s Detroit Business. (Nov. 17, 2008.) The onslaught of newspaper headlines follows the news from Washington, D.C. as the leaders of the once-big-three plead their cases to the current Congress.

        To bailout or not to bailout? That is the question being discussed in every newspaper and 24-hour-news-channel in America. Once the bailout bonanza escalated in October with the $850 package thrown together in Washington and passed quickly after the warnings about our next “Great Depression,” the stage was set for the Detroit bailout. In fact, the terror that our government “leaders” created helped bring America’s economy to its knees. Best Buy, GM, and hundreds of other companies said their business almost stopped in the midst of the panic.

        It was already bad in Michigan for the last few years as gas and metal prices rose exorbitantly, putting pressure on the SUV and truck sales that Detroit automakers depended on. It was so bad that they were pressed to switch their manufacturing mainly to small fuel-efficient cars, desperately trying to compete with Toyota and Honda.

        Then, the gas and commodity price bubble burst as hedge funds liquidated millions of shares, based on fear of the economy imploding. Then, the credit crisis worsened as investment bank stocks fell to new lows. And the bailout balloon was the final straw that killed confidence. People who had already stopped buying houses stopped buying cars as well, and those who wanted had hard times getting loans.

        Crain’s Ryan Beene and Amy Lane write, “Economic woes facing the Detroit 3 automakers have Southeast Michigan bracing itself for losses on many fronts—jobs, personal income, revenue for industry, from taxes and, perhaps, a sense of identity.”

        In a survey of Crain’s business customers is a quote from Jim Best, owner of Detroit-based Post Electric Inc. who was once a member of the Chief Executive Boards, a group of small business owners, that I’ve been a member of since 2000. Jim no longer does any work in Michigan and “watched his workforce dwindle from 150 to himself here.” He has a small operation in North Carolina, and remains in Detroit “only because his daughter is still in school.”

        Jim Best says bluntly, “I have no hope whatsoever for the state of Michigan. I see no light at the end of the tunnel.” (Crain’s Detroit Business, “Nowhere to go but up?” November 17, 2008)

        Despair hangs around this town like a noose, not yet squeezing the blood vessels of the neck. And sadly, all we have to hope for is a $25 billion government bailout that would allow the three companies to withstand their cash burn and save them a few months from going into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Still, that’s better than nothing.

        Ford Motor’s CEO, Alan Mulally, says that if an auto company were to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, the situation might quickly move to Chapter 7, or liquidation. “Going into that kind of a restructuring, where the consumer has great choices, sales would fall off so fast that you could never recover on the cost side and get out of it,” he said.

        The three heads of the Detroit 3 are in Washington, D.C., pleading their cases that they need a bridge loan for salvation. The senators don’t seem impressed. In fact, most seem to loathe the Detroit automotive companies. The southern senators don’t want to hurt the Japanese manufacturers in their states, some want to break up the unions, and the rest want to change the auto manufacturers into green companies that sprout small cars that get 50 miles per gallon.

        AIG never had to go through this two day public humiliation to get the $143 billion that they have already received. They still sponsor junkets for insurance salesmen at posh hotels and though it breeds angry blogs, the government has not stopped the flood of money. The belief is that AIG is too big to fail and too connected to the rest of the economy.

        If you don’t think GM, Ford, and Chrysler have their tentacles all over our national economy, you are dead wrong.

        George Will and Mitt Romney are just two of many pleading to the government to let our car companies go. Romney is urgently dire: “IF General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.”

        Without that bailout, Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself. With it, the automakers will stay the course—the suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses. Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check.” (NY Times, November 19, 2008)

        Mitt Romney, son of George Romney, once President of American Motors and former Governor of Michigan, never said anything like this to Michigan when he was running for president and won the Michigan Republican Primary. He convinced the voters that he was the “One” who could get the Big 3 back on their feet. Maybe, he meant then that he would bankrupt and then resurrect them back to their glory years of the 1950s and 1960s.

        George Will claims the “answer” is to “do nothing that will delay bankrupt companies from filing for bankruptcy protection, so that improvident labor contracts can be unraveled, allowing the companies to try to devise plausible business models.”

        Is that really an answer? Then, the car companies can do what United and Delta did, dump their huge employee retirement obligations on the U.S. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. which already has an $11 billion deficit.

        The air in Michigan is filled with fear and the hot air in Washington is filled with loathing. If the senators would speak honestly, they would say this, “Let Detroit and its car companies go to hell!”

        Meanwhile, the American economy is disintegrating fast. Among the retailers that are closing most of their stores are Circuit City, Ann Taylor, Talbots, Cache, Eddie Bauer, J. Jill, Footlocker, Disney, Bombay, Zales, Whitehall, Piercing Pagoda, Linens and Things, Movie Gallery, Pacific Sunware, Pep Boys, Sprint/Nextel, Wilson Leather, Sharper Image, and KB Toys.

        It’s going to be one hell of a Christmas season.

        We in the Detroit area will try to forget the fear and despair and wait. For what? A New Year, clinging to hope in a new president, a new Senate and Congress, and an automotive industry that will hopefully survive, with bailout or without bailout.

        We desperately pray that 2009 won’t get any worse than 2008.

 

Extreme Help Needed: SAVE THIS HOUSE!

December 13, 2008

The signs of trouble in this holiday season are everywhere but there is no reason to give up. The Vardons are a symbol of hope amidst the desperation. “We’re a close family who loves each other,” Judy said. “I feel that I was given this life to show others that you can face these challenges.”

The economic horror story of 2008 involves home foreclosures, ballooning health care costs, the difficulties of getting credit, and the deeply troubled Detroit auto industry. The Vardon family in Oak Park, Michigan is the poster child for all four of these calamities.

        Four years ago, it was a different story. The Detroit Pistons had won the Basketball Championship, the “Big 3” were profitable, and home ownership was on the rise. And when, in the fall of 2004, 20 million television viewers watched the Vardon family step out of a limousine, many of us wept with joy and relief. Like the Vardons, we were stunned how “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” renovated their small Oak Park home to help these struggling deaf parents care for their blind, autistic son. Like so many other “Extreme Makeover” episodes, we were left with a feel-good Cinderella ending.

        Four and a half years later, no one feels good. The Vardon house is extremely close to foreclosure and help is desperately needed. “I’m afraid I’m going to lose my house now,” Judy Vardon signed through an interpreter. (“Oak Park family who received ‘Extreme Makeover’ faces foreclosure,” Michael P. McConnell, Journal Register News Service, Dec. 8, 2008,) “This house really belongs to Lance; this is his environment. He can’t speak out for himself and I hope we can save this house.”

        Three years ago, in the height of the adjustable mortgage craze, the Vardons refinanced with an adjustable rate mortgage (ARM). This wasn’t to get a better deal but to allow them to pay for Lance’s escalating medical bills. Judy said, “We didn’t have bad spending habits. My husband got laid off for a time (at the Chrysler Stamping Plant) and insurance wouldn’t cover Lance’s autism therapy and some other things like his vision and special dental work.” The debt for Lance’s therapy alone was $20,000 then.

        In four years, the mortgage was sold three times and the interest rate went up each time and now is 11.9%. In four years, the house payments have gone from $1200 to $1600 to $2300 per month. Their property taxes went from $1874 to $2852 per year. Their medical insurance doesn’t cover treatment for autism. And the Vardons are terrified that Larry will lose his job as a metal finisher for Chrysler.

        When the Vardons tried to refinance for a fixed loan, they didn’t qualify because of their credit scores. So this house, made just for the Vardons, which includes a computer that reads Braille, security strobe lights and cameras for Lance’s safety, a textured piano and toys, is close to being closed for good, or at least until someone else pays a ridiculously low price from the bank to take it over.

        The irony is brutally painful. But Judy is realistic as she signs, “Millions of others are experiencing the same thing.” She is right. Just this year, 390 homes in the small town of Oak Park are in foreclosure. In Michigan’s wealthiest county, Oakland County, foreclosures have ballooned from 2117 in 2004 to 9400 in 2008, a 440% increase. And this is before the latest rounds of layoffs and firings from the Detroit automakers, banks, and so many other companies in Michigan and around the country.

        The signs of trouble in this holiday season are everywhere but there is no reason to give up. The Vardons are a symbol of hope amidst the desperation. “We’re a close family who loves each other,” Judy said. “I feel that I was given this life to show others that you can face these challenges.”

        The Detroit area community has rallied to help the Vardons in the face of its worst economic winter since the Great Depression. WKQI-FM (99.5) raised $5000 and Seth Cohen of Mortgage Access Centers LLC in Birmingham is working on getting the Vardons a lower fixed-rate. He confidently said, “They’re not going to go into foreclosure.” (“Extreme Supporters,” Ben Schmitt, Detroit Free Press, Dec. 11, 2008)

        Donations to keep the Vardons in their home and to help with some of their medical costs have started to arrive from all over the Detroit community, following the WKQI story and the articles in the Free Press and the Oakland Press.

        Judy Vardon put her hands out in sign language to say that, “Foreclosure could happen to anyone at anytime.” Yes it can, but I want to tell her: not this time and not her house. Not if we all pitch in to help in this time of Christmas, Hanukkah, and the New Year. Instead of saying to her and her family, “Move This Bus!” we can speak to her without words. We can donate to the Friends of the Vardon Family Fund at P.O. Box 721084, Berkley, MI 48071-0084.

        We can tell her loud and clear with our checks and our hearts that we are here to “SAVE THIS HOUSE!”

       

                     

 

Surprise Party

December 24, 2008

I still have my doubts about the afterlife but after 26 years, I have grown to believe that the dead circling the living may be more than just fantasy.

On a plane flight back from Dallas to Detroit, I tried to imagine a surprise party for my brother. Cramped against the window in the 31st row, wrapped in a Tempur Pedic neck pillow, I imagined my wife, children, and parents on our family room couch, waiting for Kenny to arrive. A 40th birthday party is a big event as it usually symbolizes the moment in a person’s life, smack in the middle between birth and death.

        When I got up for the bathroom, I waited in line and turned to the front. As I stood there, I became mesmerized by a magazine article read by a man in an aisle seat. The top of the page read, “Surprise Party,” which was all I needed to signify the importance of this omen.

        Before my brother’s 40th birthday, I still hadn’t done anything about it except donate to the JCC of Detroit’s Kenny Goldman Athletic Fund for a basketball league for children, named in his memory. I wasn’t sure whether to mark the donation, “In Memory of Kenny Goldman” or “In Honor of Kenny Goldman’s 40th Birthday.” I chose the latter and had the acknowledgement sent to my parents.

        I have only been to a few surprise parties in my life. I vaguely remember 22 years ago when I went to dinner with my wife, Judy, and two good friends. Clueless, I entered our first home and was stunned when “Surprise!” rang in my ears. My sister, Leslie, and her husband had driven to Livonia from Ohio to join many of my friends and family for my 30th birthday.

        Eight years later, I nearly ruined a surprise 40th birthday party for my friend, Jeff, when I told him I’d see him at his party. “What party?” he asked and I stammered a fictitious answer in response. His wife has never forgotten my carelessness and is still suspicious to invite me to any parties, surprise or other.

        For my 40th birthday, Judy sent me to a yoga retreat in Western Massachusetts. For my 50th, we rented a limo bus and invited some old high school friends, ending up at a dance at my high school. We were given a scenic tour by the principal who showed us the new Media Center and we were honored with Grease, the only music the deejay could find from the 70s. I was thankful he chose music about high schoolers from the 50s rather than play the top selling single of my graduation year, 1975. I still try to forget that the Neil Sedaka song, “Love Will Keep Us Together,” sung by Captain and Tennille, won the Grammy as 1975 Record of the Year.

        In my brother’s last year of life, Kim Carnes won 1982’s Record and Song of the Year with “Betty Davis Eyes,” even though John Lennon and Yoko Ono were expected to win with their song recorded before John’s slaying, “(Just Like) Starting Over.”

        John and Yoko weren’t shut out that night. When their album, “Double Fantasy,” won Album of the Year, Yoko and her son, Sean, got a standing ovation. Yoko, teary-eyed, murmured, “I think John is here,” and six-year-old Sean shook his head, no, when his mom asked him if he wanted to say anything.

        A few years later, Judy and I bought a John Lennon painting in California of red-haired John holding baby Sean. The painting, still hanging above the piano in our living room, is numbered 297/300, and has John’s words, “once upon a time there were no problems,” written on the right side of Sean. Sean Ono Lennon, born after I graduated in 1975, is now 33 years old.

        Kenny would have been 40 years old, two days before 2008’s Christmas, but he never made it past 13. On the way home from a Detroit Tigers baseball game in July 1982, my father’s car was hit by another, less than one mile from his home. My father survived but Kenny was pronounced dead a few minutes after midnight.

        On the flight from Dallas, I talked to Kenny in my mind and invited him to join me on his birthday. Hoping he was listening to me and praying that he made certain I saw the magazine article, I talked to him as if he were nestled in the overhead compartment. I still have my doubts about the afterlife but after 26 years, I have grown to believe that the dead circling the living may be more than just fantasy.

        Before his birthday, I tried to stay away from sadness and thought of Kenny in his bar mitzvah video with the cameraman following him around, viewing his practical joke on our cousin. I imagined his smile as I asked him to give me some sign he was still here.

        The weather on his 40th birthday was bitterly cold. I drove my wife and parents to the cemetery and after we slowly walked to his section, we found every headstone buried in white. After sweeping the snow off dozens of stones, we finally found his name and my father placed a rock with the word, “Remember,” on top of his gravestone. My mother wept as she tried to read a prayer.

        The frigidity outside couldn’t stop my tears. No matter how many years go by, the loss of the life of my only brother is still unbearable.   

 

Schmuck of the Year 2008

December 27, 2008

2008 was an incredible year for economic calamities. There were so many worthy contributors to the Great Recession that choosing the biggest schmuck amongst so many is really tough.

Time Magazine has run the Man of the Year for over half a century which has now evolved into Person of the Year. Not surprisingly, the 2008 Person of the Year was Barack Obama with runners-up Henry Paulsen, Nicholas Sarkozy, Sarah Palin, and Zhang Yimou, creator of the 2008 Olympics in China. Barack follows 2007’s Vladimir Putin and 2006’s YOU. Yes, You were the 2006 Person of the Year. Maybe you didn’t feel like you deserved the honor but Time thought you did. So accept it and move on to 2008.

        It must be exciting and inspiring to choose among those who had the most influence in 2008. But I would argue it’s a lot more fun and infuriating to choose from the dozens of worthy candidates for Schmuck of the Year 2008. Almost every week we got a few more extraordinary candidates. In November, would anyone have thought that Bernard Madoff or Governor Rod R. Blagojevich would be finalists in this prestigious competition?

        A few weeks ago, few of us even knew who these schmucks were. Now, you have to be a real schlemiel or dead not to know that Madoff and Blagojevich are two of the most corrupt hoodlums in America.

        They have lots of company. Think of all of the worthy candidates who can make cases for Schmuck of the Year.

        Exhibit 1: You might consider the Senators that voted against giving the Detroit automakers a $14 billion lifeline to survive a few months heroes if you hate unions, love foreign automakers, and believe that we’ve had enough of government bailouts. But I tend to be more on the side that these sanctimonious bobbleheads placed themselves in the running for Schmuck of the Year with their actions.  

        I’m prejudiced because I come from Detroit and I have watched the entire Great Lakes area being strangleheld by fear and lack of credit for people to buy houses or cars, American or foreign. Imagine the ire when you read Detroit Free Press columnist, Mitch Albom, in his excellent essay, “Hey, you senators: Thanks for nothing.” (Detroit Free Press, Dec. 14, 2008) “Do you want to see the last gurgle of economic air spit from our lips? If so, senators, know this: You’ll go down with us….History will show that when America was on its knees, a handful of lawmakers tried to cut off its feet. And blame the workers….In a world where banks hemorrhaged trillions in a high-priced gamble called credit derivative swaps that YOU failed to regulate, how on earth do WE need to be punished? In a bailout era where you shoveled billions, with no demands, to banks and financial firms, why do WE need to be schooled on how to run a business?

        “Who is more dysfunctional in business than YOU? Who blows more money? Who wastes more trillions on favors, payback and pork?”

        Who can argue with Mitch’s impassioned plea for sanity? We heard about AIG getting $150 billion of government money and continuing to give thousands of employees millions of dollars of bonuses. “There ought to be a law—against the hypocrisy our government has demonstrated. The speed with which wheelbarrows of money were dumped on Wall Street versus the slow noose hung on the auto companies’ necks is reprehensible. Some of those same banks we bailed out are now saying they won’t extend credit to auto dealers. Wasn’t that why we gave them the money? To loosen credit?

        “Where’s your tight grip on those funds, senators? Where’s your micromanaging of the wages in banking? Or do you just enjoy having your hands around blue-collared throats?”

        You can imagine Heath Ledger’s Joker laughing to Mitch and saying with glee, “Why So Serious?” If Heath weren’t dead and the Joker wasn’t an imaginary super-villain, he might have argued that Senators Shelby of Alabama and Corker of Tennessee were only doing the all-American thing of protecting their Japanese, German, and Korean transplants that collected billions of dollars of their states’ tax breaks.

        So who bailed out the senators who wouldn’t bail out the automakers? Vice President Dick Cheney, a previous recipient for Schmuck of the Year (you pick the year), admitted that lawmakers “had ample opportunity to deal with this issue and they failed. The president had no choice but to step in.” Yes, the president “caved in” according to free-market conservatives, many of whom believed that the $750 financial bailout was responsible and necessary. I believe that George W. Bush, the lame duck president, was right up to the end of 2008, one of the top candidates for Schmuck of the Year but his last-minute aid to the Detroit automakers let him slip away quietly into the ex-president afterlife without any more shame than he already has to carry.

        Mitch and I don’t have to rely on the administration or Congress to supply us schmucks. Detroit has one of the best in its ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is resting for a few months in a Detroit penitentiary and is barred from public office for five years. Kwame seems so last year. All he did was have an affair with his chief of staff, cheat on his wife, his city, lie about it, cost the city $9 million so that no one would know of his lying and cheating, fought tooth and nail to stay on as mayor, and finally plead guilty to two felony counts of obstructing justice and one count of felonious assault, agreeing to serve four months in jay, pay up to $1 million in restitution, serve five years of probation, and agree not to run for office for five years.

        Kwame must be an inspiration to Illinois Governor Blagojevich. Like Kwame, Rod looks to be following Kwame’s lead to try to hang onto his job for months as the media and attorneys form a posse outside his office. Unlike New York Governor Spitzer who might have been a serious challenger for Schmuck of the Year but who honorably resigned after being caught with a high-end prostitute after making his name for his years of fighting organized crime, financial crime, and prostitution, the Illinois governor will not go quietly into the good night.  Blago used the Governor’s office like a public prostitute, trying to sell everything he could to the highest bidder. It wouldn’t have been surprising to see Donald Trump as the next Illinois senator, if RB had his way. What made Blagojevich so intriguing was the colorful jargon he used to disparage everyone, including the next president.

         Tony Soprano seems like such a polite gentleman in comparison to Blagoman. But as a corrupt crook, he is small potatoes compared to Bernie Madoff. The former NASDAQ chairman and SEC advisor was respected as a well-connected, a “nice” Jewish man, and brilliant investor who made his hundreds of wealthy clients consistently excellent returns between 10 and 13% a year, in bull or bear markets. He was the most consistent investing maven on Wall Street and it turns out, a complete fraud. He swindled charities and celebrities, Christians and Jews. He stole everything from charities run by Spielberg, Wiesel, Jewish Federations, universities, pension funds. Organizations and people who thought they still had retirement accounts found out they had been swindled out of everything. And it looks like Bernard also swindled the United States government out of over $17 billion in taxes, enough to give GM, Ford, and Chrysler their urgent bridge loans.

        So when you look in the dictionaries in the years to come, the word, “Schmuck,” may have Madoff’s photo within the frame.

        How could Bernie Madoff have gotten away with this “Ponzi scheme” for so long? It turns out that Harry Markopoulos was on the trail since 1999, when he began to investigate Madoff’s operation and noticed even then the fraud that was going on. He worked with mathematicians and complained to the SEC’s Boston office in 1999 and submitted a report in 2005 that it was “highly likely” that “Madoff Securities is the world’s largest Ponzi scheme.” In the report, he said he was also worried about the “the personal safety of myself and my family.” But like so many other warnings unheeded by the useless SEC and the federal government, nothing was done.

         How many billions of dollars has Christopher Cox, the appointee of George W. Bush, cost investors in the seven years he has “led” this regulatory agency? Not surprisingly, the regulators didn’t regulate. And trillions of dollars have been lost.

        The Schmuck list is long and wide and certainly could be led by SEC chairman, Christopher Cox. As Jim Cramer said, Cox is an “ideological fool,” enough to be a regular on Jim’s Wall of Shame and get the Plaxico award from him as well. Cox was in charge of policing the men who traded stocks and bonds, who jacked up oil futures to $147 a barrel and then brought them back down to under $40 a barrel. His loyalty to the Bush free-market credo led to so many billions being lost by investors. Who can name all the interesting trading vehicles that were allowed and that led to the ruin of so many? One schmuck was Richard Fuld, CEO of Lehman Brothers, one of the biggest companies to go under.  Lehman was also the company that used the most credit derivatives in which its tentacles branched out around the world. In 2001, Lehman Brothers (Europe) published an 86 page document called “Credit Derivatives Explained,” which is the document that explained all of the complex mathematical formulas behind Collateralized Debt Obligations, Arbitrage CDOs, Synthetic CLOs, just to name a few. The many reasons for the financial collapse are revealed within its pages.

          Schmucks like Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, Hank Paulsen, and Cox allowed banks and insurance companies to be like financial high-stakes poker players. And Wall Street mavens like Stanley O’Neal replaced by John Thain of Merrill Lynch, Ed Liddy of AIG, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, and Fuld all made over 50 million dollars each and were allowed to keep their winnings. Add Franklin Raines of Fannie Mae, Angelo Mozilo from Countrywide Financial, Jimmy Cayne of Bear Stearns, Dick Syron of Freddie Mac. Add Chuck Prince of Citibank and Bob Rubin, former Treasury Secretary and advisor to Barack Obama who has been on the Citigroup board for years, making over $100 million. How much money can a schmuck keep if we keep letting them keep it? As long as they aren’t from Detroit car companies, I guess the answer is: unlimited.  

           We just keep forgetting all the schmucks who ruined the financial futures of so many unknowing Americans. The list is virtually endless but certainly one of the crown jewels of schmuckdom was the former Chairman and CEO of Washington Mutual, Kerry Killinger. Chairman and CEO Kerry Killinger had pledged in 2003, “We hope to do to this industry what Wal-Mart did to theirs, Starbucks did to theirs, Costco did to theirs and Lowe’s/Home Depot did to their industry. And I think if we’ve done our job, five years from now you’re not going to call us a bank.”

           ”Killinger’s goal was to build WaMu into the “Wal-Mart of Banking,” which would cater to lower- and middle-class consumers that other banks deemed too risky. Complex mortgages and credit cards had terms that made it easy for the least creditworthy borrowers to get financing, a strategy the bank extended in big cities, including Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. WaMu pressed sales agents to pump out loans while disregarding borrowers’ incomes and assets. WaMu setup a system of dubious legality that enabled real estate agents to collect fees of more than $10,000 for bringing in borrowers, sometimes making the agents more beholden to WaMu than they were to their clients. Variable-rate loans, and Option Adjustable Rate Mortgages in particular, were especially attractive because they carried higher fees than other loans, and allowed WaMu to book profits on interest payments that borrowers deferred. As WaMu was selling many of its loans to investors, it did not worry about default.

         It can now be said that Killinger helped kill housing and the financial industry both, helping to contribute to the killing of America’s economy.

        Of course, the setting was already set in the last eight years that led to ourculture of schmucks. This leadership was certainly supplied by the 43rd President of the United States. “Today, Bush’s legacy to his successor is two unresolved wars, a global image that is deeply tarnished, and the greatest economic crisis in modern times,” writes the editorial staff of the conservative magazine and website, Newsmax (“Bush’s Legacy: Conservatives Were Betrayed,” http://www.newsmax.com.) The editorial is as critical as any from the New York Times when it writes, “Bush, in fact, has decimated the Republican brand. Bush oversaw the greatest increase in discretionary social spending in history as the federal government usurped new powers in its war on terror. He placed the United States on a global interventionist path for the elusive goal of ‘democracy.’

        The Newsmax staff wrote that his administration “pushed the Federal Reserve for easy money as his administration turned a blind eye to far out banking practices, such as zero percent equity mortgages and Wall Street financial practices that were motivated by greed, not good business sense.”

        Without George W. Bush, the Republicans would not have been thrown out of office in 2006 and 2008 and Barack Obama would not have been elected. In this way, the Schmuck of the Decade led to Time’s 2008 Man of the Year. Now, let’s hope that Obama doesn’t end his term with the honor of winning Schmuck of the Year in 2012.

        So who is the official Schmuck of the Year? Bush, Cox, Killinger, Fuld, Madoff or someone else? No, for the majority of they candidates, they ended up with huge amounts of wealth and were able to walk off, free of a jail cell, able to laugh all the way to their own bailed out banks.

        So the winner of the 2008 Schmuck of the Year is clearly US. YOU won the Time Magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year. This year it’s US, everyone who lives in the U.S.

        US in the U.S. have been the fools to vote for the president, governors, and Congress. We’ve been the fools to invest with Madoff, to buy needless stuff borrowed on countless credit cards and on our homes. We’ve been fools to borrow more than we could afford, to be sold by high-pressure sales organizations, to believe that fairness still works. We’ve believed that the government will save us by borrowing even more trillions to bail out banks, car companies, states, and insurance companies. Who knows how many others will have their hands out in the next four years?

       Mazel Tov. Congratulations to all of US for winning this non-prestigious award of shame. It should make us all want to give up our award next year and try to be smarter, more cynical, and willing to fight corruption and incompetence. If we don’t elevate ourselves to something better, we might just win next year’s World Stupidity Award (www.stupidityawards.com), which recognizes “global achievement in stupidity and ignorance.”

       

 

 

       

    

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Mark Twain

 

       

    

“I was thinking about how people seem to read the Bible a whole lot more as they get older; then it dawned on me … they’re cramming for their final exam.” George Carlin

 

       

       

 

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