Category Archives: Holidays

‘You Didn’t Build That’

A few weeks ago, President Obama made a speech in which he remarked:

     If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

Well, I’ve got a business, and I most definitely did build that.  I’ll freely admit that I stand on the shoulders of giants: I did not build the Internet, or the power grid, or the roads or bridges myself.  But many other people grew up with those same things.  Most of them haven’t built a business.  So yes: my business, my little piece of the world, yes, I did build that.  (Also, many of the things that Obama cites did not come from the government.  That great teacher you knew as a child may have been in the public school, but it was his characteristics as an individual–and not as a member of the school system–that made him great.  And the Internet was originally developed by the government as a communication system for the military, and not as an engine of private profit.  It was private enterprise that built it out into the Internet we all know and love.)

All of this would be water under the bridge, except that yesterday, I went with my wife to participate in the Labor Day Parade.  She’s a member of the Screen Actors Guild, which merged earlier this year with the union representing television and radio performers to become SAG-AFTRA.  We had to report on 44th Street, in an area with other theatrical unions: Actors’ Equity, the Musicians, the Stagehands.  The Steamfitters’ motorcycle club roared up the street to take their positions in the parade.

Many of the unions in this country were founded about a century ago, in the 1890s and 1900s.  And it’s useful to remember how they came to be.  It was time of vast productive energy: many of the things that we take for granted were built during that time.  And many of the company owners and bosses were, well, rotten.

And so the workers banded together to say, in effect, ‘you didn’t build that.’  And, unlike the bluster from our President, it was actually true: while finance and management are necessary ingredients for a successful enterprise, at the time, things didn’t get built unless you had the manpower to build them.

It was a rainy morning, and shortly after we stepped onto Fifth Avenue, the clouds let loose with a drenching downpour.  My wife and I had brought umbrellas, and a sixtyish woman latched onto my arm to get a little dry space.

“This seems like some kind of a punishment,” she remarked.

“No,” I answered.  “We’re standing with the union.  There was a time in our history when standing with the union was a little bit dangerous.  We need to remember that.”

We need to remember that, because it may happen again.

Better Late Than Never

The last month has been a blur.  I pretty much missed the holidays: too much work, and when Christmas finally rolled around, I could hardly get out of bed.  We didn’t have a Christmas tree, and after New Year’s, I had working weekends with 22-hour workdays.  But last weekend was more or less normal, and my wife is still putting up with me, so it can’t be all bad.

Just after New  Year’s, someone introduced me to last year’s Duran Duran album, All You Need Is Now.  It is a pitcher of icewater in the desert of allegedly popular music.  OK: it’s a blast from the past, but what makes it so good?

I usually trip over myself when trying to write about music, so forgive me if this is a little clunky.  But Duran Duran’s music–when they’re not trying to be something else–speaks of a place of achievement, where logic and reason carries the day, where things work.   It makes you want to set aside your pains and complaints and go out and accomplish something.

And for that reason, the title track, ‘All You Need Is Now,’ is my belated Song of the Year for 2011.

Labor Day Parade

My wife asked me to join her in the Labor Day parade today, which this year was held yesterday, the Saturday after Labor Day.  She’s a member of the Screen Actors Guild.  My previous time in the parade was in 1982, when I was a newly-minted member of the Transport Workers Union.

The announcement from SAG indicated that the first 25 members to show up would get a free T-shirt.  My wife and I arrived late, but she was #18 on the list, and even though I’m not a member, I got one too.  I’m not an actor: I just play one for the Labor Day parade.

Tropical Storm Hanna,  which had threatened to douse the city all day, held off until mid-afternoon.  It didn’t rain, but it was really, really muggy.  Still, it was a festive occasion, walking up Fifth Avenue.

However, there were very few spectators.  Along the 28 blocks, there were perhaps a couple of hundred people who seemed to be actually watching the parade.  Foot traffic on Fifth Avenue was about normal for late on a Saturday morning,  In recent years, interest in the parade has flagged: is it that the parade didn’t take place on Labor Day (and why is that?), loss of interest in labor unions, or that parades aren’t enough of a public spectacle to hold a crowd anymore?  (When I was with the Transport Workers in 1982, it was really on Labor Day, and there were a good few thousand spectators.)

Many of the parade participants wore Obama for President buttons, and Obama posters appeared on some of the floats.  Of course, Barack Obama, as the Democratic candidate, is favored by the labor unions because he proposes to use government to help the working people.

And why not?  Over the last eight years, we’ve seen the Bush administration use the power of government to favor big business and the wealthy.  He cut taxes and then embroiled us in an expensive war.  He promoted the New Feudalism, also known as the Ownership Society, where one is what one owns.  Under his watch, hundreds of thousands of Americans signed up  for mortgages they couldn’t afford, as a path to home ownership, and then found themselves homeless when their payments ratcheted up, and their income didn’t.

And who wins, ultimately, when hundreds of thousands of Americans go bankrupt?  The people who have assets to begin with, who stay calm, and  can acquire the foreclosed properties cheap.  The rich get richer….

On the other hand, when I was an impressionable teenager in the 1970s, I saw how the opposite premise, that government should use its power to help the people, could backfire.  My parents had steady jobs, so there was never a question of not having a roof overhead or food on the table.  But we had both inflation and unemployment, something classical economics said wasn’t supposed to happen.

In the early 1970s, we had the energy crisis when the Arabs refused to sell us oil. The Federal government has spent billions since then to try to encourage alternate sources of energy.  And while there has been progress, we’re still addicted to oil, and moaned this spring when the price of gasoline shot up.  So I have to wonder what would change to make the next infusion of Federal billions actually accomplish something.

For my part, I’d like to see a government that doesn’t use its power to particularly help anyone.  But it’s far more compelling campaigning to suggest what the government can or should do than what it can’t or shouldn’t.  So we’re stuck with the candidates as they stand.

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I was impressed with the speech made by Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska and the Republican candidate for Vice-President,  at the convention last week.  She’s a good orator, and if her cover story is to believed, a good leader and administrator.  She’s also suffered the slings and arrows of life to a greater extent than your average politician.  All in all, it’s a compelling package, and more relevant than the average Vice Presidential candidate because her running mate, John McCain, will be the oldest person to become President if he is elected.

To some degree, I resented the commentary in the press about her lack of experience, and whether or not she had been properly vetted before her selection.  When I’ve had to hire someone, and have chosen experience over energy and a positive attitude given two otherwise similar candidates, I’ve generally been disappointed.  And I can’t get too terribly upset over Palin’s pregnant teenage daughter when I consider that Palin herself got married in her early 20s.  Some people get married earlier in life than others.

But as I contemplated the Obama buttons at the Labor Day parade, it came to me.  I’m sure that, in fact, Palin was very thoroughly vetted.  Her positions on issues, which didn’t really come out in the convention speech, are very far to the right.  She plays to the Republican base, more so than McCain.

She’s portrayed as a ‘reformer.’  Let’s grant that premise for a moment and consider: of everything that was and is wrong with the Bush administration, it never was in need of ‘reform.’  Our Fearless Leader made his decisions because he believed they were right, and not because someone paid him to.  Yes, all of his friends are in Big Oil, and he aspired to be a Big Oil man himself, but we knew that from the beginning, and voted for him anyway.

Sarah Palin is not a pit bull with lipstick: she’s Dubya with lipstick.