Hunting the Rich

A letter to the editors of The Economist.


Maybe I should not be surprised that, despite their penchant for sensible solutions and cool-headed, rational analysis, the editors of The Economist would get so exercised over modest tax increases for the wealthy (September 24, “Hunting the Rich”, page 13). Since your editors and writers are anonymous my imagination is left to envision a tantrum-throwing CEO or an oily investor from Dubai or whoever you have calling the shots berating the editors about how “Leviathan” should keep its hands off his bulletproof fourth home in southern California (see “Beverly Hills Flop”, page 38).

Get over yourselves. The “soaking” you are shrieking about is more like a light splash. Your briefing “Diving into the Rich Pool” (whatever that means) leads us to the oh-so-inevitable conclusion that higher taxes on the rich will destroy us all. Yet it is not so much a matter of whether higher marginal tax rates retard short and medium term growth slightly, but a matter of fairness and whether, in democracies, the people have the right to legislate such equitable treatment rather than be held economic hostage by a clique of plutocrats.

Surely you do not expect us to accept the neo-feudal suggestion that rich must be at liberty to look over the rest of us. Shrinking tax rates did not stop us from getting into the present mess, nor did historically higher tax rates ever stop anyone from being rich (page 38). In the United States (“America”, as you like to call it) the proposal is to simply raise the marginal tax rate to its previous historical low of the prosperous 1990s, a time when rich people did just fine (see page 38 again).

Or perhaps you do expect us to buy this nonsense since the United Kingdom, from which your magazine emanates, is a model for such medieval arrangements, presided over by an unelected family of parasites subsisting in great luxury on public money. Because that is the inevitable conclusion when we trade away our democratic initiative and political independence to wealthiest 2 percent in return for the chance of their good favor.

Good hunting.

But not a day under 61

I’ve come to expect at least a little bit of false modesty from people. A lady came in to buy a senior pass. “You have to be 62 years old,” I told her.  “I’ll have to see your drivers license. The pass is ten dollars.” That’s all automatic; we say it to everybody because we need the identification to sell the pass. Most of the folks laugh about it, some because they are way older than 62.

“I know I don’t look like I’m 62 but I am,” she said. “From all the years of hiking.”

Which was funny because she looked about 62 to me. Maybe 61.

Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate

What to do when “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is checked out of the library? Borrow the Spanish translation. I read it so many times when I was a kid that the Spanish was no obstacle to me understanding the story.

I was really curious how “square candies that look round,” Roald Dahl’s clever play on words, would be translated. I never understood it when I was a kid (the candies “look ’round” the room to see who comes in the door). In the translation they are caramelos cuadrados que se vuelven en redondo, which means “square candies that turn round” in the sense of both “turning around” and “becoming round.” Which is very clever itself: it preserves the pun while not deviating from the narrative. I’ll have to reread the English to check if the candies physically turn when they look around, but I’m pretty sure just their eyes look ’round the room.

By the way Oompa-Loompa in Spanish is… Oompa-Loompa. In the translation they are African pygmies as they were in the politically-incorrect original English edition. I noticed the translator rhymed the Oompa-Loompa chants in Spanish. Does that mean she took some liberties with the lyrics? Translating a book must be about preserving the author’s intent as well as finding the right words. It seems like a tremendous burden on the translator, who could easily change the meaning of the text by doing it badly.

September 11

On September 12, 2002 I was still living in New York. The previous day had been very tense. Staten Islanders, already a prickly bunch, were more on edge than usual. There was even more of the road rage, profanity, and other unpleasantries that regulated Staten Island life. In a busy Chinese take-out customers and staff shouted at each other in anger when they usually just shouted because that was how people communicated on Staten Island.

The cause of all this tension was the first anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The attacks had of course been for a whole year a daily subject of news, conversation, and reflection in New York but the anniversary ratcheted up the frequency and the emotion. The news outlets ran the obligatory remembrances (and there was no shortage of poignancy). But it was like having a big birthday bash when you’ve celebrated your birthday each day all year. It was a little too much for everyone.

Or at least it was a little too much for me. On the morning of September 12, 2002, I sought a return to normalcy in my daily ritual of listening to the morning news but heard yet another stream of stories of victimhood. Maybe it was the stuff that didn’t fit into the previous weeks of programming. At that exact moment I realized that I was ready to move on. I shut off the radio.

I once actually dared to hope that something good might come of that horrible day of September 11, 2001. Like maybe we would reappraise this country’s giant footprint on the rest of the planet which creates these horrible enemies. Maybe we would reevaluate our petty consumer desires and discover what was really important about being the leading citizens of the world. That opportunity for self-reflection was lost to self-justifying jingoism and September 11 became the rationalization for all sorts of American ugliness. I won’t list all my gripes but I’ll give one example:

Our nation’s insatiable security regime has managed to do one thing terrorists were never able to: make me not want to fly in an airplane. I did more flying in the several years after the attacks than I had in my whole life before them. In fact I got on a plane later that very same month for a scheduled vacation (tickets purchased September 10, 2001).

Now I’m just sick of it. It’s not the inconveniences that bother me—those were always part of the travel package—it’s the idea that we’ve let a handful of bearded maniacs prompt the ritual of serial humiliations that is air travel. Last year it was getting scanned with x-ray vision and this year it’s answering questions meant to check if we’re nervous about blowing up the plane. Our government had all the tools it needed in 2001 to stop those savages from flying those jets into those buildings; in the end it happened because responsible people didn’t do their jobs. So if there’s something that makes me hate those animals more and more as time passes it’s that they’ve got us playing their game: living in fear of their next move.

I haven’t changed my mind since I snapped off the radio one year and one day after September 11, 2001. I am not interested in reliving that day. It was not a good one for me or anyone else I know and now that I’ve pegged the exact moment of our national decline to it I want to remember it even less. I am not up for another prolonged national catharsis through our news media. It stunts the process of grieving and healing. If I had lost someone that day, I hope that ten years on I’d have been able to find new love, focus on my surviving family and friends, and renew my purpose for living. I wish the same for our country.

Baseball smarts

The latest “innovation” in Major League Baseball appears to be the six-man starting pitching rotation. Its ostensible purpose is to provide starting pitchers with more rest but all it really means is that your best pitchers pitch less often.

Why do they need more rest? What are they being saved for? Most teams won’t reach the playoffs. Is it really preventing injuries? There are a lot of top-notch pitchers whose careers have been destroyed by injuries even in this risk-averse era. Joba Chamberlain, who the Yankees famously coddled, has spent much of his career either injured or in slumps. Going slow didn’t improve him. Maybe he’ll hit his peak around the time he’s ready to retire.

I love how, even though the game is saturated by statistical analysis and produces clear results at the end of each season, there is no honest evaluation of idiotic management techniques.

Boyhood home of Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan was the president of my childhood. I remember him mostly as an object of ridicule and fun, though his admirers have made him more of a caricature than any cartoonist by distorting his legacy and conveniently forgetting his more temperate actions.

A white two story frame house with a porch and grass lawn.
Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home on Hennepin Street

After driving past Dixon, Illinois, his boyhood home, several times in the last couple of years, we found some time to visit the house on Hennepin Street where he lived during his preteen years. The house is owned an operated by a local private foundation. It’s in very good condition. There’s a short video in the visitor center about his childhood in Dixon and his return as president to visit the restored home.

A simply furnished boys bedroom with a wood dresser and college pennants.
Ronald Reagan’s bedroom in his boyhood home

The house is not large and tour was nice and short. Photographs are allowed (“Take all the photos you want,” one of the volunteers said with a wave of her hand). The Reagans were renters and the house on Hennepin Street was one of several they rented in Dixon.

An American flag flies against a blue sky behind a bronze horseback sculpture.
Begins the Trail horseback sculpture of Ronald Reagan on the Dixon riverfront

Neither the video nor the tour related the house or Reagan’s childhood to his politics or his presidency, but an new statue on Dixon’s waterfront does. Titled Begins the Trail, it offers a twist on the horseback statue. Reagan was of course not a mounted general like Andrew Jackson, but he did once march in a local parade on his horse.

Reagan’s birthplace is in Tampico, not far from Dixon. We’ll go there another time.

The inchworm

A green caterpillar crawls along the rim of a blue glass bottle.
The inchworm was forever condemned to circle the bottle rim until I saved it.

Even more exciting than seeing American Gothic at the Art Institute of Chicago was waiting for lunch, which we took in the museum’s courtyard cafe. There was an empty blue glass bottles on each table to hold down the paper menus. On our bottle was a little green inchworm marching in circles along the rim of the bottle. Every couple of revolutions, it would venture down the threading, only to find smooth, unclimbable glass below. And so it would return to the rim and continue its circumambulation. It occurred to me that if the inchworm was nearsighted enough, it might never know it was moving in a circle and would be condemned to wandering around that bottle until it died from exhaustion. Even after I brought the bottle to a nearby yew to shake the caterpillar off it was still reluctant to let go, so I liberated the little booger-like creature with a flick of my finger.

Second trip to Chicago

A man and a woman reflected with the city skyline behind them.
Adam and Lore and Chicago reflected in the Cloud Gate, Millenium Park

We decided last minute to go to Chicago for the long weekend. The Chicago Jazz festival was underway our first night but we skipped that to frolic at the Cloud Gate (a.k.a. The Bean). If you ever want to feel like a monkey amused by its reflection in something shiny, go see the Cloud Gate.

Two women admire a painting of a man and women in front of their home.
Two women admiring American Gothic by Grant Wood, Art Institute of Chicago

We spent the better part of the next day at the Art Institute of Chicago in the American Modern Art exhibit. As Iowans we were required by law to gaze at American Gothic by Grant Wood. We had company. Visiting American Gothic is a minor league version of Mona Lisa at The Louvre—in the sense that there’s a small crowd that makes it hard to stand and admire it. It was still fun to see in person.

Mosaic decorations in a building lobby include an inscription about books.
Inside the Washington Street Lobby of the Chicago Cultural Center

Near the Art Institute is the Chicago Cultural Center, in the former Chicago Public Library building. This is truly a wonder, not just because you can go in for free and look at exhibits but because of the mind-blowing tile mosaics and dome ceilings. I’m starting to suspect Chicago has something of a second city inferiority complex because everything is so deliberately over the top.

A woman waiting in a graffiti covered restaurant booth.
Lore waiting for Chicago deep dish pizza in Gino’s East

In addition to artery-clogging Chicago art and architecture we ate some unhealthful Chicago food: Italian sausage sandwiches and deep dish pizza. Our pizza dinner was at Gino’s East in River North, a place huge and busy but not crowded inside. The interior was divided by graffiti-covered wooden booths and partitions that preserved some intimacy. We didn’t have a marker to add to the graffiti so I borrowed the waitress’s pen to write our names on the seat cushion.

An illuminated ferris wheel at night.
Ferris wheel at the Navy Pier

We walked off the pizza at the Navy Pier, a schlocky Coney Island-like place but a good long walk. We got rained on pretty hard right at the end of the pier as we learned why Chicago is called the Windy City. It was a long wet walk back.

Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home