Friday, June 26, 2009

Road Tripping

We just returned from another road trip. Carol and I like long drives together. This one carried us to Minnesota and back, to spend time with my brother and his family. The trip was a bit over 1200 miles each way. One of the things we like about traveling together this way is that we get to see places we might never otherwise see. We stop in little towns whose names are unfamiliar, except through browsing a AAA Tourbook Guide. Since we now live in a little town, we like to stay in other little towns and then compare. One of the things we discovered on our big road trip, the one that carried us all the way to the west coast and then back over a wandering path, is that some small towns seem to lie mostly in the past, whereas others continue to thrive, with interesting shops and restaurants. The ones that seem barely alive, or always struggling to continue, are often sitting in the shadow of another town or city. Our town, for example, struggles to breathe, because Charlotte sucks the air and much of the money out of the region. Other towns, more distant from large towns or cities, thrive because they need not compete. If people want nice restaurants, or interesting shops, they will have to frequent the small towns that provide them. Thus Bozeman, Montana, a town half the size of ours, looked to be four times as large, mainly because there seemed to be nothing within 100 miles of Bozeman to compete for attention, or money.
So, we drove and observed, spending a night in Tomah, Wisconsin, a town of 8000 citizens, and hosting something close to ten bars. Our little town has no “bars”.
Our trip to Minnesota was uneventful and our stay with family wonderfully rich and fulfilling. Dinners planned well in advance of our arrival were splendid feasts, Italian-style—the food plentiful, rich of flavor, and varied in main and side dishes. All in all, we probably ate too well, but also we consumed each other in conversation. We talked, we laughed and we admired all the beautiful children.
But then it was time to return home. We intended a quick trip, two days instead of the three we used to make the trip out. We envisioned one long day, followed by a relatively short day of driving. We set out early.
Then we encountered what I now call the “Rod Blagoevich memorial pseudo-construction network”. In these networks, little actual road work actually occurs, but it is made to look as though work might someday be done. I named the phenomenon for the past Governor of Illinois, partly because most of the encountered network occurred in Illinois, thus I saw it as a vestige of that gubernatorial malenfant. Approximately every ten miles, we would encounter a five mile stretch of highway where one lane was closed and the allowable highway speed reduced by ten mph, or sometimes 20 mph. Occasionally, a truck or two would be parked alongside the roadway, and sometimes they would tear up a stretch. Often a few “workmen” would be stationed nearby to observe the slowly moving caravan of trucks and cars, perhaps as a suggestion that someday, work might actually happen.
When we finally emerged from the Illinois road silliness, we proceeded more expeditiously for a while, finally arriving at our first day’s stopping point. We expected little difficulty and a relatively short trip on our second day.
Then, while driving somewhere north of Knoxville, traffic ground to a halt. All lanes stopped. After a while, we turned off the engine, I emerged from our car and looked up and down. An endless stretch of trucks and cars forward and behind us. I checked with a trucker—they always know what is happening. Seems a truck ahead of us had burst into flame and was being consumed, thus closing both lanes. So, I returned to our car, and stared at the line of cars and the car in front of us, also licensed in North Carolina. Both the driver, a woman, and her passenger, a man, were smoking. Both apparently thought of the world outside their car as a giant ashtray—maybe their Kia had no ashtray, much as most cars licensed in North Carolina seem to have no turn signaling system. Both people would inhale, blow out smoke and flick their cigarettes outside, then finally both tossed their lit cigarettes outside their car, onto the surrounding highway. I found it a bit ironic that we were being held hostage by a truck in flames ahead of us, while the people in front of us thought nothing of tossing lit cigarettes out the window.

Finally, the traffic began moving, our cigarette-smokers in front took off, and we resumed our journey.
All in all, we returned home more tired than expected, happy to have taken our journey, but happy also to be back home. All in all, a good time was had by all, despite the return trip from hell. Still, road trips always beat traveling by air.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

American Dysfunction

I'm thinking about where we are and where we seem to be headed in this once great nation. Our daughter and her husband and kids were on a flight from Charlotte to Chicago, and then on to Minneapolis on a second flight, all American Airlines. Their first flight arrived late, and they had to rush to the gate of their second flight. The second flight was still at the gate. Whew, just in time. Except that the gate police (more American Airlines staff) refused to allow them to board the flight. Yeah, the plane is sitting there. The same airline had delayed them getting in and was now denying them a chance to board their flight. Way to go American Airlines, yet another minor piece of evidence that our airline industry resembles our banking industry, which resembles our auto industry, which resembles our mortgage industry . . . but you get the point. We don't seem to do anything well any longer . . . except maybe blow things up.
Some financial commentator (he happened to be a Republican) commented a while back that he had told everyone several years ago that the financial industry was going to collapse, because it was obvious to him that you could not operate the way they were operating without catastrophic results. Turns out he was right. He also said something I have believed for a long time now--that we cannot continue to be a nation of consumers. That we actually need to begin making things. Sounds right. For a long time now, the standard response has been, "well the American economy has shifted from making things to services--we provide services." I always thought, "yeah, but Americans are almost uniquely bad at providing services". Mainly , you need to care about your customers to be good at service. Largely, aside from the dwindling array of small shopkeepers remaining in the land, we don't.
So, we apparently we can't make anything, and we are lousy at the last remaining thing we could do--service. Oh, and by service, we don't just mean waiting on people at restaurants. Mainly, we mean things like financial services . . . you know like managing investment portfolios, and creating and managing new "creative" investment opportunities . . . you know, like Mr. Madoff's creative investment approach (Ponzi). And we all know how well the creative geniuses perform after they are sent forth from the nation's business schools and Economics schools.
So, where does that leave us?
Well, we still seem to be good at developing and producing weapons of mass destruction. So, maybe we will need to focus on that last remaining field of expertise. But to whom will we sell our WMDs? Hmmm, that's a tough one. Hey, I know. That could be our entre' to detente with Iran, North Korea, and Burma (see I'm really old, I still call it Burma). I mean, they all seem to want to possess WMDs. And we continue to believe they shouldn't be able to manufacture them. So . . . a match made in Heaven (or is it Hell . . . I can never keep them straight). We produce the WMDs, ands we sell them to our newfound friends, the Arabs, the Persians, and the more isolated Asian nations.
I mean, what could go wrong???

Monday, June 8, 2009

World Opinion

The North Koreans seem oblivious to world opinion. What ever are they thinking?
First they explode nuclear bombs underground, annoying their neighbors and everyone else. Then they start launching missiles hither and yon, as though they were some independent world power.
But they really took the cake when they arrested US journalists trying to report on refugees moving from North Korea to China. The charges were . . . acting vilely towards North Korea . . . or saying nasty things about them. Apparently, it’s a crime, or maybe even a mortal sin, to say something unpleasant about The Leader. Kind of like when the Danes published naughty cartoons about that (unnamed) figure beloved by those of the Islamic persuasion. Or writing nasty things. In those cases, of course, there was no one to arrest and put through the ordeal of a 3 ½ minute fake trial. But there’s always the Fatwah, and there’s always a cleric somewhere willing to publish a death threat against someone somewhere.
So, there they sit in a prison cell somewhere in North Korea, awaiting the inevitable swap deal—“you give us some juicy deal and we’ll give you the two lady reporters”. In past decades, we used to effect such swaps all the time. “we’ll give you your two spies, in exchange for our two spies.” And then they would arrange a midnight swap walk somewhere on the border in Berlin, and we would fly our guys out to safety. Here, since nobody ever seems to arrest any North Korean spies, we never seems to have anything worthy to trade, aside from honor, or maybe nuclear enrichment materials.
Still, the world will continue to judge the North Korean government in unfavorable terms—undemocratic at the least. And we all know they deserve to be so judged. The problem seems to be that they don’t actually care what we think of them. So good luck Hillary, with dealing with this dictatorial terrorist regime that arrests people without proper charges, denies access to legal counsel, and then imprisons without proper cause.
And elsewhere, Dickie Bird Cheney continues to defend the American practice of preventive detention at Guantanamo, torture of people who have not been charged with a crime, and sending people to black sites around the world.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Dumb and Dumber

As I was reading this morning about the sale of GM’s Hummer Division to the Chinese, I was struck by the sheer perfection of the whole thing. I mean, what vehicle most perfectly symbolizes the total idiocy of the American automobile industry than the Hummer? They took a Die-Hard military vehicle, and converted it into an American luxury car, assuming by luxury you mean expensive and totally lacking in taste. I have always been kind of interested in ugly cars. Like the French Citroen in the 1960s. Now there was a really ugly car. I was almost tempted to buy one, just to say that I owned the ugliest car in the world.
But the Hummer is really in a class by itself. It practically screams to the World, “I have no taste, but lots and lots of money. I bought this car just to show you that I have more money than brains.” The perfect car for hedge fund managers, or bankers. And the really fascinating thing is that a bunch of guys at GM actually sat around a conference table and discussed, almost rationally (and probably with a quart of whiskey), the whole notion of producing this car for the domestic market. See, they actually knew about the existence of a rich group of low-class people. Who knew?
So, my hats off to GM for pulling off this brilliant sale. The Hummer will now be made by the world’s dominant producer of crap, the Chinese. You rock guys.
And on another front, Republican anarchists are now gathering in Raleigh to stage another tea party. They don’t want to pay any taxes. After eight years of Republican “Charge and Spend” profligacy, they now want to walk away and make believe that taxes are unnecessary and possibly wasteful. They’re damned mad and they want those “tax and spend” democrats to know it. Huh!