Saturday, December 27, 2008

Porgy & Bess, Mom, Cadillac Records and Obama's Promised Land

"I'm on my way to a Heav'nly Lan',
I'll ride dat long, long road.
If You are there to guide my han'.
Oh Lawd, I'm on my way."

This final chorus from Gerswhin's Porgy and Bess (lyrics by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin), reminded me of my mother, who passed away on Labor Day. She loved music, was a musician herself and would have relished this particular opera, which I saw performed at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on Dec. 19.

This is an opera that everyone should see before they die. It's like a Grand Canyon of human experience. It's all there: Love, death, murder, redemption, passion. As a uniquely American creation, it's a compassionate look at an impoverished African American community in South Carolina in the 1920s. Porgy is disabled -- a "cripple" in the libretto. He falls in love with Bess, a drug-addicted woman who is often a poor judge of character. After a hurricane, two murders and the loss of most of the men in the community to the storm, she wanders off to New York with the pusher of Catfish Row, "Sportin' Life." Porgy follows, hoping to find that "heavn'ly lan'"

Over the years, Porgy has received dollops of criticism over Gershwin's take on Catfish Row. Was he perpetuating stereotypes or simply telling a tale of the human condition? What business did a successful New York Jewish songsmith have writing about poor black people in the south? I think every generation comes to a different conclusion. What's undeniable is the haunting beauty of the music: The soaring lullaby "Summertime," and the love aria "Bess You is My Woman." There's wit, charm, the blues, despair and great hope in this work of art. I knew my Mom would've enjoyed it as she did so many other operas, musicals and concerts in Chicago.

My Mom grew up mostly without a father, since he died when she was young. He was an illustrator who worked during the Depression and by all accounts was a decent, kind and hard-working man. Her mother had to go to work in a bank to support them in their small apartments on the North Side of Chicago. Since she was born when my grandmother was well into her middle age, most of my Mom's cousins were much older than she was and only got to know a handful of them. I suspect that for my Mom, her extended family was her immediate circle of friends, most of whom attended Catholic schools. Nevertheless, with her mother at work and no siblings, I suspect she had to keep herself company quite a bit, which she did with her books and music. She was an excellent pianist, writer and artist, although she gave up most of these pursuits when she was raising her four sons.

When she got to college, Mom aspired to be a speech therapist and attended Mundelein College. She never finished her degree because she got married and had children right away. That's what couples did in the 1950s. They were busy repopulating the earth after the most horrible war in history. They did a reasonably good job, having produced some 77 million new Americans from 1946 to 1964.

I always wonder what and who my Mom would've become if she chose to follow her career instead of immediate child rearing. Having four babies in five years could not have been easy. She had no siblings, so she didn't have any experience to relate to; her mother wasn't around to help when we were young. Our nuclear family was never really that close.

Somehow I think my mother would've gotten involved in women's or civil rights. She may have even gotten her PhD or taught. She never articulated to me what she thought her "promised land" was, although I'm fairly sure it wasn't a vision of George Bush's America.

We've just emerged from this era of unprecedented exploitation. By pushing the American Dream button at every opportunity, the corporate/commercial chieftains have snookered us into believing that we could take advantage of market forces to create a secure retirement, build home equity and provide decent health care. It's all been a lie. The promised land is not a market economy. There were no gentle shepherds in this world, only wolves. As we enter the age of reckoning, we will have to revisit what happened in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s in order to rebuild the temple of our civilization.

What will the new promised land look like in Barack Obama's America? Will his "green deal" put enough people back to work to make a difference? Will he save the financial system from collapse? Like my Mom, he grew up most of his life with a working mother and absent father. He turned inward for his most powerful spiritual resources.

We have to move on to discover how great we can become. I also gleaned some insights on the migration of the soul from the movie "Cadillac Records," the story of Chicago's Chess Records. The Chess brothers, Polish Jews, had a talent for spotting great bluesmen and women, who were wandering up north to escape the bleak poverty of the Mississippi Delta and the despair of the Jim Crow South and sharecropping. These men and women were contemporaries of my mother, always striving to share their art, trying to live a decent life.

In the film, we see the blues genius Muddy Waters electrifying his delta blues from an extension chord strung out an apartment window on the South Side. Etta James struggles with heroin addiction enroute to reinventing the ballad. Howlin' Wolf stands up for his own integrity. Chuck Berry invents rock n'roll, is promptly ripped off by white artists like the Beach Boys and goes to prison for violating the Mann Act during the height of his career. Toward the end of the movie, when the African American artists are wondering where their royalties went, we see several lawsuits flash on the screen before the credits that net seemingly paltry settlements for legends like Willie Dixon, whose pieces were purloined by groups like Led Zeppelin.

While I know that my Mom didn't care a whole lot for the blues, rock n'roll and R&B, the fact that there was always music in our house laid the groundwork for the appreciation of these artists. We heard a lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Peter, Paul & Mary and any number of crooners. The Beatles and the rockers of the late 1960s and early 1970s weren't especially welcome by my musician father ("anyone can play three chords"), although when I finally got out to hear the blues played in the thriving clubs of Chicago, everything came full circle from Bach to John Lee Hooker.

Music was pretty much a second language in our home. At certain points in our adolescence and early adulthood, my brothers and I were definitely speaking different dialects than our parents. We developed our own tastes. I even played in a wedding/party band for a short stretch in the early 1980s, playing some of the worst ballads and dance music ever written. One memorable New Year's Eve, our band "The Sounds of Distinction" (called the "Sounds of Extinction" by my brother Dan), tried in vain to get some partygoers at a welding company party to dance. They were worse than zombies for two sets. The third set they had enough to drink so that their inhibitions were diminished. We then proceeded to play "Proud Mary" three times and wanted to go home, but their equivalent of lighting cigarette lighters to request an encore -- igniting a blinding oxyacetylene torch -- convinced us to play it one more time.

There are myriad mysteries in life, but no matter how distant we become from our parents, there is always a spiritual thread that binds us invisibly through time to them. For me, it was music and literature to my mom and mostly music to my Dad. I miss my Mom and pray that she is happy and well, hopefully in her own promised land.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Blagojevich and the Culture of Corruption

The old rubric trotted out when yet another chapter of Illinois corruption unfolds is that the state "ain't ready for reform."

This was the famous quote from long-dead Chicago alderman Paddy Bauler, whose palm was always open to express his self-interest.

Now comes Governor Rod Blagojevich, wiretapped by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, the fourth governor out of the last seven with law-enforcement problems. Our governor was allegedly trying to sell President-elect Obama's senate seat to the highest bidder, among other charges in a 75-page criminal indictment announced by Fitzgerald yesterday.

As an Illinois resident who has lived in the Prairie State for more than 50 years, good government type (a "goo-goo" is the mocking term) and journalist, the appalling harlotry of our governor sickens me. He should resign immediately or be impeached by the Illinois General Assembly, which has not been able to manage any of its gargantuan problems in the Blagojevich era.

The legislature has been deadlocked over feuds, sleights, misdeeds and arrogant behavior (not all of it emanating from the Governor's office). The crushing issues of a state budget deficit, education funding reform, state pension shortfalls and capital improvements have been set aside while his petulant politics created a giant sucking sound called a leadership vacuum.

I am always intrigued by official corruption in Illinois because I have always been able to study it and see it up close. I was born in Chicago Heights, which was controlled by the Chicago syndicate at the time I was born through the 1980s. When I worked my first job at the Chicago Heights Star in 1978, I was witness to the thorough ownership of public officials there by the outfit. Only a few years after I left, the mayor and most of the city council was indicted, convicted and sent to prison.

When I moved onto reporting on the South Side of Chicago, I saw more of the same. Labor unions like the Teamsters and Laborers worked hand in hand with local mob bosses and politicians. It was understood who controlled what and where the money went. In the case of the Central States Teamsters Pension Fund, it was mob-controlled casinos in Las Vegas until the union was put into federal trusteeship an the mobsters involved either murdered each other or were sent to jail.

Even moribund sections of Chicago, once home to thriving steel mills and other plants, were run by politicians who were more interested in lining their own pockets than serving their constituents. Before I even put pen to paper in the late 1970s, Illinois history was bursting with startling examples of blatant corruption.

It was well known that if you wanted a license or to pass anything in the Illinois legislature or Chicago City Council, you would simply pass around bags of money to aldermen with the desired instructions. Charles Tyson Yerkes, a rapacious scoundrel who owned the streetcar lines and wanted long-term franchises from the city council approached Governor John Peter Altgeld in his attempt to secure what he wanted.

Yerkes campaigned for longer streetcar franchises in 1895. He offered governor Altgeld a huge bribe, but Altgeld rejected it and vetoed the franchise bills. Yerkes renewed the campaign in 1897 and successfully secured from the Illinois Legislature a bill granting city councils the right to approve extended franchises. A somewhat reformed council under Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr., however, finally defeated Yerkes, with the swing votes coming from aldermen "Hinky Dink" Kenna and "Bathhouse" John Coughlin.

Politicians were bought and sold as if they were slabs of meat in the Chicago stockyards. Even Sam Insull (see my book "Merchant of Power"), the 1920s utilities baron who refused to bribe alderman for an extortion deal to gain a city electricial franchise, donated piles of cash to Frank Smith, who won a Senate seat. The Senate refused to seat Smith, noting that Insull had "bought" Smith.

The problem then and now is that Illinois was always lax in controlling and monitoring campaign contributions. There is NO limit on how much you can donate to an Illinois candidate. That's why Blagojevich was raking in checks for tens of thousands of dollars from state contractors and expected an endless stream of boodle for every favor granted. That was the way business in Illinois had always been done.

Not every Illinois politician has been as venal and tainted as Blagojevich. We've produced some remarkable and honest leaders from Lincoln to Senators Paul Douglas, Everett Dirksen and Paul Simon. We've also consistently offered great reformers and muckrakers in the guise of Jane Addams and Mike Royko along with groups like the Better Government Association.

I would count Pat Quinn, the current lieutenant governor (and likely our next governor) as one of the current reformers. I've met Quinn twice and he's always struck me as a true public servant. Perhaps time will prove me a liar, but I tend to believe he will make an honest stab at being a leader who places the people's interest above his own -- a rare quality in an Illinois official.

While human nature won't change anytime soon, the culture of corruption can be shut down. Every leader must sign onto a code of ethics, the watchdogs must be well funded and fully empowered and a set of laws must be put into place to stop pay-for-play deals. Maybe public funding of elections is a good idea. Maybe term limits is another. A combination of checks and balances is usually the best route.

How do you halt pay to play when so much money is sloshing around for state and city business? "Where's Mine," the state's political motto, needs to be replaced with "I'm here to serve the people." A new ethics law that will come on the books Jan. 1 will certainly help. It was passed after an override of the governor's veto. It was Barack Obama who urged Senate president Emil Jones to push it through. Jones, a Chicago machine Democrat, originally opposed it.

More importantly, it will take a new generation of leaders who are truly humbled and emboldened by public service to understand that they serve the people first, not themselves. Where do you find these people? We have to recruit them to make public office a noble and altruistic enterprise. Perhaps with a new president who campaigned on "the audacity of hope," we will finally find a good example.

John F. Wasik

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Psychology of Bailing Out Detroit

Once again, we taxpayers have a chance to deal with three more prodigal sons who have wasted decades and want to once again enjoy the succor of our parental embrace.

Do these Big Three automakers deserve our money and comfort?

The angry parent in me says let them take their lumps and find out what the airlines discovered after 2001. You need to downsize, provide better service and run a tighter ship. You may have to let go thousands or tens of thousands of employees. You may have to slash their salaries and health care. Survival is job one.

Then again, the compassionate parent in me says:

``What you did is behind you. You hurt all the people who depended on you, of course, and you made some selfish, greedy decisions based on what everyone saw at the moment. Like most human beings, you were not blessed with the gift of foresight, even though some of the smartest people in the world were telling you the competition from Japan and Europe would eat your lunch because you weren't keeping up with worldwide energy trends. You made many mistakes, but if you ask for forgiveness and promise to reform and accept myriad sacrifices, you can have my blessing once again.''

Like so many looking at this situation from an economic perspective -- we need to do something after devoting trillions to even-greedier bankers and insurers -- I am conflicted. Could we let just one carmaker go under? If so, which one? I can't say I have any favorites in this Hobson's Choice. They have been all been equally bad vehicle producers. I own two Toyotas and would be hard-pressed to buy anything that didn't come up to the high standards of Japanese or European manufacturing. I'm not a snob; I just like my cars to start and not break down in the middle of winter.

So here's my modest proposal, which isn't going to be pretty.

1) If the companies really don't have enough operating cash, let them file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to restructure their debts and corporate structures. GM might have to deep-six Pontiac. Ford may have to dump anything that's not a mid-priced sedan or truck. Chrysler may just only save the Jeep brand.

2) If the companies want to retool to build green vehicles -- and I include vans, trucks and buses in that mix -- then they can apply for federal loans that will be repaid to the US Treasury over a set period of time. Moreover, the government should create a pool for ALL manufacturers for retooling and job creation, not just automakers. This is the "not favoring one child policy."

3) Should the government commit to green transporation, it should be part of a national mission with set goals, i.e., 10 million no-carbon vehicles on the road by 2020, etc. No open-ended lending with no strings attached. The banks may have made off like bandits, but we have another chance to save manufacturing and we need to take our time with this program. Morever, if we own these shops, we will demand world-class quality and low prices. I'm not going to buy a $40,000 electric car! It should be $10,000 or less and we should be able to sell millions of them in China, India, Brazil and any other place where even a $20,000 car is out of the question.

4) If the companies refuse to file for bankruptcy, the only other recourse is for the government to buy the outstanding shares of the Big Three (or controlling interests), put them into national trusteeship, fire all of the top execs and board directors and start over with new, outside management. I hate this idea of nationalization, but if you use Conrail as a model, it could work. That's when when Congress consolidated an array of nearly defunct eastern railroads in the 1970s, beat it back into one company, then sold it off. Maybe this isn't the best model, though I sure don't want government running manufacturing for more than a few years. The prospect of profit sold cars in the 90s and it can sell them in this century as well.

5) None of this will work without a national health care program that reduces costs and has universal coverage. Let me repeat that: NO bailout without health care for all. There should not be any more health coverage linked to employment. A single payer can efficiently buy services and drugs at the lowest-possible cost and pool risks. It makes no sense for each of the Big Three to have their own health care trusts -- nor for any employer or worker to be out on their own in a fractured, inefficient free market, which never existed in the first place. You can scream about the unions all you want and miss the point. The reason about $2,000 is built into the price of a new GM car from health care expenses alone is the fact that our system is both inefficient and cruel. Solve national health and you eliminate segregating costs for medical care. It's a problem that impacts more than 40 million and every one of the more than 300,000 small businesses. Universal health care IS one form of economic liberty and it should be a constitutional right.

This is my platform and I call it COMPASSIONATE CAPITALISM. I would love the automakers to be successful, make profits and re-employ millions of people again. But none of that will happen without a massive public and private investment in retooling, enlightened management, research and health care.

As a responsible parent, you have to be cruel to be kind. We need a time out on this whole subject and consider a pure cash bailout. That would enable our addicted children to hit the street again and set them up for another, even more colossal failure.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Green Budget: The Heat is On

Now that President-elect Obama has announced his economic team and outline of a "Green Deal" for the economy to create jobs, the pressure is on to go over the federal budget line by line.

Congress spends more than $3 trillion every year on big-ticket items such as Social Security, Medicare and interest on the $11 TRILLION national debt. Is it possible to go into every cost item and see how wasteful spending can be pared and environmental considerations brought into focus?

In the words of Sarah Palin, ``you betcha!" (wink here).

Here's a primer on what could be done courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists (of which I'm a member) and several other environmental groups.

WASHINGTON - November 25 - The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the nation's leading science-based policy organization, joined with more than two dozen environmental groups to produce a 340-page prescription detailing the steps the new Obama administration should take to jumpstart the economy, protect the environment, and enhance national security. The organizations, which have a combined membership of millions across the country, delivered the document to the Obama transition team late yesterday afternoon. (For a copy of the document, go to:

Below is a statement by UCS President Kevin Knobloch:

"President-elect Obama has a popular mandate to move expeditiously to reduce our dependence on oil, curb global warming pollution, and pull the country out of recession. We're encouraged that he has signaled that his first order of business will be developing an economic investment package that will include investments in renewable energy and an upgrade and expansion of the electricity transmission grid, generating millions of new jobs.

"With his strong statement last week, President Obama also communicated his intent to immediately begin working with congressional leaders to craft a strong climate bill. Congress must promptly pass legislation reducing U.S. global warming emissions at least 80 percent by mid-century to give us a chance to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. The president-elect understands this. His leadership will be paramount to pushing the right bill through Congress.

"The new administration also must restore scientific integrity in the federal government. Our policymakers need unfettered, independent science to make the right decisions.

"Science has been under siege during the past eight years. Political appointees have run roughshod over federal scientists, altering or suppressing their findings or skewing them to fit the administration's agenda. We are heartened that President-elect Obama has said that under his administration, government decisions will be based on the best available science, not on ideology.

"Finally, President-elect Obama has pledged to replace the culture of secrecy at federal science agencies with one of openness. When decisions are made in the open, it is much more difficult to suppress or manipulate scientific information to justify predetermined decisions. The president-elect must act quickly to create a thriving federal scientific enterprise."


Clean Energy, Climate Change, Economic Stimulus, Environmental Regulation Integrity (remember that?) and Environmental Justice

This is an ambitious document for the Obama Administration to use as a template as they explore ways to revitalize the economy and environmental policy.

Feel free to send the link above to your Congressional representatives and to the Obama transition team at

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Obama's Green Deal

What a sight to see our President-elect on Youtube no less announcing his plan for 2.5 million jobs over 2 years. It's as if he's in the White House now, jumping out of the block as the current occupant dithers and waits for Jan. 20. If GWB and DC aren't going to actually do anything except fill up the executive mansion with carbon dioxide, then why don't they just...leave!

Jobs are needed now. The financial markets are still on life support and aren't getting enough oxygen. The nation's infrastructure is crumbling. As Ernie Banks would say, "it's a great day for a ball game, let's play two!"

First, let's stop talking about the New NEW Deal. Obama is not FDR. He's a centrist Democrat with University of Chicago and Goldman Sachs economists behind him. Let him put a stamp on the "Obama GREEN Deal." Branding is everything in this marketing-driven culture. Right now, he's got it. He's the go-to guy. He's going to make the world forget about the Michael Jordan-Chicago connection.

Here's what I think the Obama brand should stand for in the Green Deal:

* Rebuilding infrastructure. New York's water tunnels are leaking up to 36 million gallons of water a day. Roads, bridges, tunnels, urban transit systems and sanitation plants all over the country need fixing. That will put a lot of people to work and provide a genuine public service over decades. This is not "make work" like the Works Progress Administration.

* Smart Grids. The way we get electricity is pretty much the system set up by Sam Insull in the early part of the 20th Century. It's haphazard, prone to breakdowns and needs to be attuned to our information age. That means delivering power to where it's needed -- automatically.

* Comprehensive Green Cars and Transportation Networks. I'm not one who subscribes to the "magic bullet" concept for fixing Detroit. Before you have plug-in cars populating our roads, you need smart grids, clean power, longer-life/lighter batteries, cheap solar charging stations and some other transportation options. What about fuel-cell buses? What about all-electric/maglev commuter trains? That's all part of the solution and it will take more than a Detroit bailout to rework the current melange of bad choices.

* Green Rehabs. Inner cities are desperate for decent-paying jobs rebuilding homes and apartments. Green housing is energy efficient, durable and costs less. Chicago alone has more than 10,000 vacant lots while leading the nation in murders. You want to break the cycle of gang violence? Give them decent jobs and a future. None of Obama's Green Deal plans will be a success in my book unless school kids can walk down the streets of Chicago unmolested and live to a ripe old age.

So the Green Deal is about more than jobs. It about more than rebuilding. It's a transformation from a country that wages wars to gain the illusion of national security to one that wages peace by making people take care of what we have and needs to preserve for future generations. How did we lose sight of that?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Share Your Ideas With Obama's Team

I got this interesting email yesterday from John Podesta, one of the leaders of president-elect Obama's transition team.

He wanted to know my thoughts on energy and the environment.

I had a few, so I shared them. I also invited more than 100 friends to do the same. What are the chances somebody will read, respond and act upon them? Well, the odds are better than if no one asked at all. In any case, here's your chance.

You say you want a revolution, well, you quote the famous Beatles lyric. You want to put people to work while addressing global warming issues. Make your voice heard!

Here's the Podesta letter. Go to and send them your ideas. The winner gets to help save the planet. Really!

62 days. That's how much time we have left to prepare for the Obama-Biden Administration that will bring the change Americans demanded so strongly in this past election.

President-elect Obama has set a high bar for the Transition team: to execute the most efficient, organized, and transparent transfer of power in American history. As a co-Chair for the Transition, I want to tell you about a few steps we've already taken to achieve this goal.

First, we adopted the strictest ethics guidelines ever applied to any transition team. President-elect Obama pledged to change the way Washington works, and that begins with shifting influence away from special interests and restoring it to the everyday Americans who are passionate about fixing the problems facing our country.

Opening up the Transition means listening to your ideas and stories and providing a window into how the process works.

To give you a look at how we're approaching some of the nation's most pressing issues, we filmed this meeting of our Energy and Environment Policy Transition Team and interviewed team member Heather Zichal.

Watch the video and submit your ideas on energy and the environment:

Watch the video

President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden have set an ambitious agenda, and we are going to make a source of information, as well as a place to participate in the decisions being made about your government.

Since the decisions we're making affect all Americans, we're counting on citizens from every walk of life to get involved. You can help us right now by making sure your friends and neighbors know about and give their input, too.

We're continuing to develop new ways to open up the process, and we'll keep you posted along the way.



John Podesta
Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama's Hope

The human energy was palpable approaching the Obama campaign’s epicenter in Chicago on the eve of his election rally.

A dynamism akin to the advent of every religious and secular holiday made my spirit tingle. You could close your eyes and feel it. In the city’s gorgeous front yard set against the splendid lakefront on a perfect November day –- a miracle in itself given Chicago’s nasty weather from Halloween to Memorial Day –- the hopeful gathered, attempting to get into a park that was cordoned off to anyone without Secret Service credentials.

I didn’t obtain clearance in advance and was sent away by security with the long-honored Chicago dismissal ``who sent you?’’

"Nobody sent me, I'm a columnist," I said with a smile. "I did this spontaneously." I was turned away. There wasn't much to see at that point anyway as the nation's first African-American president hadn't been elected quite yet.

Obama’s fete was on hallowed ground in the history of the Republic. Abraham Lincoln was nominated in a long-forgotten place called the WigWam just up the street, an election that fomented the civil war. An even more-forgotten statue of Union general John Logan sits opposite the Obama fest site.

The Chicago police riots of 1968 took place two blocks away when the cops set upon Viet Nam war protestors. Students camped out in the park where Obama’s dais stood and more than one million celebrated on election day. Mayor Richard J. Daley angrily proclaimed ``we are here to preserve disorder, not to create it.’’

Martin Luther King was hit in the head with a brick a short taxi ride from Obama’s home. So much progress has come to the hog butcher to the world and the nation. Segregation came and went in my lifetime. Voting rights came to the South. A president, his brother and Dr. King were assassinated. The economy had many more violent gyrations.

Obama's Identity

Yet who was this man, the first person of color to be elected president? The son of a wayward Kenyan economist and teenage mother. Harvard Law School graduate. University of Chicago law school professor. State and U.S. Senator. Community organizer.

Once a little-known Illinois state senator, he ascended to his U.S. Senate seat when wealthy commodities trader Blair Hull bowed out of the race when details were revealed of an ugly divorce. His Republican opponent also had domestic issues.

With roots in the Midwest and Africa, Hawaii and Indonesia, Obama brings to the job a deep experience of many cultures. Because of his unique background, he may have a greater understanding of economic violence and social dislocation than any modern president.

When I met Obama twice during his Senate campaign almost three years ago, a voice echoed in my head: ``This man can become president. He has the complete package.’’

He spoke to my neighbors and I a few blocks away in my community, situated about 45 miles northwest of Chicago deep in Republican territory. At the time, and in many speeches thereafter, Obama echoed Lincoln when the 16th president spoke of his central idea of equality ``the principle that clears the path for all –- gives hope to all – and, by consequence, enterprise, and industry.’’

By illucidating this concept of economic equality, I saw something in Obama that had a powerful resonance. In an America where middle class wages were falling behind inflation, pensions were being cut, health care not available to some 40 million and retirement security fractured by numerous market crashes, he reached the core of the troubled American economic experience.

Big Troubles

With the economy a priority, I suspect the man who has been drawing millions to his speeches and ideas, wasn’t about to neglect the streets of Chicago nor the forlorn urban pockets of despair from the Central Valley of California to the Bronx.

His economic revival plans are ambitious. There’s everything from middle-class tax cuts to incentives for minority business owners. Everything seems to be on the table in an effort to promote financial equality.

For those who have called him a socialist, they had best look to his intellectual roots at the University of Chicago, the mother ship of laissez faire market economics. The virtual Nobel Prize factory has cradled or crippled the global economy, depending on your world view. Some of his top advisors are from that Hyde Park enclave, the spiritual home of free-market godfather Milton Friedman.

Will Obama be able to replace the nearly 3 million manufacturing jobs that have been lost since 2000? Or repair the disemboweled financial markets? Like all presidents, he may not have that much direct impact. It took World War II to re-engage the U.S. economy after a decade of FDR’s New Deal programs.

And what of the human misery that is borne of economic despair? Just blocks away from Obama’s celebration were the meanest streets of Chicago, where joblessness and the poisonous power struggles between street gangs have already claimed more than 420 lives. Such an ongoing wholesale waste of human potential needs to end.

Obama’s Insights

Fortunately, Obama is a uniquely qualified expert on economic violence. When he was a community organizer on the South Side, he was trying to restore a measure of dignity to tens of thousands of steel and other manufacturing workers who were impoverished by the brutal recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

How ironic and utterly mean-spirited was the fact that he was ridiculed for his community efforts on the floor of the Republican National convention.

We could want for no greater authority on how neighborhoods and families could suffer during a recession than Obama.

I know of his work because I walked the same streets when I was writing about the same people who had gone from decent wages and guaranteed benefits to poverty nearly overnight. Their ranks are legion: Men like Frank Lumpkin, a bare-fisted boxer who came from a Georgia sharecropping family to a decent job in a steel mill, only to end up being a jobless coalition organizer when his mill closed in 1980.

I’m quite sure that Obama has the experience and intellectual rigor to understand today’s economic ills. What of the daunting social issues he faces? Can he stop the murders on the West Side of Chicago, bolster the moribund auto industry or stanch the bleeding in the housing bust? What of the greedy tentacles of K Street lobbyists, who couldn’t care less what happens in Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland or to the migrant workers of California?

The Future

As I watched a gaggle of Chicago school kids march into Grant Park to see the spectacle of history, my heart skipped a beat. As I was walking away from the park, they were walking into it. The future was striding by.

Here was the future of the global economy. They’re weren’t just from Chicago, the inventor of the modern electrical grid, commodities markets, transportation nexuses and countless tons of steel, machine tools and candy.

These children were actors in the worldwide network, connected through aspirations and intelligence to street dealers in Rio, AIDS orphans in Tanzania, souk urchins in Cairo and taxi drivers in Delhi.

Would these future agents of change find room and hope in Obama’s new network of progress, one so remarkable that it linked young and old, rich and poor in raising more than $600 million, a record amount for any campaign?

Obama may not be able to boost incomes, restore sanity to financial markets, nor even make health care affordable and available to all, yet he will provide a new agenda for tackling these problems. At least he has a plan and has the will to transact change.

Genius for Re-invention

America has always possessed this genius for invention and re-invention. It’s been a Valhalla for second chances. Illinois has had its share of makeovers and leaders who were pillars of power and purpose.

Remember other renowned Illinois-bred politicians who reinvented themselves: Adlai Stevenson the intellectual. Ronald Reagan the B actor. Dennis Hastert the wrestling coach. U.S. Grant went from merchant to general to two terms as president.

Lincoln himself was transformed from failed shop owner and railroad lawyer to two short terms in the Illinois legislature and Congress to become our most revered president. He was self-taught and born poor.

Whatever Obama will do, we can hope that he will not be the captive of the efficient and ruthless Chicago political machine. Nor will acquiesce to the powerful overlords of K Street and Wall Street. I trust he will stay true to Lincoln’s dedication to the ideals of universal equality.

It’s no small irony that Obama will be inaugurated during the bi-centennial of both Lincoln and Darwin. America is still on the tortured road to equality and evolves to seek the angels of our better nature. So goes the audacity of hope.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Studs Terkel, RIP

We will all miss Studs. I wanted to share these memories of Studs with you.

When I was writing "Merchant of Power," Studs not only consented to an interview (he had seen Insull and his mother lost $2,000 in Insull stock), he read the book and wrote a blurb for it. Keep in mind that this was during a period in which he fell and broke his neck, wrestled with a home invader and had started work on his memoirs --in his 10th decade no less.

Yet when I was coming back from a Florida vacation about two years ago, I got this call on my cellphone. It was Studs, who by that time hadn't quite gotten an adequate hearing appliance and probably couldn't hear me.

"John, I thought your book was terrific. I'm going to write something about it." Well, to hear this from anyone (it was my first biography) was always welcome, but from Studs Terkel, it was like a papal pronouncement. I certainly didn't expect him to get to it, nor did I expect his generous cover quote.

I had met Studs some 30 years earlier when his "Working" was just made into a Broadway musical. I had a bet with a friend that it wouldn't do well, mostly because I didn't think the Broadway crowd nor the NY critics would truly "get it." It flopped and I talked with Studs after a lecture in Park Forest.

"Studs, I had a feeling your musical wouldn't do well because I don't think New Yorkers were attuned to the message," I told him at the time. "You know, I think you're right." he replied.

As Studs wrote his last books, I noticed that friends were beginning to be profiled. Like many of the folks Studs talked to, they were unheralded saints. Then I thought to myself, we need 100 or 1000 Studs Terkels to give voices to people who need to be heard.

Studs was not only the poet of the tape recorder, but the p.a. system for the voiceless.

Such changes he has seen and personally participated in during almost a century of life! I know he was thrilled at Obama's candidacy.

I've always regarded Studs as a national institution, serving everyone as a bard, illuminator of the human condition and just plain great storyteller. He seemed to embrace everyone with his bon homie, wit, puckish view of the world and his magnificent intelligence and memory. When I grow up -- and hope I never truly do -- Studs is my model for creative aging. Write to the end. Don't let the story stop when you do. Agitate for change by telling stories that few hear.

We should honor him and his work and abide by one of his favorite maxims: "Take it easy, but whatever you do, take it!"

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Financial Meltdown: Been There, Done That

Foreclosures and bank failures dominate the headlines. Politicians are in a tizzy over whom to blame. It’s not 2008, but 1932 and the devil du jour is not some Wall Street CEO, but Chicago financier Samuel Insull, whose securities became worthless during the Great Depression, leaving 600,000 investors in the lurch.

Insull, whose utilities empire failure – the largest in American history at the time (more recently eclipsed by the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc.) -- launched a raft of New Deal reforms and is little remembered some 150 years after his birth. Yet his startling rise from Thomas Edison’s factotum to the billionaire mogul of one of the nation’s largest utility combines, holds many lessons for today.

Unlike the CEOs of today, who walk away from corporate shipwrecks with tens of millions of dollars in compensation, Insull died broke after lending his own money and going into debt to save his companies before they fell into receivership in 1932. Having felt he had done all he could to rescue them with his personal capital, he left the country until he was extradited from Turkey to the U.S. to stand trial in 1934. When he returned to the Windy City, he was more infamous than Al Capone and tried in the same courtroom and by the same judge as ``scarface.’’ Insull never went to prison as juries recognized that Insull effectively went down with his ship; the utilities mogul was later acquitted of fraud in three separate trials.

Like today’s hedge funds and even the seized mortgage entities Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, Insull’s pyramid of holding companies that provided power and light to some 6,000 communities across the Eastern and Midwestern U.S., were little understood and barely regulated. The accounting for his empire was opaque and annual reports from the 1920s told investors little about how his empire was capitalized. Because they were pyramided and cross-financed with other holding company stock, his entities were the collateralized mortgage obligations of that time – and became just as toxic to investors.

Insull’s legacy is a chiaroscuro tablet. While he succeeded in helping to bring electricity into the homes of some 72 million people by 1927, his holding company failures became a touchpoint for the New Deal securities legislation. FDR’s reforms separated investment from commercial banks. Utility holding companies were dismembered and broken up. Stock offering prospectuses became much more detailed in their capital underpinnings and risks.

With the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 and the scrapping of the Public Utility Holding Company Act in 2006, two linchpins of the New Deal investor protection era were severed. The utility industry has re-consolidated somewhat and over the past decade Wall Street investment banks went hurtling into a lightly regulated environment that promoted everything from troubled auction-rate securities to subprime mortgage pools. Eliminating some of the heart of the New Deal protections has changed the entire landscape of high finance.

With the recent tumult on Wall Street, pure investment banks will cease to exist and regulators will have even more oversight over opaque financial vehicles. The rescue legislation recently passed by Congress comes full circle back to FDR’s era as buying mortgage assets, creating new layers of oversight and expanding federal deposit insurance seeks to protect savers and investors.

Unlike the 1930s, the combined forces of the U.S. Treasury, Congress, President, Federal Reserve, foreign central banks and the American taxpayer have been united as strange and often unwilling bedfellows to prevent a global financial system collapse (although we’re not completely out of the woods yet).

As the executives who captained the current debacle beat a hasty retreat, a natural question emerges: How can we best learn from both the Insull and current eras to strengthen the integrity of markets and investments?

One of the answers can be derived from the extensive disclosure and enhanced oversight that emerged from both crises. Once investors have a clear and comprehensive look at what they’re buying, they can better gauge risk and make prudent decisions. While you can never take greed out of the equation in investing, sunlight in the form of transparency is more than a disinfectant, it can illuminate any number of perils.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Mainstream Economy Falters, Solar Economy Shines

I've found a huge pocket of sunshine between the thunderheads dominating the financial news.

Congress actually did something sensible and greenlighted a raft of alternative energy incentives in its latest bailout, oh I'm sorry, RESCUE package last week. The remarkable irony is that this was a separate piece of legislation that some crafty senators attached to the "take or leave it" buffet of banking, mental health parity (a good thing, actually) and sloppy pork offerings passed under duress of market collapse on Friday.

Well, the markets didn't think it was enough and proceeded to wipe out another $1 trillion in equity. Now it's up to central bankers to pump money into the frozen credit markets. Bankers won't lend because they're afraid that borrowers won't pay them back. A lot of this is pure panic, but somebody has got to get the money flowing again. Or else payrolls will be logjammed, companies won't buy supplies and millions will get laid off. A recession is all but certain, the severity of which is open to a heap of speculation.

The bright spot is that the US Federal Reserve and Treasury, Bank of England, European Central Bank, Japanese Central Bank and People's Bank of China are almost on the same page on the core problem. They are flooding the banking system with money, which will help. It's also encouraging that China, Australia, Brazil, Western Europe and the Gulf States are flush. Russia has some reserves, although its stock market is shut down for the moment.

The credit freeze is akin to two boys at the mouth of a cave. They essentially know what's in the cave, but are frozen in space, saying to the other, "you go first, NO, you go first." And so it goes.

As we move toward the light, this may mark the end of the carbon era and the beginning of the solar age. It's about time. Some fairly decent tax incentives came out of Congress, which were obscured by the serious business of fixing the mortgage securities debacle, which will take years to resolve.

In the meantime, though, you can reap a break to put up a small windmill, install geothermal heating systems, buy energy-efficient and solar appliances. Here's a summary of the incentives, courtesy of the American Solar Energy Society (

Congress passes the most powerful solar legislation in history
Solar provisions will extend the solar investment tax credit
for eight years, removes the $2000 monetary cap

Homeowners battling against soaring energy prices and a struggling economy just gained a powerful new tool to help harness free, renewable energy from the sun, the wind and other sustainable resources.

The U.S. House and Senate just passed historic legislation that will massively increase the use of solar energy all across the America. Renewable energy provisions in H.R.1424 include an eight year extension of the 30% solar tax credit and removal of the monetary cap for residential solar electric installations. The President signed it into law on October 3.

The solar provisions in this bipartisan legislation will help position the U.S. as a global leader in the booming solar marketplace, generating thousands of green-collar jobs, promoting energy independence, and helping to tackle climate change.

"Renewable energy and energy efficiency are our economic drivers,” said Brad Collins, Executive Director of the nonprofit American Solar Energy Society. “I applaud members of Congress for coming together to extend the renewable energy tax credits that will strengthen the new energy economy and generate green jobs at a time when they’re needed most.”

Key provisions of this legislation will:

* Extend the investment tax credit for residential and commercial solar installations for eight years (it was previously set to expire at the end of 2008)

* End the $2,000 cap on the investment tax credit for residential solar electric installations placed into service after December 31, 2008.

* Allows filers of the alternative minimum tax to claim solar investment tax credits

* Allows public utilities to claim the solar investment tax credits

* Authorize $800 million in new clean renewable energy bonds and creates a new category of tax credit bonds called Qualified Energy Conservation Bonds to finance state and local initiatives to reduce carbon emissions

* Extends deductions for energy efficient commercial buildings

* Establishing a new tax credit for purchasers of plug-in electric-drive vehicles

* Extends research and development tax credits

What This Means to You

Given that energy prices (with the probable exception of crude/heating oil) will remain high in the short term, these write-offs will partially offset the cost of solar heating and electric units. There are systems available that provide both heat and hot water, so those are the best deals. They even work efficiently during the frigid winters of the Upper Midwest (I've seen this so I can verify their utility).

If you want to dabble in small wind turbines or geothermal, keep in mind the initial price tags are high and the paybacks much longer. Geothermal makes much more sense if you are building a new home on a site that permits additional excavation. As with any alternative energy appliance, see if your state offers a matching tax break. Most do. See

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Channeling the Hot Air from Washington & Wall Street

While Congress battles with Wall Street lobbyists, the Federal Reserve, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and the future of the financial system, I thought I'd tap some of that hot air and do a co-generation conversion.

That means I'm taking the massive amount of bloviation coming from the halls of wealth and power and channeling it into something profoundly useful that will benefit everyone. No, I'm not talking about another approach to world peace. I'm talking about some great new energy ideas.

The first wave of fresh air with charged particles of positive energy comes from the American Physical Society, a group of enlightened physicists. They've just published a new report entitled "Energy = Future: Think Efficiency.

What they've recommended is accessible to everyone; you don't need a doctorate to grasp the simplicity of their energy plan. Basically, they want high efficiency vehicles, buildings, batteries, appliances and other green goals to be part and parcel of the government's permanent energy policy.

I know, so there's nothing new there. What's ambitious is that they have aggressive goals for their plan. Better yet: Everything in their program is achievable.

An interim step to the APS proposal, which is reflected in the energy legislation that is being blocked by the "drill more" crowd in Congress, is much simpler and maybe more accessible than comprehensive energy policy. Let's label buildings for their energy efficiency. Such is the idea of one of my favorite architects Michelle Kaufmann, designer of the Smart + Wired Home and other fine models.

Michele's idea to to make energy efficiency akin to nutrition ratings for foods. How much water can a house save? How much power? If people could compare one house to another, they would know and be able to make informed decisions. It's an inspired idea. Here's more on her proposal:

Green Prefab Architect Michelle Kaufmann Releases White Paper Calling for ”Nutrition Labels” for Houses

“Nutrition Labels” that clearly communicate the sustainability facts of a home would help grow the green building industry by alerting homebuyers to a home’s environmental impact and monthly financial costs while outlining potential health benefits or risks.

Oakland, Calif.—September 22, 2008---Michelle Kaufmann , award-winning green architect and sustainable living expert, today announced the release of the white paper, “Nutrition Labels for Houses.” The white paper explores the need for a universal sustainability labeling standard for houses in the same vein as the federally mandated Nutrition Facts Label for foods. It also asserts that a universal labeling system would help grow the green building industry by making it easier for homebuyers to understand the environmental, health, and financial benefits of living in a green home.

The white paper is available for download at

“Nutrition labeling allows consumers to purchase food according to the quality of its nutritional content. We want homebuyers to be empowered with the same sort of information when it comes to making a decision about what house to live in,” said Michelle Kaufmann, founder and chairwoman of Michelle Kaufmann Companies. “We have to start holding the houses we live in to the same standards as the food we eat. Our habits concerning both are vital to our own wellbeing as well as the wellbeing of the environment.”

Michelle Kaufmann, who has built more homes for clients than any other firm in the modern modular architecture world, focuses on making beautiful, thoughtful design accessible to more people by employing prefabricated modular building practices and prepackaging green solutions.

Topics covered in the white paper include:

* Growing the green building industry through universal labeling of all homes—green and traditional
* Exploration of the building industry’s environmental impact, including comparison between traditional and green building practices
* The financial benefits of buying green homes
* Why we need a holistic, “apples to apples” labeling convention
* Proposed methodology for creating a Sustainability Facts Label
* Energy Consumption Study data, comparing a green home to a comparable traditional home

“As soon as a sustainability labeling program is in place, even if it is at first instituted on a small scale before ultimately going national, we will be the first to commit to labeling our houses,” concluded Michelle.

By reducing resource consumption, waste, costs, and building time by up to 50%-75% over conventional building methods, Michelle Kaufmann’s prefabricated, modular building techniques deliver benefits to individual homebuyers as well as builders/developers, who are interested in building green multi-family and community developments .

In the meantime, urge your Congressional representatives to pass the energy package that they've been considering the past two years. It might be the most productive thing they've drafted in 8 years.

Now if they could only label mortgages, investment banks and toxic debt portfolios. But that's a blog for another day.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bailout Blues

First there was the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac takeover by the US Treasury. Then the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. Today, the Federal Reserve played Coast Guard to the American International Group.

Did this calm the markets? Two money-market funds "broke the buck," that is, they lost money because of these debacles. More will follow. Banks will be increasingly folding. Even the venerable firms of Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are under pressure from investors. The Russians had to halt trading in their stock market to pump cash into three banks. As Yogi Berra once said, "it ain't over, 'til it's over.''

Well, the Fat Lady hasn't even come close to the stage. I can't say when this will all end. It may even trigger a monster Depression. I can predict one thing: If banks stop lending, the global economy is in deep trouble. If you don't have buyers and sellers in the debt markets, everyone will be a victim.

What are our major presidential candidates saying? Obama is going to do another speech on the subject. McCain blamed "greed and excess" for Wall Street's woes, but offered nothing beyond that. That makes sense because most of his campaign advisers are either connected to Wall Street or pushed through de-regulation to give financial companies a free ride in the free market. The free market's working all right, but it's not protecting anyone except those with the most cash on their balance sheets.

Here's what I think will happen:

-- We will be seeing a new program to purchase toxic debt. The mortgage securities that are poisoning credit markets have to be corralled and branded. Somebody will end up pooling them and auctioning them off. It will probably be the US Treasury or Fed. Taxpayers, as usual, end up being the big losers.

-- There will be attempts to send even more checks to consumers. IF middle America stops spending, a recession is guaranteed. So far, most of the damage is limited to the building/real estate industries, Wall Street and Detroit. Only? All of this may change if credit becomes unaffordable or unavailable.

-- Confidence must be restored. The Fed has got to pump more money into the system and open up all of its lending windows. The SEC, which has curbed short selling, has to shut the shorters down until this is over. The Fed needs to convene a crisis convention to provide cash to the companies next on the hit list. None of this is palatable to those outside of Wall Street, of course. But keeping credit markets liquid is essential.

-- If you can't borrow, you can't spend and people will lose lots of jobs if this happens. We can't go from being a credit-based economy to a cash-based economy overnight. This whale can't turn on a dime. There are lots of reasons for people to sit on cash and pay their debts, though. This is usually the best route.

-- Create a sense of recovery. There has to be a point where Wall Street says "I think this is over." The housing disaster will continue until foreclosures are stopped and people can get 30-year fixed-rate mortgages at reasonable rates again. That might spell the end of securitization where the local savings and loan holds onto your note, but that's not such a bad idea. Securitize that!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lipstick on a Pig

Oh, the horror, the horror, of petty distractions in a presidential campaign. It gets voters away from real issues, diverts them from what an awful job the current administration and Congress have done on any number of subjects.

Rather than talking about what or whom Barack Obama was referring to when he called McCain's "change" smokescreen "lipstick on a pig," here are a few vital subjects both candidates and the media can focus on.

-- The middle-class is falling behind in a big way. That means household income is not outpacing inflation. How do the candidates propose to battle that? I don't care how much foreign policy experience Joe Biden has or how many moose Sarah Palin has shot, this is the number 1 economic issue facing Americans. How do they propose to close the gap?

-- Why no mention of Medicare? It will be insolvent within the next seven years if nothing is done. How will it be rescued? Higher payroll taxes? Lower benefits? How about throwing out that wretched "doughnut hole" drug plan and starting over by having the program accept the lowest bids possible from the pharmas instead of subsidizing this crock of a benefit?

-- The housing market is getting worse. Foreclosure destroys homeownership, communities, banks and builders. It's not the right answer, no matter whom you blame. Properties that sit unoccupied invite vandalism and blight. If the candidates want this to continue, they will contribute to the ghettoization of entire zip codes. What Congress has done in their various bailouts (including Fannie and Freddie) have been laughable. They should be telling us how they will keep people in their homes to refinance.

-- What will they do to create jobs? I know Obama wants to create "green" employment through building up the alternative energy industry. McCain wants to drill for more oil and offer modest incentives for alt-e. Neither has a plan that's audacious enough to create an Apollo-style program to reshape the economy by greening it. Japan, Germany and most of Europe are already there with their national policies. China is rushing into the game. What leadership can we offer? Can they at least read Thomas Friedman's new book (or his column today

-- How about a bold plan? At least T. Boone Pickens, the Texas billionaire and hedge fund manager, is willing to say that wind and natural gas are part of the energy solution and is putting some money behind his proposal. I met T. Boone on Monday (shook his hand), and believe me, he's getting more press than either candidate on energy reform. This winter natural gas and electricity prices will rise, who knows what will happen to oil and gasoline and Detroit is falling off the map.

-- A meaningful theme. "Change" as a theme doesn't mean anything to me. Washington has become a revolving door for lobbyists and corporate interests. "Reform" won't happen until someone dares to challenge this system. Real change means creating a new economy.

So let's forget about pigs and cosmetics for now. It's time to bring home the bacon on substantial ideas that will help the country out of its malaise.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Obama, Kennedy and the New Frontier

Sen. Barack Obama has made history by becoming the first African-American nominated by a major party to become president of the U.S.

Despite his many skills, he needs to chart a course forward that goes beyond soaring rhetoric and would do well to echo the words of John F. Kennedy in his 1960 acceptance speech in the LA Coliseum.

Kennedy evoked the image of a "New Frontier" during the height of the cold war. Like Obama, the relatively inexperienced, handsome and charismatic senator needed to promise more than hope. He had to deliver a message that he would be tough, wise and fair in dealing with the complexities of being the executive of a superpower.

Kennedy deftly alluded to the emigrant experience and pushed the boundaries of the American Dream:

For I stand here tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind us, the pioneers gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build our new West. They were not the captives of their own doubts, nor the prisoners of their own price tags. They were determined to make the new world strong and free -- an example to the world, to overcome its hazards and its hardships, to conquer the enemies that threatened from within and without.

Some would say that those struggles are all over, that all the horizons have been explored, that all the battles have been won, that there is no longer an American frontier. But I trust that no one in this assemblage would agree with that sentiment; for the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won; and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier -- the frontier of the 1960's, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats.

As with Obama's candidacy, we should not be "the captive of our own doubts." Americans need conviction in Obama's ability to lead in difficult times.

Foreshadowing his call for action in his inaugural, Kennedy asks Americans to join him to forge this new frontier.

But I believe that the times require imagination and courage and perseverance. I'm asking each of you to be pioneers towards that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age--to the stout in spirit, regardless of Party, to all who respond to the scriptural call: "Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be [thou] dismayed. For courage , not complacency, is our need today; leadership, not salesmanship.

Kennedy challenges his audience to take up his cause in creating the New Frontier. Obama must do the same as he presses for national health care, an economic revival and ending wars in two different countries.

Have we the nerve and the will? Can we carry through in an age where we will witness not only new breakthroughs in weapons of destruction, but also a race for mastery of the sky and the rain, the ocean and the tides, the far side of space, and the inside of men's minds?

That is the question of the New Frontier.

That is the choice our nation must make -- a choice that lies not merely between two men or two parties, but between the public interest and private comfort, between national greatness and national decline, between the fresh air of progress and the stale, dank atmosphere of "normalcy," between dedication of mediocrity.

All mankind waits upon our decision. A whole world looks to see what we shall do. And we cannot fail that trust. And we cannot fail to try.

Public interest and private comfort! What a powerful phrase that describes America today. The Age of Froth -- cheap money, home-appreciation bonanzas, Wall Street dreams and a Las Vegas economy -- is over. The Bush years will be remembered as a time when the ultra-wealthy and well-connected got the lion's share of America's bounty and the middle class fell behind. McCain would continue this agenda, as Joe Biden reminded us last night. Public interest is the mantra of the progressives: Help as many people who truly need it.

Kennedy closes with a biblical passage, presaging the turbulent decade before him: The civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, the 1968 Chicago convention riots, the Viet Nam war, the assasination of himself, his brother and Dr. King.

Recall with me the words of Isaiah that, "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary."

As we face the coming great challenge, we too, shall wait upon the Lord, and ask that He renew our strength.

Then shall we be equal to the test.

Then we shall not be weary.

Then we shall prevail.

What is Obama's New Frontier? He needs to translate the "Audacity of Hope" (his second book and highly recommended) into the veracity of leadership.

Words can convey images, promises and aspirations. They must also lead to conviction.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Why and How Chicago Can Land the Olympics

I going to put my bias right on the table South Side style. I think Chicago should get the 2016 Olympics, but they don't deserve it -- yet. The city's proposal isn't green enough.

Chicago is vying for the games with Rio de Janiero, Madrid and Toyko. At this point, I think Rio has the best chance. It will represent a vibrant, growing continent and when was the last time anyone hosted the Olympics in South America? While Toyko has great transportation, it may fall short since Beijing got it this year and it may be too soon to head back to Asia for the IOC.

Then what's my argument for the Second City (actually now the Third City, since Los Angeles passed it up in population)?

Thinking like Mayor Richard Daley, the games would bring major economic development to the South Side of the city. A rail-industrial-public housing corridor that roughly follows State Street south could be revitalized with middle-class housing, more parks and viable neighborhoods. This strip, only blocks from the lake and its abundant park space, would provide more housing for thousands -- all within minutes of the Loop and served by reliable public transit.

As sports columnist George Vecsey put it in The New York Times, ``the fuzzy word infrastructure can be used to justify tax-supported projects.''

But Chicago won't succeed in its bid until it addresses a number of flaws in its proposal:

-- It will need to pump millions into transportation infrastructure to get people from venue to venue. I'm assuming that venues will be spread out over a huge area, probably ranging from the United Center and UIC on the West Side to the temporary stadium near Hyde Park and other facilities at Northwestern, Northeastern Illinois University and Loyola to the north. While the red line can connect a lot of those venues, there's no good way of getting to the McCormick Place/Solider Field area from downtown. A light-rail system would be perfect.

-- It's not forward-thinking enough. The temporary stadium in Washington Park should be replaced with a permanent venue that will seat at least 80,000. Suppose Chicago wanted to host the World Cup or promote the world's most popular sport? It can and should, but can't do it with the relatively dinky Solider Field. Chicago has always thought big, but for this Olympics proposal, it hasn't thought big enough. Look at what the Chinese did for the opening ceremony. Chicago can top that, although they need to put some more world-class facilities on paper.

-- Utilize more of the architectural community. My gosh, the skyscraper was invented in Chicago and is one of the best places on earth to see more than 100 years of high-rise masterpieces, not including the gem Millennium Park. Be bold. Chicago architects are busy designing the fastest-growing cities in the world, why not the Olympics? I haven't seen any truly stunning designs yet and there's no lack of talent working the drawing boards of Chicago architectural firms.

-- The proposal isn't green enough. Why can't every building produce its own power? This can be the first "carbon-neutral" Olympics powered by pollution-free fuel-cell buses. Again, we have the technical know-how to do this. From Argonne National Lab to the Chicago Center for Green Technology, we already have the intellectual infrastructure.

-- There's not enough connectivity. The great thing about Chicago is that city planners chose a plan and largely stuck to it. The Burnham Plan of 1909 created open lakefront and grand boulevards. Montgomery Ward sued to keep the lakefront free of commercial interests. The IC railyards were built over to hide them and created one of the most splendid urban spaces on the planet. What unifying element will connect all of the far-flung venues to downtown?

In creating the first Green Olympics, Chicago will position itself well for the 21st Century. It will provide more middle/lower-class housing. Transportation will be improved. Jobs will be created. It will gain a first-class, large outdoor venue (Solider Field is pathetic). It will create buildings that are environmentally sustainable.

You can do this, Mayor Daley!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Why the Dark Knight Haunts Us

Why is the latest installment of the Batman movies "The Dark Knight" on its way to becoming one of the most popular films of all time? Why are people (like myself) going back to see it?

Last night, upon a second viewing in a packed 10:20pm IMAX theatre showing, I gained some insights into why Christopher Nolan's gem is far more than a summer blockbuster about a conflicted superhero.

It's clearly not the special effects, which are good and even more dramatic in IMAX. The late Heath Ledger, while delivering an Oscar-level performance that makes you totally forget about Jack Nicholson, is worth the price of admission, but he's not the only reason to spend two and a half hours looking into the heart of darkness.

Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhall, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and the indelible Morgan Freeman are all first rate, but again, they are not the main draw. Even being awed by an array of Chicago skyscrapers (and the world's largest post office dressed up as a bank), aren't enough to get me into a second viewing.

The Dark Knight is a timeless story that stares us in the face and dares us to look at our collective soul.

It's not enough that Nolan taunts us with post-9/11 images of a blown-up building, the work of the Joker. Or that Batman is transformed from a caped crusader beloved by a feeble, corrupt police force into an anti-hero chased like a common criminal by dogs. There's so much more in this film that's informed by Shakespeare, Norse mythology, modern politics and hero worship.

Let's start with the Joker, which coalesced into one of the most enigmatic and terrifying characters on film under the Nolan-Ledger partnership. He's no simple psychopath. The Joker wants to create disorder just to see what happens. As the "dog chasing the car who doesn't know what he would do if he caught it," he's the self-proclaimed "agent of chaos."

My intelligent, loving and insightful spouse Kathleen, who accompanied me to the late-night IMAX showing, claims that the Joker represents Americans and materialism run amuck.

"There are no limits to greed. Look at our lust for oil and the wars we've started," she said. "Look at the mortgages and the banks who made them and all that credit-card debt. There is nothing stopping the free-market system. There are no rules."

"Yes, dear," I retorted, "maybe the Joker represents some element of our dark nature, but he's not about greed. He gets all of that money and he burns it. He doesn't want it. He wants to spread disorder."

"Then he's more of a Loki (the norse God of troublemaking)," she added.

I think he's much more than that. He's a terrorist. An anarchist. He spreads disorder and fear just to see what people will do. Carefully examine his bombing targets: A hospital, a bank, a factory. He wants to blow up institutions and turn people against each other.

There's no better scene in the movie to illustrate his terrorist agenda than the ferry scene.

Two ferries are sent out from the city: One containing dangerous convicts and the other innocent civilians. Each boat is given a detonator and told to blow up the other ferry before they are destroyed. It's a classic prisoner's dilemma. In most cases, one of the parties will take an action in interest of self-preservation. In this case, however, there's a satisfying irony in that one side decides to take no action and the other chooses to sacrifice itself. The end result is that both sides are saved, thwarting the Joker's prediction based on his observation of human nature. It's the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Because two powerful forces have the ability to obliterate each other, the only humane course is to do nothing. A perfect metaphor for our nuclear age.

Yet the Joker succeeds in winning a few hands. He does manage to sow chaos and convince the populace that their institutions can no longer protect them. He has achieved one of his goals. In this regard, he's Osama bin Laden mixed in with a little Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Mugabe and Himmler. He knows the power of fear and he plays it like a symphony.

Even more corrosive is the Joker's power to exploit the duality of human nature. After killing crusading prosecutor Harvey Dent's girlfriend and grotesquely disfiguring him (think Dr. Sardonicus or Dr. Phibes), he turns Dent into a vicious vigilante who goes on a murdering spree. Now the Joker is Iago to Dent's Othello. Human emotion is turned against itself to produce murder.

Out of chaos and loss comes vengeance. Is it an artistic coincidence that Dent's dark transformation comes right after the subtle 9/11 images? I think not. Then the crusader roams around the city murdering everyone who had wronged him and a few who haven't. His rage and lust for revenge are out of control. He's now Macbeth. Nothing stands in his way and the blood he has spilled fails to chasten him. Isn't he a raging post-9/11 America, looking everywhere for enemies, leaving a trail of death and devastation and punishing the innocent in the process?

Unlike most superhero films, the arch-enemy is left dangling. He's still out there, Nolan tells us. Although it will be monumentally difficult to do a sequel with an actor that matches or exceeds the intensity of Ledger, Nolan's message may be that Jokers still lurk in the world. They are hiding in caves, running governments or managing banks, but they are always among us, relentlessly exploiting every weak facet of human nature.

But what of Batman, who ends up being hounded like a wounded animal (mostly by choice)? After all, he's saved a few people, caught the Joker, and surprisingly has kept his integrity intact by not directly killing a soul. Batman even agrees to shut down his version of the Patriot Act: a device that lets him spy on an entire city.

Batman is no less than Ulysses. Despite his wits, strength and endurance, he is cursed by the gods. He can't return home for the time being. More trials await him. While mythical in perception, he will be a creature of the night, waiting in the shadows. Of all of the characters in this film, he is the least like us, yet the one most sorely needed.

We need to believe in a Batman, just the way we needed to believe that Harvey Dent was a hero, even in besmirched martyrdom. We want our leaders to be like Batman and swoop down from tall buildings to vanquish evil. Every fiber of our being wants to believe that such a person can exist. We put them on pedestals and hold conventions in efforts to sanctify them.

Perhaps there are no more heroes left in America to salvage our constitution, American Dream and place in the world as protector of freedom and democracy. It has always been a burden that was nearly too much to bear. Maybe we are weary of being the white knight and now stuck in a dark night phase, so immersed in decadence, cynicism and indifference that we don't even bother looking for heroes and making sacrifices to find them.

That is why The Dark Knight is the most relevant work of art at the moment, reflecting both the abyss and our gaze skyward. When we saw the spotlight with the bat image in the sky, we knew there was hope. A masked superhero would emerge from the shadows to answer the call and round up the villains. At the end of the film, the bat light is smashed. Did our innocence and faith in what we could once again stand for go out with that light?

I suspect not. Invested in the power of myth is the endless creativity and endurance of the human spirit.

The most telling scene in the Dark Knight isn't in the final sequence; it involves the ferry dilemma. Two parties with undeniable interests in self-preservation make the right choice -- and it's a huge sacrifice. They have no idea how it's going to turn out.

Are we coming out of a collective dark night of the soul?

Only the quality of our sacrifice and our way of addressing our spiritual recovery will chart the way forward. The rosy fingers of new dawn await our mutual response.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Hybrid Cars Aren't Enough

I was walking my dog Stosh this morning and came across two neighbors, each going in separate directions. The conversation immediately drifted to hybrid cars and how soon Americans would adopt them, particularly the plug-in variety:

Bob: The oil companies are panicking. Have you seen all of their advertising? They realize that plug-in hybrids are just around the corner and they are trying to tell people they won't work. (He already owns a Honda Civic Hybrid)

Ed: Just like they did with the electric car (referring to the film "Who killed the electric car.")

Me: I think they are advertising because they are swimming in money. I think Exxon-Mobil is making about $2 billion in profit per quarter (I haven't checked lately).

Bob: And do you know why T. Boone Pickens is pushing windpower?

Me: He stands to make a lot of money because he owns a lot of land where there's a lot of wind?

Bob: That's right and he knows the oil industry's days are numbered.

Me: It's doesn't matter what he thinks or how much Americans move into hybrids. For every hybrid bought here, the Chinese and Indians are making hundreds of small conventional cars. Just look at Tata Motors in India. They are going to be the GM of cheap cars. They're going to sell them for $2,000 to $4,000.

Ed: I think I heard about them.

Bob: I still think that plug-ins are going to take over the market.

Me: We'll need to fix the grid. It can't handle all those cars. They'll need to update it and make it smarter. I'd like to see solar panels on garage roofs. That way you won't need the grid. Store the power by day in batteries and recharge at night.

Bob: I think they should have recharging stations all over that just exchange the batteries.

Me: I don't think that would work.

Bob: We need to do something.

Let's get beyond the big idea of hybrids and think holistically. Here are some ideas:

1) Rewriting the major transportation funding bills to finance public transportation, bike trails, sidewalks and light rail. High-speed rail using interstate median right-of-ways still makes sense for trips under 500 miles. Today most of that money goes to building more and more roads.

2) Restructuring energy policy to fund the national energy labs to create an array of alternative energy solutions and technologies, including cheap, light, quickly-recharged batteries that can hold power a long time. We need a DARPA for energy that has some goals.

3) Creating more incentives for employers to let employees work from home and telecommute. I was having lunch with my friend from the Sierra Club the other day and he was proud of the fact he biked to work. My commute: 50 feet. Except for the carbon dioxide I exhale, it's pretty carbon neutral.

4) Creating more incentives for local economies. Why does it make sense to buy produce at the supermarket that's shipped thousands of miles when you can purchase the same thing from local farmers? Even in the winter, can't we provide more tax breaks for greenhouses? A woman in our neighborhood did that one winter and we had fresh lettuce delivered to our door that was grown a block away -- in January. It tasted like caviar. Better yet, let's make gardening a national priority in the suburbs. I started some swiss chard, tomatoes, beans, potatoes, strawberries, raspberries, melon and cucumbers this year, roughly tripling what I normally grow in the same space.

Backyard food is better food. I irrigate with rainwater and use natural methods of pest control. We had our first crop of apricots this year. The chard was outstanding!

As for driving a hybrid, I have a 1995 Geo Prizm that gets great mileage because I fill it up once a month. I drive as little as possible and try to bike and walk as much as possible. The best mileage car is the one you don't drive!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Plugging In Obama

As Barack Obama seems to be saying all the right things and drawing hundreds of thousands who can't vote for him in Europe, the U.S. is still in a muddle over energy policy. What energy policy, you say? Well, there's several of them.

* "Drill More and They Will Come." This is the Bush-Cheney-OPEC stance. Open up more oil fields everywhere and keep the spigot flowing. There's no incentive to cut back on consumption and no prices will come down because OPEC and state-owned oil producers have an incentive to keep prices controlled and artificially high. This is also known as the "don't worry, no pain" policy that is so 20th Century.

* "Plug cars in like rechargeable drills and we'll reduce our dependence on petroleum."The idea here is that plug-in hybrid cars that utilize huge battery packs, electric motors and small gas engines will reduce our reliance upon petroleum. It may, but both the technology and grid capacity are years away. It will do nothing for gas and oil prices now. There's already a $100,000 Tesla Roadster that essentially does this. Yet the car for the average commuter isn't here. There's another concern that nobody knows what plugging in millions of cars to the already strained and antiquated grid will do to the power supply. The grid needs tens of billions to update it and make it "smart" -- deliver power to where it's needed automatically -- but it's still prone to huge breakdowns. Besides, where would most of this power come from? About 40% of it comes from burning coal and creating greenhouse gases. The rest is from hydro, nukes and natural gas. Only hydro is really carbon-neutral and totally renewable, but it's only available in a small part of the country. The consultant JD Power sees about 1 million plug-ins on the market by 2013, although we clearly need them now.

* "The Manhattan/Apollo project." Depending on who's pushing this, this is the "big government will bankroll research and development" approach. While this is one part of the solution, private industry will most likely come up with low-cost, appropriate technologies first. That's not to say that we shouldn't get taxpayers behind this effort. The tax code needs to be re-structured to reward conservation, energy efficiency/technology, green building and creating jobs. The economics won't change until government employs the carrot-and-stick approach with massive tax credits. We should cancel the subsidy for home mortgage interest and shift it to energy r&d. I know this is radical, but it's necessary and will do more to lower homeownership costs over time. Natural gas, electricity and heating oil prices are at record highs and are unlikely to fall much in a deregulated environment. More people than ever before are applying for home-utility assistance. Here's where those redirected subsidies should go:

-- Research for all-electric cars, batteries and charging stations. We already have the technology in place for the first item, but we can't complete the puzzle without the other two. Batteries need to be lighter, store energy for longer periods and be even smarter to power the surges of driving. Recharging stations will build on the new battery technology to become less dependent upon the grid. Solar panels and wind turbines on homes can pump electrons into batteries by day and then release them for night recharging. After you expense this equipment (it should be a tax write-off), the power is free.

-- Fund carbon-capture and gasification technology. We have plenty of coal, as does China, Europe and Australia. What do you do with the carbon dioxide? You can scrub the other pollutants. We need a way of either converting the carbon or storing it.

-- Make solar cost-competitive with coal. The Google foundation is already funding this. This will make economic sense. How about tapping the solar wind or sunlight in outer space that shines 24/7?

-- Reprocess and store nuke waste safely and securely. Yucca Flats is not the answer. We need to eliminate the "toxic legacy" if nukes are to make long-term sense.

-- Make biofuels from waste, not corn and soybeans. You can make ethanol from grass clippings, ag waste and most other green refuse. The large-scale chemistry isn't there yet. We should be making ethanol from things people don't eat. There's no humane reason food prices have to rise because we're making fuel.

-- Create a mandated national building/development code. Just like standards for appliances in the National Energy Policy Act, we can do that with buildings to enforce tougher energy and resource consumption standards. This code should apply to all commercial-industrial buildings and homes. For retrofits, a generous schedule of tax breaks should be available.

-- Unite all of the consumer energy, conservation and environmental lobbies to get on the same page. There are hundreds of these groups and they need to speak with one voice to lobby not only Congress but state/county/local legislatures and private employers. There needs to be an AARP for consumer energy concerns. How about FREE (Federation for Renewable and Efficient Energy)?

-- Create jobs, export technology. We use to do this really well in the US. Now we're exporting jobs and creating useful technology like male-enhancement drugs and the latest skin-rejuvenation procedures. We need to get beyond our own vanity and indolence and do something. If we create jobs, we help the inner city to displace drug dealers and gangs. Instead of SUVs, we can build EUVs (electrical utility vehicles or cars that create their own energy). Instead of exporting our debt to pay for tax breaks and wars, we can export nanotechnology that will turn windows and roofs into solar collectors.

Are you still wondering what this has to do with Obama? I am submitting these ideas for use in his somewhat-weak energy platform. John McCain is also free to use my ideas. I know Ralph Nader is already on board. Aren't I generous?

Even if no candidate embraces my Plug-In Plan, send this to your Congressman and Senator.

I even have a motto: "Plug In, Power Up and Drop In!" (Instead of dropping out and doing nothing, drop your elected representative a line or visit them). Tell them the dailywombat is watching them!