Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Dollars for Dummies

This past week, Glenn Beck spoke about the impending danger of the dollar being dumped by the world market. He said we were smart enough to understand what that meant. Unfortunately, he underestimated the average Conservative American’s financial literacy. That’s not to say that no one understand what “dumping the dollar means;” it’s just that those who haven’t taken a college course in economics or were born after 1960 or so probably don’t.

Dr. Barry Einchengreen, a professor of economics and political science (!) at the University of California, Berkeley (!) did and got busy on his computer to explain to the average consumer, as best as a doctorate professor can. His column was published in the March 2, 2011, edition of the Wall Street Journal.

He sounds like something of a cheerleader for this demise of the dollar. Nevertheless, he at least explains what’s happening and why in a fairly coherent fashion. Some of his terminology, such a “derivatives,” still needs translation. But once you understand the lingo, you understand what’s going on.

“The single-most astonishing fact about foreign exchange,” he begins, “is not the high volume of transactions, as incredible as that growth has been. Nor is it the volatility [the extreme ups and downs and the risks that are inherent for loss], as wild as the markets are these days. Instead, it’s the extent to which the market remains U.S. dollar-centric.”

So what the heck are this economics professor and Glenn Beck talking about. We thought only Americans used the American dollar. Why would anyone else want to use it? Well, the American dollar, it turns out, has been a lot like the English, or American-English language. Prof. Eichengreen gives an example.

“When a South Korean wine wholesaler wants to import Chilean cabernet, the Korean importer buys U.S. dollars [the professor, in his article, put the wrong word in italics to for general understanding], not pesos, with which to pay the Chilean exporter. Indeed, the dollar is virtually the exclusive vehicle for foreign-exchange interaction between Chile and Korea, despite the fact that less than 20 percent of the merchandise trade of both countries is with the U.S.”

The reason for that, Eichengreen goes on to explain is that, “[F]ully 85 percent of foreign-exchange transactions world-wide are trades of other currencies for U.S. dollars. What’s more, what is true of foreign-exchange transactions is true of other international business. OPEC sets the price of oil in dollars. The dollar is the currency of half of all international debt securities [translation: bank notes, bonds, and debentures (bonds secured by the general credit of the issuer rather than the value of the asset)]. More than 60 percent of the foreign reserves of central banks and governments are in U.S. dollars.

“The greenback, in other words, is not just America’s currency. It’s the world’s.”

But Eichengreen believes, as does Glenn Beck, that that “reign is coming to an end. …In the next 10 years, we’re going to see a profound shift toward a world in which several currencies compete for dominance. The impact of such a shift,” he writes will have “implications for, among other things, the stability of exchange rates, the stability of financial markets, the ease with which the U.S. will be able to finance budget and current-account deficits [short translation: imports vs. exports], and whether the Fed can follow a policy of benign neglect toward the dollar.

“How,” he asks, “could the dollar’s long-time most-favored-currency status be in jeopardy? To understand the dollar’s future,” he writes, we must “understand [its] past.”

“First, its allure reflects the singular depth of markets in dollar-denominated debt securities. The sheer scale of those markets allows dealers to offer low-bid ask-spreads [the amount by which the asking price exceeds the bidding price]. The availability of derivative instruments [an agreement for an exchange based on the expected future price movements of the underlying asset, the asset to which it is linked, e.g., a share or currency] with which to hedge [protect] dollar exchange-rate risk is unsurpassed. This makes the dollar the most convenient currency in which to do business for corporations, central banks, and governments, alike.

Got that, so far? No wonder economists use such big, billion-dollar words. The definitions are even bigger. Prof. Eichengreen goes on to the second reason for the popularity of the U.S. dollar.

“The dollar,” he explains, “is the world’s safe haven. In crises, investors instinctively flock to it, as they did following the 2008 Lehman Brothers failure. This tendency reflects the exceptional liquidity [the ability to settle or pay back the debt quickly and easily] of markets in dollar instruments, liquidity being the most precious of all commodities in a crisis. It is a product of the fact that U.S. Treasury securities, the single most important asset bought and sold by international investors, have long had a reputation for stability.”

In other words, investors get their dollar’s worth – the dollar held its value, as opposed to say, your 2001 Dodge Minivan.

“Finally,” the professor tells us, “the dollar benefits from a dearth [a lack] of alternatives [that is to say, competition]. Other countries that have long enjoyed a reputation for stability, such as Switzerland, or that have recently acquired one, like Australia, are too small for their currencies to account for more than a tiny fraction of international financial transactions. [They don’t do enough international business and don’t have enough printed money to make it worthwhile].”

The world is catching up with us, though, Prof. Eichengreen chortles. “The three pillars supporting the dollar’s international dominance are eroding.”

The first change he cites is technology. Traders can now compare currency prices in an instant and can quote prices in other currencies without “confusing their customers.”  Now that there is room – and the technology – for more than one international currency, just as there is room for more than one operating system in personal computers, he says, “[T]he dollar is about to have real rivals in the international sphere for the first time in 50 years.”

He names two viable alternatives – the Euro and the Chinese Yuan, but thanks to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which created the SDR in 1969 to supplement its member countries’ official reserves, there are also the Japanese Yen and the English Pound Sterling (England having refused to link its currency to the Euro).

The SDR is an international reserve asset, created by the IMF in 1969 to supplement its member countries’ official reserves. Its value is based on a basket of four key international currencies, and SDRs can be exchanged for freely usable currencies. With a general SDR allocation that took effect on August 28 and a special allocation on September 9, 2009, the amount of SDRs increased from SDR 21.4 billion to SDR 204 billion (equivalent to about $308 billion, converted using the rate of August 31, 2010).

The SDR was created by the IMF to support the Bretton Woods fixed exchange rate system, a system of monetary management that established rules for commercial and financial relations among the world's major industrial states in the mid 20th century. During World War II, 730 delegates from all 44 Allied nations gathered at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, N.H., for the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference. They were preparing to rebuild the international economic system even as World War II raged on. The delegates deliberated upon and signed the Bretton Woods Agreements during the first three weeks of July 1944.

Setting up a system of rules, institutions, and procedures to regulate the international monetary system, the planners at Bretton Woods established the IMF and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), which today is part of the World Bank Group. These organizations became operational in 1945 after a sufficient number of countries ratified the agreement.

The chief features of the Bretton Woods system were an obligation for each country to adopt a monetary policy that maintained the exchange rate by tying its currency to the U.S. dollar and the ability of the IMF to bridge temporary imbalances of payments.

On Aug. 15, 1971, the United States unilaterally terminated convertibility of the dollar to gold. As a result, the Bretton Woods system officially ended and the dollar officially became “fiat currency,” backed by nothing but the promise of the federal government.”   In other words, Nixon took the U.S. off what was known as “The Gold Standard.” This action, referred to as the Nixon shock, created the situation in which the United States dollar became the sole backing of currencies and a reserve currency for the member states.

The Bretton Woods system was the first example of a fully-negotiated monetary order intended to govern monetary relations among independent nation-states. A country participating in this system needed official reserves - government or central bank holdings of gold and widely accepted foreign currencies - that could be used to purchase the domestic currency in foreign exchange markets, as required to maintain its exchange rate. But the international supply of two key reserve assets - gold and the U.S. dollar -proved inadequate for supporting the expansion of world trade and financial development that was taking place. Therefore, the international community decided to create a new international reserve asset under the auspices of the IMF.

However, only a few years later, the Bretton Woods system collapsed and the major currencies shifted to a floating exchange rate regime. In addition, the growth in international capital markets facilitated borrowing by credit-worthy governments. Both of these developments lessened the need for SDRs.

The SDR is neither a currency, nor a claim on the IMF. Rather, it is a potential claim on the freely usable currencies of IMF members. Holders of SDRs can obtain these currencies in exchange for their SDRs in two ways: first, through the arrangement of voluntary exchanges between members; and second, by the IMF designating members with strong external positions to purchase SDRs from members with weak external positions. In addition to its role as a supplementary reserve asset, the SDR, serves as the unit of account of the IMF and some other international organizations.

The value of the SDR was initially defined as equivalent to 0.888671 grams of fine gold -which, at the time, was also equivalent to one U.S. dollar. After the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1973, however, the SDR was redefined as a basket of currencies, today consisting of the euro, Japanese yen, pound sterling, and U.S. dollar. The U.S. dollar-equivalent of the SDR is posted daily on the IMF’s website. It is calculated as the sum of specific amounts of the four basket currencies valued in U.S. dollars, on the basis of exchange rates quoted at noon each day in the London market.

The basket composition is reviewed every five years by the Executive Board to ensure that it reflects the relative importance of currencies in the world's trading and financial systems. In the most recent review (in November 2010), the weights of the currencies in the SDR basket were revised based on the value of the exports of goods and services and the amount of reserves denominated in the respective currencies that were held by other members of the IMF. These changes become effective on January 1, 2011. The next review will take place by 2015.

Prof. Eichengreen predicts, that despite media reports and other economic predictions, that the Euro will remain stable. European governments “will proceed with long-term deficit reduction, something about which they have shown more resolve than the U.S. And they will issue ‘e-bonds’ – bonds backed by the full faith and credit of Euro-area governments as a group – as a step in solving the crisis. This will lay the groundwork for the kind of integrated European bond market needed to create an alternative to U.S. Treasurys [sic] as a form in which to hold central bank reserves.”

I’m not an economist, but this prediction seems rather optimistic on the part of the professor, given that some European countries have gone into default. But hey, I’m an English-Communications major, not an Economics major.

He continues, “China, meanwhile, is moving rapidly to internationalize the yuan. The last year has seen a quadrupling of the share of bank deposits in Hong Kong denominated in yuan.” The professor cites 70,000 Chinese companies doing international business in yuan, along with dozens of foreign companies. “In January, the Bank of China began offering yuan-deposit accounts in New York insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.”

This, the professor tells us, frees them from engaging in costly foreign-exchange transactions. “They will no longer have to bear the bear the exchange-rate risk,” Eichengreen writes, “created by the fact that their revenues are in dollars, but many of their costs are in yuan. Allowing Chinese banks, for their part, to do international transactions in yuan, will allow them to grab a bigger slice of the financial pie.”

China has a long way to go, he writes, but building liquid markets and making financial instruments attractive to international investors is key to Beijing’s economic strategy.

Eichengreen also fears that the U.S. dollar’s safe-haven status has already been lost due to a lack of security and stability. He fears we no longer have the fiscal capacity to honor our financial obligations and cautions that with “trillion dollar-deficits” stretching into infinity, international investors will question America’s intention to honor its debts or resort to “inflating them away.” That is, by the time we repay the debt, the investor’s money won’t be worth what it was when they invested it. “Foreign investors will be reluctant to put all their eggs in the dollar basket,” he warns.

This change, he says, will make life more difficult – and expensive – for U.S. companies doing international business. They won’t have the convenience of using the same currency to pay workers, import parts, or sell their products to foreign customers, according to Eichengreen. They will have share the same exchange-rate risks and exposures as foreign competitors. But foreign competitors will have the advantage of doing business in their own currencies.

“In this new monetary world, moreover,” writes Eichengreen, “the U.S government will not be able to finance its budget deficits so cheaply [spend money it doesn’t have], since there will no longer be as big an appetite for U.S. Treasury securities on the part of foreign central banks.

“Nor will the U.S. be able to run such large trade and current-account deficits, since financing them will become more expensive. Narrowing the current-account deficit will require exporting more [which the Chinese refuse to buy], which will mean making U.S. goods more competitive on [sic] foreign markets. That, in turn, means that the dollar will have to fall on foreign-exchange markets – helping U.S. exporters and hurting those companies that export to the U.S.”

The professor – and other economists – calculate that the value of the dollar will have to fall by roughly 20 percent [its current value is 66 cents – how much lower does it have to go?]. “Because the prices of imported goods will rise in the U.S., living standards will be reduced by 1.5 percent of GDP - $225 billion in today’s dollars,” Eichengreen explains. “That is the equivalent to a half-year of normal economic growth. While this is not an economic disaster, Americans will definitely feel it in the wallet.”

The good news, Eichengreen tells us is, “the next time the U.S. has a real-estate bubble, we won’t have the Chinese helping is blow it [buying up our debt].”

I’m not sure if I get all of it, and I’m not sure if you do, either, but that, fellow students, is why the dollar is being dumped and why we should be worried about it, as Glenn Beck has been telling us.

Friday, March 04, 2011

The Truth May Set Them Free

According to a story in the Feb. 1st London Telegraph:

The emergence of a secret US embassy dispatch, which detailed the three men’s extensive contact with a suspected fixer in the 9/11 attacks and visits to the eventual targets, raises the disturbing possibility that the US narrowly escaped further carnage because of a last-minute hitch.

Meshal Alhaji, 35, Fahad Abdulla, 36, and Ali Alfehaid, 35, had all been booked on a flight to Washington on Sept 10, 2001, but for some reason failed to board the aircraft. The following day, the same Boeing 757 crashed into the Pentagon.

Were the Qataris a fifth suicide team tasked with attacking another target, such as the White House or the Statue of Liberty, both of which they had visited?

Meanwhile, the battle goes on to put Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial. Conservatives and the military want him tried in Guantanamo, in a military court. The Obama Administration is holding out for a civilian trial, as near to the scenes of carnage as they can get away with.

The supposed “abuses” at Guantanamo may not even hold a candle to the damage the Wikileaks revelations could cause. Assuming something went wrong, whoever was wearing the mantle of leadership at the time will be responsible for the decisions made at the time. If they made the decision to “call it off”, but the order was ignored by Mohammed Atta (obviously, guys!), it could diminish the charges against that leader. And make a hero, in the Muslim world, out of Mohammed Atta.

Obama has a stake in this. He’ll get the credit in the West for putting KSM on trial, and the praise from the Muslim world for inevitably letting him, and possibly Osama Bin Laden - if they ever even succeed in catching him – go free. Or Obama may just call off the hunt for Bin Laden altogether since the case against him will fall apart.

The American people are in a difficult position between knowing the truth and seeing justice done. The truth may have saved the Statue of Liberty (at least temporarily) and the lives of some on 9/11, but not all. Sadly, the truth may wind up allowing murderers to walk free, even if they manage to capture – or recapture, as the case may be – these monsters.

Even now, the organizers of this Million Muslim rally in Washington, D.C. (which has since been postponed), are making plans to “redecorate” the White House and blow up the Statue of Liberty, although this time they’ve had the “magnanimity” to give the public notice of the demolition. They warned us just before 9/11, too, but at the time we didn’t take them seriously enough.

AG Eric Holder recently told a group of 9/11 families, concerned about the slow, almost stagnant pursuit of justice, that he had information they weren’t “privy to” and that they should trust him. Before the Muslims begin erecting a statue of Mohammed Atta in place of the Statue of Liberty, they should know that there’s a great probability that whatever his reasons for forging ahead with the 9/11 plot when others fled, they may have had more to do with knowledge of a simple fact that he had – and withheld from others – and not any particular supernatural powers of courage, fortitude, or zeal that he possessed. He may have been what we here in America used to call a “Glory Hound” or “Glory Boy,” a title to which KSM wishes he could lay claim, but knows he can’t.

What none of them know – KSM, the prosecution (well maybe they do), the Muslims, Obama, Holder, the 9/11 Truthers (who would love to hang the blame on former Pres. Bush; he may have known – but that’s not very likely) or the Media – is what ringleader Atta knew and took to the grave with him along with his followers. The best thing that could happen is that it stays in the grave. But this is the political season and Obama & Company are looking for that October Surprise that will put him in the White House in 2012. If the White House is still standing by 2012, that is. Pfc Bradley Manning and Julian Assange were of great assistance in that endeavor.

The Tea Parties and Conservative media need to keep up the pressure for a military trial. Despite what Holder says, I believe that if KSM and Osama (if they can catch him) are tried in a civilian court, they will walk. The “truth” will have availed the American people nothing but the pain of watching these two go free and continue on to destroy Liberty.

I wonder if Assange (and Manning) can be sued for violating intellectual property rights?

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Sound of Musicals

We’ll take a little break today from the end of the world politics to wish a happy anniversary to the musical film, The Sound of Music. The movie, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, premiered at the Rivoli Theater in New York City on March 2, 1965. Constitutional warriors – we’ll resume combat tomorrow.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, or the stage version, The Sound of Music is the true story of Maria Augusta Von Trapp, who left her position as a novice in an Austrian convent in 1938 (according to the film) to become a governess to the children of a widowed Austrian Navy U-Boat captain.

There’s some pretty funny and interesting trivia regarding the making of the movie and its international release. This is from IMDB, a movie website.  Anything you ever wanted to know about your favorite movies, they've got it:  full cast, crew, trivia, goofs, locations of films.  It's website heaven for film buffs!
• The original director, William Wyler, envisioned a different film, with tanks crashing through walls. When negotiations over his film The Sand Pebbles (1966) kept breaking down, Robert Wise started looking around for another project to do while he waited for things to get sorted. The Sound of Music (1965) basically fell into his lap after William Wyler dropped out of the project. Wyler wanted the film to be more serious and make more of the Nazis in the story. 20th Century Fox didn't care for his approach.

• Director Robert Wise considered Yul Brynner for the role of Captain Von Trapp.

• The first musical number in the film was the final sequence shot in Europe before the cast and crew returned to Los Angeles. Filmed in late June and early July of 1964, despite the warm and sunny appearance, Julie Andrews was freezing as she ran up and down the mountain over and over again. Director Robert Wise had to climb a nearby tree to oversee the helicopter shoot without getting in the picture. Although Julie dug her heels into the ground and braced herself, she was knocked over by the helicopter’s downdraft on every take.

• On the first take of “Sixteen Going On Seventeen”, Charmian Carr (Liesl) slipped while leaping across a bench, and fell through a pane of glass. Her ankle was injured and the scene was shot with her leg wrapped and makeup covering the bandages.

• The real-life Maria had a cameo appearance as an older woman walking through a brick archway during “I Have Confidence".

• The gazebo used for the "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" and "Something Good" , located in Salzburg, had to be closed off to the public because fans were injuring themselves while trying to dance along the seats. The gazebo in Austria was only used for exterior shots.

• In the closing shot, when the family is climbing over the hills to safety, a stunt double had to used for Gretl (Kym Karath). She had gained a lot of weight and was too heavy for Christopher Plummer to carry on his back.

• Debbie Turner (Marta) had many loose teeth during filming. When they fell out, they were replaced with false teeth.

• Mary Martin, who originated the role of Maria on Broadway, would eventually see nearly $8,000,000 from the film because her husband was the producer. In contrast, Julie Andrews earned just $225,000 for her performance.

• The librettists, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, originally intended to use songs the real von Trapp family had sung. However, Mary Martin, who was to be in the play, asked Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to write a song for her character. Concerned that the new music would not mix well with the folk music, Rodgers and Hammerstein suggested writing a whole new score, instead.

• During the scene with Maria and the Captain at the gazebo, Julie Andrews couldn't stop laughing due to a lighting device that was making, in her words, a "raspberry" every time she leaned in to kiss Plummer. After more than 20 takes, the scene was altered to silhouette the two and to hide Andrews' giggles.

• In the scene where the Von Trapps are pushing their car from behind, six burly Austrians were hired to pull the heavy car by two ropes from the front.

• Poor Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich) has brown hair, and had to undergo several painful hair bleachings before and during filming to make his hair blond.

• Kym Karath (Gretl) couldn't swim, so Julie Andrews was supposed to catch her when the boat tipped over. However, during the second take the boat toppled over so that Andrews fell to one side and Karath fell to the other. Heather Menzies-Urich (Louisa) had to save her instead. After the shot, Kim, having swallowed too much water, threw up all over Heather Menzies. Andrews stated later she felt guilty about this for years. The actors also had to be constantly hosed down in order to look wet during the takes.

• When the film was released in South Korea, it did so much business that some theaters were showing it four and five times a day. One theater owner in Seoul tried to figure out a way to be able to show it even more often, in order to bring in more customers. So he cut out all the musical numbers.

• Four other children were brought in to augment the singing of the seven von Trapp children - to produce a better, fuller, more polished sound. Among the four "extra singers" was the younger sister of Charmian Carr (Liesl), Darleen Carr. Duane Chase's (Kurt) high note in the "So Long, Farewell" number was actually sung by Darleen as that note was beyond Chase's range.

• When setting up for filming the wedding scene, nobody was at the altar when the Captain and Maria reached the top of the stairs. Someone had forgotten to summon the actor playing the bishop. According to Julie Andrews, the real bishop of Salzburg is seen in the movie.

• The song "Edelweiss" was written for the musical and is little known in Austria. The song was the last that Oscar Hammerstein II wrote before his passing in 1960.

• The Ländler dance that Maria and the Captain shared was not performed the traditional way it is done in Austria.

• Marni Nixon had become well known in Hollywood circles as a ghost singer for the leads in several film adaptations of hit Broadway musicals. She provided the vocals for Deborah Kerr in The King and I (1956), Natalie Wood in West Side Story (1961) and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964). "The Sound of Music" provided a rare onscreen performance by Marni Nixon, who plays Sister Sophia. Julie Andrews had previously appeared on Broadway in My Fair Lady (1964) but was passed over for the film. The producers were wary of how Julie Andrews would react to Nixon because she dubbed Audrey Hepburn's vocals in a role made famous by Andrews. When Andrews first met Nixon, she exclaimed, "Marni, I'm a fan of you!" and the producers were relieved. (Think how insulted Andrews would have been if they’d asked Nixon to dub for her).

• According to the British tabloid The Sun, the movie was selected by BBC executives as one to be broadcast after a nuclear strike, to improve the morale of survivors. The BBC did not confirm or deny the story, saying, "This is a security issue so we cannot comment".

• At the Musical competition at the end of the movie, Fraulein Schweiger, the third place winner, bows 16 times.

• The house that was used as the Von Trapp home was actually owned by actress Hedy Lamarr.

• Christopher Plummer learned to play the guitar for his part, but the guitar (like his vocals) were re-dubbed.

• In Austria the film is known as "Meine Lieder - meine Träume" ("My Songs - my dreams"). It's not very well known there though, and the ending of the film was cut when it hit Austrian cinemas in the 60s.

• At the beginning of filming, Heather Menzies-Urich (Louisa) was about three inches taller than Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich). He had to wear heel lifts to make him look taller. By the end of the shoot, Nicolas Hammond had grown six inches (5'3" to 5'9"). He often filmed in no shoes and Charmian Carr had to stand on a box to make her taller.

• The original Broadway production of "The Sound of Music" opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on November 16, 1959, ran for 1443 performances and won (in a tie) the 1960 Tony Award for the Best Musical.

• In real life, Georg Von Trapp was not stern. The Von Trapp children were upset and disturbed by the portrayal of their father in the film. 'Maria Von Trapp' requested that director Robert Wise soften the character of her husband, but Wise refused.

• In the original play the Captain and Baroness separate due to ideological differences: the Baroness refuses to stand up against the Nazis, and the Captain refuses to compromise with the Nazis. In real life, Maria Von Trapp wrote in her autobiography that the Baroness was actually a Princess and a cousin to Von Trapp’s first wife, Agathe. Von Trapp felt it would be best if the children were raised by a maternal relation. But she kept him waiting too long and he fell in love with Maria, instead.

• Christopher Plummer admitted that he ate and drank heavily during filming to drown out his unhappiness with making the picture, and found plenty of opportunities to do both in Austria. His costume eventually had to be refitted for his extra weight.

• Prior to March 14, 1938, Austrians drove on the left-hand side of the road. This is why cars registered in Austria up until the Anschluss had right-hand drive.

• Portia Nelson was the only member of the original Broadway cast to reprise her role in the film version.

• Julie Andrews sang "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" to the children in the cast to entertain them between shooting. Since Mary Poppins (1964) hadn't yet been released, they just thought she'd made up the song for them.

The movie was not very accurate in its details - the eldest child was a boy, not a girl; the children’s names were changed; the child actors were taught to speak with an English accent because the producers felt audiences wouldn’t be able to identify a German accent; Maria and Georg were married in 1927, not 1938; it was Georg’s intended bride, Princess Yvonne who was so strict with the children, insisting that the girls always wear dresses and that the older children not play with the younger; Maria was already an experienced schoolteacher and was hired to tutor one of the children, not all of them; Georg lost all his money in 1935 when he loaned it to a friend in business, after which that bank failed; as they were in financial straits, they rented the lower rooms of the mansion to Catholic University students – the church sent a priest to be the students’ chaplain and he formed the family into a musical singing group. And they didn’t escape Austria over the mountains (which would have been impossible, given Salzburg’s location). Von Trapp had dual citizenship in Austria and Italy. Their escape was simply a matter of boarding a train in town.

But no matter; the musical was an instant hit. Truly, the last great musical before the Socialist Sixties really set in. The Socialists were about to outlaw happiness. Unabashed, sing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs happiness. We wouldn’t know such happiness again until the Eighties, when Ronald Reagan was elected president. Movies started having happy endings again about the time Star Wars came out in 1977.

I was five when The Sound of Music came out, and six when I saw it in Saranac Lake while we were on vacation that summer. I fell head over heels in love with the movie and have been a fan ever since. If I hadn’t had to go to a band rehearsal last night in order to make the sounds of music, I would have been watching this beloved classic on its anniversary. Tonight will have to do.

Christopher Plummer called the movie “The Sound of Mucus” and was said to be very unhappy making what he felt was a saccharine movie. Fortunately, millions of fans of the movie around the world disagreed with him, and he’s since softened his tone. Nor did they agree with Hollywood in general that the world was a horrible place and we should act accordingly.

Happy anniversary to the musical that made happiness popular again!

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Exitus Acta Probat

Just as in the Sixties, when Radicals would occupy college buildings, the union protesters have taken over the Wisconsin capitol building. They won’t leave even to allow maintenance to clean it up. They’re in siege mode and are not going to yield one inch of ground – not even to the janitors.

We’ve seen several videos now of union thugs assaulting the opposition – those brave Tea Party activists who are determined to stand their ground. When the thugs beat the Tea Partiers, they did so in the spirit of Exitus Acta Probat – “the ends justify the means.”

Publius Ovidius Naso (20 March 43 BC - 17 AD), better known as the poet Ovid, wrote the words right around the time of Julius Caesar. The motto was copied many times. Shakespeare wrote, “All’s well that ends well.” During the Inquisition, the Roman Catholics felt the ends justified the means when they welcomed heretics to confess and seek salvation, and then murdered them.

In the case of the unions spreading their cause across the country, neither the ends nor the means are justified. They accuse Conservative governors of interfering with their right to collective bargaining, to forming unions. But no one is saying that. What Conservatives are saying is they cannot coerce other employees into joining unions when they don’t wish to.

I still remember the union organizer at Bambergers who was trying to convince the employees to form the union. He was a scrawny, runt of a Trotskyite. Leon Trotsky argued for the establishment of a vanguard party of the working-class. His politics differed sharply from those of Stalinism, most prominently in opposing Socialism in One Country, which he considered a break with proletarian (working class) internationalism. Trotskyites believe in a more authentic dictatorship of the proletariat based on working-class self-emancipation and mass democracy, rather than the unaccountable bureaucracy that developed after Lenin's death.

I wasn’t afraid of this guy but one of my co-workers was. We were both college girls, about 19 years old. Our supervisor asked me to escort her out to her car, past Trotsky Junior, clutching his clipboard. I engaged him in order to give her time to escape. He took the bait as I led him away from the girl. Realizing that he been duped, he looked at her, at me (angrily), then with a cry, went running after her.

With a scream, she threw up her hands and made a dash for her car, with Trotsky Junior close behind. She gained her car just in time, got in, slammed the door and backed up, nearly running him over. He banged his fists on the trunk of the car as she screeched off into the night.  I watched for a moment then headed off to my own car, satisfied that a victory had been gained for liberty and the right towork. The ends (deceit) definitely justified the means (giving that poor girl in heels a chance to get away).

Obama spoke of not “denigrating," "villifying", or "denying the rights" of the Union members. Just what rights are those? To intimidate others into joining their unions, preventing employment if they refuse to join, and breaking their legs or putting a stop sign through their windshield if they dare to speak against them.

People are free to form unions. They’re not free to coerce, threaten, and intimidate. Nowhere in the the U.S. Constitution are they guaranteed the right to a bigger pension, more healthcare benefits, or an earlier retirement age than the rest of us, especially when the rest of us are supporting them.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Cookie Counters

To be a good scout – a good Girl Scout – in the early Baby Boomer years of the mid-Sixties, you needed the hide of a rhinoceros, nerves of steel, the confidence of Prof. Harold Hill, a big family with lots of relatives, and parents with a ton of friends. In those days, there were five Girl Scouts on every corner, selling Girl Scout cookies – and failure was not an option.

I did not hail from a big family. I had only two uncles, one of whom lived 3,000 miles away in California, with two Girl Scouts of his own and the other here in New Jersey with a Girl Scout of his own. Whatever cousins my parents had lived in houses with doorbells much too far away to ring. Mom was a stay-at-home mother and dad was night-time security guard, which meant no co-workers to impose upon. My mother and father had no friends in our hillside community since none of our neighbors knew anything Shakespeare, Gallileo, or Michelangelo.

Today, the Girl Scouts of America claim that cookie selling is optional, though their language is a big vague. More on that later. When I was a Girl Scout, selling cookies was mandatory, at least in the troop nearest my home. If I wanted to be part of that troop, Mom had to sign on the dotted line that I’d sell those minimum 25 boxes of cookies, or my Brownie wings would be clipped.

Brownies were fun. Junior Girl Scouts – not so much. That was where the cookies met the pavement. I lived in a development chock full of Girl Scouts. During cookie sales, they could be seen swarming up and down the street as though it was Halloween and the costume of the year was the Girl Scout uniform.

One could almost admire the entrepreneurial spirit of the Girl Scouts of America. Teaching young girls to develop confidence and saleswomanship. Teaching them that hard work brought success. That girls could succeed. Or fail. Not everyone is a born salesperson. I had neither the disposition, confidence, or even inclination to be an “entrepreneur”. Especially not in an enterprise such as this.

Selling Girl Scout cookies was strictly an organizational endeavor. All proceeds went to the benefit of the entire troop. Girls who made the top sales were rewarded with praise and the prized 100-box badge. Girls who only made the minimum quota got the lowly 25-box badge and a scolding from the trooper leader. At least I did.

I was relieved to finally make the 25. For me, it was an amazing accomplishment. I’d had countless doors slammed in my little face by inopportuned neighbors who were tired of having their doorbells rung. They even rang our doorbell. Mom took one of the lists and examined it.

“What’s your name?” my mother asked the eager little cookie salesgirl.

“Jane Smith,” she replied, beaming.

My mother silently read down the list: John Smith, 10 boxes; Jane Smith, 10 boxes; Harry Smith, 5 boxes; Robert Smith, 2 boxes; Myrtle Smith, 15 boxes; Deborah Smith, 2 boxes; Dolores Smith, 2 boxes; Andrew Smith, 5 boxes; George Smith, 2 boxes; Bertha Smith, 2 boxes.

“Looks like you’ve made plenty of sales,” my mother told her. “I’ll wait for the next Girl Scout who hasn’t done so well.” And she closed the door on the startled little Girl Scout.

I was doing so abysmally that even when my mother drove me around in the car, I simply refused to get out. My older brother, Mr. Newspaper Salesman, was a great businessman. He tried making the first pitch for me. The occupant would agree to buy a box. But then as soon as they saw me, they invariably shut the door. The only thing that saved me were Mom’s friends from the old neighborhood, and Grandma who bought just enough boxes, along with my parents, to fulfill the quota.

Not long after that, I quit the Girl Scouts altogether. They were the same girls who picked on me all day long at school. The troop leader was a nasty, bossy creature who was always scolding me (I must say, her daughter was very nice and apologized for her mother’s behavior). I didn’t like most of the badge activities and hated camping. What in the world was I doing there at these meetings, miserable and unhappy, when I could be watching “Green Acres” on TV that night?

I wished I was a boy. The Boy Scouts did neat things. Oh, they still did the camping stuff, but they also had the home-made car races and they did day-hiking. The troop leader (it was my younger brother’s troop) let me tag along sometimes, as long as I didn’t annoy the boys, which I tried very hard not to do.

As an adult with a better understanding of politics, I realized what a scam the Girl Scout cookie sales were, at least at that time. Here these little girls sold their hearts, or got doors slammed in their faces, and never got anything for their efforts except a crummy badge. It was all for the troop, the common good. Phooey!

Junior Girl Scouts used to be the second level up the Girl Scout chain, before they added the kindergarten-aged Daisy Scouts. The Boy Scouts have a similar hierarchy, and just as Junior Girl Scouts must sell cookies, the Boy Scouts had an economic requirement for their boys.

One of the Second-Class requirements for Boy Scouts is to earn money doing a job and put half the proceeds into their very own savings account. What the job was to be and where the money was to be saved was up to the Scout and his parents.

10. Earn an amount of money agreed upon by you and your parents, then save at least 50 percent of that money.

Hard work for which you are rewarded; what a concept! Saving your money for the future; how ingenious. Why didn’t the Girl Scouts think of that? Instead, we were inculcated into the socialist notion of working for the community, rather than ourselves. So much for independence.

When I think back on it, signing up for the Girl Scout troop was an awful lot like joining a union. It wasn’t quite what I thought it would be. We rarely went on hikes as I recall. There were individual badges for sewing and cooking, which I enjoyed, and reading. But that hardly had anything to do with the troop and I didn’t much care. I like the uniform, but that was about it.

Today, the Girl Scouts are still selling cookies. There is this qualifier in the FAQ on their website.

Q: Does a Girl Scout group have to sell cookies if they don't want to?

A: Girl Scout product sales offers girls a great way to finance their Girl Scout activities and special projects. Participation in this activity is voluntary and requires written permission by a parent or guardian. Annually, about 65% of registered Girl Scouts choose to participate.

Notice that the question refers to a Girl Scout “group” but that participation is voluntary, requiring a parent or guardian’s “permission.” You don’t see many Girl Scouts going door-to-door anymore. These days, they conduct their cookie sales the way Boy Scouts conduct their car-washes; it’s a group effort, usually at a local supermarket under a parent’s or troop leader’s supervision. The girls are no longer sent out individually to have doors slammed in their faces. Or worse.

But now the Girl Scouts are having problems with local sales ordinances. They’re being thrown out of parks and other public places. In Savannah, Ga., the Girl Scouts were actually banished from the sidewalk in front of Girl Scout founder Juliette Low’s home. Recently in Villa Rica, Ga. - about 35 miles west of Atlanta - Girl Scouts were told they could no longer peddle their Thin Mints at a strip mall.

The Girl Scouts finally get it right, only to have the government get it wrong. Sending little girls door to door peddling cookies they didn’t even make themselves was okay. Having them sell the cookies in the safety of numbers with parental supervision, going where the customers are instead of bothering people in their private homes or coercing hapless co-workers or relatives, isn’t.

Why, they’re becoming too much like real entrepreneurs and less like little hustlers, Artful Dodgers sent out to do Fagin’s bidding. Why, the next thing you know, these kids might just start baking their own cookies. Then, they’ll be in really big trouble with the Food and Drug Administration.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Happy Birthday, GOP!

On this date in 1854, the Republican Party was originally formed in, of all places, Ripon, Wisc. The Republican Party emerged in 1854, growing out of a coalition of former Whigs (who favored the power of Congress over the power of the President) and Free Soil Democrats, a short-lived political party whose main purpose was opposing the expansion of slavery into the western territories, arguing that free men on free soil comprised a morally and economically superior system to slavery. They opposed slavery in the new territories and sometimes worked to remove existing laws that discriminated against freed African Americans in states such as Ohio. who mobilized in opposition to the possibility of slavery extending into the new western territories.

The new party put forward a vision of modernizing the United States—emphasizing free homesteads to farmers (“free soil”), banking, railroads, and industry. They vigorously argued that free-market labor was superior to slavery and the very foundation of civic virtue and true republicanism— their ideology was “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men” ideology. The Republicans absorbed the previous traditions of its members, most of whom had been Whigs; others had been Democrats or members of third parties (especially the Free Soil Party and the American Party or Know Nothings).

The party organized in a little white schoolhouse in Ripon. John C. Frémont ran as the first Republican nominee for President in 1856, using the political slogan: “Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men, Frémont.” Although his bid was unsuccessful, the party showed a strong base. It dominated in New England, New York and the northern Midwest, and had a strong presence in the rest of the North. It had almost no support in the South, where it was roundly denounced in 1856-60 as a divisive force that threatened civil war.

The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 ended the domination of the fragile coalition of pro-slavery southern Democrats and conciliatory northern Democrats which had existed since the days of Andrew Jackson. Instead, a new era of Republican dominance based in the industrial and agricultural north ensued. Republicans sometimes refer to their party as the "party of Lincoln" in honor of the first Republican President.

With the election of Ulysses S. Grant in 1868, the Radicals had control of Congress, the party and the Army, and attempted to build a solid Republican base in the South using the votes of Freedmen, Scalawags and Carpetbaggers,[7] supported directly by U.S. Army detachments. Republicans all across the South formed local clubs called Union Leagues that effectively mobilized the voters, discussed issues, and when necessary fought off Ku Klux Klan (KKK) attacks. Thousands died on both sides.

The Republicans lost much of its strength when Herbert Hoover lost to FDR in 1932. With Hoover, many Republican Congressmen and Senators were defeated. FDR’s socialist policies were quickly passed by Congress, though many of his appointments to the Supreme Court were radical even by Democrat standards.

The Republicans saw a hoped-for resurgence with Barry Goldwater’s conservative candidacy in 1964. But Kennedy’s assassination and liberal activism put an end to their hopes. Richard Nixon’s near-impeachment and resignation in 1974 was seen as the doom of the Republican Party. But a short six years later, Ronald Reagan, charismatic and confident, turned the tables on the Democrats. His presidency was dubbed “The Reagan Revolution,” inspiring generations of Conservatives.

We ask who is the next George Washington? We should also ask who will be the next Abraham Lincoln or Ronald Reagan. The class of 2006, responding to the Democrats’ disingenuous plea of “Can’t we all just get along?”, succumbed to every vice and corrupt practice in the book, handing the Democrats both houses of Congress.

Their victory wasn’t long-lived, though, thanks to the Tea Parties. Not all Republicans got the message and are still touting a left-of-middle message, which in political parlance is a central message. However, some daring Republicans are promoting the Conservative values message that made the GOP the party of Lincoln and Reagan, rather than Wilson and Nixon.

So many happy returns, Grand Old Party!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

In the Eye of the Beholder

The ladies of Queens, New York, Congressman (D) Anthony Weiner, and City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D) are all agog over a statue in a park near Queens Borough Hall that they consider “indecent.”

“The Triumph of Civic Virtue” by famed Beaux Arts sculptor Frederick William MacMonnies depicts Civic Virtue, a nearly nude man, triumphing over the twin evils of vice and corruption. These figures are represented by women transformed into snakes. Located on the corner of Queens Boulevard and Union Turnpike, near Queens Borough Hall in Kew Gardens, with the Queens Family Justice Center just down the block, Weiner decided, like Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia in 1941, that he’d had enough of being “mooned” by the statue’s back end.

Weiner and Ferreras are asking the city to dismantle it and sell it on Craigslist. The 20-foot (two story) tall marble fountain was commissioned in the early 20th Century and stood in front of City Hall for 19 years until LaGuardia banished it in 1941.

“Mayor LaGuardia had it right when he banished this offensive statue from City Hall Park,” Weiner said. “Queens residents don’t want this sitting in our backyard any longer. This statue is neither civil nor virtuous — and it’s time for it to go.”

This is not the sculptor’s first statue to get into trouble for indecency. His second best known sculpture, Bacchante and Infant Faun, a life-size nude, was offered as a gift to the Boston Public Library by the building's architect Charles Follen McKim in 1896, to be placed in the garden court of the library. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union caused such a public outcry citing its “drunken indecency” that the library had to refuse the gift, and McKim gave the statue to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Brooklyn-born MacMonnies is also known for less controversial sculptures such as Nathan Hale. The life-size Hale was the first major commission gained by MacMonnies. Erected in 1890 in City Hall Park, New York, it stands near where the actual Nathan Hale was thought to have been executed. Copies are scattered in museums across the United States, since MacMonnies was one of the earliest American sculptors to supplement his fees from major commissions by selling reduced-size reproductions to the public. The Metropolitan Museum has a copy, as does the Art Museum at Princeton University, the National Gallery of Art, and the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College.

In 1891, he was awarded the commission for the centerpiece of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago: the sculpture of Columbia in her Grand Barge of State, in the vast central fountain of the Court of Honor, was truly the iconic figure at the heart of the American Beaux-Arts movement. This large decorative fountain piece became the focal point at the Exposition and established MacMonnies as one of the important sculptors of the time.

In 1894, Stanford White brought another prestigious and highly visible commission, for three bronze groups for the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza. The complicated figural groups occupied him for the next eight years.

In late 1917, two years before “Civic Virtue”, MacMonnies was commissioned by a group of influential citizens of New York City, to work on a sculpture in honor of those that died in the Battle of the Marne as a gift to the French people in exchange for the Statue of Liberty. The statue, located in Meaux, France was over seven stories tall, and while work started on the statue in 1924 it was not finished until 1932 and at that time of its dedication was the world's largest stone monument.

West Point has MacMonnies’ "Fame," a woman in billowing drapery, built in 1895. She balances on a 46-foot-tall column atop the Battle Monument, which honors soldiers of the regular army who died during the Civil War. Her triumphant pose and her very name - “Fame” or "Victory" - celebrate the fact that those soldiers died fighting for a worthwhile cause. The names of the officers honored are on the column; the names of the enlisted men are on supports around the base.

In 1911, MacMonnies also sculpted a bronze statue of Kit Carson on Horseback as part of the Pioneer Monument Fountain and Smoky Hill Trail Monument in the Civic Center in downtown Denver. Originally the statue was a heroic Native American figure but the public sentiment of the time forced him to replace it with a depiction of Kit Carson

In 1884 MacMonnies left for Paris to study sculpture at the École des Beaux-Arts, twice winning the highest award given to foreign students. In 1888 MacMonnies opened a studio in Paris and began to create some of his most famous sculptures, which he submitted annually to the Paris Salon. In his atelier he mentored such notable artists as Janet Scudder and Mary Foote. He married a fellow artist, Mary Louise Fairchild. They were divorced in 1908, and he married his former student Alice Jones in 1910.

On a visit to the Museum of Art in New York City, my mother looked up the statue of David and sniffed huffily, “Pornography!” I had to admit, I blushed looking at the Statue of David (although it seemed to me the offending part of the sculpture was Sincpretty small in comparison to the rest of the statue). The ancient Greeks’ morals were the stuff of notorious legend and the Romans copied the Greek statues – and their morals.

I can’t blame the residents of Queens for objecting to a nude statue in a public park, where children are playing and it can’t very well be avoided. However, if it bothers Queens so much, why don’t they hire a sculptor to give Civic Virtue a loin cloth. How hard could it be? As for the politicians who object to the portion of this statue facing their city hall, the same way it faced in Manhattan in 1919, why don’t they just turn the statue the other way (and give it a bronze loincloth)?

The politicians might want to ask themselves just why the sculptor positioned his statue the way he did. Most statues will face a building or a thoroughfare, not turn its back on the majority of viewers. Could it be MacMonnies was trying to tell the politicians and bureaucrats something? They’ve proven themselves, throughout history, as the very models of vice and corruption. Since they do a lot of posterior-kissing (Democrats are particularly fond of union posteriors), they shouldn’t be surprised to find a statue dedicated to the art of posterior worship right on their doorstep.

MacMonnies is well known for sculptures dedicated to heroes such as Nathan Hale and George Washington, so it’s rather suspicious that he would also dedicate statues to pornography. Perhaps he was sending a message to the ladies of Boston on the issue of temperance and book-banning, and another to the hypocritical heirs of Tammany Hall.

Tammany Hall, also known as the Society of St. Tammany, the Sons of St. Tammany, or the Columbian Order, was a New York political organization founded in 1786 and incorporated on May 12, 1789 as the Tammany Society. It was the Democratic Party political machine that played a major role in controlling New York City politics and helping immigrants, most notably the Irish, rise up in American politics from the 1790s to the 1960s. It controlled Democratic Party nominations and patronage in Manhattan from the mayoral victory of Fernando Wood in 1854 through the election of John P. O'Brien in 1932.

Tammany Hall was permanently weakened by the election of Fiorello La Guardia on a “fusion” ticket of Republicans, reform-minded Democrats, and independents in 1934, and, despite a brief resurgence in the 1950s, it ceased to exist in the 1960s. It was Mayor LaGuardia who banished Civic Virtue to Queens.

The Tammany Society was named for Tamanend, a Native American leader of the Lenape, Tamanend or Tammany or Tammamend, the "affable", (c. 1628–1698) was a chief of one of the clans that made up the Lenni-Lenape nation in the Delaware Valley at the time Philadelphia was established. Tamanend is best known as a lover of peace and friendship who played a prominent role in the establishment of peaceful relations among the Native American tribes and the English settlers who established Pennsylvania, led by William Penn.

Tamanend reputedly took part in a meeting between the leaders of the Lenni-Lenape nation, and the leaders of the Pennsylvania colony held under a large elm tree at Shakamaxon in the early 1680s. There, Tamanend is reported to have announced that the Lenni-Lenape and the English colonists would "live in peace as long as the waters run in the rivers and creeks and as long as the stars and moon endure." These words have been memorialized on the statue of Tamanend that stands in Philadelphia today.

Politicians own the disgrace of Tammany Hall, corrupting a society originally dedicated to a good man and blemishing his name. They shouldn’t be surprised to find a statue consecrated to their lack of virtues on their very doorsteps. The statue should be dismantled and moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, facing the National Mall as message to the present occupant of the White House.