1870-1970 — What changed the most?

Traffic on Broadway, NYC, 1917

Traffic on Broadway, New York City, 1917

Innovation— when has it had the greatest impact on American lives? The New York Times focuses on three decades, each 50 years apart. The survey of fundamental changes in the modes of transportation, the uses of electricity, the kinds of food consumed, waste disposal and sanitation, for example, and their far-ranging consequences is a fascinating story:

We thought a better way to understand the significance of technological change would be to walk through how Americans lived, ate, traveled, and clothed and entertained themselves in 1870, 1920, 1970 and the present. This tour is both inspired by and reliant on Robert J. Gordon’s authoritative examination of innovation through the ages, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” published this year. These are portraits of each point in time, culled from Mr. Gordon’s research; you can decide for yourself which era is truly most transformative.

In the Northeast, air conditioning made heat waves bearable, but in the South it transformed the economy and its cities. New means of processing and transporting fresh food radically changed the American diet. The replacement of horses in cities by the motorcar and mass transit, together with the advent of indoor plumbing, made city life cleaner and healthier. (The average horse produced 40 to 50 pounds of manure and a gallon of urine daily, all of it dumped on the city streets.)

But are we better off in 2016? In some ways, undoubtedly. In others, not so much.

Once you factor in the time it takes to arrive early and get through security, flying from New York to Chicago takes about the same time, and costs about the same in inflation-adjusted dollars, as it did in 1936; modern planes are faster, but then one could show up at the airport 10 minutes before the scheduled flight time and hop on the plane.

Read more . . .

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Donald Trump’s “presidential” debut

TrumpForPolSpch

The new “presidential” Donald Trump that we were promised made his debut on Wednesday. It was definitely an improvement— no wild gestures, no sneers, no outrageous remarks. I even found myself in agreement with Trump a few times, as when he asserted that our actions in Iraq contributed to the rise of ISIS. Those moments, however, were outnumbered by half-baked ideas, contradictions and misstatements that originated in either ignorance or willful deception. At least they were expressed in a modulated tone not previously heard. Dressed in a blue suit sans red truckdriver’s cap, Trump sounded and looked like a grownup, rather than a spoiled brat seething with barely controlled rage.

Trump said he wants to shake the rust off American foreign policy. He accused President Obama of gutting the US military. He didn’t mention (is it possible he doesn’t know?) that the American military force is by far the largest in the world; the US spends more on the military than the next 11 countries put together.  Weapons, Trump said early in his speech, are our biggest problem, but he also said he wants to add more weapons such as cyber warfare, artificial intelligence and 3-D printing. He identified nuclear arms as the greatest threat, even while criticizing Obama for reducing the nuclear arsenal, demonstrating his ignorance of the fact that the Obama  administration has begun a $1 trillion revitalization program.

“America First,” Trump announced, “will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.” Was he deliberately invoking the isolationist, nationalistic and anti-Semitic movement America First of the pre-WWII years? Trump’s past appeals to white supremacists tend to confirm that. It is of course possible that it was Trump’s ignorance of American history that failed to ring a bell warning him away from a slogan with such an odious precedent.

Trump does want to regress to the 40s and 50s when the “greatest generation beat back the Nazis and Japanese imperialists” and the Cold War that followed. At least he understands that it took Republicans and Democrats working together to defeat the Axis powers and eventually win the Cold War.

In his first foreign policy speech, Trump made the obligatory Republican obeisance to Ronald Reagan and reiterated the same baseless charges against President Obama that Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and most other Republicans mindlessly repeat ad nauseum: The President “has weakened our military by weakening our economy.” What they refuse to acknowledge is that since Obama took office, the budget deficit has declined by roughly $1 trillion, and we are in the longest period of sustained job growth in our history. Unemployment, which reached 10 percent in Obama’s first term, is now 5 percent, lower than when the sainted Reagan left office. Under Obama, the economy has recovered from the Great Recession, which he inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush, significantly faster and better than any of the other major world economies.

Gene Sperling, the former director of the National Economic Council, told the NY Times, “If we were back in early 2009 … with the economy losing 800,000 jobs a month and the Dow under 7,000 — and someone said that by [Obama’s] last year in office, unemployment would be 5 percent, the deficit would be under 3 percent, AIG would have turned a profit and we made all our money back on the banks, that would’ve been beyond anybody’s wildest expectations.” But most people don’t know that because the Republicans have constantly been hammering the lie that the economy is in shambles.

When it comes to thrashing out an international treaty, Trump doesn’t seem to understand the difference between the subtlety and nuance of diplomatic negotiation and the strong-arm tactics he is used to employing in commercial transactions. Sovereign states all have non-negotiable national interests, yet Trump insists, “You always have to be willing to walk.” He equates the achievement of an international accord with the conclusion of a business deal, failing to appreciate the importance of wringing a necessary concession from China or Iran by making a shrewdly calculated concession of our own.

You can take away his red cap and give him a speech and a teleprompter, but you can’t make a statesman out of an egocentric narcissist.

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White males only?

ChrisRockSunday night Oscars host Chris Rock brought Black History Month to a rousing close. He engaged us with humor that unmasked the ugly truth of a racism that still pervades a self-deluded and self-defined liberal society. Talented people of color can’t possibly win Hollywood’s highest honors if white people are given the major roles. And the same holds true for women of all hues. They rarely have the opportunity to demonstrate their talents when they are passed over by the white men who dominate all aspects of film-making, to mention only one of the many creative and other fields of human endeavor.

SistersInLawToday the focus shifts from color to gender, as Women’s History Month highlights the achievements of women all over the globe. In honor of the occasion, Women’s Voices For Change is publishing my review of Linda Hirshman’s “Sisters-in-Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World.” The book’s title is clever, but somewhat misleading, though it does chronicle the vital legal arm of the women’s movement. Had Justices Ginsberg and O’Connor not been appointed to the Supreme Court, American women today would have a very different “herstory.”

How many women born 50 years ago or less understand how inequality made women’s lives and aspirations radically different from those of men? How many know that until the 1970s, when old laws were struck down and new laws began to change the culture, women were rarely if ever seen in corporate boardrooms, as members of houses of Congress and state legislatures, or as judges in the courts? Women were even prohibited from serving on juries (and so they never could be judged by juries of their peers), and often were not hired or promoted in order to protect jobs for men.

Continue reading …

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My brother-in-love

Lauro90Tuesday night Sal called Lauro from India. They joked and laughed. Lauro had seen the cardiologist that afternoon. The doctor had given him the go-ahead to go to Capri the next day. He pronounced Lauro in fine health.

Sal and his brother are closer than any two people I have ever known. They were born in Capri, Italy, and now Lauro lives in Naples and we live in New York. They would speak on the phone every day, and saw each other several times a year. The last time was in January for Lauro’s 90th birthday.

[Annamaria, Lauro’s wife; Giovanni and Olimpia, his children]

Wednesday morning Lauro called to Annamaria from bed, took her hand, squeezed it and expired.

Sal received the call from Giovanni while we were on a bus from Agra to Jaipur. Sal was beside himself, so much so that I feared for him. I made him breathe deeply and he briefly stopped shaking and jerking involuntarily. Some hours later, we left the hotel in Jaipur at 2 a.m. Thursday morning, the best we could do.

The trip was long and stressful: Jaipur to Abu Dhabi to Rome to Naples by Thursday evening. Continue reading

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Colbert v Rumsfeld

Two worthy opponents sparred Monday night. Comedian Stephen Colbert is famously good at skewering his subject (will anyone ever forget how he demolished George W. Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner?) and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is very adept at avoiding awkward questions, turning the thrust back at his questioner. (In response to a soldier who who asked why they had to dig through rubble to find armor for their tanks, Rumsfeld replied, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have.”

Last night on the Late Show Rumsfeld told his host, “If it’s a fact, it’s not intelligence.” Watch Colbert put Rumsfeld on the spot:

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Yea! The world just reached an agreement to combat climate change!

Finally! A “monumental triumph,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Nearly 200 countries agreed to combat climate change after two weeks of tense negotiations and more than of 20 years of debate and dispute and failure to stabilize, let alone slow, global warming.

Climate change “requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries,” because it “represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet,” reads the agreement. The cap it sets on global warming is below 2˚ C., which is still not enough, according to many scientists.

This agreement won’t save the planet, not even close,” climate activist and advocate Bill McKibben wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. It doesn’t include, for example, a specific timeline for phasing out fossil fuels.

But it is a giant step forward nonetheless. It is “the best chance to save the one planet we’ve got,” President Obama said in his remarks to the nation on Saturday. 

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When the cornucopia is empty

On the eve of Thanksgiving, we prepare to celebrate that most American of holidays. Most of us will enjoy children and grandchildren, in-laws, extended families and dear friends. Most of us will sit together at tables heaped with the traditional roast turkey, sweet potatoes, stuffing, cranberry and other relishes, a token green vegetable, pumpkin and apple pies— well, you know, more than we can possibly eat.

IMG_0834Most of us, but not all of us. I was asked to write about hunger in America— a sobering experience. I met people at food pantries and soup kitchens; saw others lined up on the sidewalk, waiting for a lunch bag; and visited people who depend on Meals on Wheels for both sustenance and brief human contact.

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 As We Celebrate Thanksgiving, Many Still Go Hungry

On the farmstands, harvest colors of crimson and gold compete for attention. The leaves boast their last, gorgeous hurrah, and the bounty of the fields compensates for the lengthening nights and intensifying chill. Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and with it anticipation of warm reunions with friends and family and the traditional groaning board.

But not for everybody.

Continue reading at Women’s Voices For Change

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Filed under American Society, Food, Income and Wealth Inequality