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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

The One World At Home Concert

The Daily Escape:

Hanging Lake, CO – 2018 photo by porkchopsandbeer

Wrongo and Ms. Right watched the “One World Together at Home” television concert last Saturday. We stumbled upon it, meaning that wherever it was promoted, it never entered our consciousness. Let’s chalk that up to the distractions abounding in our year of living dangerously.

The two-hour event featured pre-recorded remote performances from Lady Gaga, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Lizzo, and Taylor Swift, among many others. If you haven’t seen it, the video is available here.

It wasn’t originally planned as a fundraiser, but it inspired people across America to donate. Billboard reports that the show was watched by more than 21 million people, and we learned that it raised $127 million for COVID-19 aid.

For Wrongo, there were three highlights of the show. First, the Rolling Stones lip-synching to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, with Charlie Watts air drumming. He played a cushioned chair as a hi-hat. We definitely needed a pick me up, and unsurprisingly, Charlie was right on time. Mick, Keith and Ronnie were actually playing, and there was a keyboard and drum track, but it all worked.

Second, Lizzo, this generation’s Aretha, sang Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”. Very nice, it was worth the whole show.

Third, Keith Urban performed “Higher Love” as a trio, with two digital copies of himself performing. At the end of the tune, Nicole Kidman came out and kissed one of the carbon copies. Like the Rolling Stones, Urban’s video added levity to an otherwise somber set of performances.

Some down notes: Jennifer Lopez doing a note-for-note cover of Barbara Streisand’s “People”. And although not noticed by Wrongo, industry pros reported that Lady Gaga sang to the wrong side of a $20k Neumann microphone.

On balance, although the performances rarely were of the quality of the studio or live experience we are used to, it was a nice way to pass a couple of hours. Watching some big names live streaming using (mostly) modest home equipment leaves us with a sense that maybe, there’s not a huge divide between the talent of the anointed few, and the talents of the rest of us.

Since the start of the pandemic, we have been flooded with feel good moments from around the world, many are musically based, and the musical parodies can be fun.

Here’s one that is a serious reworking of The Band’s classic tune, “The Weight” by Robbie Robertson, remade in 2019 for the 50th anniversary of the song. It features musicians performing together across 5 continents, led by Robertson and Ringo Starr.

It was produced by the charity, Playing For Change. Their focus is to record musicians performing in their natural environments in a series called “Songs Around the World”. They also have a nonprofit that builds music and art schools for children internationally.

The musicians performing on “The Weight” are incredible, but whoever mixed and edited it deserves a Grammy. The changes in vocalists and instrumentation feels natural and seamless. The sound is always balanced, and the editor also gives each musician a sufficient share of the limelight. We also meet some amazing artists many of whom were unknown, at least to Wrongo.

In these days of social distancing, this shows that distance can be a state of mind. Take a load off and turn it up. Trust Wrongo, you won’t be dissapointed:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Dateline London

The Daily Escape:

Tower Bridge, London – October 2019 iPhone photo by Wrongo

Wrongo and Ms. Right got to England on Monday. As in our last visit in 2017, much remains under construction, roads as well as buildings, which makes it difficult to get around except by the Underground. It is possible to walk to many destinations more quickly than to go by taxi.

It is clear that the Brexit debate dominates the news and daily discussions, even that of ordinary people. Wrongo spoke with an Italian immigrant who has been working in London for six years. He is very worried that he will become an illegal under a final Brexit deal, even though that isn’t part of the current deal’s language. Several business people were pro, or con, about Brexit, based totally upon their personal economic interests. Everyone seems to be looking at the possible Brexit from very narrow economic perspectives. Sound familiar?

Today, we saw the play “Two Ladies“. It’s about the wives of the French and American presidents who are sequestered for their own safety during a summit conference that is deciding whether the US president will get the support of Europe to attack an unnamed terrorist country. The American First Lady is modeled on Melania Trump, the French First Lady on Brigitte Macron. This sets up some prurient interest in the personal stories of each. However, the real focus of the play is on what power these two women have to influence their husbands, and if they do have that power, how their influence could best be used to terminate the political situation that looks as if it will certainly lead to war.

Sophia is the American First Lady. She’s a Croatian ex-model that her rich, rightwing husband treats as a trophy. Helen, an English former journalist, is the wife of the French president. She is significantly older than her husband, over whom she used to exert much political influence.

You can see the opportunity these women provide for a play ripped from the headlines. Several Americans spoke about how the play was “not favorable to Republicans“. It seems to Wrongo that we can no longer look past our political sensibilities to see value in a story that starts with two women who have mutual loathing, but who develop a mutual understanding based on a common problem: the lack of respect the world shows them when a bad decision involving world peace are being taken by the husbands they barely respect.

Two Ladies” has played to sold-out audiences, despite not being particularly well-reviewed by the London critics. No US Broadway producer has so far been willing to bring it to the US.

Wrongo suspects that the idea of women trying to bond over the idea of ending war, while trying to be relevant by “being in the room” (as Alexander Hamilton says in “Hamilton“), would find an audience in NYC.

We also saw Ian McKellen, (the legendary British actor most known to Americans as Gandalf), in a one-man play that is a retrospective of his acting life.

McKellen, 80 years old, is in great shape, and has great comedic timing. There are many laughs along the way. Some complained about the acoustics in the old theater where it is playing, saying it was hard to hear McKellen.

But Americans left this show saying that McKellen (who is gay) talked too much about his gay experience. Whilst he spoke on the topic briefly, it’s not like he started listing his favourite categories on twinkpornvideos.xxx. These few Americans had traveled far from their suburban enclaves, only to be triggered by an elderly man’s lifestyle.

Wrongo wonders about people with such delicate sensibilities. They seem to be the same people who have no difficulty being dismissive of those who speak English poorly. They are vocal in their suspicions of people from different religious backgrounds. A few think that some racists are also good people.

They’re sure that most people on welfare don’t deserve to be there.

We have a centuries-long tradition of public events designed to entertain and inform us, to make us think, to add to our experience and collective understanding.

Everyone knows that.

And people must be responsible for protecting themselves if they feel they shouldn’t be exposed to the broad and deep culture of America. That can’t become our collective responsibility.

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Can US Workers Bridge A Cultural Divide?

The Daily Escape:

Peaks Island, ME – August 2019 photo by Kendall Lavoie. Peaks Island is a popular destination for day trips on the ferry from Portland. As you might expect, it has a small population in winter, tripling in summer, with many more day trip tourists. There is one taxi, a relatively new Ford Flex. It was purchased through donations by townspeople last year.

(Apologies for the sustained period of no reporting, the longest since the Wrongologist’s founding in 2010.)

Wrongo and Ms. Right watched “American Factory” on Netflix last night. The story begins with the closing of a Dayton Ohio GM truck plant in 2008, and the layoff of 2,000 plant workers. Seven years later, Fuyao Glass, a Chinese company that manufactures glass for trucks and automobiles opened in the Dayton factory. Cao Dewang, the Chinese Chairman of the Fuyao Group had a bold idea: Pair American workers with Chinese workers, who are brought to Ohio to train and work alongside their American counterparts.

The former GM workers are initially ecstatic. They’re happy to land a new factory job. Never mind that the closed GM plant was unionized, and paid more than $25 an hour, while Fuyao is non-union, with starting pay of $14 an hour. But, the laid-off people of Dayton are happy to have a new job.

Soon it’s clear that the operating results aren’t meeting Fuyao’s plan. There is an obvious and growing culture divide. First, Chinese workers have no problem working 12+ hours a day and at least six days a week, while the Americans are used to five days in eight-hour shifts.

Second, individual expression is difficult for the Chinese but hardly for Americans. During a seminar for Chinese workers to help them understand American culture, a Chinese manager assures them:

“You can even joke about the president. No one can do anything to you.”

That’s followed by amazed looks.

The movie starts by trying to learn, “will the new plant succeed?” But success has different meanings: Success for the Chinese owner is different from success for the American worker, who only wants to know, “will these be steady jobs?” Success for the management means something different. Can the factory fulfill their orders at the same volume and quality as Fuyao’s Chinese factory? What will it take for the new factory to become profitable?

These different goals, and the pressure to meet them drives the film. As one frustrated Chinese manager complains:

“American workers are difficult, and their output is low. I can’t train them.”

The American view? One fired US manager says:

“You can’t spell Fuyao without FU”.

OTOH, a move to start a union was soundly defeated.

American Factory is really about how culture drives what we expect to get from a job. Everyone wants to get paid, but what the Americans want from a job is different from what the Chinese are looking for. Americans see the job as an extension of self, and a way to earn. The Chinese see the job as part of the company’s drive to succeed. And also as a means for China to succeed.

There is a quite a bit of soul-searching in the film. The soul of the American factory worker, of American manufacturing in general and the future soul of the global economy are at stake. In addition, late in the film, Cao Dewang, the Chinese CEO wonders aloud:

“I don’t know if I’m a contributor or a sinner.”

He’s reflecting on what was lost between his young life in rural China and his later outstanding business success.

But, Cao and his Chinese managers aren’t villains in “American Factory.” It is a nuanced story, although clearly its sympathies are with the American workers. The film raises many issues: How can companies remain competitive in a global economy? Is it worth it to give taxpayer breaks for companies that relocate? Can global companies bridge the culture gaps that occur whenever a firm locates abroad?

Much of the interest in the film is due to its production company, Higher Ground, formed in partnership with Netflix by former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama. The filmmakers,  Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert began shooting independently in 2015 while Obama was still president.

In closing, note that at its high point, GM’s Dayton plant employed 10,000 people. Fuyao Glass America’s Dayton plant now employs 2,200 Americans and 200 Chinese. They had originally promised 5,000 employees, and received tax incentives to open the plant.

Some of the Chinese have now moved their families to Dayton, and their kids attend Dayton’s public schools.

By adding automation and fully Chinese management, the plant turned a profit in 2018, three years after it opened.

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College Admissions Fraud: A Teachable Moment About Capitalism

The Daily Escape:

Eagle pair on nest, Litchfield County CT – 2015 photo by JH Clery

With the college admissions fraud, wealthy Americans are now bribing people to get their kids into college. It’s just another way that the wealthy are rigging the game. Robert Reich enumerates:

We’ve become a nation where any number of greased poles stop your ascent. People with wealth seem unwilling to compete fairly. It turns out that executives from Pimco, Hercules Capital, and the co-chairman of the law firm, Willkie Farr & Gallagher, were named in the buy your way into Yale scam, along with a few Hollywood types.

It’s become very difficult to differentiate between applicants for the prestige colleges. Good grades and test scores and life experiences are no longer enough to help a kid to stand out the way they might have a few years ago. So some are bribing their way to the head of the line.

It’s just another cost of doing business in America. The truly wealthy can just pay for a new building and see their children get into the best universities. But, the merely rich can’t do that. OTOH, they can’t be expected to simply earn their way in.

As for the kids: They all knew whether what was on their applications was true or not. They had to be in on the scam. This is what passes for the charmed life of the rich in the USA: Kids knowingly cheat right along with their cheating, entitled parents, because they believe they deserve to go to Georgetown.

Robert Reich is correct, this is the rot that concentration of wealth has brought to our country.

Randall Lane has a long read at Forbes about “Reimagining Capitalism” in which he summarizes his one-on-one discussions with two dozen billionaires, including face-to-face meetings with the three richest people in the world, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett, about capitalism’s future. Lane says:

“Virtually every billionaire I spoke with acknowledged that higher taxes on the billionaire set are inevitable; most even saw them as beneficial, if correctly applied. According to Gates, Buffett, Khosla and others, the correct way to levy taxes on the superrich is….Either an estate tax without the loopholes that currently render it useless or a higher capital gains tax applied only on extreme fortunes…”

He quotes Buffett about the disparity of earnings between the top 1% and the bottom 50%:

“The market system as it gets more specialized pushes more money to the top….The natural function of a more specialized market economy is to divert more and more of the rewards to the top. That’s something I don’t think we’ve fully addressed in this country.”

Lane points out that Bill and Melinda Gates even went on Steven Colbert and called for higher taxes on the super-rich.

Younger Americans know that the deck is stacked. That may be in part why some kids play along with their parents and cheat to get into Harvard.

An often-cited 2016 Harvard University survey found that 51% of American youth aged 18 to 29 no longer support capitalism. Only 42% said they back it, while just 19% were willing to call themselves “capitalists.” A follow-up focus group study concluded that most felt that:

“Capitalism was unfair and left people out despite their hard work.”

Gene Sperling, Obama’s Director of the National Economic Council, has an interesting take on redefining our overall economic goal. He says we should strive for “Economic Dignity”. His conclusion is that the Fed and the Congress should implement a full employment monetary and fiscal policy that fosters tight labor markets.

Sperling says that would be a triple win for economic dignity, because it would lead to higher wages, and it would give companies greater incentive to provide advanced training to their employees. Meanwhile, high labor demand gives more workers some “take this job and shove it” leverage that they lack today.

Taken together, it would allow people to care for and provide opportunity to their families, something that is at the core of America’s beliefs.

Young Americans know that capitalism in its current form creates inequality, oppression, and exploitation. It could be made to work for all if it were more responsive to society’s needs, and yes, if it provided economic dignity for all.

Those who have been rewarded by capitalism shouldn’t be able to use their bounty to make the lives of others worse than they are. This isn’t just about the Koch brothers. It’s also about the merely wealthy who scam the college admissions system to get their kids into better schools.

We should be showing the young that there’s a better form of capitalism.

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The Biggest News Story of 2018

The Daily Escape:

Santa Dash, Glasgow Scotland, 2012 photo via Just Run lah

Hope that you had a relaxing Christmas, one that you will remember, and not because you bought a Lexus. Here at the Mansion of Wrong, the party is still underway. Our last guests will be leaving on January 2nd.

In reading the endless lists of the most important news stories of 2018, Wrongo felt that the major news story was Trump’s awesome amount of lying. Back in the dark ages, before GW Bush and Cheney, the idea of a president lying outright to the American people was cause for outrage. The liar’s poll numbers would drop immediately and all of the press would call out the transgression.

Now, when Donald Trump actually lies daily, telling whoppers that are stunning to behold, there is little outrage, and certainly none from the Right. This is exacerbated by the main stream media, many of whom report Trump’s lies as if they’re news stories, often without providing any context that tells the truth of the matter. They have become complicit in Trump’s dishonesty, and we all suffer as a result.

It’s Orwellian: Lies become truth, truth is devalued. We can’t be an informed people when the information we receive is often full of lies and distortions.

This is without question, the biggest story of 2018.

Next column, Wrongo will reprise his 2018 Wrong predictions, looking back on the year that was, scoring his successes and his prognostication failures.

Now, listen to Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Krauss perform “The Wexford Carol”, an ancient Irish carol. The great Canadian violinist, Natalie MacMaster joins them. This is from their 2008 album, “Songs of Joy & Peace”:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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White People’s Problems

The Daily Escape:

Point Lobos Reserve, CA – 2018 photo by HeroicTaquito

Today we have two linked stories about the often deminimus problems of white people, and how they can take generations to resolve. That’s older, upscale white people.

Wrongo and Ms. Right spent a beautiful Sunday afternoon at a venerable music venue in Falls Village, CT called Music Mountain. This unique facility has been around since 1929 as a performance space for classical music and jazz, with classical music performed on Sundays, and jazz on Saturdays.

This year, they are staging 16 consecutive Sundays of chamber music, including six by the Shanghai Quartet, in which the Quartet will perform all of the Beethoven string quartets. We saw them perform three, including his Opus 132. It was being performed at Music Mountain for the 23rd time. And it was a blissful experience.

The crowd was about 200 older, white-haired music lovers. We saw just one kid under the age of 15, and very few in their 20’s and 30’s, except those who were a part of the production crew. It isn’t a new question to ask if classical music as we know it today will survive in the next century. City orchestras around the world are financially stressed. The audience is aging, and is not being replaced by younger fans. In fact, even though Music Mountain has been around for 89 years, like most niche venues, they are constantly raising money.

A connected story is about Lime Rock Park (LRP), a track for sports car enthusiasts that is located a few miles away, in the town of Salisbury, CT. If you know about it, it’s probably because Paul Newman’s career as a race car driver started at Lime Rock.

The track has been in a fight with the town and with Music Mountain, since it opened in a reclaimed gravel mine in 1957. Lime Rock has always attracted an overwhelmingly upper-crust clientele. Simply put, the crowd isn’t your average NASCAR bunch. These people are predominantly wealthy country club types, the kind who have room in their garages for multiple (often antique) sports cars.

Salisbury itself isn’t demographically very different from the track’s clients: It is 95% white with a median family income of $69,152. Seven percent live in poverty. Meryl Streep lives here. It is the home of a renowned prep school, Hotchkiss.

Yet the town and the track have been at odds with each other since 1957. The major issue is loud noise from sports car engines. However, since 1959, LRP has been prohibited from hosting racing events on Sundays when the Litchfield Superior Court issued an injunction banning Sunday racing.

That injunction stood until recently, when the track obtained a court decision to allow racing on Sunday afternoons and unmufflered racing as well. The track owner’s argument was that the zoning regulation made the track uncompetitive with others in Connecticut, and the judge agreed.

You would think that the town’s and the track’s interests would align. Wealthy people visit Salisbury every summer to see and be seen, to crash their little cars and live to talk about it. But their interests do not work together. The track employs very few locals, and the taxes it pays don’t amount to much (~$90k).

So, a legal appeal is working its way up the food chain, starting in the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission. And later on, probably going on to the state courts. Music Mountain, located close enough to hear the engines, now asks for donations for the costs of appeal, along with funds to underwrite their performance space. How deep can the pockets of classical music lovers be?

This is a fight by and among white people that has been ongoing since 1959. It’s a battle of property rights: The right to quiet enjoyment on the locals’ side, and the right to use your property as you see fit on the other. It’s the dominant culture in America at work, engaged in a decades-long pissing contest.

It doesn’t matter much in the global scheme of things: Putin isn’t involved, and kids aren’t being separated from their parents in this town. People aren’t marching for “Medicare for all”.

This is a high quality problem being fought by only the “best” people, a fight that is characterized as a threat to the American way.

Perspective, people, please!

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Why Say “Passed” or “Passed Away”, Instead of “Died”?

The Daily Escape:

Meditation Maze, Chartres Cathedral, France – photo via @archpics

So much talk about the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Several news reports said one or the other of them had “passed”, not that they had died.

Wrongo finds either construction “passed” or “passed away”, jarring. People are born, they live, and then they die. They don’t pass away. Does this change in usage, which seems to be relatively modern, have something to do with how difficult we find it to handle death?  Many people on TV, and most people under 40, tend to favor saying “passed away”.

In Greek mythology, the river Styx was the boundary between life and death, so the dead were referred to as “passing over to the other side”. Styx was a feature in the afterworld, and the ferryman Charon often was described as having transported the souls of the newly dead across the river into the underworld. Christians, believing in an afterlife, use the term to indicate that the deceased has “passed” into the afterlife.

Its best use seems to be by people who do not believe death is final.

Today, many of us try to soften the blow, saying “passed away” to tell the bad news to someone who hasn’t yet heard about the death. Possibly, saying it is seen as a more gentle way of saying the person has died.

William Bradshaw, a Yale Divinity graduate, did an informal study of the usage:

During the first 50 years or so of my life, the term I always heard or read was “died.” But now, more often than not, I hear and read: so and so “passed” or “passed away.” Several questions come to mind: Exactly when did the change in terminology occur, what was the reason for the change, is it helpful for the family of the deceased, and what are the theological implications of using “passed away” or “passed” instead of “died”? I decided to explore the matter.

He interviewed funeral directors, and most of them said the usage had changed in the last 25 years. He also examined funeral notices over time:

The change was gradual, and did not occur at the same time among all funeral homes or newspapers. But by the early 1980s “passed away” was the norm for all obituaries used by funeral homes, while obituaries and stories in newspapers still tended to use “died”…

Bradshaw says that other terms used occasionally are “deceased,” “expired,” “departed this life,” and for children, “went to live with God” or “went to live with the angels.” “Passed” is heard primarily in conversations, and is seldom used in print, except occasionally in novels.

Bradshaw expands on “passed/passed away”:

I noted to myself that we never say, “Jesus passed away on the cross” or that “Jesus passed to save us from our sins.” Christian funeral services almost always include this famous saying of Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” (Gospel of John 11:25-26) In any of the modern versions of the Bible that use updated English, I have never read: “I am the resurrection and the life: although he passed, yet shall he live; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never pass away.”

But, if you have ever had someone close to you die, you know that feeling of disbelief, the hope that what has happened isn’t true. It is easy to understand the magical thinking, that if we just don’t give in to it, the death won’t be real.

And while Wrongo dislikes it, using “passed away” is eminently understandable on a personal level.

But, when you’re dead, you’re dead. Saying someone passed away really doesn’t help to soften the blow.

Another time, we’ll talk about when “killed” should be used instead of “died”.

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