Archive for the ‘Off-Topic’ Category

Last week we ran a post about lock-down beards. Alaina Demopoulos at The Daily Beast has a somewhat different take on the issue, and is well worth a read. Says Demopoulos: “With our new face-mask reality, it’s nearly impossible to pull one off.” You can read her article here.


Read Full Post »

For many guys, the current coronavirus lock-down has provided an opportunity to see how they look with a beard. For some it’s an experiment; for others, a protest. But there is a historical precedent for lock-down beards of which we should take note: namely, Pope Clement VII. Here’s a shot of him before he grew his lock-down whiskers:

Clement VII, a/k/a Giulio de Medici (1478-1534, and Pope, 1523-34), before growing his lock-down beard.

Born into the Medici clan, his early life had some rough spots. His father, Giuliano de Medici, was assassinated by the Pazzi conspirators right in the Cathedral of Florence (a/k/a Il Duomo) in the same year that his son, the future Clement VII, was born. They stabbed Giuliano nineteen times and then finished him off with a sword-blow to the head. The proverb “politics ain’t bean bag” may have originated around this time.

Back in Clement VII’s time, the pope was a secular as well as a religious leader, and the Vatican was the capital of certain lands and city-states in Italy now referred to as the Papal States. Back then it was called the Republic of St. Peter. This dual religious/temporal jurisdiction had long troubled reformers, including Martin Luther. 

In the 1520’s Charles V, a Hapsburg, had ascended to the Spanish throne and was also Holy Roman Emperor. He took the Holy Roman Empire business more seriously than his predecessors and wanted to unite Europe under his control. Charles’s growing power, together with the wealth flowing into his coffers from the New World, caused Clement VII to fear that the Emperor would try to dominate not only the Republic of St. Peter and the rest of Italy, but also the Church itself — not that Clement VII was looking for more problems to solve. The Holy See still hadn’t figured out exactly how to handle the Martin Luther problem. But Clement saw the Hapsburgs, who had forces to the north in Austria and to the west in Spain, as a bigger danger than an Augustinian monk in Wittenberg. Clement, in his temporal capacity, allied himself with France, then under Francis I, an enemy of Charles V. They called themselves the League of Cognac. The next time you’re at your favorite watering hole you can tell the bartender that cognac was a military alliance before it became a brandy.

War began.  

First there was bad news for Pope Clement and the League of Cognac. The forces of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, defeated the French forces near Pavia, in Italy. Then there was bad news for the Holy Roman Emperor: after winning that battle, he found that he didn’t have any money to pay his soldiers, so they threatened to mutiny. At first this looked like good news for Clement, but it became bad news when the Emperor agreed to march on Rome. Why? Because there was a lot of valuable, portable stuff in Rome that his soldiers could take as payment. Back then, pillaging conquered territory was an accepted technique for balancing the defense budget.

More than 30,000 Holy Roman Imperial troops, including some 14,000 from German principalities, started to march south to Rome. They got there at the beginning of May 1527. And when they got there, they unleashed the Renaissance version of shock and awe.

Depiction of the Sack of Rome, 1527

With only about 5,000 militia (citizen-soldiers with questionable training and even more questionable armaments) and around 200 Papal Swiss Guards, Rome was not well-defended. The Imperial forces breached the city’s walls on the first day and overran Rome’s militia. The Vatican’s Swiss Guard, though vastly outnumbered, put up one of the most memorable last stands in military history, holding off the Hapsburg troops so that Clement VII and his entourage could make their escape through a secret passageway to the Castel Sant’Angelo. Ironically, much of the Swiss Guard’s battle with Hapsburg troops took place in the Vatican’s Teutonic Cemetery. The passageway, known as the Passato di Borgo, is still there, though it’s no longer secret.

Swiss Guard

Vatican Swiss Guards, present day (do NOT make fun of their uniforms)

Churches, monasteries, palaces, shops and homes were looted and burned. The Vatican Library, with manuscripts and scrolls going back to the days of the ancient Romans, averted destruction only because one of the Imperial commanders, Philibert of Orange, decided to use it as his headquarters. Thus did many of the most important early writings of Western Civilization escape destruction by a hair’s breadth.

And speaking of hair’s breadths, this is when Clement VII started to grow his lock-down beard. As much as Charles V wanted to make war on the League of Cognac, he didn’t set out to conquer Rome, and as much as he disliked Clement VII, any king would think twice before ridding himself of a high-ranking priest, no matter how meddlesome. But locking down a pope is far short of killing him, and Charles V kept Clement VII prisoner in the Castel Sant’Angelo for the better part of a year. During his imprisonment Clement VII grew a full beard as a sign of mourning for the sack of Rome:

Pope Clement VII with lock-down beard.

Clement’s beard may not seem like a big deal, but one has to see it in context. Canon law required priests to be clean-shaven. Then again, Pope Julius II, the “warrior pope,” had worn a beard for nine months in 1511-12 as a similar sign of mourning for the loss of Bologna, one of the papal cities. Unlike Julius II, though, Clement VII kept his beard until his death in 1534. Clement VII never knew it, but he started a papal fashion trend in facial hair. His immediate successor, Paul III, and another two dozen popes down to Innocent XII, who died in 1700, all wore beards.

The 1527 sack of Rome is mostly forgotten now, but its consequences were immense. The largest overall consequence was a power shift away from Rome and towards the Emperor Charles V. The Emperor was able to impose his will on the Holy See. The most famous consequence of this was Clement VII’s refusal, at Charles V’s direction, to annul the marriage of King Henry VIII of England to Catherine of Aragon so that Henry could marry Ann Boleyn. Catherine’s nephew was none other than Charles V himself, and he was not about to let his aunt be so humiliated. The English Reformation followed. 

Charles V also imposed on the Church a greater degree of orthodoxy than had been the case under Clement VII. Recall that the Church was still processing its reaction to Martin Luther. The Hapsburg domination changed all that. The Counter-reformation began in earnest, and under Charles V the influence of the Holy Inquisition became pervasive throughout Catholic Europe.

Spanish Inquisition

Well, somebody might have been expecting it.

Any chance that Luther and his followers might be brought back within the Church was extinguished, and the division between Catholics and Protestants in Europe became permanent.

So as you admire your lock-down beard in the mirror, remember that these things have some interesting and significant historical precedents. 

Read Full Post »

War on Christmas

A Parliamentary soldier breaks up a Christmas celebration, ca. 1645.

Remember the alleged War on Christmas that Fox News pounds every year in order to pour gasoline on the flames of the Culture Wars? For about two decades Bill O’Reilly, formerly one of the chief strategists of the victimhood racket that is Fox’s War on Christmas, used this non-existent war to sell the two products that his viewers simply couldn’t get enough of: grievance and rage.

What does the War on Christmas have to do with the present push to reopen the U.S. economy?

For that, we go back once again to the period of the English Civil Wars (plural), which, believe it or not, is a nearly inexhaustible source of information for understanding the United States in the 21st century.

Christmas in seventeenth-century England would be very recognizable to contemporary Americans. Churches, homes and other buildings were decorated with holly and ivy. Religious services on Christmas Day were well-attended. Gifts were exchanged with family and friends. If you were in one of the well-off social classes, you’d give Christmas boxes with little gifts and sweets to your servants, your tradesmen and maybe even the poor. Just as in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the holiday dinner was a great feast, with bumpers of brown ale, roast beef, ‘plum-pottage’ and minced pies. One of the favorites was a block of Stilton cheese submerged in that brown ale, and, if reports are believed, this dish gave off an aroma as pungent as that of an un-emptied chamber pot at mid-morning. People danced, sang, played card games and went to see plays and mummer parades. These plays were hardly morality tales. The biggest difference, of course, was that their Christmas celebrations went on for twelve days, which is where we get that repetitive partridge and pear tree carol that’s still with us today. (Maybe the idea was to take a swig of ale for each of the twelve days and see if you were still upright at the end of the song.)

None of this sat well with the Puritans running the Commonwealth. To them, the celebration of Christmas was nothing more than “a popish festival with no Biblical justification,” an excuse for “wasteful and immoral behaviour…with the [t]rappings of popery and rags of the beast.”

So in 1644 the Puritan-led Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas and, by law, replaced it with a day of fasting and prayerful contemplation. Soldiers patrolled the streets of London breaking up any parties and seizing any food they suspected was for a Christmas meal.

What’s important for today’s coronavirus crisis is that the Puritans ordered all shops and markets to stay open throughout the 25th of December and the eleven other days of Christmas. This was a signal failure of the Commonwealth. The shops and businesses didn’t re-open, and the citizenry didn’t leave their homes to patronize England’s commercial establishments. More importantly, the Puritans created an undying ill will against them for trying to take Christmas away from the English people. The Puritans’ Old Testament sentiments undoubtedly contributed to H.L. Mencken’s definition: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

There’s a lesson here for Trump, who thinks that, following his abject failure to prepare for and meet the Covid-19 crisis, he can reopen the economy by fiat. When a government attempts something beyond its reach, most likely it will not just fail, but will produce a result directly opposite to that which it wants to achieve.

Read Full Post »


King Charles I of England/ Studio of Van Dyck

Trump now claims that he has the power to adjourn Congress so that he can make appointments without the advice and consent of the Senate.

Have we seen this movie before?

Charles I of England fought with Parliament over whether the latter would impose taxes he thought necessary. Charles dissolved Parliament, solely on his own authority, three times, the last of which was in 1629. The period of his reign from 1629 through 1640, when he had little choice but to summon what became known as the Long Parliament, is often called Charles’ period of personal rule.

Regarding Trump’s claim of power to adjourn Congress, it’s worthwhile noting that in 1641 the Long Parliament pressured Charles into signing something called An Act Against Dissolving Parliament Without Its Consent. Not surprisingly, this law provided that Parliament could not be dissolved without its own consent.

Our own Founding Fathers knew by heart all of the events from Charles’ ascension to the English throne, through the Protectorate, and into 1660, the year of the Restoration. The English Civil Wars (plural) were constantly before them when they were drafting the United States Constitution. In fact, some of them had ancestors who were either Roundheads or Cavaliers. One shouldn’t be surprised at how closely the office of President of the United States parallels that of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.

Given this background, you can bet that the Constitutional terms under which Congress can be adjourned without its own consent are narrow and quite specific.

Trump doesn’t take advice, and he hardly knows American history, much less English. He’d undoubtedly like the term “personal rule.” But before he continues to assert his right to adjourn Congress on his word alone, he’d do well to learn a little more about Charles I — he didn’t end up ahead of the game.

Read Full Post »


Places You'll Go

Note how young McGurk’s placement of elephants complies with CDC recommendations on social distancing.

Oh, the Places You Won’t Go!
by Paul G. Neilan (styled after Dr. Seuss)

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
And you thought you could go
Any direction you choose.

But then something happened
To up-end your plan:
Folks started dying
In a place called Wuhan.

With your shoes full of feet and your head full of brains,
You shouldn’t have to worry ’bout buses and planes.
In Wu-han things happen, and frequently do,
To folks who eat bats and pangolins too.

You never eat bat, so no need to take fright.
Kudlow said “We’ve contained this, pretty close to airtight.”
And the president asked “Why the long faces?
“It’s one guy from China, and just fifteen cases.
“I alone can fix it,” said Trump, like a hero.
“Inside of a week, I’ll bring that to zero.”
Our very stable genius said “Yes, we’re the best!
“And anybody who wants to can get their own test!”

Then Trump got real testy, and nasty, and grouchy
When warnings kept coming from Anthony Fauci.
Fauci said, “Of test kits we’ll need to get millions,
“Or the economy stands to lose multiple trillions.
But his warnings fell on deaf ears autocratic,
Which can happen when spreaders are a-symptomatic.

“Mr. Trump,” Fauci said, “it’s a danger, it’s a fact.
“You’ve got to trigger the Defense Production Act.
“I’m sorry to say, sir, but sadly, it’s true,
“That plagues and pandemics can happen to you.
“We’ll get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch
“With the GDP cratered and the Dow in a lurch.”

Then Trump said to Fauci “Don’t worry, don’t stew.
“Each year tens of thousands die from the flu.
“No,” said Trump, “you’re just a big whiner.
“I know what to do. I could do nothing finer,
“Than slap a big ban on travel from Chiner.

“Just look,” said Trump, “at that high S&P!
“And if things go south, I’ll just blame it on Xi.
“By April, you’ll see, when the weather gets right,
“This will all blow away like an old paper kite.”

Then he turned on his heels, pleased by his retort,
And flew off to play golf at a nice Trump Resort.

Read Full Post »

Edward III of England (1322-1377)

Most Americans derive what little they know of the Middle Ages from HBO miniseries. Even ardent Wikipedia fans erroneously believe that England only broke with the Church of Rome when Pope Clement VII refused to grant Henry VIII an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn and try again for a male heir. We should not blame ourselves too harshly for this lack of knowledge since Hollywood has spent the last seventy years warping historical reality, and of no era is this more true than the medieval one. One can begin to correct these distortions by keeping in mind that the Age of Chivalry was not the Age of Dentistry. That’s why nobody was smiling in those old paintings.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Henry VIII was a late-comer to the Break-with-Rome game. Tensions between England and the Papacy had been brewing for centuries, and one of the first big ruptures was known as the Statute of Provisors, which was enacted in 1351 during the reign of Edward III (1322-1377). That’s almost two hundred years before Anne Boleyn’s first date with Henry VIII. The Statute of Provisors dealt with the Pope’s power of disposition of benefices in England.

What, you may well ask, is a benefice? It’s not a misspelling on a form letter from your health insurer. Rather, a benefice was a high (and high-paying) position in the Church such as bishop, abbot or cardinal. The Statute of Provisors dealt with the thorny issue of whether the pope or the English king had the right to appoint prelates in England. To our modern ears all that may sound like choreography for angels on pinheads, but back then it was a matter of the greatest importance.

William the Conqueror recognized the importance of the Church to consolidating his newly-acquired hold on England. He compelled all the cathedral cities in England, as well as in those parts of France he controlled, to elect his nominees as bishops. This process, in which the king “invested” his appointee with a bishop’s ring and staff, was called “investiture,” and it gave the bishops a badge of both spiritual and temporal authority. Bishoprics had been handled this way across Europe for centuries.

Then, in 1075, Pope Gregory VII up-ended all that. He prohibited laymen from electing bishops (“lay investiture”). He held that the Church was both independent of the state and above it, and that no temporal ruler could confer ecclesiastical authority. Gregory VII’s edict gave rise to what later became known as the Investiture Controversy. But things didn’t quite go as Gregory VII had planned.

On the Continent, in response to the edict, Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor and Rex Germanorum (King of the Germans), declared that Gregory VII was no longer pope. In return, Gregory VII excommunicated Henry IV. Excommunication was a big deal back then, much bigger than canceling a State of the Union Address. When the Pope excommunicated a king, it meant that all that king’s vassals were released from their feudal oaths of loyalty to him, and that anybody could invade that ruler’s domains without committing a sin.

But Henry IV beat him to the punch and invaded Italy, forcing Gregory VII to flee Rome. Then, in a supreme act of lay investiture, Henry IV proclaimed his appointee, Clement III, pope.

In England the Investiture Controversy was much less sanguinary, in large part because a very smart bishop, Anselm, of ontological argument fame, designed a compromise that avoided war and fleeing pontiffs. Taking Anselm’s advice, Henry I, King of England and second son of William the Conqueror, resigned his claim to invest bishops with ring and staff, which were the symbols of spiritual authority, but required that all bishops had to be elected in the presence of the king. Anselm’s settlement was eventually put in effect throughout Europe by the Concordat of Worms in 1122.

Control over high Church posts meant better control over your kingdom. Prior to the Reformation, the Church in Western Europe was universal in both name and reality: it had a monopoly on all knowledge and learning, and it had the only organized and regimented bureaucracy that was common across Europe. It had all sorts of internal frictions and contradictions, of course, but at its root it was one organization led by one man. To the extent that any coherent body of law existed in Europe after Rome fell, it was the canon law of the Church of Rome. In an age when the common law in England was still in a preadolescent stage, canon law was a sophisticated and mature product of centuries of work by scholars. It would take centuries for English lawyers to develop the common law we now take for granted.

Bishops controlled the administration and interpretation of the canon law, which did not depend on the king. They believed, and taught their faithful flocks to believe, that the canon law was superior to what little civil law existed. Ecclesiastical courts were to be found at every bishop’s seat (the cathedra), and these courts tried much more than just errors of faith. Because spirituality informed nearly every phase of life, the ecclesiastical courts had an undefined jurisdiction capable of almost unlimited extension, much to the chagrin of feudal and seignorial courts. Marriage, inheritance, theft and usury were all justiciable before the bishop’s seat.

Bishops also handled contract disputes: in an age where most people could neither read nor write, and, long before the doctrine of consideration was even thought of, agreements were customarily confirmed with the sanction of an oath made before witnesses. Breach of an agreement meant a breach of faith, which was a crime in the eyes of the Church. Even down to the present day “good faith” is part of contract law, and bits and pieces of medieval canon law have survived under the heading of equity.

And that’s just the legal side. The Church controlled all communications. It was the internet of its day. If one king wanted to send a message to another, it had to be heard by a priest in the local tongue, translated into Latin, carried overland, and then translated from Latin into the language of the receiving kingdom. (And we thought the old telephone modems were slow.)

The Church was an indispensable tool of the throne’s political messaging as well. In an era without mass communication and a population that was mostly illiterate, bishops told the lowly parish priests what to preach to their flocks every Sunday.

The positions of cardinal, bishop and abbott were important not only because of their legal roles, but also because they were lucrative. Bishops and abbots were often among the largest landowners in an era when land was the predominant form of wealth.

By the mid-14th century, at the height of Edward III’s reign, the old Concordat of Worms was no longer working very well for England. There had been some developments on the ground that impelled a response.

First, Edward III had to deal with the Avignon papacy. For about sixty years popes had resided not in Rome, but in Avignon, France. This wasn’t good for England. The Avignon popes were subject to undue influence, if not outright control, by the French king. Since England and France were in the middle of the Hundred Years War, this did not sit well with Edward III.

The Avignon popes also liked to flex their theological muscle to show that they were still popes, even though they weren’t in Rome, and controlling foreign benefices was an important muscle to flex. A “provisor” was a nominee to an English benefice who had been named by a “provision” from the pope. So Edward III was faced with a situation in which his enemy, France, had substantial control over law, spirituality, communications, and wealth in his kingdom.

This must have really irritated Edward III because, militarily, he was in a strong position. In 1346 he’d won a major victory over the French at Crecy, in northern France, and he had put the Pas de Calais firmly under English control.

As if things weren’t complicated enough already, the Black Death had arrived in England in June 1348. By the summer of the following year it had killed anywhere from 40% to 60% of England’s population. Since the Black Death did not distinguish peasant from prelate, a large number of English benefices became vacant, and the pope in Avignon was busy “provising” their replacements. The upshot was that by 1351 almost all the benefices in England were in the hands of foreigners appointed by a pope under the French thumb.

Edward III’s Statute of Provisors found this situation was “to the damage and destruction of the whole realm.” The statute imposed a penalty on any person attempting to disturb the “canonical order” by asserting any rights of a papal provisor to any bishopric in England. The provisor, together with his advocates and his retinue, were to be arrested and brought before the king’s court to answer for their offense. If found guilty, they would be imprisoned until they renounced any papal provision and found someone to stand surety that they would not re-offend.

All this may seem rather distant, but on reflection some parallels with Brexit become apparent.


Read Full Post »

Trump Pout 4

No one would ever accuse our esteemed president of being a sensitive soul. But his comments over the past few years lead us to believe that he’s losing sensitivity in his hands and fingertips.

Just yesterday he said he “feels very badly” for Paul Manafort. Back in 2017, Trump said he felt “very badly” for his ex-national security advisor Michael T. Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

Before Michael Cohen flipped on Trump, the president also said he “felt badly” for his former attorney.

Since the Prez has such a very, very large brain, and he’s like, really really smart, and he has the best words, he’s not one to miss the difference between “feel” the linking verb and “feel” the action verb. If Trump felt bad about Manafort, Flynn and Cohen, he would no doubt have told us. After all, he’s not one for holding back on how he feels about something.

But if he’s feeling badly, then he won’t be able to find Manafort, Flynn or Cohen if the lights suddenly go out.

He’s told the world he’s a stable genius. But is he really bragging that he’s good with horses?

Read Full Post »


An Ethiopian Air Boeing 737

Following two crashes of Boeing 737 Max 8 commercial jetliners for apparently similar causes — the plane’s autopilot mechanism took over and caused the plane to suddenly go nose-down during take-off — news outlets have reported that similar complaints about the 737 Max 8 have been registered by U.S. pilots over the past several years, although no accidents have occurred.

The important thing, though, is where those pilots registered their complaints.

They registered them in a federal government database.

An anonymous government database.

No names of pilots are given. No names of airlines are given. According to the news reports, this anonymous reporting facility is provided by the U.S. government so that commercial airline pilots can make these reports and complaints without having to worry about “repercussions to their own careers.”

The flying public (i.e., people like you and me) should stop and think about that for just a moment.

You board an airplane at an airport. But the big airlines whose planes you’re getting on, the companies to whom you are entrusting your very life, are so prone to retaliate against a pilot who reports a problem that the United States government has to intervene and provide an anonymous reporting system so that pilots can raise life-and-death issues without worrying about whether they’ll put themselves out of their jobs.

There may also be pilots who have witnessed problems with their aircraft who, despite the existence of this anonymous reporting service, made no complaint because they didn’t trust that system and didn’t believe that their report would remain anonymous.

The next time you hear that fugazy little jingle about flying the friendly skies of Acme Air, think about that anonymous database, about why it’s necessary, and then draw your own conclusions about what those airlines really think about the safety of the flying public.


Read Full Post »


Amazon’s Jeff Bezos – An “Average” Guy

Last week Jeff Bezos, the richest man on Planet Earth with a reported $100 Billion in net worth, decided that Amazon would no longer consider building its Headquarters 2 Project (HQ2) in Long Island City, New York. Amazon had never made any commitment to build in New York, and in fact it’s still looking at locations in other states. But feelings of unrequited love have spurred critics on both the left and the right to complain. The right complains that the left is anti-business. For its part, the left is split: some complain about lost jobs (even though they didn’t exist yet), while others argue that the deal was a huge give-away and unnecessary to boot.

Based on public information, Amazon’s gross annual revenue for 2018 was $233 Billion, a 30.9% increase from 2017’s annual gross of $178 Billion. For our purposes, we’ll forget all about what Amazon may have earned, gross, in any prior year, and what it may have done with that money, whether pay it out in dividends, re-invest in the company, etc. We’ll give Amazon every benefit of the doubt by being conservative on its revenues, as well as conservative on what it was supposed to get from various New York public piggy banks.

Amazon canceled consideration of New York City as a home for its new HQ2 because of friction with various political players in NY who opposed the project. We’re told that opposition was due chiefly to the proposed economic incentives to Amazon that would be provided at public expense. So what was Amazon supposed to get in this deal? Reports over the last few days use a figure of $3.0 Billion, but according to news reports from last November, the real total appears closer to $2.6 Billion. Still a lot of money, but none of the current reports go into same detail as those from November. Based on the November reports, the gist of the deal was this:

  • $1,200,000,000: Amazon was going to receive $1.2 Billion in NY State tax credits through the Excelsior Jobs Program if it created 25,000 net new jobs in New York State with an average salary of $150,000 per job by June 30, 2028. Without reviewing the actual documents, we can’t say whether this 25,000 job/$150,000 average salary requirement was a condition precedent to Amazon’s receipt of the tax credits, or whether those credits had some kind of best efforts fudge factor. Giving Amazon the benefit of the doubt, we’ll assume this requirement is a condition precedent.
  • $505,000,000: New York State would give Amazon a grant of $505 Million to reimburse it for the cost of building its new office space in Long Island City. (Subtotal: $1,705,000,000).
  • $325,000,000, netted to zero (-0-): Another reported cash grant consists of $325 Million from the Empire State Development Program. Again, without having seen authoritative documents, it’s not clear whether this $325 Million is part of, or in addition to, the $505 million grant mentioned above. Giving Amazon the benefit of the doubt, we’ll regard it as part of the $505 million grant, and discount it entirely. (Subtotal: still $1,705,000,000).
  • $900,000,000: New York City, through its Relocation and Employment Assistance Program (REAP) would have added another $900 Million in grants. (Subtotal: $2,605,000,000).
  • – $-0- : New York State and New York City officials had promised to either rehab or build new infrastructure and mass transit facilities that serve the area Amazon would occupy in Long Island City. This would be public money as well, though review of the news reports did not disclose any definite dollar amount or commitment. Because these projects, if completed, would benefit the public at large and not just Amazon and its proposed new HQ2, we’ll give Amazon the benefit of the doubt and disregard any public dollar commitment public transportation and infrastructure improvements.

The total estimate of public dollars to be spent for Amazon’s benefit is thus $2,605,000,000; or just call it $2.6 Billion. The punditocracy would have us believe that Amazon nixed its Long Island City plans because of the difficulty of obtaining from New York (state and city) tax and other incentives that amounted to just a little over one percent (1%) of its gross revenues for each of the years 2018 and 2017.

Unlikely, but we’ll run with it anyway.

Some proponents of the Amazon project argue that this really isn’t public money. That is absurd. Tax abatements, tax credits and deductions, and grants from government agencies are all sourced, whether directly or indirectly, from public money. A state tax credit is public money of the state: it reduces a tax otherwise payable to the state on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Even the most ardent supporters of Amazon’s project have to admit that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Let’s do a little quick math. As Mark Twain said, there are lies, damn lies and statistics, so let’s revisit Amazon’s promise to provide an “average salary” of $150,000 for 25,000 net new jobs. The pundits bemoaning New York’s loss of Amazon’s HQ2 take this to mean 25,000 jobs paying $150,000 each. But remember that old joke about the statistician who had his head in an oven and his feet in a freezer. When asked if he was okay he replied, “On average, I’m just fine.”

The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour. That minimum wage rate hasn’t been increased since 2009. If a minimum wage employee works a full year (52 weeks/year), he or she will gross $15,080 per year.

Bezos will soon marry a woman who will be his second wife. Bezos could hire his new spouse as CEO of the New York City Division of Amazon at a salary of $3,385,000,000 ( net new employees = 1). She could have her paychecks direct deposited to their joint checking account, should she so wish. As a practical matter, that money would be coming back directly to Bezos.

That leaves Bezos with another 24,999 new employees to hire. He could hire every single one of them at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 (earning just $15,080 per year). By doing this, Bezos meets his requirement to create 25,000 net new jobs at an “average” salary of $150,000 per year. In fact, under that employment scenario he’s exceeded that threshhold by about $480 (the average salary would be $150,479.40, to be exact).

Would that happen? Maybe not. Amazon would need some high-level and mid-level management employees and non-management supervisors, etc.

Still, you can put those numbers on your calculator and play with them any way you like for as long as you like, and you can come up with numerous distributions of 25,000 salaries that keeps the vast majority of Amazon’s prospective Long Island City employees at minimum wage while still enabling Bezos to claim $1.2 Billion in NY State tax credits.

Next time we’ll take a look at corporate welfare for Amazon.

Read Full Post »

Augustine - Donatists

St. Augustine arguing with the Donatists

Virginia. Northam. Fairfax. You could almost be forgiven for expecting the phone to ring with the caller asking if you’d consider becoming the next Governor of Virginia. As The Clash put it back in the 80’s,

Should I stay or should I go?
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double

The Democrats have chosen the path of zero tolerance, while the Republicans, led by an orange-hued exemplar of inhumanity and fraud, have occupied the territory of anything goes. Sadly for the country, both sides view any hint of moderation as going too far.

Zero tolerance sounds great and looks good on paper, but actual cases raise some tough issues. Humans, by nature, are imperfect, and their actions are often wrongful or just plain wrong. The controversies currently roiling the Democratic Party in Virginia have been triggered by the sexist, racist or even potentially criminal personal histories of certain incumbent Democratic politicians. Some scandals are just too big to tolerate. But how do we judge that?

A policy of zero tolerance can easily lead to absurd results because, by definition, it discards any notion of different degrees of culpability. Democrats would do well to remember that not all larceny is grand. The Republicans should be careful not to start laughing too hard or too soon because there are sure to be similar or worse stories that will become their own “damn spots” in the 2020 election cycle.

The Democrats are not the only organization to have dealt with this issue. If we could borrow Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and set the dial to the the fourth century A.D., we’d see an uncanny similarity between the behavior of the Democrats today and the Donatists of that long-gone era.

What’s a Donatist? It’s not a person who likes or makes doughnuts.

Diocletian, the Emperor of Rome from about 284 A.D. to 305 A.D., was intent on restoring the Roman Empire to the glories of the second century A.D. Yes, even the ancients were afflicted with nostalgia. Not unlike some conservative politicians of the present day, Diocletian believed that the root cause of the reverses that had been suffered by the Empire were due to the loss of the traditional virtues of the Roman citizen: Roman men should serve the state in the military ranks, if not in the government; spouses should remain faithful to each other; and children should respect their parents and feed and house them in their old age. Most worrisome, however, was the perceived decline in the worship of, and sacrifice to, traditional Roman gods.

Sound familiar? It’s not known whether Diocletion had any MRGA (Make Rome Great Again) togas printed and distributed to his followers, but it wouldn’t be surprising.

Diocletian believed that one of the big causes of the decline in worship of traditional Roman deities was this Christianity business that got started in Judea. He needed to get rid of the Christianity cult, and he started the last great persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. New edicts were issued. Christians could not sue in Roman courts; they could be sued, but could not defend themselves. Freed slaves who had become Christians were re-enslaved. Christians who refused to obey could be burned alive, or be fed to the lions in the local amphitheater for entertainment of the masses. (No ESPN then.) Most important for our purposes, though, Christians were required, on pain of death, to hand over all of their sacred books and scriptures for destruction.

Lions expressing dietary preferences.

Early Christian theology was far from uniform. In some areas Christians threw themselves into the flames rather than surrender their written scriptures, while in others, handing a few written texts over to a Roman magistrate was no big deal. Those who surrendered the scriptures were called traditors, from the Latin trado, tradere, meaning to hand over or deliver. The modern English term traitor is derived from traditor.

In North Africa, the Diocletian Persecution gave rise to Donatism. The Donatists held that true believers should have nothing whatsoever to do with any traditor bishop or priest. As is often the case with any religious principle, it quickly expanded far beyond its original scope and became a zero tolerance dogma: any sacrament administered by polluted hands was itself polluted and ineffective. For the Donatists, a priest or bishop living in sin was incapable of administering sacraments. Donatists denied the spiritual powers of clerics of whose morals they disapproved. Given the highly questionable condition of ecclesiastical morals in the later Roman Empire, non-Donatist prelates saw that this doctrine could destroy the entire structure of the priesthood. The flock ought not to sit in judgment on the pastor. Like any zero tolerance policy, in practice it meant that its enforcers would rather split the party than split the difference, as the saying goes.

On the Republican side of the aisle, zero tolerance takes a different form and means that compromise is outlawed. For Republicans, compromise means a capitulation, a betrayal of their cause, whether it’s a wall or tax cuts or anything else.

The Donatist doctrines never took root in the Christianity of continental Europe, though they continued in North Africa for another four centuries without any real resolution. Whether you were a heretic or not depended on whether your side was in the majority or the minority in your area. The controversy only went away when the Islamic wave swept westward from Arabia across the North African region.

And the rest is history….

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »