Sunday, October 04, 2015

Of the Recent Moment

It's not hard to guess who will be Man of the Year and the US' Most Admired Person for 2015.  For six days, Pope Francis took over America; the question now will be to what extent we take what he says to our hearts.  And our heads.

He had never been to the US before, but for the most part  he had prepared well, understood his audience and the messages he wanted to deliver.  For just about anyone, Francis brought both some comfort and some challenge.  Even for the senior US Catholic clergy:  while his speeches and commentary generally followed the church's teachings, with regard to the history of pedophilia in several Catholic dioceses and the cover-ups that followed, he began by lamenting the suffering of the priesthood (!) but changed his tune and offered solace to its victims and promised resolution.

For the rest of us, those of the left got condemnations of inequality and the death penalty, and the culture of war and death and guns, along with acceptance of alternate lifestyles.  The right got firm opposition to abortion.  Everyone got encouragement to aid the refugees, to save the planet from environmental devastation, and the proposition that there is a higher calling than capitalism.  The event suggested in my mind a hypothetical visit to Rome by Jesus; hit hard and fast, but don't stick around long enough for the counterforce to catch up.

Politically, he would be something extremely rare in American politics:  someone who is truly pro-life, across the board (though I am waiting to hear about his approach to overpopulation, or whether he thinks the planet can stand another 100 years of the traditional five-children Catholic families). No one here wishes him ill, at least not yet; but he better watch out for those back home in the Vatican whom he has been dispossessing with his reforms.

Yogi Berra
The passing of Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra, baseball Hall of Fame catcher and one of the most beloved heroes of the sport, came somewhat quietly at the age of 90.  He was the top everyday player on the Yankee team that set the all-time record for the sport with five consecutive World Series championships, and he held the major league record for homeruns by a catcher until broken by Johnny Bench.

It seemed as though Berra was characterized as some of baseball idiot savant, an impression reinforced by his tendency to provide bizarre quotes to the press.  His nickname, "Yogi", was sort of a mocking description of him as being a guru, something he seemed to accept with his characteristic good humor.  I think this was an unfair treatment, one which underrated his intelligence and overweighted his relatively uneducated skill level with the English language (he was the son of Italian immigrants).

The catcher is normally the on-field director for the defense, helping to set the positioning and signaling to the pitcher the type of pitch and location.  Later, he was the manager, and a fairly successful one, for the Yankees and the Mets. But beyond clearly having a high baseball IQ, he had also the emotional one, and, sometimes, an offbeat wisdom. From this list of 50 Berra  quotes, many of which just reveal idiomatic confusion, I selected these three which make a lot of sense to me:
30. I can see how he (Sandy Koufax) won twenty-five games. What I don’t understand is how he lost five.
44. Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets.
17. The future ain’t what it used to be.
Berra was at the very end of his playing career when I became a baseball fan, and my lifelong aversion to the Yankees might have played out differently if I had seen him in his prime. Since then, I have developed a more nuanced view of the teams that derive their entitlement to success from having the deepest pockets, but in Berra's case, it was superior scouting which won him to the team in the first place. I do remember being offended on his behalf when he was fired as Yankee manager in 1964 after leading them to the pennant (but not winning the Series), and I think it was the Yankees' shabby treatment of him in his second round as their manager in the '80's which eventually turned him off to the club (and particularly, to George Steinbrenner).

Near-Death Experiences:  VW, Boehner, Blatter, Walker
"Defeat device"--what an ironically accurate name for the gadget which is now on the verge of destroying Volkswagen's reputation and economic future. Faced with a difficult engineering challenge for their highly-promoted "clean diesel" technology, when it was failing tests for emissions of dangerous nitrogen dioxide, it figured out how to detect the presence of a testing device and change the emission level, just for the test.  Fiendishly clever, except that it was not hidden sufficiently well, and the software driving the cheat was discovered (credit to West Virginia University).

Nothing but losers as it turns out, except possibly for VW's competitors (if it turns out that they are not also guilty of this kind of fraud).  The owners of the affected cars (11 million of them, across several brands, if we can trust VW's numbers) don't know whether they will end up with a car with diminished emissions and output or some sort of compromise, though VW alleges that they can fix the problem (apart from just removing the defeat device, which will not do the trick).  The public has been subjected to dangerous and illegal emissions, health effects unknown (but possibly litigable). The employees, the German economy and the reputation of German export products and regulators are all negatively affected, but the ones who will be hurt worst (apart from those in the management who will be revealed to be culpable, penalties for which could be major in both civil and criminal courts, in several jurisdictions) will be the shareholders.  I was astounded to see the stock rebound a couple days after the disclosure--I am guessing it was the evidence of effort by the company to support the share prices from total collapse.  To date, they have dropped about 40%, a BP-oil-spill kind of effect, but I suspect there is going to be a steady flow of new indictments, new lawsuits, that will weigh them down for several years.  

At some point, I would expect the company to recover, as this was not a pervasive problem, but one presumably limited to a team of engineers and programmers and a few management types that winked at the scam, and there will be strong support for VW regaining its feet from the German state (the local region of Lower Saxony is one of the leading shareholders).  That being said, my advice to potential investors is to wait 3-4 years, not to buy into the story too soon.  And there is a chance that VW, which spent 70 years successfully rehabilitating its image from its Nazi-era origins as a consumer-friendly, efficient mass market car producer (with significant upscale flavor through its ownership of Audi and Porsche), may end up in a negative downdraft which is permanent.  It's going to be a rough ride, for those shareholders who choose to ride it out. 

Next up, John Boehner, who chose to fall on the political sword rather than endure yet another government shutdown crisis over the question of de-funding Planned Parenthood.  I think it was just fatigue and frustration for him, and not some more complex strategy:  he had enough of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus (or whatever name they call themselves), their indiscipline and lack of realism or effectiveness.  Boehner leaves a legacy of some five years of legislative impotence for his side that so far has not been punished by the voters, and the zealots want more of the same, only somehow better.  Kevin McCarthy, the Majority Leader, is the obvious frontrunner to take the Speaker's position; he immediately put his foot in it, bragging about how the House's Benghazi hearings, prolonged endlessly and so far unrevealing, had brought down Hillary's approval ratings. To be fair, they did produce one result, the disclosure of Hillary's secret email servers, which, though little more substantial, has proven much more damaging than the Benghazi case or the hearings themselves.  The problem with his comment is that McCarthy had strayed from the approved talking points, that the hearings were an objective, non-partisan inquiry into a tragic foreign policy security failure, so a bad omen for his potential Speakership. Personally, I think the timing is perfect for a takeover by the extremists and a spectacular fiasco, a fact of which the Republican establishment figures are fully aware and will try desperately to avoid.  Meanwhile, I celebrate the fall of the House of Orange and note that the new claimant to prominence with the color, Donald Trump, is timed in synch with the seasonal change of leaf pigmentation. 

I was amazed to see that Seth Blatter is still in charge of FIFA, the international association of professional soccer.  His name reappeared amidst all the other news because of his criminal indictment, now going to trial in Switzerland, and the question of the moment is whether legendary French football hero and top FIFA official Michel Platini will be dragged into the mud with his friend Blatter.  So far, FIFA has not stepped away from their catastrophically bad decisions to award the next two World Cup tournaments to Russia and to Qatar.  Both were possibly the result of corruption: the first was defensible, but has turned out to have been poor timing; the second totally inexcusable and doomed to disastrous outcome if not unwound. 

Finally, we need to celebrate the collapse of the candidacy of Scott Walker, the Republican candidate whom we singled out for our strongest opposition some time ago.  I am grateful that the polled primary-probable electorate recognized fairly readily what I called out:  that his is a small mind, with small accomplishments and small ideas, and that no amount of politically pandering positioning could hide those facts.  My next prime target is a tougher one, a canny, unctuous and unscrupulous opportunist, Ted Cruz.  He hasn't done particularly well in the polling so far, but he has positioned himself well to suck up support for the failing Rand Paul campaign and for the leavings from Trump's eventual abandonment of his campaign cruise ship when it finally runs aground (see Schettino, Francesco).  It is important to realize that, while nothing has been won so far, neither has anything been lost, unless it is the hopes, dreams, and dollars of campaign contributors.  So if Cruz still has his, we still have him to worry about; he will be one of the last to leave the stage, I suspect.  

You may notice that I save myself from invective about the current front-runners, Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina.  My feelings about them is that they pose little threat:  they will fade, and if they shouldn't, if somehow one of them gets the nomination, the Republicans will get the comprehensive general election thrashing they will deserve. 

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