Bob Schwartz

Month: June, 2012

Summer All Day Music

Even a serious (or seriocomic) blog needs a summer break. So here it is.

Driving down the mean streets of a mid-sized American city at midday, it is 92 degrees, hotter than it should be the first week of summer. Not bad, though, with the radio loud but edgeless cool, playing summer songs. Women wait to cross at the corners, long loose print cotton skirts clinging and waving in the breeze, sleeveless tops. This means War.

There’s All Day Music

Music is what we like to play
To soothe your soul, yeah

Down at the beach or party in town
Making love or just riding around
Let’s have a picnic, go to the park
Rolling in the grass till long after dark

And on the flip there’s Summer

Riding round town with all the windows down
Eight track playing all your favorite sounds
The rhythm of the bongos fill the park
The street musicians trying to get a start

Cause it’s summer
Summer time is here
Yes, it’s summer
My time of year

So there are no more eight tracks. So what? The hot songs of summer, girls of summer, boys of summer are forever.

There Is No MAD In Politics

The Supreme Court decision in American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Bullock confirms that states like Montana must follow the rule of Citizens United and allow corporations the same political speech rights as individuals, including speaking money in elections.

War Games (1983) is a charming movie with a serious message. The charming comes from a young Matthew Broderick, playing a computer geek whose gaming nearly starts a global thermonuclear war. He is able to avert it, and the serious message for everyone is spoken by the computer: “The only winning move is not to play.”

When nuclear weapons were used for the first and only time in 1945, and it was obvious that portions of the world could be destroyed in an instant, responses followed.  There were moves to keep them out of the hands of “bad guys”, there were demonstrations to “ban the bomb” from everyone, there were attempts to limit and reduce the weapons that everyone eventually got.

And then there was the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). It was simple: If anyone with those weapons could as easily be destroyed as they could destroy, it would be “madness” for them to strike. And as much as our deepest humanity wants to deny it, MAD is the reigning paradigm that has prevented nuclear weapons from being used even once in the almost seventy years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In post-Citizens United politics, there is no MAD. There is worthwhile talk of disclosure, transparency and constitutional amendments to at least moderate the influence of corporate money in elections. But there is also a realpolitik sense that in the meantime those with the biggest weapons may well win. And the prospective winners have no worries about being destroyed by any opposing arsenal. That is why, understandably, the Obama campaign very quickly pivoted on the issue of Super Pacs. It was a matter of political survival.

MAD has saved us from blowing ourselves up. It is not available to save the politics of democracy. It is time for the most creative minds to figure out something beyond the virtuously obvious but ineffective. Whatever that might be.

Pete Rose And The Healthcare Decision

It looks as if the Supreme Court will issue its decision on the Affordable Care Act (aka Heritagecare) this week. An unreported story is the relationship of this to baseball legend Pete Rose.

There has probably been more betting on the outcome of this legal question than any before, at venues such as Intrade. Presumably the bettors include some number of lawyers; with more than a million lawyers in the U.S., what are the odds of that?

Major League Baseball has so far banned Pete Rose from the Hall of Fame because he bet on games. Not games he or his team were involved in, just games. Ever since the Black Sox scandal almost a century ago, baseball has had a zero tolerance rule on gambling by anyone in the sport.

The courts and the bar associations that regulate the practice of law have well developed and strict rules of conduct for lawyers. Obviously illegal gambling is just that— illegal—and clearly out of bounds. Gambling addictions that affect practice have also taken a prominent place in the rules of professional responsibility.

But it doesn’t appear that reasonable and prudent legal gambling of any kind is an ethical problem for lawyers. Unless, that is, there is some kind of Pete Rose issue about it. Specifically: Can lawyers responsibly and ethically bet on court decisions with which they have absolutely no relationship? The answer awaits investigation, and maybe some law review articles.

As for the case itself, they say that only fools predict difficult Supreme Court decisions. So a fool rushes in:

1. The Court will have the law stand or fall as a whole and not pick and choose. There is no severability clause. The court can appropriately say that with such an integrated and complex piece of legislation, if Congress got it wrong constitutionally, it is up to Congress to get it right.

2. If it falls on the basis of the mandate, as widely expected, the reasoning of the majority is going to be a sight to behold and study. A principle of jurisprudence at every level is to decide legal issues as narrowly as possible, unless there is an intention to make a bold legal statement. When the Supreme Court speaks, the bolder the statement, the more far-reaching the impact. In a three-branch democracy, any statement about the limits of powers is very loud and long-echoing.

3. We may not have nine opinions, but we may have an almost complete set of concurring and dissenting opinions. For those who have never read dissents in Supreme Court opinions, be aware that in difficult and controversial cases, it is not unheard of or inappropriate for dissenting Justices to politely but clearly state that the majority is in all respects wrong (see the four dissents in Bush v. Gore).

And now, the bottom line. Intrade traders have placed their bets, and they say the chances of “The US Supreme Court to rule individual mandate unconstitutional before midnight ET 31 Dec 2012” are 76.5%. Judging by the comments on the site, the bettors are some combination of knowledgeable thinkers and anti-Obama ideologues. Intrade and those analysts willing to go out on a limb are right. The mandate will be found wanting, with strenuous disagreement among the Justices. And on the basis of non-severability, so will the entire Affordable Care Act.

Or, then again, maybe not.

Elizabeth Warren And Native American Lending

Elizabeth Warren is a figure of considerable talent and successful public service. On the heels of a controversy that has been dogging her, though, an irony has cropped up that is worth a note in passing.

Even in a political season where the bizarre has become the everyday, Elizabeth Warren’s run for a U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts has taken some strange turns. While her claim to Native American heritage is entirely legitimate, her handling of the politics surrounding it has been less than smooth. And now there is an unremarked upon twist to it.

You’ve probably seen television ads for the Internet lender Western Sky Financial. A pretty woman in braids looks you straight in the eye and offers you a personal loan. “Yes, the money is expensive,” she admits, “but it is a lot cheaper than a payday advance.” All the while, the Western Sky three-tipi logo is emblazoned onscreen, as a drum beats softly in the background.

The Western Sky site explains:

Western Sky Financial is owned wholly by an individual Tribal Member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and is not owned or operated by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe or any of its political subdivisions. Western Sky Financial is a Native American business operating within the exterior boundaries of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, a sovereign nation located within the United States of America.

In an earnest section on Responsible Lending, Western Sky outlines its philosophy:

Fair Dealing among people is a Lakota Tradition, and a concept that is fully embraced by Western Sky. Fair Dealing requires parties to be open and honest and to treat others with respect. Western Sky believes Fair Dealing to be an important aspect of being a responsible Lender.

Western Sky seeks to employ the concept of Fair Dealing at all levels of customer relations, from the application process to the details of loan repayment. This page outlines our approach and what we ask you in return. If you have any questions regarding our commitment to Fair Dealing or our expectations of you, please feel free to ask.

Here are some of the loan rates:

Loan Product Borrower Proceeds Loan Fee  APR   Number of Payments Payment Amount
$10,000 Loan      $9,925          $75   89.68%        84              $743.49
$5,075 Loan       $5,000          $75   116.73%       84              $486.58
$2,600 Loan       $2,525          $75   139.22%       47              $294.46
$1,500 Loan       $1,000          $500  234.25%       24              $198.19
$850 Loan         $500            $350  342.86%       12              $150.72

Demand for easy but high-interest loans has skyrocketed in these hard times. In response to possible overreaching, a number of states that had previously kept their legislative hands off have jumped in to try and set some limits.

It appears that hundreds of Native American-related lending companies, including Western Sky, have cropped up to meet consumer demand. Despite state efforts to weigh in on this development, tribal sovereignty in the face of state laws has prevailed. In 2011 the Native American Lending Alliance  was formed to establish best practices and to make sure that sovereignty in this area remains intact and unassaied.

The only entity empowered to take on any question of tribal-related lending is the federal government. In recent years the federal government did generally take on consumer lending and related  issues with the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But Native American lending is a legally complex and sensitive matter, and neither the federal government nor the CFPB is currently addressing it as frontline cause.

And that’s where the irony comes in. The CFPB is to a great extent the creation of Elizabeth Warren. She conceived it and helped build it. So at a time when Native American interests are operating just outside the purview and the spirit of the CFPB, Elizabeth Warren’s own Native American heritage has become a bit of a campaign issue.

The two have no direct connection, and all we know tells us that Elizabeth Warren always stands squarely on the side of consumers. But it is ironic: not a big irony, but certainly a curious twist in an endlessly curious and twisted political season.

Father’s Day of Forgiveness

Among fathers who aren’t indifferent or hostile to the artifice, many seem happy to accept a day set aside for the appreciation they may or may not get the rest of the year.

But that premise is limited and distant from a certain reality. Being a father is very complicated, and looking back on the experience can be as troubling as it is sweet. You can survey the stacks of achievements and regrets, or you can just accept the reality that we did what we did, we were  who we were, in the face of forces for which guidance and history is of limited utility.

Among all that is a realization that whether or not there are things we did right or wrong, there are definitely things for which forgiveness might be sought. You may think that Father’s Day could be a time for imperfect children (all of them) to seek forgiveness of fathers. That is the completely wrong direction. It is a time for imperfect fathers (all of them) to get the appreciation they deserve—for better or worse. And when it is for worse, it follows that forgiveness will be sought—and hopefully granted. Father’s Day is a free pass. Father’s Day is a day of forgiveness.

Hallmark doesn’t have a card for this, but with the greeting card industry, who knows?: Please Forgive Me Son. Happy Father’s Day.

The NBA And The Buddha: Discourse On The Loving Kindness Of The Player Formerly Known As Ron Artest

Just yesterday on an NBA broadcast, former Los Angeles Laker superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson stumbled over the name of current Laker star Ron “Metta World Peace” Artest. Those quote marks for Artest are imprecise. Magic is not Johnson’s real name; it is simply the nickname accorded to him for his achievements on the court. Metta World Peace is Artest’s legal name, since he changed it in September 2011.

Over the course of his career, the adjective most often used to describe Mr. World Peace is “eccentric.” Whether or not people keep track of these things, he may have had more different numbers than anyone in NBA history; his current number 37 is the number of weeks that Michael Jackson’s Thriller album was at the top of the charts.

Beyond eccentric, he has been involved in a number of infamous altercations. In April, his elbow to the head of Oklahoma City Thunder’s James Harden caused a concussion, and resulted in World Peace’s seven-game suspension. (The speculation that Harden’s beard, which is one of the most splendid in all of sports, may have set World Peace off is unsupported.)

Earvin was dubbed “Magic” for his abilities, following a high school game that featured his triple-double of 36 points, 18 rebounds and 16 assists. NBA player Lloyd Free got the nickname “World” growing up in Brooklyn, because of his skills going to the basket, including his 360-degree turns. In 1981 he made it official by changing his name to World B. Free.

Metta World Peace did not get his name by acclamation. It was presumably chosen to reflect something about the man and the player. World Peace seems pretty obvious. But what about Metta?

Metta is a Pali word used in Buddhism. It means kindness, friendliness or compassion. The text known as the Metta Sutta (The Buddha’s Discourse on Loving-Kindness) is one of the oldest in the Buddhist canon, and is recited daily by many Buddhist monks and lay people. Here is one of many translations of this beautiful and essential work, by Sharon Salzberg:

This is what should be done
By those who are skilled in goodness,
And who know the path of peace:

Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways,
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.

Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: in gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.

Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born—
May all beings be at ease!

Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.

Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world,
Spreading upward to the skies,
And downward to the depths;
Outward and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.

Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down,
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.

By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

To move from one branch of Buddhism to another (the Metta Sutta belonging mainly to the Theravada, Zen being part of the Mahayana), it seems we are faced with a Zen koan, a paradox aimed at confounding our thinking into beyond thinking:

How and why would a man known for fits of violent confrontation take the names Metta and World Peace? Is it aspirational, a reminder to him of an ideal to reach or not reach, even as he was inflicting pain? Is it instructional, forcing people to look up and find the Metta Sutta, for the benefit of themselves and all beings? Or is it, as with all koans, never meant or able to be solved, by Ron Artest, Metta World Peace, or anyone?

May all beings be at ease!

Marketing To “The Gays”

In the 2005 comedy The Family Stone, Sarah Jessica Parker plays an uptight New York businesswoman. She is at a family dinner with her fiancé’s gay brother, who is planning to adopt a baby with his partner. Trying to prove her open-mindedness, she says every wrong thing, and finally blurts out: “I love the gays. Gay people. They know that.”

This article appeared in a recent Billboard:

Why The Wanted Play Gay Clubs: Marketing, Music And The LGBT Community’s Mainstream Music Clout

When the Wanted was looking to book its first major U.S. gigs in January, the British pop group didn’t just call up Live Nation or AEG to reach the tween- and teen-girl fan base courted by the generations of boy bands that had come before them. Sandwiched in between 10 midsize-club dates, the group made a quintet of special appearances booked by a boutique PR and events company called the Karpel Group to help reach what has arguably become an even more powerful audience when it comes to modern pop stardom: the gays.

The article is a straightforward business and marketing story: here’s an identifiable market, here’s how the artists and labels are marketing to it. Among the reports:

For music, bloggers like Perez Hilton, Andy Towle (Towleroad) and Jared Eng (JustJared) wield a lot of influence and Sirius’ Out Q (hosted by former Billboard editor Larry Flick) has been a satellite-radio mainstay since 2003. Even Clear Channel has a Pride radio network that serves 19 markets with gay-friendly pop music as well as across iHeartRadio’s digital network.

And this:

Gay buying power, often touted for the consumer group’s supposed affluence, remains a bit of a misnomer. “There’s no data that suggests gay people are wealthier than anybody else,” Witeck Communications’ Bob Witeck says….

They also not only appreciate being marketed to directly, they expect it — particularly when it comes to music. Labels are starting to develop dedicated gay-marketing strategies for certain artists, much as they already have for reaching Hispanic or African-American audiences.

And this:

“Five or six years ago it was almost uncomfortable. Now I sit in label meetings and someone in the room will say, ‘We really have to drill down on this market,'” says Scott Seviour, senior VP of marketing and artist development at Epic Records. “On a business level and an industry level, there’s a greater respect for that consumer. You’ve seen them break an artist and make names. They’re passionate and they can move the needle.”

Business is business, markets are markets, and if you can identify and reach consumers who might buy and promote your products, that is the game. As is pointed out, the practice of marketing to all sorts of groups is common. And in a consumer-driven economy, being recognized and courted is at least a show of economic respect, if not of social acceptance.

But there are caveats too. Being targeted is not necessarily a sign of enlightenment, though it is better than ignorance, invisibility or hate. There is also a general challenge with identity marketing. It’s a thin line between identity and stereotype, a line that’s always in danger of disappearing—if it’s there at all. It can be legitimate and effective to target consumers on the basis of what you know about them and how that works with the products you are selling. But it is easy to fall unwittingly into treating people of any kind as a market and not as people.

The proposition “If you are a (fill in the identity), then you will/must like/want this” is problematic. That’s why “the gays” and “they” and even “gay-friendly” are so cringeworthy. Substitute your own or anybody else’s identity there—woman, black, Jew, etc.—and you’ll see.

We’ve come a long way culturally, moving closer to seeing and treating all people as individuals. It’s too late to turn back or slip back now.

An Old Wave of Music Death

The death of musician Bob Welch, former member of Fleetwood Mac, is the latest in a current series of deaths—natural and unnatural—in the pop music world.

A fascination with rock death arose from a cultural and demographic phenomenon. The 1960s saw the meteoric appearance of very young stars to very young audiences. When a plane crash took Buddy Holly at 22 and Richie Valens at 17, this deeply touched teenagers who had little experience of death.

The late 1960s took this to a new level. Not only were young artists dying, but they were dying in strange and often self-inflicted ways. In 1979 the Village Voice published the legendary article Rock Death in the 1970s: A Sweepstakes, by music critic Greil Marcus (unfortunately not available online). Trying to both appreciate lost artists and skewer a fascination with celebrity death, Marcus scored the dozens of musicians according to past contribution, prospective future contribution and manner of death (heroin overdose received 0 points for manner, since he considered it “the common cold of rock death”).  Jimi Hendrix won, with perfect 10s for past and future contribution.

Some portions of the recent deaths bear an uncanny and all too familiar similarity to the worst days decades ago. If a Marcus-like list is to be made now, Amy Winehouse belongs near the top. Others who died too soon could join her there.

But there is something different about the latest wave. While some of the deaths are untimely, some of them preventable, and all of them tragic, we are now seeing a sort of bookend to the first days of the phenomenon. In the beginning, and in Marcus’ bizarre contest, most of the artists were in their twenties or even younger. While sixty may be the new forty, or whatever the baby boomer conceit is, many of these artists who are passing are in their mid- to late-sixties. They may not have died from getting older, but they were getting older. Even if this isn’t a wave touching shore, it is definitely out there on the horizon.

As Paul Simon, who is now 71, wrote forty years ago in a prophetic verse, “Everything put together falls apart.”

Bobby Kennedy: To Strive and Not To Yield

June 6th is the anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. The assassination of his brother John F. Kennedy is a milestone, a marker between eras. The assassination of Bobby Kennedy is a touchstone, a regular reminder that bright possibilities exist for a while, but things get in the way. Life goes on, just not the way you imagined or dreamed.

It seems useless to add to the volume of words about Bobby Kennedy. Not as many words as those devoted to his brother, who was, after all, President. After all, Bobby Kennedy was not President, and maybe would never have been. Maybe destiny planned all along to serve us up Richard Nixon. Maybe that Kennedy presidency could never live up to expectations or aspirations. We have learned that he was not a personal or political saint, but that was not a surprise. Saints belong in churches, not politics. We want and need heroes, which often means tragic ones. Bobby Kennedy was that and more.

For those unfamiliar with his life and career, here is the condensed version, courtesy of Congress:

KENNEDY, Robert Francis,  (brother of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Edward Moore Kennedy, grandson of John Francis Fitzgerald, uncle of Patrick J. Kennedy, and father of Joseph Patrick Kennedy II), a Senator from New York; born in Boston, Suffolk County, Mass., November 20, 1925; graduated from Milton (Mass.) Academy; served in the United States Navy Reserve 1944-1946; graduated from Harvard University in 1948 and from the University of Virginia Law School in 1951; admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1951; attorney, Criminal Division, Department of Justice 1951-1952; campaign manager for John F. Kennedy’s election to the United States Senate in 1952; assistant counsel, Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations 1953; assistant counsel, Hoover Commission 1953; chief counsel to the minority, Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations 1954, and chief counsel and staff director 1955; chief counsel of Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field 1957-1960; campaign manager for John F. Kennedy’s election to the Presidency in 1960; Attorney General of the United States from January 1961, until his resignation September 3, 1964, to be a candidate for the United States Senate; elected as a Democrat from New York to the United States Senate and served from January 3, 1965, until his death; died from the effects of an assassin’s bullet at Los Angeles, Calif., June 6, 1968, while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination; interment in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Va.

Bobby Kennedy was a lover of literature and poetry. He frequently quoted the poem Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It is the tale of the old warrior Ulysses, who eschews comfort for mission. He has already sacrificed family life for duty, and he can’t help but set out one more time. It is not about glory, but about the dullness of a life of ease and about fiercely pursuing a dream until the end of days.

The poem closes with one of the great calls to action in the English language, both realistic and idealistic. “That which we are, we are,” Ulysses says. Bobby Kennedy was what he was.

…Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

This is how it ends: Bobby Kennedy giving a victory speech after his winning the California Presidential primary. All these years later, the divisions he speaks about seem just as present and pressing as ever. Could he have healed them then? Could he heal them now? Not too late to seek a newer world:

I think we can end the divisions within the United States. What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis. And that what has been going on with the United States over the period of that last three years, the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the divisions—whether it’s between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups, or in the war in Vietnam—that we can work together. We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running.

Update: A check mid-day on June 6 shows that a Google News search for “Bobby Kennedy” results in 7 hits and a search for “Robert F. Kennedy” finds 24, and some of those concern gossip about his son Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. It might be that the 44th anniversary of any event is less important than the rounder numbers like 40 or 50. Besides, we aren’t obliged to pay attention to anything, present or past. There is some tendency, not only today but maybe always, to dismiss looking back at pivotal events as pointless nostalgia. But history is not nostalgia, a confusion related to the very current idea that trivia is news. This endless political season is filled with lots of lesser mortals on all sides, not indictable because they are flawed, but because their flaws so outweigh their nobility. The point of the post is to remind us that this doesn’t have to be true, and there was a time when it wasn’t, and might yet be again.

The Ultimate Notepad?

The best reason to get a very expensive, very powerful smartphone is to have it serve as the ultimate notepad.

No. But if you are someone whose practice has been, since the beginning of time (that is, since the earliest digital days), to go around with a pocket memo book, you may have noticed that the notepad has become vestigial, like a no longer useful appendage about which you still maintain some habitual affection, even if it is no longer useful.

Smartphones are remarkable notetaking devices. Even without the added convenience of voice-to-text, with the right keyboard (recommended: SwifKey) and the right app (recommended: AK Notepad), the flash-of-brilliance scrawl has now become the flash-of-brilliance digital non-scrawl, polished, spell-checked, and ready for prime-time.

A state-of-the-art memo book (Mead top-bound) ended up squarely on a desk next to a state-of-the-art smartphone (Samsung Galaxy S2). Here are some observations.

They are both quite elegant. They are almost exactly the same size: memo book 3×5 inches, smartphone 2.60 x 4.93 inches. The memo book is considerably cheaper, less than a dollar (pen not included), while the smartphone can be hundreds of dollars, depending on the contract. There is no contract available for the notepad.

Obviously, the notepad will never run out of battery power, even if the notetaker does. The worst that can happen is that you run out of ink, at which point lipstick, burnt matches, or dozens of other things will do in a pinch. The upcoming J.J. Abrams television series Revolution is about a world where all electric devices suddenly and completely stop working. Dystopia or utopia, if this possibility lurks on the fringes of your thoughts, for eighty cents or so, you can buy an insurance policy against your most groundbreaking but ephemeral thoughts being lost forever. Seems like a bargain.