Friday, March 31, 2006

Moving Day and Failed Isms

When one is 70 or so, he or she should be free from the need to move from one house to another. That freedom ought to be up there with four freedoms that President Roosevelt named in 1941: freedom from fear, hunger, and so on.

As I was deciding what to take with me a couple years ago for my move to Fullerton from Arcadia, California, I had to choose from among many books. Even worse, I had to decide where to throw out many books. It is getting hard to find places that will take them, ecologically sound places.

Now that I look back on the ordeal, I am impressed by the subject matter of books that I did not take. Not feeling an affinity for those topics indicates a certain freedom from the past.

Failed “isms” need not always be part of one’s psyche or one’s library.

For instance, many books on Communism are gone. I am not a Communist but an economist by education. I had to study Communism in college. Communism has proven itself to be a failure and is found only on college campuses these days (in the United States).

Likewise, books on existentialism are gone from my shelves. Existentialism was a “cute” philosophy of the past. My, how we longed for cuteness and novelty. Novels and philosophic writings used to be crammed full of existential thought. Histories were re-written to reveal existential roots of leaders. And in days when I was young, God was really, really dead—and for the last time, too. RIP.

My books on psychotherapy and its originator, Siggy Freud, are all gone. At one time I was a true believer. And why not? I was brought up with it. Contemporary literature was chock-full of the language of Freud. Movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s were full of deeply significant psychological talk. Actually, our movies were rather heavy-handed in their propaganda sieges. They would be embarrassingly obvious now. Psychologists became priests and even today are consulted by judges in criminal cases. They are asked to predict human behavior, but are not held accountable when they are proven wrong.

Biographers felt they had to psychoanalyze their subjects. They took a rough cut even though they did not live in the times of their subjects and even though they were totally unqualified as psychologists and even though many psychologists they knew were equally unqualified to practice. (Among my souvenirs is a cancelled check written to a psychologist who talked to my son. This practitioner had his license pulled, for his unethical work with a member of the Beach Boys musical group.)

Few words about Freud are heard these days. Psychologists are trying all kinds of other treatment techniques for obvious reasons. A study reported on in Scientific American showed that the three main therapy methods recorded some kind of improvement about one third of the time. It did not matter which method was used. Movie makers and novelists have given up on Freud. So have I. Perhaps, by this time Freud, is really, really, dead. RIP.

When I write about people I try to avoid psychological terms and any form of psychological analysis. I am happy to admit that I am not qualified to dabble in the black art of psychology.

What else is gone from my library? Not the really fine literature of our culture. I still have that. And I still have the essays of early economists. They were political thinkers as well as economists.

I threw out all the old computer books. But I kept bird books and well-written histories. Bartlett and Roget are still on my shelves. Many astronomy books have been surpassed by new discoveries and all my atlases also have been made obsolete. Dictionaries have changed, but I still have a few computer programming books. I occasionally write a program just to see if I can still do it.

And I have an old bible or two. An occasional death of the Creator has not discouraged me.

At the last count, two thirds of my personal library is gone. Dusty, faithful old friends are being reprocessed somewhere into, I hope, new books so they can spread a better truth than I have known—truth that can last more than a few years. And I hope they can avoid cuteness.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Citibank Saga Continues

In my last post to this blog I reported on the UPS (Brown) situation that compounded my Citibank ATM card problems.

Citibank arbitrarily shut off my ATM card and shut me out of computer access to my bank account. I have heard that I was only one out of many more that this happened to . When I told Citibank that the new card they sent my was lost in the bowels of UPS somewhere, and in spite of what was reported I did not receive it or sign for it. So they sent another one to my local branch bank.

My local branch told me the card had arrived, so I went see them and pick up the card. I was told that the card was ready to go and already had my pin number included.

But when the teller at the ban tried to activate the card, it would not work. She had a bad cold and coughed a lot and was not feeling well. After many attempts, she had me call Citibank on the bank’s phone. They had a direct line to Calcutta. Either that or the guy on the other end of the line was doing a perfect imitation of the actor Ben Kingsley in the movie, Ghandi.

Ghandi could not activate my card, either. He worked and worked on it some 10,000 miles away, interrupting the process to talk to his supervisor a couple of times and then pronounced the job as completed. He wished me a nice day and ended the conversation. I asked the teller to test his handiwork. She could not get the card to work.

The teller and I spent some five minutes on my replacement card. This required many applications of her finger to a pad that was checking her fingerprint. That check was unreliable as well. But she finally pronounced the job as done. I went outside the bank to its ATM window and fearfully placed the card in its slot.

It worked! Despite all UPS and Citibank could do, I actually possessed an ATM card that worked.

Then I had to go home and call a special telephone number that would gain me access to my bank account via the Internet. It was back to India again, only this time with a female Ben Kingsley who had a high voice and spoke very fast. Ms Ghandi and I were able, after a long time to break the code so that I could access my own bank account.

All was in order with my finances. And I am developing some fluency with Hindi.

Monday, March 20, 2006

What Can Brown Do To You, Today?

Last week, Citibank suddenly tied up my ATM card and didn't let me know. So I went into the closest bank and inquired about it. They talked to supervisors and finally told me I would have to call my branch bank in Arcadia. So I called them on an 800 number, probably in Calcutta. There they switched me off to a supervisor. She told me my card was somehow involved in a fraud. A friend later told me that he saw in the newspaper and on TV that Citibank had screwed up a lot of accounts with a stupid move and that I was one of the losers. I don’t know, yet.

I tried to get into my bank account on the Internet but they had blocked that, too. So I didn't know how much money I was missing, if any.

Citibank offered to send out a card by UPS and that I should be at home all day to get it on Friday. Nothing happened on Friday so I called them the following Monday. They said their records showed UPS delivered the card and that I had signed for it. I said FRAUD and they better get on it.

Citibank offered to get a card to my local bank on Wednesday. But it would have another number. I said fine and then called UPS (good ole Brown). The guy I talked to had an attitude. He said in his arrogant way that their records showed the card was delivered somewhere on Thursday, not Friday, and picked back up that evening. It looked to him that it had been delivered to the wrong house. He added that the driver had put my name on the delivery slip. He did not know where the card was but at least it had the right address on it. He told me to tell Citibank to put a tracer on it.

I knew that the card was dead and that no one had tried to activate it. So I told the Brown guy what I was going to do--I was not going to tell Citibank and I was going to write about them in my latest blog on the Internet. And that he could do the tracing himself, if he wanted to. He ordered me to have a nice day.

Should we beware the military-industrial complex? No, the banking-shipping complex.

The saga continues.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Driving Miss Economy

Ask most people what is driving the economy and they will guess that it is the computer revolution. It seems that every day there is some new invention or way of handling information that retires an old device and makes necessary a new, expensive device. VoIP and MP3s are examples of newer devices.

But there is another economic mover and shaker that lurks in the background. Our nation’s inventory of houses is maturing. We don’t throw houses away like we do old computers. We upgrade them. Home Depot and Lowes-type stores are not popular just because they are fast-moving retailers. They are popular because they are filling a need caused by the aging of our nation’s houses.

Thanks to standardization of construction dimensions (2X4 construction is about the same in every state and door heights are usually the same), an innovation for repair or upgrading in New York is often equally useful in Texas. In other words, it pays to innovate because there is a large volume of potential customers. It seems that every week, my local home store offers a new tool or plumbing or electrical or bracket or insulation device that is easily handled by the average do-it-yourselfer. This continuous upgrading for the upgraders is very good for our economy. Because of the continuous revolution in electronics, people have jobs and the money to upgrade their homes.

If that weren’t enough, specialists are springing up with new products for those jobs where a do-it-yourselfer, can’t. Some companies will replace all the plumbing in your house; others will replace all your windows and doors. They do their jobs quickly and efficiently and that is all they do. Specialization often results in lower prices. Generally the replacements are better and use less energy. This activity is sparking the economy, too.

Our revolution in communication allows new ideas to flow quickly and easily around the country and the world. It allows a kind of marketing in which people read about a new product and then demand it from their local retailer.

If all this progress keeps up we may be able to afford an extra gallon of gasoline.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Bonds Between China and the USA

Recently I heard someone on radio say that the Chinese are financing America’s debt and that we were in trouble if they suddenly quit doing it. The idea was that a parent was going to “cut us off” without a cent. But the Chinese are not doing us a favor as a fond parent might. They are making an investment in the most business-like sense. It pays for them to invest in America’s bonds.

When a person says China is financing our debt, he is really saying that the Chinese bought a great deal of the bonds issued by the American government. The Chinese made an investment. If they “suddenly quit” financing our debt, how will they do it? One of two ways, maybe a bit of both. 1), China will sell some existing bonds, and 2), China will hold other bonds to maturity but will not buy more when those bonds mature.

In the first case, the Chinese will sell their bonds to someone else, just as they would any other investment. They are unwilling to take a loss--they made the investment in America for safety and a likely return on their investment. If they dump a lot of bonds at once they face a drop in the price of those bonds. Also, when they sell their bonds they will have to invest in some other government’s bonds. Lots luck to them.

America, with all its Chinese-owned bonds suddenly dumped on the market, will see lower priced bonds which means a higher interest rate in the future. However, there will be little immediate impact. Someone will buy the bonds and America will not be involved in the transaction.

In the second case (when China suddenly stops financing America’s debt) as Chinese-owned bonds mature China will buy no more of them. It will invest somewhere else. Again, lots of luck. China will buy another nation’s bonds, out-bidding someone else and that other person or nation will buy America’s bonds.

In order to sell a new issue of bonds, America may have to raise interest rates. In the today’s world, which seems to be awash in capital, the rise in interest rates will not be pleasant but will not be overwhelmingly large, either.

So do economists quake at the thought of China suddenly refusing to “finance America’s debt”? None that I know of, for the reasons given. And, if they are old enough they recall a time twenty years ago when people were afraid that Japan would suddenly refuse to finance America’s debt. Today’s pronouncement about our debt has a familiar sound and when decoded, it means “go back to school and take an economics class.”

Monday, March 06, 2006

Teachers and Personal Opinions

Several years ago, as I was passing the doorway to a science classroom, a seventh grader said, “Hello, Mr. Fiske, you old fart.”

I chuckled inside, but managed a stern face and said, “Come on, Bobby, let’s go to the office.” I wasn’t Bobby’s teacher at the moment, but I took charge of him anyway and marched him to the school office. There, I filled out a referral slip, on which I wrote, “Bobby called me, in front of about 20 students, ‘An old fart.’ While he may be right, I thought his choice of words was inappropriate for Dana Middle School.”

Bobby got a detention and was told to apologize. When he did I broke a rule and put my arm around him, saying “Bobby, I don’t mind what you said. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion. Just don’t say words like that in front of other students.” We became good friends after that. I am sure he did not change his opinion. But the office personnel had a lot of fun with the referral.

Having taught graduate and undergraduate students in college and all grades from six through twelve in public schools, I have loads of experience with political and other opinions in the classroom. My inner person guided me with a sense of fair play. That is, if I expressed an opinion, I gave the opposite view as well. No one knew how I voted in elections.

That is why I (and other teachers should be) was so offended by the actions of one Jay Bennish of the Overland High School in the Denver, Colorado area. In his lectures to tenth graders, this teacher expressed a great deal of anti-Bush, anti-U.S.A. venom with no opportunity for rebuttal, according to tapes made in his classroom. The remarks appeared to be off-topic as well as ‘off the wall.’ There was no fair play involved.

It is my opinion (others may disagree) that the American tradition allows for dissent and for both sides of an argument to be presented, even at the tenth grade level. This is especially important in America’s public school system.

Mr. Bennish’s lawyer argued on a TV news program that the teacher had the right of free speech. Not so. What if Mr. Bennish used his 55 minutes with students to preach the Gospel? He would find himself out of the school district on his ear. And he should be. He is a geography teacher.

So, okay, I was brought up in the Louisville, KY school district where teachers utilized fair play every day. Maybe other school districts are not so inclined. But I suspect that fair-minded people can be found everywhere.

Maybe I am just an idealist.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Bugging the CIA

In the past I have done some very special research for my books. By “special “ I mean to say research that cannot be found by the average person. I required help from the CIA and the FBI.

Under the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) a researcher can find all kind of useful information. For instance, I had a cousin who traipsed all over Europe after WWII, sometimes in Iron Curtain countries, for fun and profit. He owned several companies that dealt with the Federal Government, too. So I was sure the FBI had a file on him. The CIA, too. But I was more interested in his domestic activities, so I did not ask the CIA for information.

At first, the FBI only wanted proof that my subject was really dead. So I had to round up an obituary from 1967. And then the ___ hit the fan.

It just so happened that when I asked for information on my cousin, the Clinton Administration was found to have 900 private FBI files of Republican opponents and a big, embarrassing stink ensued. The FBI became very skittish about releasing information. They stalled and stalled. But after a couple of years I got a few redacted papers. They concerned mostly Jimmy Hoffa, the late (and still missing) president of the Teamsters. It seems the FBI was investigating my cousin’s companies to see if the Teamsters had been shaking down them down. The Teamsters were clean.

Well, now I am investigating another person, not a cousin, who may have been involved in “Operation Paperclip,” right after WWII. This was not a popular Truman program that allowed the U.S. to seize German papers, equipment, and scientists involved in rocket science and in atomic energy projects. If the scientists were Nazis, then their records were cleaned up. The purpose was a) to help the U.S. and b) to keep the information and scientists out of Russian hands.

On paper, my subject reported to Dr. Carl David Anderson of CalTech. Anderson was the man who turned down control of the Manhattan Project in favor of his friend, J. Robert Oppenheimer. In reality, my subject reported directly to President Roosevelt first and then to President Truman. He was a friendly spy among the presidents’ advisors.

I have requested information by FAX from both the FBI and the CIA. Fortunately, my subject’s widow is alive and alert, and she is quite anxious to find out what her husband was really up to during years as WWII wound down and the Cold War sprang up. He was never allowed to tell her.

And yes, the FBI has responded by asking for proof of the death of my subject. They will not accept their own government’s Social Security Death Index as proof of death. Maybe they do not trust the government.