Saturday, March 25, 2017

New Mexico: The Last Hapsburg Colony

New Mexico is a desperately poor state, if it cost a dollar to go around the world, the state treasury couldn't finance a bus trip to Oklahoma.  Our unemployment rate is the highest in the nation, and the most valuable export from the state is newly graduated college students seeking jobs.  The annual exodus of our best and brightest is the educational equivalent to eating your seed corn. 

Recently, I have come to realize that these problems have historical roots that go back much further than I had previously realized.  In fact, roots of the problem go back half a millennium.

It is easy to forget that it wasn't that long ago that New Mexico was part of Mexico for about half a century.  Before that—for about 300 years—this was New Spain, part of the Spanish Empire.  Unfortunately, you can still see the signs.

Spain treated her colonies as assets to be shorn, strip-mined, and squeezed until the last peso had been extracted.  (This is exactly the way Enema U still treats her students—perhaps this is where my Alma Mater learned this trick.)

This extreme protectionism is called the mercantile system.  (Take notes, there will be a quiz next Friday.). Colonies were expected to produce raw materials and to manufacture NOTHING that could be purchased from Spain.  Clothing, wine, metal goods, paper products, tools—anything manufactured you could think of—were forbidden for the Spanish colonies in the New World to make.

The colonies were not even allowed to trade with each other.  These severe limitations not only stalled economic development, but left scars that can still be seen today.  An excellent example is the lack of infrastructure in some of the former Spanish colonies.  There is not—nor has there ever been—a railroad connecting any two of the countries of Central America, and until well within my lifetime, there were almost no highways.  (Actually, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua no longer even have internal railroads: most of the track and rolling stock have been sold as scrap metal.)

The Spanish colonial policy resulted in some curious supply shortages.  Pretend that you live in Santa Fe in the year 1700.  The annual governor’s ball is coming up and you decide you need a new hat.  A local merchant gladly takes your order, and for a small deposit, has one shipped from Spain (it being illegal to manufacture one in the new world).

The merchant will have to wait until the next supply wagons depart from Santa Fe, traveling down the Camino Real to Chihuahua, and then continue on to Mexico City.  This means there will be a couple of months wait, but eventually the ox-drawn wooden carreteras—moving at a pace that would make Congress look productive—begin traveling southward.  A man could easily walk ahead of the oxen for an hour, then spend the rest of the morning taking a nap while waiting for the oxcarts to finally catch up with him.

Once the order finally reaches Mexico City, it will be taken by yet another line of oxcarts making their way eastward to Vera Cruz, the only port on the east side of New Spain allowed to trade with Spain.   (This simplifies tax collection and makes smuggling more difficult.)  Spain, worried about pirates, combined all shipments to and from the New World into single convoys each way—La Flota—each sailing only once a year.  Unfortunately, your order has just missed this year’s convoy, but will certainly be sent next year!

Assuming that the ship (a Spanish ship with a Spanish crew, of course!) carrying your order were to make the perilous crossing of the Atlantic, eventually your order will reach Seville—the only Spanish port allowed to trade with the colonies—and be filled by a merchant licensed by the crown.  When the next convoy finally leaves Spain, your new hat will be subject to an additional tax of 7.5%, the almojarifazgo, an import and export tax.  When the ship finally arrives in Vera Cruz, this is technically an importation, so the almojarifazgo will be charged again

Your hat slowly makes it way from the coast, by oxcarts, to Mexico City, then Chihuahua, and finally back to Santa Fe, where the original merchant charges you an additional 10% sales tax, the alcabala, for your hat.  After a wait of a mere two years, your new hat has finally arrived and you discover that not only can you not afford the costly item, but it’s the wrong size.

Note.  Spanish is the sexiest language—I don't care what the French say.  It is a shame that beautiful words like almojarizgo and alcabala are used to denote taxes.  My favorite word in Spanish is 'estacionamiento'.  Pretend that Ricardo Montalban is saying that in his sultry "rich Corinthian Leather" voice: e-sta-ci-o-na-mi-en-to.  It is not my fault that the word means 'parking lot' and from now on, I think the word should mean: "moonlight reflected off of still ponds".

Obviously, these economic policies stifled colonial development, all but forcing the colonists to turn to smuggling and cheating on taxes.  As revenue to the crown fell, the shortsighted kings behaved exactly like the inbred Hapsburg monarchs they were—they raised taxes and increased economic sanctions...And as revenue continued to decline, they raised taxes again and again. 

The inbred Hapsburg monarchs kept repeating their stupidity until neither they nor the economy could get it up, and both died out.  The new royal family, the Bourbons, abandoned most of the previous economic policies, lowering taxes and freeing trade.  As it does every time this economic relief has been tried, the economy took off, trade increased, and government revenue increased dramatically. 

Unfortunately, the reforms arrived too late to help the impoverished colony at New Mexico, which by that time, had become a royal patronage colony (meaning that the King of Spain paid the expenses of New Mexico, recognizing that it was too impoverished to be self-sufficient).  When Mexico became independent, the king naturally withdrew his patronage, and economic conditions in New Mexico collapsed to the point that even the Catholic Church removed its priests.

Today, New Mexico still wallows in Hapsburg thinking.  The state has high taxes, excessive regulation, and punitive license fees.  We have strong union laws that protect unions that have never (and probably will never) exist in this state.  The only revenue the state could consistently count on was from extracting raw resources—usually oil and natural gas—that we sold to the states that manufactured goods for us. 

Suddenly, the global market is awash in oil and natural gas.  As the price of oil drops below $50 a barrel for oil, our state treasurer has become as nervous as a whore in church.  And just like the Hapsburg monarchs, an impotent state legislature is attempting to balance the budget by raising taxes, creating new fees, and restricting licenses.  

New Mexico is still a patronage colony, even though our "charity" no longer comes from a royal purse.  For every $1 the state pays in federal taxes, it receives $3 from Washington, DC.

To paraphrase Blanche Dubois when she, like New Mexico, began to lose her grip on reality, "We have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Will You Take a Dollar?

Recently, I spent the weekend helping someone with an estate sale.  There are companies that will do this for you, but when you learn the prices they charge, unless the estate happens to include a few Picassos or your fabulous collection of Faberg√© eggs, you will probably find that after the sale, you end up owing the auctioneers.   The only alternatives are a timely—and insured—home fire or you, yourself, sitting in a garage for a weekend while strangers hand you pocket change.

Besides the emotional toll of collecting, cataloging, and disposing of a loved one’s entire material and cultural history, estate sales are pure living hell.  This is because you have to deal with the scum of the earth—otherwise known as The Public.  (The word would be far more appropriate, and accurately descriptive, if they left out the ‘L’.)

People descended on that garage sale like sharks to chum.  Like attorneys to a wreck on the highway.  Like politicians to a playground.  (If you don’t understand that last one, do a Google News search on ‘Oklahoma politician’ and ‘teenage boy’.  Sure, they were just hanging out—doesn’t everyone hang out with minors in a motel room with illegal drugs?)

Geography had a lot to do with the reason this estate sale was unique.  Though winter was only two weeks ago, this is the Southwest and summer has been in full bloom for the last week and a half.  If we had the sale to do over, we would have worded the signs:  “Estate Sale!  7:00 am until 100 degrees!” 

Second, we could almost see Mexico from the house.  (The neighbors down the street can see Mexico from theirs—Sarah Palin would be so pleased!).  This means that most of the items we sold were loaded into vans and pickups and taken across the border, where within a week, they will be sold in giant flea markets to American tourists, who will bring them back across the border to their homes.  Within a few years, this cycle will be repeated, again and again.  Technically, this falls into the category of recycling.

Several pickup trucks were severely overloaded with Tupperware, mismatched pots and pans, and lawn furniture.  As each hazard to public safety pulled away from the house, I was reminded of that old Texas Truism”  “No truck is fully loaded until you run out of rope.”

This kind of sale is very popular, so people started showing up well before the sale was supposed to start—in one case, a whole day early.  You might as well start the sale at dawn, because that is when people start knocking on your door.  (And some of the earliest shoppers were the ones who bought the most items—in many cases, the most useless items.  We sold items that I wouldn’t have accepted for free:  lids without pots, obsolete electronics, rusty tools, and lawn tools that looked like they had been used to dig the Erie Canal.   I sold half a can of Turtle Wax to a man who was driving a leftover from a Demolition Derby.

We sold old electric appliances to people who didn’t even want to plug them in to see if they still worked!  Stranger yet, more than once, people came back an hour or two later, and bought more.

Some of the people, I suspect, didn’t even really want the things they bought, they just came to haggle over the price.  People who wouldn’t buy four jelly glasses for a dollar would gladly purchase ten for two dollars.  And more often than not, that $50 bill someone paid with was pulled off a roll as fat as the Sunday paper. 

The strangest parts of the day, however, were the questions people asked.

“This 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle in a torn box, which you are selling for a quarter, are all the pieces there?” 

          “I’m not sure, but feel free to count them if you like.”  She bought it.

“Will you have another sale next week?”

          “How often do you think one household can have an estate sale?”

“Will this $3.00 bug zapper kill mosquitoes?”

          “Yes, sir,” I said, thinking it would kill an elephant if swung it hard enough. 

“Will you take two dollars for this? asked the man who was holding an item clearly marked for one dollar.

          “Why, yes, I will.  And for you, I’ll sell you three of them for five dollars.”

“Can you hold this for me until I ask my wife if it is okay to buy this?”

          “Why, certainly, I’ll hold that dollar TV tray in reserve, just for you.”

“Is this used?”

          “Probably, this is an estate sale.   But, if you want to be sure, you’ll have to ask the original owner.”

“Is this the estate sale?”

          “Nope.  This is an outdoor department store.”

No, I won’t sell the table holding all the items that are for sale.   No, we don’t have any chain saws.  Yes, everything is for sale.  And so forth and so on.  We ran out of stuff to sell before we ran out of buyers.  If the neighbors had been on vacation, we might have extended the sale.

Halfway through the day, I remember thinking, “I’m not going to do this to my kids, I’ll organize my crap before I die.”  Then I remember all the times they woke me up in the middle of the night just to tell me they had been visited by the dark angel of projectile vomiting.  I remember the school meetings where a teacher had asked me why I was raising junior terrorists.  I remember….

My new plan is to dent all the mixing bowls, chip the Pyrex, and start hiding cash in the spines of selected books.  Anything that comes in a set of four or more, needs to lose at least one of the pieces.  The Doc has promised to do her part by buying more shoes.  My sons, What’s-His-Name and The-Other-One, should not be denied the pleasure having of their own estate sale. 

Note to my sons:  A few of the estimated 10,000 books in this house—that you refused to read—are fairly rare first editions.  Can you tell which ones?

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Of Course I Do!

You may have missed the news stories, but Congress has balanced the budget, eliminated the foreign trade gap, and solved the problems with health care.  Peace is finally at hand in the Middle East, North Korea, and Chicago. 

While I, too, missed those news stories, all of the above must have occurred, since our government once again has time to discuss the vital problem of 'who uses which bathroom'.  As soon as this life-threatening crisis is solved, I have no doubt they can get around to finally settling the issue of which way toilet paper should unroll. 

Is it just me, or does it seem strange that most of the controversy about transgendered people's using public restrooms comes from states where a significant portion of the plumbing is still outside, and thus, is already "unisex"?  Perhaps we need a new rule:  If you are still worried about keeping four, six, and eight-legged critters out of your bathroom, don’t sweat the two-legged users.

My mother worked extremely hard to teach me manners, and at least half of them stuck, so I will, if I remember to do so, accommodate your request to be treated as the gender of your choice.  This just seems like good manners (and, after all, it’s really none of my business).

Unfortunately, manners will not solve all the possible problems.  I don’t know—or care—how the Olympics will keep men from competing as women.  I have no idea how the Small Business Administration will keep men from applying for preferential loans designed for female entrepreneurs.  All of this is not my monkey and not my circus.  I’ll just sit in the bleachers and eat peanuts while others solve this problem (or attempt to solve it).  I’ll be easy to find:  I’ll be the one laughing his ass off.

As a small gesture of cooperation, I know of an expert who might be able to solve this problem:  We should ask Lyle.

When I was a grad student in Anthropology, I met Lyle.  He looked exactly as you would expect an anthropologist to look:  tanned, tall, skinny as a flagpole, and dressed (every day of the year!) in shorts, t-shirt, and well-worn boondocker boots.  (And Lyle, while technically brilliant, was as crazy as a bucket of frogs). 

Lyle believed in reincarnation, and had vivid memories of all of his past lives.  While Lyle is not the only person I have ever met to have claimed this, he is the only one who never claimed to have been a king, or someone prominent in one of his previous incarnations.  While I’m still not a believer, on one hot afternoon, as we were carefully sifting through hot sand in a field school at an archaeological site, it was kind of fascinating to listen to Lyle's telling about freezing to death while marching out of Moscow with Napoleon. 

Lyle had a "small" problem with many of his professors.  For a group of anthropologists who taught that all cultures and religious beliefs should be equally respected, they had a lot of difficulties actually working with someone a little different.  (Actually, over time I learned that the more an academic or a department claimed to be tolerant of others, the more obviously they weren’t.  It is easy to find whole departments in which everyone comes from the same region of the US, is the same race, has similar political beliefs, and where no one is a veteran, and none has any work experience outside of academia.  Some of that is natural—and some of it is unconsciously deliberate.  These are nice people, but at the same time, universities are the most sexist, racist, and status-conscious place I have ever worked.)

To his credit, the department head of Anthropology gathered the faculty together, chewed everyone out for their reluctance to work with Lyle, and then forced them to draw lots.  The winner got Lyle as a grad assistant.  Of course, the department head made damn sure his own name wasn’t in the hat before he drew the "winning" name.

I took a seminar class where Lyle was one of the students.  An anthropology seminar is a class in which, at the prompting of a professor, students passionately argue about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  Every class, we would sit around a huge table, using a different book of the week and discussing the author’s definition of culture. 

Note.  I can save you a couple of years of reading and a small fortune in tuition money by telling you that anything is a definition of culture.  There are hundreds and hundreds of definitions, none of which will give you any insight as to what culture really is.  The final exam in that class was an essay—write your own definition of culture using a new metaphor.  That particular day, an obnoxious Ray Stevens song was repeating endlessly in my brain, so I filled a Blue Book explaining how a highway convoy was the perfect metaphor for culture.  If you think I got an A, that’s a big ten-four, good buddy.

One week, somehow the class got on the subject of ghetto sub-culture and the discussion got a little heated as a young African-American student angrily defended her position.

“You have no idea,” she proclaimed, “what it is like to be a Black woman raising children in Harlem!”

“Of course, I do!” thundered Lyle.  “And I did it during the Great Depression!”

I have never seen a discussion shut down so quickly!  Students—who would have argued over even the day of the week—just sat there with their mouths open.  Remember, all cultures and beliefs are equivalently valid…

Obviously, we need to get Lyle’s opinion about bathrooms.  If we need input from multiple points of view, the man is a whole committee.

It wouldn’t be fair to stop here, however:  I need to tell you what eventually happened to Lyle.  After graduation, he was immediately hired by a well-known university in the South.  Unbeknownst to Enema U, Lyle had spent years hiking the New Mexico and Arizona desert and he had thousands of photographs and meticulous notes of the petroglyphs (rock engravings) and petrographs (rock paintings)of the Southwest.  As far as I know, he still has the largest collection of photographs  of this Native American art work.  Since he was not treated very well by the faculty of Enema U, he never told them about his collection.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Far From the First Time

“The president has declared war on the press.”

The above is a fairly accurate summation of the last month’s major news story, and every paper in the country has reported on it.  Pundits have denounced the president, endlessly repeating that a strong and vigorous fourth estate is necessary to the well-being of a democracy.  Which is true. 

The papers go on to say that this is unprecedented in the country’s history—which is false.

Obviously, democracies need a free and unrestrained press, which is guaranteed to us by the First Amendment.  However, also guaranteed is the right of the president to criticize the press.  Those in the media frequently forget that while they have a right to speak or print, but do not have any right to be uncritically respected.

There has never been a golden age of accord between the press and the American presidency.  Every president—without exception—has believed the press to be unfair, partisan, and in need of correction (if not outright restraint).

George Washington was an ardent fan of newspapers, subscribing to over thirty different papers.  Between his announcing his candidacy and his inauguration, he had cancelled his subscriptions with all of them.  As president, his administration was soundly criticized by the press.  When his Secretary of State, John Jay, negotiated a peace treaty with England, the Jay Treaty was denounced by newspapers in terms that are too harsh even for today’s media.  One paper wrote, “Damn John Jay! Damn everyone who won’t damn John Jay!! Damn everyone that won’t put lights in his windows and sit up all night damning John Jay!!!”

Jay later remarked you could travel by horseback across the nation, your route illuminated by the fires of his body burning in effigy.  Washington, however, ignored the press & rewarded Jay by naming him to the Supreme Court.

It was only after Washington left office that he changed his mind and began reading the papers again.  On even the last day of his life, he read a newspaper.

John Adams, Washington’s successor, was so thoroughly convinced that American newspapers were controlled by the French Press, that he pushed the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, that made it harder for immigrants to become citizens, allowed the president to deport “dangerous immigrants, and prohibited the press from making statements against the federal government.  Editors who were critical of President Adams were fined and sentenced to jail terms—the severest  was 18 months and $480 for calling President Adams (among other epithets) a "tyrant".

Jefferson successfully ran for the presidency—in part—on doing away with these oppressive acts.  The Acts were allowed to expire or were abolished, with the exception of the Alien Enemies Act which is still part of the Federal Statutes.  (This was the law that allowed FDR to imprison Japanese, Italian, and German immigrants during World War II.)

While Jefferson supported free speech for the press, he nonetheless hated the way the “polluted vehicles of falsehood and error" reported on his presidency.  "Newspapers present for the most part only a caricature of disaffected minds.”

Even President James Madison, the author of the First Amendment, hated the newspapers.  He endured them, eventually saying, "To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.”

Andrew Jackson despised the press, believing that the articles accusing his wife of bigamy (technically correct) contributed to her death shortly after his election (but before his inauguration).  As General Jackson had already killed a journalist in a duel, insulting the president was a dangerous undertaking.  There are a lot of stories about how tough Jackson was, the extraordinary number of pairs of dueling pistols he kept ready, the would-be assassin whose gun failed to fire—twice (the assassin-wannabe was then beaten into submission by the President)….But my favorite Jackson story is about his parrot, Poll, who was supposed to have a place of honor at Jackson’s funeral.  Unfortunately, the bird had to be removed because it wouldn’t stop cursing. 

While every president has disliked the press, it has been during war that presidential ire has risen to its highest points.  During the Mexican-American War, President Polk mused about trying various newspaper editors for treason.  But no president actively pursued and punished the press like Abraham Lincoln.

Nothing that Lincoln could do made American newspapers happy.  Even when Lincoln was successful, the Northern press still attacked the president.  After delivering the Gettysburg Address in 1863, the Chicago Times wrote: ”We did not conceive it possible that even Mr Lincoln would produce a paper so slipshod, so loose-joined, so puerile, not alone in literary construction, but in its ideas, its sentiments, its grasp. He has outdone himself.”

Another newspaper cataloged Lincoln’s character traits:  “Filthy Story-Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Monster, Ignoramus Abe, Old Scoundrel, Perjurer, Robber, Swindler, Tyrant, Field-Butcher, Land-Pirate.”

Lincoln closed newspapers in both the North and the South, jailed or banished editors, and prohibited the publication of some forms of protests.  When the Supreme Court overruled Lincoln’s suspension of the Bill of Rights, he just ignored the court in large part.  This is surprising since—though it is not widely known—Lincoln owned a small newspaper, the Illinois Staats-Anzeiger, when he was elected.  While he sold the paper shortly after being elected to the presidency, he was an avid paper reader while in the White House, and newspaper clippings were found in his wallet the night he was assassinated. 

Grover Cleveland actively hated the press, and wouldn’t even allow reporters space within the White House to work.  His secretary, who was nominally in charge of working with the journalists, forced them to wait outside in all sorts of weather.  When the journalists begged the president to hire a secretary who would be kind to them, he answered that he preferred one who was kind to the president. 

After Cleveland, things did not improve much under President McKinley.  While he allowed the press a small office within what was then called the Executive Mansion, he still complained that newspapermen were “the inventors of news.” 

All of this changed dramatically with President Theodore Roosevelt, who was the real inventor of "presidential spin.  Teddy loved to use the press, and invented many of the presidential press traditions still in place today.  He improved the offices the press used, he was the first president to have a press secretary, and he was the first to meet regularly with the press.  On most days, he informally met off the record with reporters while he shaved.  And Teddy was the first to take full advantage of photographers during these meetings.  He kept close track of where the photographers were, and when they were about to take his picture.  It is almost impossible to find a "candid" photo of this president who made a point of having his presidency recorded on film.

Teddy Roosevelt was also the first president to stage press events to shape public opinion to fit his political needs.  When he wanted congressional approval of naval submarines, he took the press with him to document his descent to the bottom of Long Island Sound.  Roosevelt, via his use of the press, created the modern presidency.  Up until this point, the peace-time president was the chief administrator of the nation, but policy and most legislation were created by Congress.  Theodore Roosevelt, on the other hand, used the power of the press to change that, the president, the sole branch of government that could speak with one voice, became the shaper of national policy.

As the media changed, so did the relationship between the president and the press.  In 1920, there were only two radio stations in the country, within two years, there were over five hundred.  For the first time, print journalism was not the only form of news media, and while the public quickly adopted to the new form of media, the presidency was a little slower.  Invest a few minutes with Google, and you can still hear the tinny voice of Herbert Hoover, yelling loudly into a microphone that he obviously doesn’t really believe works.

Hoover was nearly the complete opposite of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who understood not only the medium, but how the people listened to it.  His relaxed and conversational tone connected with the American people, much to the horror of print journalists.  In time, FDR, too, complained about the unfairness of the press and about biased reporting.  While regular press conferences were still being held, FDR insisted that the questions be submitted in advance and that the president could not be quoted directly without permission.

President Eisenhower was the first to use film to record his press conferences and he was obviously dubious about the value of adding movie cameras to a formal press conference.  At the first, on January 19, 1955, Ike said, "Well, I see we are trying a new experiment this morning. I hope it doesn't prove to be a disturbing influence.”

From there, it was only a small step to January 1961, when President Kennedy held the first of sixty-five live, televised press conferences (and the questions did not have to be submitted in advance in writing.  The press not only resisted this change, but hated it.  The Dallas Morning News attacked Kennedy for controlling the media because “it does not want the public to know about the errors it might make. Further, it wants to give the people propaganda about its own merits through the news it ‘manages.’” This", the paper wrote, “can become a part of the path to dictatorship. … The people cannot rule unless they have the facts upon which to base their judgments.”

Nixon controlled the press conferences…by having almost none at all!  In six years, he held fewer press meetings than Ford did in two years.  Where FDR had held roughly seven press conferences a month, from Nixon through Reagan, the average dropped to one—or fewer—a month.  Even "Silent Calvin" Coolidge used to average about six a month. 

Bush (41), Clinton, and Bush (43) averaged a little over two a month, and each complained bitterly about unfair reporting in the press.  Or, as Bill Clinton called them, the “purveyors of hatred and division”.

President Trump has a horrible relationship with the press...And we should be grateful, as evidently, this is an indication that all is well.  It is when the press likes a president, and cooperates with him that we ought to be worried.

From the sound of things these days, I’d say we are safe for at least the next four years.