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My Friend Lloyd

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July 30, 2009

If you came to this site hoping to find a favorable article about Lloyd Blankfein, I feel sorry for you.

I just returned from a visit to my old home town, a little place up north called Chicago.  Whenever I go back there, I like to check in with a woman I consider “The First Lady of Chicago Music”:  Lonnie Walker —  musician extraordinaire and owner of The Underground Wonderbar.  If you enjoy blues and jazz, it doesn’t get any better than what you will hear from Lonnie and her band.

Back in the early 1980s, my then favorite “First Lady of Music” in Chicago was a nightclub DJ named Suzanne Shelton.  She recently organized a 30th anniversary reunion party at the club where she worked:  a bar named Neo.  Back during the bar’s early years, Suzanne was cute.  Today she is beautiful.  At the party, she introduced me to her son, who is now just two years younger than my age when I first started hanging out at Neo in June of 1980.  The nightclub eventually got a bit of exposure in a Robert Altman film entitled:  The Company.  The movie was about a dancer in the Joffrey Ballet (portrayed by Neve Campbell), who held a second job serving drinks at Neo.  As the film reveals, one enters Neo by walking down a small alley running west from Clark Street.  During the early years of the club, the alley walls were festooned with graffiti.  One of the spray-painted postings was the statement:  “Neo = Home”.  For many of us, it certainly did.  I met a few girlfriends there during the ten years after my introduction to the place.  The last girlfriend I met there became my companion for five years.  Those of us who returned to Neo last Friday, rekindled long-lost friendships and reminisced over the valuable relationships we had developed with so many people, some of whom no longer walk among us.  I wasn’t the only one who flew in from out of town for the event.  The club’s original manager, Tom Doody, now owns a resort hotel in Playa del Carmen, Mexico with his wife, Pamela.  It’s called The Blue Parrot.

One old friend I enjoyed seeing was a fellow named Lloyd Bachrach.  Lloyd started coming to Neo in the second half of the eighties and was recognized there as “The Guy with the Cane”.  I remember many occasions when Lloyd would approach the DJ booth to chat with his old friend, Jeff Pazen, who spun records there.  (Records were on the verge of becoming obsolete at that point).  As Lloyd would approach the DJ booth, the faces on the kind-hearted people standing around that area revealed a degree of concern and an apparent decision to help convey Lloyd’s music request to the disk jockey.  Before anyone could move, Lloyd placed his cane on the ledge atop the five-foot wall in front of the booth, grabbed the ledge, pulled himself up and quickly maneuvered around, 180 degrees, sitting down in front of Jeff to discuss girlfriend issues or whatever other subject was of interest at the time.  The faces of the would-be Good Samaritans all revealed the same reaction:  “Uhh … I don’t think I could do that.”  For my part, I would stare down at my Cuervo Gold and tell myself:  “I know I can’t do that — despite the assurances to the contrary coming from the stuff in this glass.”  Rather than thinking of himself as disabled, Lloyd always perceived himself as differently-abled.  This attitude eventually led him to become a motivational speaker, operating a business called:  Yes You Can.  Lloyd’s website features a video telling his life story.  Given the current economic situation, I think Lloyd’s story is an important one, providing inspiration to cope with the adversity we are all experiencing, to one degree or another.  His video reinforces the notion that we’re all hard-wired — perhaps by something genetic — to adapt, survive and thrive.  The “survival instinct” is just at the core.  The baby abandoned in the dumpster, who lives for a few days until someone finds her  —  the short kid who gets picked on by bullies but goes on to get a black belt — and the alcoholic on the curb, who sobers up to pull his life together on his own — they all find something within themselves to take control over their lives and succeed.  I’m reminded of the old “nature vs. nurture” debate.  When one lives in an adverse situation, can whatever setbacks he or she encounters ultimately be overcome by something in that individual’s nature?  Lloyd’s approach seems to allow one to reach in and find whatever that is  — to “unlearn” whatever mental processes became obstacles to one’s well-being and success.  This process should be important to us — both as individuals and as a society.

At a time when America’s largest corporations rely on mass layoffs to create the illusion of prosperity for their quarterly earnings reports — it’s nice to know that there are people like Lloyd Bachrach, who help others to cultivate their better instincts.  I’m proud to be his friend.

A Page From The Jimmy Carter Playbook

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March 30, 2009

When Barack Obama began his Presidential campaign, I was initially skeptical.  Here was another guy from “out of the blue” pursuing a bid for the White House.  I was reminded of Jimmy Carter:  a man who had served a term as Governor of Georgia, who began his Presidential campaign with little name recognition.  Carter’s Presidency was marked by rampant inflation and an ill-advised decision to allow Iran’s ailing, deposed Shah into the United States (from exile in Mexico) to die here.  That move resulted in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iran, and the holding of 52 American diplomats as hostages until the end of Carter’s term in office.  Teddy Kennedy unsuccessfully challenged Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980, knowing that Carter had little chance of re-election.   After serving only one term as President, Carter was voted out of office.

At the outset, Carter’s Presidential campaign got a lot of traction from the widespread belief among young voters that Carter would do something to change our nation’s marijuana laws.  Not only did Carter lack the political courage to take such a stand once he became President, he did the opposite.  Carter authorized the use of an herbicide called Paraquat, to be sprayed on marijuana fields in Colombia and Mexico.  Upon realizing that their crops were sprayed with this substance, the sleazy pot farmers quickly harvested the contaminated weed and sent it to market in the United States.  As a result, many Americans developed permanent respiratory problems.

Now that the Obama Administration has taken a “States’ rights” position on medical marijuana laws (by refusing to continue the Bush administration’s tactic of prosecuting medical marijuana facilities) proponents for repeal of pot prohibition, have stepped up their campaign.  Given the current economic crisis, now might be the time for the government to consider legalizing marijuana and taxing it, as is done with the more dangerous ethyl alcohol.

On Thursday, March 26, President Obama held a “town hall” meeting in the East Room of the White House.  Although there were only 100 audience members in the East Room, viewers were invited to submit questions over the Internet.  Nearly 100,000 questions were submitted on-line in response to this invitation.  As John Ward Anderson reported for Politico:

In this moment of national economic crisis, the top four questions under the heading of “Financial security” concerned marijuana; on the budget, people voted up questions about marijuana to positions 1-4; marijuana was in the first and third positions under “jobs”; people boosted a plug for legalizing marijuana to No. 2 under “health care reform.”  And questions about decriminalizing pot occupied spots 1 and 2 under “green jobs and energy.”

After taking questions lower on the list, Obama addressed the pot issue head-on, noting the huge number of questions about marijuana legalization and remarking with a chuckle, “I don’t know what that says about the online audience.”

“The answer is no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy,” he said, as the audience in the room applauded and joined him in a laugh.

Although the enthusiastic sycophants in the audience shared a chuckle with the President, many commentators took a dim view of Obama’s discourteous response.  Conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan was particularly incensed by the President’s affront to “the online audience”:

The chuckle suggests a man of his generation.  The dismissiveness toward the question of ending Prohibition as both a good in itself and a form of tax revenue is, however, depressing.  His answer was a non-answer.  I’m tired of having the Prohibition issue treated as if it’s trivial or a joke.  It is neither.  It is about freedom and it’s deadly serious.  As for your online audience, Mr president, have you forgotten who got you elected?

On his blog at Salon.com, Pete Guither took stock of reactions to the President’s superciliousness from across the blogosphere.  Many of the rejoinders he quoted came from people at The Huffington Post.  I will include some of them here.

Jim Gilliam said:

Pot saved my life. It’s a miracle drug, even the crappy non-organic kind made in a lab.

The President will be asked this question again, and maybe next time he won’t laugh at us.

Sam Stein’s retort included the reaction of a law enforcement professional:

Jack Cole, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), said in response:

“Despite the president’s flippant comments today, the grievous harms of marijuana prohibition are no laughing matter. Certainly, the 800,000 people arrested last year on marijuana charges find nothing funny about it, nor do the millions of Americans struggling in this sluggish economy.  It would be an enormous economic stimulus if we stopped wasting so much money arresting and locking people up for nonviolent drug offenses and instead brought in new tax revenue from legal sales, just as we did when ended alcohol prohibition 75 years ago during the Great Depression.”

Dan Sweeney had this to say:

According to Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard fully 75 percent of Mexican drug cartels’ cash comes from the sale of marijuana.  Legalizing marijuana would, of course, take away that massive source of income for the cartels, just as ending prohibition cut bootlegging as a source of revenue for La Cosa Nostra.

Combining all of the above effects, the legalization of marijuana means billions of dollars saved or made, the creation of jobs and the curbing of violence along the Mexican border, which in turn means saving thousands of lives.

Barack Obama can certainly be against legalization, but he owes it to nonviolent drug offenders caught in the horror show that is the U.S. prison system, the families of innocent victims of the Mexican drug wars and economically bloodied U.S. taxpayers to explain why. Ganja may cause the giggles, but legalization shouldn’t be a laughing matter.  And it certainly shouldn’t be treated as cavalierly as it has by the current administration, especially when it has been proven to be a popular issue every time Obama has tried to go straight to the people.

President Obama’s expressed position on the marijuana issue demonstrates the same political cowardice America witnessed in Jimmy Carter.  If you want to read an uplifting story about political courage, Constitutional law and civil rights attorney, Glenn Greenwald, wrote an excellent piece concerning Virginia Senator Jim Webb’s political courage for Salon.com.  Not surprisingly, the example Mr. Greenwald chose to contrast with Jim Webb’s political bravery was President Obama’s “adolescent, condescending snickering when asked about marijuana legalization”.  The marijuana controversy presents our new President with the opportunity to demonstrate the same degree of political courage exhibited by Jim Webb.  He ought to give it a try.

Jackass Of The Year Award

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January 1, 2009

At year’s end, we see retrospectives of the most important events, numerous top ten lists and recognitions of achievement in one area or another.  2008 brought a record level of cynicism to the American people because of the economic catastrophe, the Bernie Madoff scandal and the cartoon-like escapades from the Presidential campaign.  Accordingly, it seems only appropriate to pay homage to the biggest Jackass of the Year.  Since I advertise this website as a “Blago-free zone”, the current Governor of Illinois is automatically disqualified from the competition.  So, let’s take a look at some of the runners-up and finally, the winner of the Jackass of the Year Award.

Our first contestant is John Ensign.  He is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, representing the State of Nevada in the United States Senate.  On November 2, 2008 he appeared on the CBS television program, Face The Nation with Bob Schieffer.  Election day was two days away and Ensign found it necessary to blame the likely Republican losses on the economic downturn.  He described the Republicans’ fate in these terms:

“And we were starting to do very, very well, but when the financial crisis hit, that financial crisis really is — has been a — almost a body blow to Republicans.  And unfortunately, it was allowed to be portrayed that this was a result of deregulation, when in fact it was a result of overregulation.”

That’s right.  Ensign Douchebag thought he could convince the public that the economic crisis was the result of over-regulation of the financial system, rather than the deregulation described by everyone else in the world.  That noble statement certainly rates runner-up status for the Jackass of the Year Award.

Our next contestant is Reverend Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and embarrassment to Barack Obama.  Thank God Reverend Wright’s fifteen minutes of fame are finally over.  Although his infamous sermon with the less-than-patriotic remarks about America was given in 2003, by April of 2008, Rev. Wright made a point of resurrecting the controversy concerning his disappointing association with Barack Obama.   At that time Wright hit the road, appearing on Bill Moyers Journal, speaking before the NAACP and giving a grand performance before the National Press Club.  He made a fool of himself all three times and (perhaps to his disappointment) his bad karma never rubbed off on Barack.  The pastor has also been a disgrace to the name of the Right Reverend Carl Wright (comedic sidekick of Chicago blues maven, Pervis Spann).  Although Jeremiah Wright rated recognition, the competition for the Jackass Award was tough this year.

We cannot overlook the valiant efforts of Joe “The Tool” Lieberman to win this honor.  Although the people of Connecticut elected Joe to represent their state in the Senate, The Tool spent most of 2008 looking like a stray dog, following candidate John McCain around the campaign trial.  You can find my prior rants about Senator Lieberman here, here, here and here.

We must also give consideration to Christopher Cox, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.  John McCain was on to him.  It just wasn’t fair that poor, old Senator McCain took so much heat for pointing out that Cox had to go.  McCain made the mistake of stating that he, as President, would have authority to fire Cox.  Although he was wrong about that, he was right about the notion that Cox had been a problem for the SEC.  On December 16, Jessie Westerbrook of Bloomberg news reported that Cox was blaming his subordinates for the enforcement lapses that allowed the scam, perpetrated by Bernie Madoff, to continue for several years after the SEC should have stopped it.  Cox apparently believes in the doctrine that “the buck stops” several levels below himself on the SEC food chain.  The environment at the SEC, with Cox at the helm, was best summed up in a December 27 article from the Los Angeles Times by Amit Paley and David Hilzenrath.  Here’s what they had to say about the tenure of Chairman Cox and his performance during the economic crisis:

Though Cox speaks of staying calm in the face of financial turmoil, lawmakers across the political spectrum counter that this is actually another way of saying that his agency remained passive during the worst global financial crisis in decades.  And they claim that Cox’s stewardship before this year — focusing on deregulation as the agency’s staff shrank — laid the groundwork for the meltdown.

“The commission in recent years has handcuffed the inspection and enforcement division,” said Arthur Levitt, SEC chairman during the Clinton administration.  “The environment was not conducive to proactive enforcement activity.”

*    *    *

But former officials said enforcement suffered during his tenure.  A pilot program begun last year required enforcement staff to meet with the commissioners before beginning settlement talks in certain cases involving nonfinancial firms.  Some former officials said the change was just one example of new bureaucratic impediments that slowed enforcement work.  The commissioners also made clear that they thought staff members were being too aggressive in some cases, the officials said.

”I think there has been a sentiment communicated to rank-and-file staff, lawyers and accountants that you don’t go after the establishment,” said Ross Albert, a former special counsel in the enforcement division.
*    *    *
An analysis by law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius showed that the SEC’s actions against broker-dealers, who serve as intermediaries in financial trades, dropped about 33%, from about 89 cases in fiscal 2007 to 60 cases in fiscal 2008.

Heckuva’ job, Coxey!   Nevertheless, you have been overshadowed in this year’s competition.

The winner of the 2008 Jackass of the Year Award is a professor from Russia, named Igor Panarin.  He is a former member of the KGB, who is apparently so upset over the breakup of the Soviet Union, that for the past ten years, he has been predicting that the United States would also break up.  On December 29, Andrew Osborn reported in The Wall Street Journal that Panarin has been doing two interviews per day, discussing how “an economic and moral collapse will trigger a civil war and the eventual breakup of the U.S.”  The article explained:

Mr. Panarin posits, in brief, that mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation will trigger a civil war next fall and the collapse of the dollar.  Around the end of June 2010, or early July, he says, the U.S. will break into six pieces — with Alaska reverting to Russian control.

Worse yet, the other five parts of the country will supposedly become republics that will be part of or under the influence of Canada, the European Union, Mexico, China or Japan.  Osborn’s article included a picture of Panarin’s map, showing how the various segments of the country would be apportioned.  Panarin’s ideas have brought him quite a bit of publicity  . . . and TheCenterLane.com’s Jackass of the Year Award for 2008!  Congratulations, Jackass!