Ballparks, books and last days of summer

Campaign 2016 has become intolerable, even for this confirmed political junkie. I won’t go into why. You know what I’m talking about. So, in the interest of sanity, it has become increasingly important to savor the baseball, books and beauties of the last days of summer.

lil papiToday, the Red Sox have a tenuous hold on first place, but it has made for a very entertaining season.  While their pitching, especially the bullpen, is sometimes painful, their starters have held their own, and their offense has provided some moments of sheer joy. Which is more than I can say for Donald Trump.

The rabbits in my garden definitely have the upper paw during these last weeks of summer. And who can blame them? Everything is so parched they’re driven to eat in contemptible disregard for the efforts I’ve put into my roses, hostas, blue salvia and more. I’m keeping the manufacturers of Rabbit Scram in business as hope trumps (oops, there’s that man again) experience.

These are the days to wallow in summer reading, and, as I usually do at this time of year, I am herewith passing along a few recommendations. First, to the fiction, to maximize escape from politics.

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah, tells of two sisters in France during the Second World War, their relationship with each other, what strengths they draw from their family, how disparately they respond to war and occupation, and how ultimately they find each other again. It is a powerful story, beautifully written,  about women and war and love.

A Little Life, by Hanya Yonagihara, is long (700+ pages) but, for the most part, riveting. The spine is the lifelong relationship among four college friends, an actor, an artist, an architect, and an attorney. The attorney is totally messed up physically and emotionally by a series of childhood traumas, which are gradually revealed through the book. The story is dark and tragic, and anyone who has followed the news for the last 20 years will find it difficult to put down.  Although some parts get repetitious, it is still a page turner.

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf is a tender story about a loving relationship between two older people (as in, seniors) who find solace in companionship after their spouses have died. The comfort of friendship becomes something deeper as practical (read, family) issues assert themselves. The ending is more poignant than sappy, and it’s well worth a read.

For those who haven’t yet discovered Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (I was late to the game), this series of four (I’m in the middle of the third) books chronicling a deep and complex friendship between two impoverished girls Southern Italy. It explores their competitive relationship, their dependence on each other, and the incendiary battles among a variety of colorful characters and families a half century ago.  Against the backdrop of Italian politics, class differences and violent clashes between Communists and Fascists, the books raise the question of what is takes to rise above one’s background and develop to full potential. The first is My Brilliant Friend.  Then come The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of a Lost Child. As with Yonagihara, Ferrante excels in recording social details.  As soon as the reader completes one of the books, she wants to go on to the next one.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest,  knows how to tell a good story, but she is not as skillful a writer as any of the previous authors. The Nest is her debut novel, telling of four siblings who have spent their lives waiting for their problems to be solved by receiving their share of their father’s estate, the nest egg. It’s an interesting premise, and the weaving of the siblings’ stories provides intriguing plot lines enough for a 13-part Netflix series. It will hold your attention for a couple of days of beach reading, but really there are so many other places to read about dysfunctional families that The Nest is rather superfluous.

My next blog will reflect on some non-fiction that I’ve read over the last several months. Until then, I wish you extended summer days and hours of pleasurable reading and would appreciate your contributions to this list.

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Make it in America should be a bipartisan issue

steny hoyer“How many parents here want their kids to grow up to be welders?” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer asked yesterday morning’s gathering of The New England Council. Not a hand went up. But Hoyer had a point to make. Many welders are enjoying six-figure incomes and making things that matter. That’s a lot better than what some some liberal arts graduates are making, still living at home with their parents. We have to recognize that many students have great abilities but just not in traditional college settings. Our task, Hoyer points out, involves not just creating training but accepting the idea that not every high school student needs or should go to a four-year college.

As Hoyer tours the country plying his political trade (raising money for Democrats), he makes it a point to visit places that are making something.  He readily acknowledges that many American manufacturing jobs have been lost to lower wages overseas.  Others have been lost due to changing technology.  Our mindset has been that manufacturing jobs are “dark, dirty, dangerous and declining.”  Look at the 21st century factory, he urged.  It’s sleek. You could eat off the floor.  Robots have replaced people, reducing today’s work forces by 80 percent. But while productivity is up, jobs and salaries are not. “This election is all about whether we can have the number and kinds of jobs that will support a middle class lifestyle.”

Stoyer thinks we can, but our education needs to turn out the kinds of workers that the manufacturing sector needs.  That means a larger role for community colleges. And, he said, Democrats, always the party of employees, must also become the party of employers.  That means increasing access to capital for entrepreneurs, creating tax incentives and simplifying (but not gutting) regulations. It especially means promoting partnerships between manufacturing and education. America, he says, is already the capital of invention, innovation and development.  We also have to make it easier for American companies to take these developments to scale here. Hoyer praised The New England Council’s efforts to further advanced manufacturing.

Hoyer is traveling the country pushing his “Make It In America Plan.”   Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are also campaigning on the jobs issue, but their substantive approaches are different, and neither has gotten into the weeds on rebuilding manufacturing and lifting people back to solid middle class status. She takes a traditional Democratic Keynesian approach and talks about funding  infrastructure (the “biggest investment in jobs since World War II”), including roads, bridges, broadband and more, plus reducing student costs. Like Hoyer, she says that “a four-year degree shouldn’t be the only path to a good job in America.” She also talks about “making trade work for us not against us.”  Trump, for his part, attacks globalization and pledges to stop the Trans Pacific Partnership and renegotiate NAFTA, “the fastest route to more jobs.” He doesn’t specify how.  His slogans also include the need to cut taxes and regulations.

Hoyer’s is a comprehensive approach, but, given the makeup of Congress, it seems likelier to succeed in a piecemeal way. (Since 2010, some parts have passed, including small business loans, patent reforms, job training, and ending some of the loopholes that encourage companies to ship jobs overseas.)

While the Democrats might regain control of the Senate, Hoyer admits turning the House is a real reach. (Gerrymandering has locked in too many districts.) Even if the Democrats net just 20 seats,  they would still have ten fewer than needed to discharge a bill from committee. Still, Hoyer insists that gain would provide the new House more leverage to put together a deal with moderate Republicans. That any highly-placed legislator thinks this may become possible is a breath of fresh air in the midst of a dispiriting campaign  that holds promise for still more deadlock in 2017.

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Why we should all care about Trump’s tax returns

Donald Trump smilesIt’s staggering that millions of voters are prepared to vote for Donald Trump with less information on what’s under his hood than they would ever accept from a used car salesman.

Since Watergate days when Richard Nixon sought to dispel the idea that he was a crook playing fast and loose with his taxes, all major party nominees have disclosed their tax returns as a gesture of transparency .  Tax returns seldom tell the whole story, but, as Mitchell Zuckoff wrote in Saturday’s New York Times,  they can provide important information to measure against campaign rhetoric.

Hillary Clinton, often criticized for her untrustworthiness , and Bill Clinton have shared their tax returns for every year going back to 1977. But not Donald Trump. And he is unlikely to do so, unless the negative consequences of withholding his returns were to exceed the benefits.

He now no longer hides behind a tax audit but claims releasing returns could cost him the election. Four years ago, Trump chided Romney for not releasing his returns. I wonder what those defending his right to withhold now would say if Hillary had done the same.

All pressure to date has been ineffective. Ron Fournier,  writing in The Atlantic, proposed that the news networks not cover Trump until he does. That’s not likely. The post-1963 Parkland Hospital lesson is to cover presidential candidates, and budget- strapped news media aren’t going to pay reporters without having them report something.

Perhaps at minimum they can stop describing Trump as a self-made billionaire, “ardent philanthropist” or using other terms that indicate measures of great success or generosity. They should use qualifiers such as “self-described” billionaire and “alleged” philanthropist. Without his tax records, we don’t know if anything he says about himself is true, and, given his track record, it may well be blue smoke and mirrors.

The press should not tire of the pursuit. If they stay with the story, even some of Trump’s unqualified supporters may begin to question his character and wonder if they’re just being played for suckers by another huckster.

From what we know, Trump is nowhere as wealthy as he claims to be. He claims he is worth ”in excess of $10 billion.“ Fortune in May wrote that he was worth $3.9 billion.  Bloomberg in July pegged him at  $2.9 billion.

Since his serial bankruptcies, Trump doesn’t actually build anything anymore. He licenses his name to others to put on their properties, and he collects management fees. His personal brand is his wealth and, according to Forbes, the value of his licensing income is $125 million not $3.3 billion.

Although Trump claims in his Federal Election Commission filing that his annual income is $557 million, Fortune estimates it at $160 million. And New York City officials said based on his filings he’s been receiving tax breaks for people making less than $500,000 per year.

It’s possible Trump pays no taxes and has avoided doing so for years. The Washington Post and Politico found in two different earlier decades he had paid nothing. The tax code provides lawful loopholes for property developers to use real estate depreciation rules and other business “operating losses” provisions. There are myriad tax games afoot in how he plays with his golf courses and “conservation easements.”

Self-dealing among his approximately 500 businesses could hide still more income. And what would his populist acolytes say about his use of Delaware holding companies, Cayman Islands and other offshore tax dodges or carried-interest tricks used by hedge fund managers? Make America great again? He may already be getting all our nation’s great public services [from defense to Medicare] for free. Is   his tab as citizen  something to be picked up by the little people?

How much does he really donate to charities? He’s cultivated the image of philanthropist, but he may well make no charitable contributions out of his own pocket. According to The Washington Post, his gaming charitable deductions are shocking.  Add to this information how much he writes off his lavish lifestyle as a business expense. How many of the perks he receives are reported as taxable income? Tax returns alone would not make this clear.

George Will in Real Clear Politics has  warned that Trump doesn’t want to release his tax returns “because he’s deeply involved with Russia.”  Dark Russian interests may well be silently bank-rolling his businesses. Indeed, the mysterious  roles of  campaign manager Paul Manafort and energy adviser Carter Page   suggest that, if Trump isn’t a Manchurian candidate, he may well be just a gold plated  dupe. If these allegations are not true,  he deserves to have the cloud removed. But until this is clarified, the press must dig deeper. Tax returns could disclose his partners and parties to whom he owes money, but it’s unlikely that dealings with either the Russian mafia [or American mobsters]  would result in the exchange of 1099 forms.

Nominees for ambassadorships and cabinet posts have their taxes and personal finances screened carefully. Shouldn’t the same standard apply to presidential candidates?  Shouldn’t Congress act on this? The Sunlight Foundation thinks so. Is it too late to have the Commission on Presidential Debates make release of returns a prerequisite for participation?

Ronald Reagan famously said, “Trust, but verify. “ Until we know what’s in Donald Trump’s tax returns, nothing he says about himself should be trusted. As one blog commenter said: “The ad writes itself. ‘Donald Trump: Cheats on his wives. Cheats on his taxes. Cheats on America.’ ”

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2016 Olympics a gold medal disaster

Olympic rings 2 Whatever happens in individual games over the next two weeks, this may be the most depressing Olympics since Berlin in 1936 and Munich in 1972. And it makes me happier than ever that Boston came to its senses and dropped its 2024 bid.

The opening ceremony said it all. Unremitting commercials interspersed with some tape-delayed programming. Yes, there was some great music and lively dancing. An overly-long  celebration of an obscenely airbrushed Brazil, that distorts the hypocrisy that created these games, ignores the troubles of the games themselves and disguises the tragedy of what will be left in its wake. I assume the tape delays will also permit NBC to cut out any embarrassments to the sanitized extravaganza, including demonstrations by those protesting misplaced priorities and the gross abuse of public dollars.

Brazil is in an economic toilet, with rampant inflation, political corruption, rising crime and public health crises. The shame of this venue is nicely captured in Alex Cuadros’ The Broken Promise of the Rio Olympics in The Atlantic. This article illustrated the rampant corruption and how the benefits of the investment will go to wealthy elites, ignoring the long-suffering residents of the favelas and other poor areas. Charlie Pierce’s well-documented piece in Sports Illustrated showed why the 2016 Olympics should have been moved from Rio.

Construction delays and cost overruns are expected with all big ticket projects. In light of the shoddy construction of World Cup stadiums in 2014 in Brazil, it wasn’t surprising that the Olympic bike path crumbled, killing two people, and the athletes’ village was declared uninhabitable (blocked toilets, leaky pipes, exposed wiring) before part of it caught on fire.

Because it is winter in Brazil, the Zika virus may be less a threat than originally feared, causing some golfers to opt out, but the water pollution rotavirus could be devastating for visitors, especially marathon and triathalon swimmers, rowers and sailors who must contend with fecal matter and other raw sewage. And last month there were reports of drug resistant bacteria on Rio beaches, and human body parts washed up on a beach near a volleyball venue.

The acting governor of Rio de Janeiro declared a state of financial disaster, requesting nearly a billion dollars of additional federal support, after dramatically cutting police, fire and public health budgets.

Impeachment hearings on Brazil’s president for corruption will start later this month, and neither she nor her tainted predecessor (who led the Olympics bid) are expected to be highly visible.

Ah, but you say, let’s focus on the games themselves, celebrate the athletes who have worked so hard with such carefully refined skills. We have no real assurance that anyone is clean. The IOC caved in dealing with the World Anti-Doping Agency findings of long-term systemic Russian abuses. Only its track and field team was banned. How many competitors will fail to qualify for medals because of the illegal behavior of those who do? Can this problem ever be solved or even better controlled, especially with DNA doping on the horizon? It’s sad. Will this be like watching Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa 1998 steroid-infused battle for home run title?

Yes, there will be some human interest stories worth watching, such as American rower Megan Kalmoe or the entire refugee delegation including Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini. But why isn’t  Yulia Stepanova, who risked her life to blow the whistle on doping in the Russian operation, able to participate?

NBC may effectively whitewash repugnant IOC practices and the disastrous behavior of the host nation, but the human costs to long-suffering Brazilian residents shouldn’t be forgotten in the afterglow of colorful closing ceremonies.

It’s long overdue time to provide permanent sites for the summer and winter Olympics games. My choice would be international investment to create something in its Hellenic home, maybe on a secure Greek island, but definitely not in August. As for a single site for winter games, I’m agnostic. Something in Canada, Europe or Japan, again with international support, but no more Sochis.

If people want to celebrate different parts of the world every four years, then different cities could be selected as honorary hosts to be featured in the opening ceremony.  As I wrote in February 2014,  it’s is message worth taking seriously.

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Legislature fails to pass non-compete legislation

State House MAIf you’re an executive for one of the big guys, like EMC or Boston Scientific, or if you depend on the support of the big guys, as does the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, you’re probably pretty happy that the legislature failed to pass non-compete reform. Signing non-compete clauses means employees must wait a year or more after leaving a company before going to work for a competitor or starting a new company. The big guys maintain they need non-compete clauses to protect trade secrets and other confidential information and prevent their talent from being lured away. But, if you work for a start-up company or are involved in the venture capital firms that fund them,  you see that very legislative failure as stifling opportunity, both for individuals and companies. (Non-compete clauses have been common in the television industry.) In California, our biggest rival in innovation,  non-compete clauses are largely illegal.

The Massachusetts House and Senate had competing versions of a bill to modify non-competes.  The Senate would have limited the non-compete period to three months and required a company to pay full salary during the period the employee was barred from taking another job. The House bill (which passed 150-0) would have still allowed enforcing a non-compete provision for a year and required half pay during that time. (These requirements to pay are called garden-leave clauses.)  Governor Baker preferred the House version. Both bills would have barred non-competes for hourly workers and interns.  Removing that outrageous restriction is a no-brainer.

But requiring an employee to wait a year before making a move is stifling.  As one tech analyst put it, what’s the employee supposed to do? Write the great American novel? And is it fair for a company to enforce a non-compete clause if it has fired or laid off an employee?

It seems there’s room for compromise here. Why not split the difference between the year the House would permit and the three months approved by the Senate?  Six months with pay, for example. Companies should be working hard to create positive work environments and incentivizing employees to stay.  But if a person’s career will have more opportunity to blossom elsewhere, he or she shouldn’t be locked into indentured servitude because of too-rigid non-complete rules. Regrettably, the legislature has ended its formal sessions for 2016 because members are running for reelection, most with no opposition, and the bill will have to start anew when a new legislature convenes. That leaves the big guys right where they want to be, once again.

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Hillary chooses morning over mourning in America

Hillary acceptsLast night’s historic moment almost seemed anti-climactic. I had shed my tears at the historic milestone when Hillary Clinton had clinched the Democratic nomination. I held my breath for weeks thereafter until Bernie Sanders had endorsed her, making it clear just how high the stakes are in this election. Last night was all about reinforcing that message: whatever Hillary Clinton’s flaws, this country can’t afford to put Donald Trump in charge.  As she put it, “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man you can trust with nuclear weapons.”

Her speech was solid but not soaring. Yet she showed elements of humor and self-awareness that are not typical for Hillary Clinton’s public persona. She acknowledged that, despite her 40 years of public service, there are people who still don’t get her. At every turn, she reinforced that as a nation we are stronger together. Referring obliquely to Trump, she warned “Don’t believe anyone who says ‘I alone can fix it.’” That devalues the contributions of our troops on the front lines, police, teachers, workers, and more.    Let’s fix it together was a recurring theme. “We have to work together so we can rise together. Donald Trump wants to divide us from the rest of the world and from each other.”

The tone of optimism, while still acknowledging problems and challenges, differentiated Philadelphia from Cleveland. It was morning not midnight for a great nation. Clinton restated how far we’ve come since 2008, saying President Obama doesn’t get the credit he deserves. She acknowledged things are not yet working right and that people are right to be frustrated and furious.  Her wholehearted embrace of the President will be tricky as Republicans try to harness that rage and fury and tie Clinton to the unsolved problems responsible for the anger.

She touched most of the issues that figure in the 2016 campaign, from security and Wall Street reform to student debt, from income inequity and Citizens United to reducing gun violence. At the end, we were reminded that Donald Trump is proud he doesn’t like to sweat the details. In Hillary Clinton we have a wonk and a doer, a person who (unlike her opponents) loves getting into the details of programmatic problem solving, a fighter, a person who was taught from a young age to stand up to bullies.  While she reeks of status quo, she understands the need for change, is capable of negotiating change, and is a voice for responsible change.

Other than testimonials and the accompanying video, Clinton didn’t deal directly with the trust issue that shockingly has two thirds of those polled finding her even more untrustworthy than Trump.  I want her to be more transparent. I want her to shed her bunker mentality. I’m not confident she can do it, or that her handlers want her to do it. But here’s the bottom line: the tone she sets for civic discourse is closer to where this country needs to be than the ignorance, mendacity, narcissism, rashness, hatred, thin skin and acid tongue that this year’s Republican nominee has to offer.

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The table is set for Hillary

Clinton presumptive nomineeWill Hillary Clinton get the post-convention bump she needs to reassure even her anxious supporters and would-be donors that she can win in November?  Tonight will determine that.

Days one through three have set the table, but they won’t necessarily matter as the convention memories recede.  It’s the candidate who counts. On Day 1, it was Michelle Obama who shone. She gave a terrific speech, beautifully delivered, heartfelt and authentic, down to earth while still uplifting. A real home run.

On Day 2, Bill Clinton hit a double with no one on. Bill Clinton has always been a great story-teller (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”) What he left out on Tuesday was more interesting that what he put in. He glossed over his womanizing and humiliation of Hillary with reference to “good times and bad.” I wouldn’t expect him to wallow in it, but I would have appreciated an apology for his transgressions, which have made her life more difficult. Also noteworthy was the oily way he slipped in “There were trade bills, some she voted for; some, against.”  She was a full partner with him in NAFTA, and her early unqualified support for the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement was an unforced error.

Bill Clinton’s task was to humanize Hillary, and his opening line – “In the spring of 1971, I met a girl” – set the tone effectively. He moved from college girl, to wife,  mother and grandmother. He detailed her accomplishments (and there have been many) and  chronicled her lifetime as a change agent(an impressive bill of particulars). Importantly, he tried to differentiate the cartoon character created by Donald Trump at last week’s GOP convention and the real Hillary the former President  was portraying.  The convention, he noted, had nominated the real Hillary. We’ll see tonight what exactly that appears to be.

Day Three was power-packed, with Michael Bloomberg making an effective pitch to independents, Tim Kaine warmly addressing Hillary’s character and reinforcing how he trusts her (even with the life of his Marine son) and Joe Biden straight talking to blue collar and other disaffected white working class males.  President Obama concluded with a full-throated pass-the-baton endorsement. When attacking Trump, he exhorted those who would boo the Republican nominee to vote their disapproval instead. Obama also weighed in appropriately on the blacks versus police controversy, noting that what a black mother feels when her son leaves the house isn’t different what the family of a police officer feel when that officer goes to work. Previously speakers have been notably one-sided on that theme.

Obama’s tone was optimistic, reminding us that we can’t fear the future, we have to shape it.  Among his many references to Trump, the President said we don’t look to be ruled. We seek to work together. (Tell that to our gridlocked Congress and our starkly divided electorate.)

Previous speakers set the table with their best things, the good dishes, silver and china, but it won’t matter if what Hillary serves tonight is less than stellar. She has to convince voters how, beyond being uniquely qualified, she can connect with real people and their concerns.  Beyond being declared by others to be a change maker, she must demonstrate that, in a “change election” (when 60 percent believe the country is on the wrong track), she is not just the latest iteration of the status quo. Dare we hope she apologizes for mistakes made and commits herself to rebuilding people’s trust in her?  The fact that it is a serial liar and pathological narcissist against whom she is running  gives her some room to do so.

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