Monday, December 29, 2008

Fair Trade Chanukah

Now that the holiday is over, I find this fascinating piece over on

Something to remember for next year! (In the mean time, let's change the U.S. government's relations with El Salvador, not just our buying practices.)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, his memory a blessing

I was Arnie Wolf's student and Hillel congregant at Yale from 1976 to 1980. As a teacher, he was intellectually beyond me: one of the first people to appreciate the French Jewish ethical thinker Emmanuel Levinas, for example. As a spiritual leader and political activist, he was fearless and funny at the same time, a wonderful example for us all.

Following his example, when we reach the last paragraph of the Amidah, to this day I say out loud, le-takein olam b'malchut shaddai, "to repair and perfect the world with God as our Guide."

I also like to tell A.J. Wolf stories.

  • The year he began a High Holy Day sermon, "Karl Marx once wrote that the main thing Jews care about is money. And I think he was right." He went on to explain that because Jews take the power of money seriously, we take economic justice seriously: a true Marxian insight, but delivered in the provocative Rabbi Wolf style!

  • His insistence that teshuvah (repentance and return) really wipes away sin from our constitution. I remember objecting that when we have the habit of doing something wrong, it's in our brain cells and body chemistry and not so easily wished away. "I believe," he said, "that teshuvah wipes sin out of the brain." A neuroscientist before his time!

  • The time that the Yale Political Union wanted to arrange a debate on the Middle East. One of the organizers said, "We can invite Rabbi Wolf for one side, but then who will speak for the Jews?" When Arnie heard this, he roared with laughter. Back then, the two-state solution he advocated was a radical's dream. Now, it is everybody's pious hope. The times have changed, and he helped change them.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Don't Forget the Motor City

I don't usually post things that are floating around the internet, especially if they've been out there for a year and a half. This is an exception. I'm posting this bit of satire (sent to me by Beth M) because when auto makers and right-wing pundits are trying to blame labor for the woes of Detroit, it's good to remember where the decisions are made.

A Modern Parable.

A Japanese company ( Toyota ) and an American company (Ford Motors) decided to have a canoe race on the Missouri River . Both teams practiced long and hard to reach their peak performance before the race.

On the big day, the Japanese won by a mile.

The Americans, very discouraged and depressed, decided to investigate the reason for the crushing defeat. A management team made up of senior management was formed to investigate and recommend appropriate action.

Their conclusion was the Japanese had 8 people rowing and 1 person steering, while the American team had 7 people steering and 2 people rowing.

Feeling a deeper study was in order, American management hired a consulting company and paid them a large amount of money for a second opinion.

They advised, of course, that too many people were steering the boat, while not enough people were rowing.

Not sure of how to utilize that information, but wanting to prevent another loss to the Japanese, the rowing team's management structure was totally reorganized to 4 steering supervisors, 2 area steering superintendents and 1 assistant superintendent steering manager.

They also implemented a new performance system that would give the 2 people rowing the boat greater incentive to work harder. It was called the 'Rowing Team Quality First Program,' with meetings, dinners and free pens for the rowers. There was discussion of getting new paddles, canoes and other equipment, extra vacation days for practices and bonuses. The pension program was trimmed to 'equal the competition' and some of the resultant savings were channeled into morale-boosting programs and teamwork posters.

The next year the Japanese won by two miles.

Humiliated, the American management laid off one rower, halted development of a new canoe, sold all the paddles, and canceled all capital investments for new equipment. The money saved was distributed to the Senior Executives as bonuses.

The next year, try as he might, the lone designated rower was unable to even finish the race (having no paddles,) so he was laid off for unacceptable performance, all canoe equipment was sold and the next year's racing team was out-sourced to India .

Sadly, the End.

Here's something else to think about: Ford has spent the last thirty years moving all its factories out of the US , claiming they can't make money paying American wages.

TOYOTA has spent the last thirty years building more than a dozen plants inside the US . The last quarter's results:

TOYOTA makes 4 billion in profits while Ford racked up 9 billion in losses.

Ford folks are still scratching their heads, and collecting bonuses...


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The New Agent Orange? (part II)

Yet another reason not to join the military: death by cancer. According to the Boston Globe:
Sixteen Indiana national guardsmen filed a lawsuit yesterday accusing KBR, the Houston-based US defense contractor, of knowingly exposing them to "one of the most potent carcinogens" known to man while they guarded a water treatment plant in Iraq that the company was repairing.
Back on June 30, I asked whether sodium dichromate (the chemical in question) would turn out to be the new Agent Orange. The scariest thing is that it may take a generation to know the answer. Dr. Craig Hyams, chief consultant for environmental health at the Department of Veterans Affairs. said that three decades after U.S. troops bailed out of Vietnam, "Veterans Affairs is still analyzing the effects of Agent Orange."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Marching Orders for Organizers

Decades ago, Saul Alinsky wrote Rules for Radicals, explaining to a new generation how to organize--and keep organizing--to change America. Obama campaigners, are you listening? Michael Perschuk's article "Election's Over--Time to Begin" in the 12/15 issue of The Nation explains how Young Democrats in Maryland have updated Alinsky. If, like my friend Kate McCulley, you're in election withdrawal, here's the antidote. Let's get out there!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

If This Were Reform, It Would Have Different Friends

I've written before that the main problem with the Massachusetts mandatory health insurance plan is that it mandates coverage--but not care. Are we about to see that problem made larger on the national level?

"Lobbies backing health reforms," today's Boston Globe headline screams. "Insurers change their tune from 1993-94 debate." But the article makes it clear that insurance companies are getting involved only so they can protect their own interests, not those of the patients who need the care. It quotes Karen Ignagni, the president of "the nation's largest health insurance lobbying group":
"Strategically, industries have choices if they're at the epicenter of the discussion about a certain part of the economy," she said. "They can sit and wait for others to develop proposals or take the bull by the horns and look at what are the issues that are troubling the country, what are the issues that need to be resolved to help improve the productivity of the country. . . . It's not an altruistic strategy, it's a realistic leadership strategy."
And the insurance companies certainly do have a dog in this fight.
The insurance industry, meanwhile, could gain or lose depending on which reforms are adopted: Offering tax credits or subsidies to help pay for private coverage for the uninsured could bring insurers millions of new customers; but if a reform law also lets people choose a public Medicare-style plan, private insurers could lose business.
As they should! Here is an early warning signal that the Obama administration may become the third term of the Clinton era. To stop this backsliding in its tracks, check out Health Care for America Now. For the solution we really need, see your doctor: Physicians for a National Health Program.

Monday, December 1, 2008

"Cautious is the New Risky"

A final thought about changing Obama, for now:

The editor of The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel, has written, "I think that we progressives need to be as clear-eyed, tough and pragmatic about Obama as he is about us." She recommends "that progressives must avoid falling into either of two extremes--reflexively defensive or reflexively critical." Please see her cogent strategic advice at The Nation website.