Muddling Through Somehow

have1It’s the Christmas season but Esther Smith’s heart is not filled with joy. Her father has announced that he’s being relocated to New York for his job and the family will be moving there. The move will separate Esther from John, the boy she loves.

Esther, played by Judy Garland in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, is the second of four daughters in the Smith family. The year is 1903. Esther’s brother and three sisters are unhappy about leaving behind their school friends and romantic partners. To make things worse, they will miss the greatly-anticipated world’s fair the following year.

On Christmas Eve, Esther soothes her little sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), singing to her Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. The song has since become an inescapable part of the holiday background. The music-licensing company, ASCAP, once named it the third most-performed Christmas tune.

Judy Garland, her co-star Tom Drake and director Vincente Minnelli all thought the song as originally written was too depressing and so asked the lyricist Hugh Martin to make some changes. He came back with a more upbeat version. The line “It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past” became “Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”

Thirteen years later, Frank Sinatra was recording a Christmas album, have2A Jolly Christmas. He went back to Martin asking him to “jolly up” the line “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” The composer changed it to “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” This became the standard version. Later, Ms. Garland sang these revised lyrics on The Judy Garland Show Christmas Special.

The list of artists who have recorded this song is almost endless, usually with the “shining star” lyric. One, Chris Isaak, recorded both versions of that verse.

And the Smith family? When Mr. Smith realized how unhappy his family was, he changed his plans, cancelling the move to New York. They all got to go to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

Plus ça change*… plus c’est la Dick’s Drive-In

Wendy’s is promoting its “Baconator” high-calorie, high-fat sandwich… and salt, lots of salt. Jack in the Box is advertising a “Ribeye” burger. McDonald’s features “Buttermilk Crispy Tenders.” (And don’t forget their occasional McRibs.”) At Burger King, you can get a “Farmhouse King.” (1,220 calories) In-N-Out has its “secret” menu. Going against the trend, Dick’s Drive-In has pretty much the same menu as when Dick Spady opened his Seattle restaurant in 1954: Hamburgers and Cheeseburgers – Regular and “Deluxe” – French Fries and made-with-real-ice-cream shakes. No breakfast, no fancy stuff. Dick’s doesn’t do special orders or accommodate requests for substitutions.

Mr. Spady died in January 2016 at the age of 92. The business, still owned by the family, has grown to six restaurants, including the newest in Edmonds, on the northern edge of Seattle. Dick’s patrons chose that locale; more than100,000 voted their preferences for the new location. A seventh restaurant is in the works, after 177,000 ballots cast, in the city of Kent, near SeaTac airport. The Queen Anne, Seattle, location is the only one with indoor seating. All the others are order-at-the-window takeout. The older buildings have been remodeled, adding customer rest rooms. Dick’s owns them all; none are franchised.

Dick’s is known in the Seattle area for paying higher than the prevailing fast-food wage, as well as medical and dental benefits. Employees can take advantage of child-care assistance and scholarship opportunities. According to the web site, Dick Spady founded Dick’s Drive-In with the following business philosophy:

  • Make a profit
  • Invest in your employees
  • Invest in your community

You have probably noticed asterisks on restaurant menus warning you of the danger of food-borne illness from undercooked food are a legacy of the Jack-in-the-Box E. coli outbreak in 1993. Undercooked hamburgers served at fast-food outlets in California, Nevada, Idaho and Washington put 171 people in hospitals and killed four children. Jack in the Box had decided that cooking their burgers to the recommended 155 degrees made them too tough; they served their ground-beef patties at 145 degrees. The resultant law suits cost them $50 million.

Dick’s no-substitution policy served them well. During the Jack-in-the-Box fiasco, the local newspaper surveyed area restaurants about how they handled customer requests for burgers cooked rare or medium. Dick’s did not equivocate. They cook all theirs well-done. Period.

* Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same)

Death and Taxes

2016 was a tough year for hedge funds, their managers anyway. The combined income for the top 25 managers was a paltry $11 billion, the lowest since 2005. That’s just a little over half of the $21.2 billion they “earned” in 2014. Don’t feel too sorry for them, though. Most of their income is categorized as “carried interest” and taxed at a rate of 20%, compared to the 39.6% top tax rate for “earned” income. Your investment in a hedge fund is subject to the typical “two and twenty” fee structure. The fund manager annually takes two percent of your invested assets plus twenty percent “performance fee” on profits realized. (The performance fee is considered carried interest.) What if your assets lose money? Does the manager suffer 20% of the loss? Ha, ha, that was a joke.

While campaigning last year, our president said, “I have hedge fund guys that are making a lot of money that aren’t paying anything.” He said he would change the tax system to force those who work for hedge funds to pay more. “They’re paying nothing and it’s ridiculous. I want to save the middle class. The hedge fund guys didn’t build this country. These are guys that shift paper around and they get lucky.”

What little that has been revealed about the Republican “tax reform” includes a reduction of the tax rate to 15% for “pass-through” income. This is trumpeted as relief to small family businesses that are S corporations – meaning the business is not taxed. The income is passed through to the individual owners who are presumably taxed at a lower rate. Guess what – investment firms can be pass-through businesses also. If carried interest is taxed at the higher rate, who cares, because as pass-through income it will be taxed at even less than before.

The United States nominal tax on corporations is 35%, purportedly the highest in the industrialized world. The effective tax rate, because of endless incentives and breaks, is not so high, about 22% for profitable companies. Of the Fortune 500, nearly forty percent paid zero Federal tax in at least one year between 2008 and 2015. Some, including General Electric, International Paper, Priceline.com and PG&E, incurred a total federal income tax bill of less than zero over the entire eight-year period — meaning they received rebates.

Our president recently delivered a speech to an audience including hundreds of truckers – “hard-working men and women” who are “the lifeblood of the economy.” He touted a lower tax on manufacturers as a boon to truckers as it will increase growth and demand for trucking. He also wants to eliminate the estate tax, pejoratively called the “death tax” by Republicans. He claims this will allow truckers to pass their assets on to the next generation, allowing their businesses to stay in business. Republicans have previously said keeping family farms alive was the overriding reason to abolish estate taxes.

The first $5.49 million of your estate is exempt from estate tax; for a married couple, it’s $11 million. Tax experts calculate last year 80 farms were subject to any estate tax at all; for trucking companies, it was 30. Elimination of the estate tax is estimated to save the Trump family approximately a billion dollars. That assumes that The Donald does actually own anything.

As billionaire hotelier and husband of another New York real-estate magnate, Leona Helmsley, famously said, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”

Urban Renewal and the Dreamland Ballroom

As in many cities of segregated America, Little Rock Arkansas had a thriving African-American community. The West 9th Street neighborhood on the eastern edge of downtown was filled with black-owned businesses and professional offices. The Dreamland Ballroom headlined acts such as Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Etta James, Louis Jordan, Big Joe Turner et cetera. Urban renewal came to the neighborhood in the 1950s. It came with a vengeance after the integration of Central High School made news around the world.

Originally termed “slum clearance,” the more genteel label “urban renewal” saw the eviction of black families and their relocation to housing projects further east. The Little Rock Housing Authority (LRHA) had authority to purchase –requiring homeowners to sell at assessed price – and demolish swaths of “blighted” areas. The LRHA director went on record that, “the city of Little Rock through its various agencies including the housing authority systematically worked to continue segregation” through its slum clearance and public housing projects. The city built two new high schools: Horace Mann High in the mostly black eastern part of Little Rock, and Hall High in the white western edge. Construction in the 1960s of Interstates 630 and 430 solidified the de facto boundary between white and black Little Rock.

Fast forward to 1991. Kerry McCoy, founder and owner of Arkansas Flag and Banner, was looking for a new headquarters for her company. The Taborian Hall, built in 1918 by an African-American contractor for the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, had stood derelict on West 9th for decades; it even lacked a roof when McCoy purchased it. In addition to the lodge, the building in its  glory days housed the USO, the Gem Pharmacy, medical and dentist offices and the Dreamland Ballroom. The flag business has thrived and Kerry McCoy has steadily progressed with making the Dreamland a viable operation. (You can schedule your wedding reception there.)

While full-scale gentrification has yet to come to the West 9th district, the neighborhood’s changes and Dreamland’s resuscitation was the subject of a PBS documentary.

 

 

Keeping Up the Outrage

(This was originally published August 2016.)

footballBy not standing for the national anthem, Colin Kaepernick has disrespected the sacred ritual of football. The American concussion game is inseparable from patriotism. There has not been so much outrage since John Lennon commented that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.* Defenders of Christianity – as if Christianity needed to be defended against a pop-music star – organized burnings of Beatles records.

Two years after Lennon’s remark, at the Mexico City Olympic Games in the incendiary year of 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood, black-powerbarefoot, on the podium at the medal awards ceremony. Smith had won the gold, setting a new world record, in the 200-meter sprint. Carlos took the bronze. Instead of humbly holding hands over hearts during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner,” they each raised an arm, gloved hands clenched in fists, in what was considered to be a black-power salute. The silver-medal winner, Peter Norman, an Australian, did not raise a clenched fist, but wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his jacket, as did the other two. They were booed as they left the podium.

Smith and Carlos were pulled from upcoming relays and Olympic chairman Avery Brundage evicted them from the Olympic Village. Back home, both athletes, and their families, received death threats and had difficulty finding employment. They each played briefly in the NFL. Smith became track coach and taught sociology at Oberlin College in Ohio and later at Santa Monica College. Carlos was a counselor and track and field coach at Palm Springs High School.

Norman was allowed to stay in the Olympic Village, but was shunned 19682008at home. Although qualifying for the 1972 games, he was not selected for the Australian team. Norman’s time in the 1968 race, still stands as the Australian record. He died of a heart attack in 2006. Smith and Carlos gave eulogies and were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral.

John Lennon continued to have a successful musical career. A born-again Christian and rabid Beatles fan, Mark David Chapman felt betrayed by Lennon’s blasphemous remarks. On a night in 1980, Chapman waited with a loaded gun for Lennon’s return to his New York apartment building.

And Colin Kaepernick? Who knows? Outrage over a football player’s sitting down may tell more about us than it does about him.

Beatles2* John Lennon: Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I know I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first – rock & roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”