Monday 28 November 2016

Four Hot Years Ahead

The subway train was eerily quiet on the day after the election. As usual my fellow travelers averted their gaze, but there was a certain wariness in the eyes of African-Americans that I hadn’t seen since the Giuliani mayoralty. 

I felt like shouting, “Hey, I didn’t vote for Trump.” But what was the point? Back in the day, I didn’t vote for Giuliani either.

On the other hand, congratulations, President-Elect Trump! You won fair and square, aided by Secretary Clinton’s spectacularly inept campaign.

Leaving aside her email server debacle, ceding the campaign trail to her opponent’s monster meetings, and employing a tone deaf, numbers-cruncher like Robby Mook as campaign manager was political suicide.

Sure, there was anger out in the hinterland that might have swept aside any Democrat this year. That anger will not dissipate under a Trump administration. Coalmines will not reopen due to the availability of cheap natural gas, and the industries that have moved overseas because of lower wages are gone forever. Capitalism, indeed, can be cruel.

A nod to the wise, if you were thinking of nailing down a mortgage or any kind of loan, move fast, interest rates are already rising.

President Trump intends increasing infrastructure spending to the tune of a trillion bucks. Hallelujah! Many of us have been urging such a move for years; however, the Republican controlled congress wouldn’t okay it for President Obama. 

One caveat - fiscal intervention seems to work best when used at the height of unemployment, with the debt repaid during the ensuing boom. But we are already down to 4.9% unemployment while this year’s third quarter boasted a not insignificant 2.9% in US economic growth.

Not to mention that the president-elect is also promising to cut taxes, particularly for the wealthy. These two initiatives combined will lead to a ballooning of the deficit and a consequent increase in interest rates. 

Still, the new president claims to the “the king of debt.” So, let’s hope he knows something we don’t.
Don’t get me wrong! I wish the man and his economic policies much success – we’re all in this together. It’s just that his agenda seems to be a recipe for a bracing increase in the cost of living.

Send millions of undocumented people south and you cut the workforce correspondingly. What native-born American is willing to step into the many poorly paid jobs that will be vacated? 

Dump the Affordable Care Act and health insurance costs will rise – assuming you can get insured in the first place; and forget about crossing state lines for your new inexpensive coverage – imagine showing your doctor’s receptionist your brand new Mississippi insurance card.

Of course we’re all to blame for not questioning Mr. Trump on the specifics of his policies during the campaign. Not that he would have answered – “kings of debt” rarely do – they renegotiate or declare bankruptcy.

I don’t doubt that income inequality and the loss of decent paying jobs fueled the pitchfork uprising that we just witnessed. Unfortunately, Mr. Trump’s policies will likely lead to more of the same, particularly if he gets into trade wars with China, Mexico, or God forbid, Pearl River.

I hope I’m wrong but inflation looms on the horizon. Mercifully we have been spared this specter over most of the Bush/Obama years. Once inflation rises it’s a tough nut to crack, as anyone who lived through the Carter years will remember.

Leaving aside economics, we should not forget that the genie of racism, anti-Semitism, and other taboos were deliberately uncorked during the election. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to notice that Mr. Trump did not disavow the despicable David Duke’s support until after some important Southern Republican primaries were won.

It’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle. This malignant and powerful little fellow was only too apparent on my subway train the morning after the election. 

The country has done major work banishing his like and influence over the last eight years. Let’s hope this genie does not become a major player in President-Elect Trump’s campaign to make America great again.

If so, we have a hot four years ahead of us.

Sunday 13 November 2016

Mary's Bar and the old spirit of Wexford Town

I can measure my life in terms of bars. They stretch across two continents: The Wren’s Nest in Wexford, The Hideaway in Rathmines, Tomorrow’s Lounge in Bay Ridge, Dirty Nelly’s and The Village Pub in The Bronx, Paddy Reilly’s, Rocky Sullivan’s and Connolly’s in Manhattan. 

I only have to hear these names and a host of smiling faces materializes, for we Irish treasure our pubs. When all else fails and the world doubts you, you’ll always find a welcome in your local.

In terms of longevity Mary’s Bar at the top of Wexford’s Cornmarket has a hold on me like no other. I was raised in nearby George’s Street and passed by its old style shop front most days of my youth. 

My grandfather, usually a teetotaler, drank there so I witnessed its once mysterious interior through a child’s eyes, the walls hung with pictures of Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone and Padraig Pearse.

I didn’t realize it then, but I had stepped into a piece of history. The pub dates back to 1775; an “early house,” it opened at 7am for the Cornmarket workers, and those who unloaded the coal boats down on Wexford Quay. It closed at 3pm.

But then I walked amidst history every day while growing up in George’s Street. Nearby stood Selskar Abbey where Henry II did penance for the murder of Thomas a’Becket. While just down from Cornmarket, Cromwell’s roundheads slaughtered 300 women and children in the town square known as The Bull Ring.

If Mary’s Bar is festooned with rebel pictures there’s a reason. The Cornmarket area was a vital part of Wexford’s Free French Republic declared during the Uprising of 1798. Indeed the leaders of this rebellious secular state held a dinner to celebrate their declaration of independence in a “gentry house” on my own George’s Street.

Built at the same time, my grandfather’s old town house has long ago been converted into flats but the memories throb from within every time I pass by. The little houses on nearby Abbey Street have for the most part been demolished, but the far-flung residents and their children still return to Mary’s Bar.

I only go home now once a year and rarely stay more than a night. I do a concert in Wexford’s Arts Centre, formerly the Town Hall where I learned to play the guitar standing on one foot – the other was often needed to kick away Teddyboys as they fought in front of the bandstand.

I always go to Mary’s Bar after the gig and the smiles of welcome light up as I walk in the door. Catherine Kielty, the proprietor, will stop what she’s doing and give me a hug. It’s the welcome home that every emigrant craves. 

I never know whom I’ll meet: a school friend returned from England, an old girlfriend and her grown children. But ghosts crowd the place too, including my grandfather perched unsmiling on a stool – he found little joy in falling off the wagon. Turn quickly and I might catch Catherine’s father, Joss Kielty, beaming a welcome home from his corner.

I usually have a busload or two of Americans with me. I try to show them the hidden Ireland, untouched by tourists and, often, locals. Through such visits Mary’s has become known in the nooks and crannies of the US and Canada, and few people who have raised a glass there forget its honest charms.

For they recognize the uniqueness of the place. It’s not just a pub; it’s a portal to the past. There’s still a spirit there that speaks of a forgotten Ireland. 

I first heard “One Starry Night” sung on the pavement outside by an old traveler, and as a boy I followed Paddy “Pecker” Dunne into its smoky darkness, entranced by his songs and rugged independence.

Musicians always recognize the essence of the place, for you hear the same soulful echoes as in Tipitinas in New Orleans where Doctor John and Fats Domino presided.

Times have been tough on the old working-class pubs of Ireland. Customers move away or pass on. But Mary’s is more than a bar; it’s a site-specific, living museum that houses the old spirit of Wexford Town. Long may it prosper.

Thursday 3 November 2016

James Connolly forgive me - I'm voting conservative

            I’m voting conservative in this year’s presidential election.

            “What?” Says Yer Man up in Pearl River. “Where’s your James Connolly now?”

            I’m throwing in my lot with Hillary Clinton, even though I swore I’d never darken her door again after she voted to invade Iraq.

            Basically, Donald Trump scares the living daylights out of me. Now I won’t even get into his rooster ranting on the tape with Billy Bush. Anyone who has heard him on Howard Stern knows full well where he stands on such matters; besides, women are only dying to clean his clock on Nov. 8th.

            Mr. Trump claims there’s a media bias against him. Nothing could be further from the truth for he’s been given a free pass on his woeful economic and security policies this whole campaign. 

            I will say one thing for him – he does recognize that investing in infrastructure is vital for our changing economy. 

            If there’s one thing that the Great Recession has made clear – Keynesian economics works. When the economy stagnates it behooves the government to invest in it. Look at how quickly the US economy has recovered compared to the European model where austerity policies were favored.

            So is Mr. Trump a disciple of Keynes? Well, yes, in the sense that he believes in borrowing to promote growth – with the caveat that he prefers to renegotiate loans and has no problem in declaring bankruptcy.

            This would not be a prudent way to run the country, as was shown when the markets swooned on his suggestion that he would renegotiate federal loans; talk about delivering a Ringsend uppercut to US creditworthiness and the dollar.

            Worse still, he favors massive tax cuts that he claims would create a tidal wave of revenue. Bitter experience, however, suggests that this traditional Republican fiscal policy rarely works.

            No problem for Mr. Trump seeing that he doesn’t pay federal taxes anyway; but infrastructure spending plus massive tax cuts equals staggering deficits.

            Now it may seem that I often put undue emphasis on the health of financial markets, but collapsing stock prices are anathema to the many Americans dependent on 401(k) accounts for retirement. Be warned - the occasional time Mr. Trump’s poll numbers rise the markets correspondingly dive.

            Notwithstanding his threat of pitchfork revolution Wall Street does not fear reform under a Trump presidency; however it trembles at his general untrustworthiness and the likelihood that he might cause another “huge” recession.

            I share Wall Street’s pain – recessions are no fun.  So despite Iraq, emails and the hubris that swirls around the Clinton family I’m voting conservative. At least Mrs. Clinton is unlikely to declare bankruptcy and turn the US into another Atlantic City. 

            Let’s take a look at security, and making America great again. Is that code for invading other countries, blowing the hell out of their infrastructures, and then spending billions rebuilding – not to mention slaughtering and maiming their inhabitants?   
None of the last wars of choice have been successful. Raw power doesn’t do the trick any more, as was shown in Iraq where a $15 IED could blow up a $150K US Army Humvee. The world has become very complicated and interconnected; it has little tolerance for Mr. Trump’s bull in a china shop tactics.

            As for slapping tariffs on Mexico and China - be prepared for economic wars and the loss of millions of jobs. Also brace yourself for rising prices on imports that will lead to inflation, soaring interest rates, and another recession. Let’s not even revisit the ridiculous idea of a wall that Mexico will pay for.  

I suppose I should mention that Mr. Trump’s ongoing xenophobic and provocative statements have once again exposed the ugly seam of racism and know-nothing extremism that is only too willing to surface in times of national stress. 

But I’ve little doubt that once he has lost the election and his “brand” has suffered financially that a kinder, gentler Trump will re-emerge. Let’s hope his followers – many of whom have genuine grievances – will then see him for what he really is as the door slams behind him in his ivory New York tower.

            As for me, I’m voting conservative this year. I think the ghost of James Connolly will understand.