Monday 23 January 2017

USA 2017 Selfie

It’s a good time to take a “selfie” of the US. Remember the salad days of January 2001 during the transfer of power between Presidents Clinton and Bush. There was a budget surplus, no foreign wars of any consequence, low unemployment; I even recall a debate about whether surpluses might be bad for the country’s  economic long-term health. Ah yes, dream on!

There are many similarities today. We have an unemployment rate of 4.7%, and miniscule US forces remain in Iraq and Afghanistan; the deficit, however, is now at an unseemly $552 billon (still, many economists feel that while borrowing rates remain low the US economy can handily sustain this deficit level.)

Given the economic Armageddon that President Obama inherited in 2009, he’s done an amazing job. Stock markets are zooming, housing values have recovered, and gas prices continue to be low.

Let’s paste this selfie on our refrigerator door - we may need cheery memories in the coming years.

On the other hand, who knows what wonders await us under the incoming Trump Administration? I, for one back in 2009, never imagined that the tanking American car industry would be booming today. If you remember, 600,000 jobs were lost in that awful January President Obama took office.

Still unless President-elect Trump’s plans change, one can safely predict that “huge” tax cuts, allied with increased infrastructure and defense spending, will lead to even “huger” deficits. The consequential higher inflation and interest rates will pose severe threats for the present healthy economy.

But from what I’m hearing, the first Trumpian priorities will be to kill Obama Care and cut regulations. 

Although the Affordable Care Act has led to some costlier individual premiums it is saving many billions in overall US health costs. And in the rush to kill this flawed but helpful scheme, Republicans and the Trump Administration have yet to propose a meaningful alternative. The resulting chaos suggests millions left without coverage and a return to the staggering cost increases of the pre-Obama days.

As for regulations: some can undoubtedly be done without, but those that affect climate control are there for a reason, and without them a price will be paid in terms of rising sea levels, breathable air and other such niceties.

President-Elect Trump’s plan to “drain the swamp” is admirable, especially his threat to ban administration officials from becoming lobbyists for five years after their term of duty.

As distasteful as these crony capitalist enablers may be they are minnows compared to the real swamp alligators – the “huge” corporations that have increasingly been calling the shots in this country. 

Despite Mr. Trump’s populist campaign rhetoric, notice how effortlessly wealthy veterans of Exxon, Goldman Sachs and other members of the swamp elite have glided into his cabinet. They share one overriding concern - the amassing of corporate profit. 

Corporate taxes will definitely be cut. Will this help in the creation of well paying, non-service jobs? I doubt it. 

Corporate profit rates have been growing for the last 30 years while investment in factories and the work place has not kept pace, apart from a drive for more automation that inevitably leads to less jobs. 

In a major publicity move, Mr. Trump recently saved 800 Carrier jobs from moving to Mexico at a cost to the state of Indiana of 7million in tax rebates. The problem is - many of these jobs will eventually be lost to automation. Is there a solution?

There are over 5 million jobs nationwide that cannot be filled because Americans lack the necessary skills. Wouldn’t it be better for federal and local governments to collaborate with unions and employers, and train workers for these positions? 

Such an investment would engender less headlines and 4am tweets, but would provide many families with a path to the middle-class.

And while we’re at it - Fortune 500 companies have stashed more than $2.1 trillion in profits offshore to avoid taxes. What are the chances of those trillions being repatriated? Slim to none I’d say - without a sweetheart deal for the corporate alligators.

So there you have it – things could be better as President Obama leaves office; but they could get a whole lot worse. Don’t forget to check that selfie on your refrigerator door!

Saturday 7 January 2017

Rockabilly Wexford-oh

Americans definitely liked Buddy Holly. Many could even hum a bar or two of his songs. But they didn’t revere him like we did. In the narrow streets and back lanes of Wexford the man from Lubbock was right up there with Saint Anthony – he had a large and devoted following.

Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent were only a couple of notches behind. No two ways about it - our town was Rockabilly mad.

Wexford has always been musically hip - partly because of its proximity to London. A fellah could go out for a couple of pints on a Saturday afternoon, get soused, throw some shirts in a battered suitcase, and wake up with a vicious hangover in Paddington train station the following morning.

Whatever sounds were au courant in Piccadilly soon pounded forth from Nolans’ jukebox on Wexford’s Main Street. Ska, Blues, Reggae, Glam, and Punk had their moment in local musical history but it all began with Rockabilly.

Nolans was a smoky ice-cream parlor frequented by would-be juvenile delinquents and London-hardened Teddyboys, but it was so much more. It may have been the coolest place I ever hung out. 

With its polished tiled floor and darkened windows it boasted a riveting natural reverb. I’ve tried to replicate that effect in the most sophisticated recording studios but have never come close.

Could it have had something to do with the volume? I often wondered if the proprietors - the mild-mannered, Mr. & Mrs. Nolan - were deaf, for ice cream bowls and coffee cups literally hopped on the tables when the Teds grooved to their favorite 45’s.

And guess what sounded best? You got it – Buddy, with Eddie and Blue Gene in close contention. I mean Elvis was no slouch and Irish-American Bill Haley could rock, but they lacked a certain ineffable coolness and that whiff of rebellion so central to Rockabilly.

Eddie Cochran even made fun of the mighty Presley – “Guy can barely play guitar, where’s that at?” Eddie himself could sure as hell play - Hendrix copped his first licks from Cochran 45’s, and Pete Townsend never even came close to “the man” on his version of “Summertime Blues.”

Of course, Eddie Cochran never got old and bloated like Elvis. A dumb Brit driver killed him at the age of 21 while recklessly speeding through the pitch dark English countryside; to top it all he half-crippled Eddie’s amigo, Gene Vincent. 

And you know what happened to Buddy Holly – he did a nose dive into the fields of Iowa courtesy of a pilot who should never have been let near a plane. And with the three of them gone, Rock & Roll died.

But not in Wexford! It lived on in the grooves of scratched 45’s and CD reissues. If you were an aspiring musician and wanted to play beyond your bedroom walls you had to at least learn the rudimentary fingerings and beats.

Rockabilly culture survived in grubby dancehalls and working class pubs, and many of us gravitated to it. It was more than the music: when you played that scene you were cool by association, for Teddygirls were sumptuous, and violence rarely more than an errant glance away.

One summer our band played Friday nights in the local CYMS. Catholics we might have been but there was little Christianity in that packed sweating hall. With no security fights ricocheted around the dance floor until they petered out from a surfeit of spouting blood or sheer fatigue. 

Didn’t matter! We played on for there was a promise of redemption in Rock & Roll; you went home exhilarated, and dreaming of the day when you too might become a Buddy or an Eddie or, the Lord forbid, a half-crippled Blue Gene.

Times and tastes change but on my last trip home I saw a vaguely familiar figure from those CYMS nights strutting down the Main Street. His hair had long ago turned grey but it was still coiffed in the old greased-back Ted fashion. 

His pants tight, his socks white, his progressive lenses encased in Buddy’s black signature frames, he winked his recognition as he sauntered by whistling “Rave On.”

Oh yeah, Rockabilly lives and Wexford Town still pulses to it!