If there’s a dearth of material here this weekend, it is because my wife and I are off to Chicago, Illinois for a Sunday wedding. Given that I haven’t been to the Second City in almost two decades, and that Joanna had not been at all, we wanted to at least take advantage of the Sunday festivities to play tourist and look around.
Why would I think any of it potentially interesting enough to post here? Well, the Windy City was, of course, the political birthplace of our current president — plus, much of my extended family is likely just as liberal (though distinctly more intelligent) and, considering how I like political discussion, the interaction could be fun. Or, the idea for an impromptu travelogue will backfire and bore the snot out of you. Either way, I’m not sure much else will be here this weekend on the site. We’ll see.
Much of this is written on Blackberry as it happens–like an extended Twittering (or whatever that means)–though I may not be able to reconcile and post it here until after the fact. Without further ado, the weekend diary:
Airport Delays and Reading Selections
Flight is delayed for one hour due to wicked thunderstorms. When it comes to flying an airplane, being able to see is likely paramount. Nevertheless, airports offer perhaps the greatest venue for people-watching, though the rest of it–the cattle-like security process, the low-back chairs, the automatic sinks that never work–leaves much to be desired.
Everybody at our gate looks extremely bored, save for one woman watching something on her iPod/iPhone and laughing uncontrollably. Assuming it’s a short program, the only two shows I watch that make me laugh like that are Curb Your Enthusiasm and Family Guy, the latter being a sort of guilty pleasure.
My wife is reading one of the Twilight novels. Say what you will about such works but, as a writer, I often wonder what it would feel like to suddenly be thunderstruck with inspiration. Think about the lady who penned the Harry Potter novels — she was apparently living in her car or something, and started jotting down characters on bar napkins; now, she’s worth about $750 million. While my wife reads about vampires in the chair next to me, I’m also reading about blood-sucking creatures–mainly liberals and progressives–as I re-read Atlas Shrugs. Sitting across from me are a pair of pimply-faced teenage kids and their mother. The kids are both wearing t-shirt with scientific equations on them. One is reading Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House.” The other is reading Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival. What a stark, stark contrast.
Drinking With Swedes
A few minutes pass by, the projected one hour delay has turned into two, and I find myself in an airport bar, drinking a Sam Adams Summer Ale next to a trio of Swedish businessmen. I’d like to ask about their health care system and economy, but all I can think of are cheesy IKEA jokes.
“What are you drinking?” I hope they ask.
“A Kvarksk,” I’d reply. “My beer is its own coffee table.”
It didn’t take long for me to join in the conversation. I’m like that; I talk to people in the supermarket checkout aisle. I’m the husband that makes wives roll their eyes. Now, looking back on the inevitable exchange that ensued with the Swedes, here’s how the enlightening conversation went down:
I overheard one of the men lament how “wretched” the American airlines had been–U.S. Airways in particular–so I jumped in with a comment about how all of our domestic carriers’ misguided attempts at increasing revenue are actually chasing away business. A little more than an hour earlier, Joanna and I had paid $30 to check two bags.
“The airlines are all struggling now, so they believe the answer is to charge travelers more,” I said. “More to check bags. More to enjoy a crappy snack. More for the tinny-sounding little headphones. More in terms of overall fare price. What they don’t get is that, if they were to slash the costs borne by their travelers instead of increasing the burden, they’d have more people flying and they’d make more money.”
I inched my bar stool a little bit closer, and ordered a second beer.
I didn’t catch a name–so, for these purposes, we’ll call him “Sven”–but Sven immediately said that he and his buddies, along with most of the other nine million people in Sweden, are “astounded by how quickly the United States of America is descending into socialism.”
“It used to be that Sweden was the national economy and you were the market economy,” he said, sipping Glenlivet from a plastic cup before crossing his forearms to simulate crossing paths. “Now, it’s the other way around.”
Sven continued to say that it amazed him how our government hands out money to anybody and everybody regardless of need or purpose. The turnaround he has seen in his own country, he says, is because the national government “says ‘no’ to people more than they say ‘yes,’” and on the rare occasions the government does decide to provide assistance to a business or other entity, it does so with strict scrutiny.
“In those cases, the government requires meticulous business plans, projected cost and revenue analyses and the like. Even then, they still more often than not say ‘no.’ In this country, they give money to everyone,” he said, chuckling.
I confessed that, as soon as he had mentioned Stockholm, I was curious about their health care system, considering the horror stories we hear from those who have dealt with nationalized systems in Canada and the U.K., and considering that the Obama administration was looking to wrest control of the system here within the year. Prior to this conversation, when the occasional lefty brought up Sweden as an example of socialized medicine that worked, I’ve always countered that size matters. I was delighted to hear Sven and his cohorts essentially say the same thing.
Sven’s mother, it seems, was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years back. I can relate. And I waited, ready to cringe, until he mentioned that she received “absolutely excellent” care and was doing extremely well. He, too, had heard the horror stories from other state-run systems, and when I asked how he could reconcile those with his own system in Sweden, that’s when he confirmed my thought as to size and scope of the program in question.
“In our country, our government is basically handling health services for New York City. That’s about where we are — nine million people,” he said. “It’s much smaller. And, yes, there are preventative programs, but I think it comes down to size. Your government thinks that it can organize for 300 million Americans. I think it’s going to be a disaster.”
Today, we’ve been playing the tourist. We’ve done the double-decker bus thing, and even ascended the Sears Tower to have a look around, something I haven’t done since I was a wide-eyed little kid. It really is an absolutely beautiful town, even more so than I remember — though I must admit that Soldier Field, the home of the Chicago Bears, looks as though Dennis Kucinich’s mothership hovered over Chicago and decided to land in the middle of what used to be a classic structure. Something about it doesn’t look right.
No, I have not seen Rod Blagojevich, or his hair. I’ve not even seen nearly the amount of Obama/Biden stickers and car magnets expected; Philadelphia certainly has more. What I did notice with regard to our president, though, is that even though the t-shirts and hats and pins may not adorn the people passing by along Michigan Avenue, they are everywhere when it comes to gift shops, street carts, and the like. Even at the top of the Sears Tower, there were Obama bobbleheads and “Change” candy bars alongside the plastic replicas of the iconic building.
I’ve even had the chance to get a photograph with the Messiah himself. Yes, the camera adds ten–okay, fifty–pounds, but I blame my bloated appearance on the fact that our president is such a stud. No wonder he’s pictured shirtless almost as often as Matthew McConaughey.
Now, some of you might say that he looks a little too “wooden” or “stiff” to actually be the real Barack Obama. I assure you, he was not. By “wooden,” you must have been thinking of Al Gore; by “stiff,” you must have been thinking of Bill Clinton. This was Barack Obama for sure, folks — if it wasn’t, how do you explain my wallet feeling so much lighter this afternoon than it did this morning?
Chicago vs. Philadelphia and How to Fix America
Looking back on it now at the end of the day, what I saw of Chicago this morning, afternoon and evening says a whole lot about my current hometown, and about the current direction in which America is headed. Chicago, see, is what Philadelphia could be. After all, both are examples of cities which, like giant jigsaw puzzles, are comprised of smaller neighborhoods put together. Both are culturally diverse, with self-contained and largely self-reliant ethnic areas fit in among those neighborhoods. Both are big sports towns, with both the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago White Sox ending long championship droughts. Both have a waterfront area, and a river carving its way through town. Both are home to fabulous museums, world-class restaurants, a vibrant theatre scene, jaw-dropping architecture, and both are positively dripping in history. Why, then, does Chicago seem to be still maintaining its renaissance in the midst of a down economy, while Philadelphia is looking more downtrodden by the day?
Both towns are union-driven towns, so it cannot be union involvement alone. Both towns are certainly liberal towns, so that cannot be the case. And, in both cases, the city government leaves much to be desired. Could the difference be the Chicago-style politics itself, that the folks calling shots in this town may very well be corrupt, but they’re just more effective at being corrupt? If that’s the case, perhaps the problem in Philadelphia–where the unions push around the goverment–is actually reversed here, and that’s the difference. Even though unions are heavily involved in both cities, my guess is that they have a stranglehold in Philadelphia that they do not have in Chicago.
Mayor Daley seems to be loved here. And I can see why, at least superficially. The green space is beautiful. The city is clean. The tourism is hopping. The theatres look packed, and the restaurants have very few spare tables. The so-called “Magnificent Mile,” home to high-end shopping even Paris Hilton wouldn’t scoff at, was absolutely packed with people — and throughout the downtown district, I don’t think I saw a single empty storefront.
Union power alone cannot be the difference. I think it has more to do with an overall attitude toward city growth. From our double-decker tourist-mobile today, I saw a sign outside one of the many new condominium buildings here in town a sign advertising among other perks ten years of a 2.5 percent tax rate, obviously an attempt to bring people from the suburbs and from other cities into downtown Chicago. Currently, Philadelphia is looking to sunset a tax abatement for condominium residents downtown in a dimwitted attempt to gain revenue, income which will undoubtedly be lost–and more–when an increased tax burden chases current residents out of Philly and stifles an already struggling residential construction industry.
It could also be the overall attitude toward tourism. Chicago has taken advantage of its natural resources, so to speak, converting the old Meigs Field into an events center of some sort, building–with heavy reliance on pledged corporate sponsors rather than taxpayer money, no less–a wonderful new pedestrian area in Millennium Park. It was absolutely packed today, with people doing little more than playing around with family and friends, spending time in the grass among the sculptures and fountains in the shadow of a beautiful city. Even the Sears Tower is adding a glass enclosure at its 103rd floor observation deck, where yahoos like myself can walk out and look around, with only the glass floor at our feet separating us from the pavement 1,400-plus feet below.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, is pushing casino projects, as if slot parlors will be enough to bring good tourism dollars into town. It’s insane. We have green space and fountains and statues, too, but the dilapidated water features along the Schuylkill River and Kelly Drive have long been dry and the statues and monuments look old, almost discarded. But never fear, says the city, soon people can enjoy a chance to match up BAR-BAR-BAR while sitting next to a blue-haired septuagenarian chain-smoking Camels out of her stoma.
Philadelphia doesn’t even know how to utilize its own historical resources, which are ample. While digging near Independence Mall a few years ago, workers discovered the foundation of George Washington’s home. What they also discovered is that years of neglect had destroyed much of what was left to be found; no example of that more clear than the water pipe which ran clear through the first president’s living room — somebody had laid it years before and given not even a second thought to the bricks discovered in the dirt. Even worse, because in its typical bone-headed fashion the city couldn’t decide what to do with the dig site–which had become popular with tourists–in an effort to “preserve” what was found . . . they covered it back up with dirt.
Even if all of the museums in Philadelphia closed their doors, if all of the restaurants shut down the ovens, if the Phillies and Eagles and Sixers and Flyers all packed their bags for greener pastures, the City of Brotherly Love will still have its history. My goodness, the history. I work down in the federal courthouse (the building at the top-left corner of the photo shown) and walk in the footsteps of our founders each day. If nothing else, Philadelphia is where our nation was born. Yet after such a significant find as George Washington’s home, they cover it up because, well, the city cannot think of anything else to do with it.
“Behold,” a Philly tour guide might say, as he approaches the intersection of Sixth and Markets Streets. “On this site stood the President’s House, home to George Washington and John Adams, the first and second presidents of the new United States of America.”
“Uh, where is it?” some kid might ask, between sips of Pepsi from his commemorative plastic Liberty Bell cup.
“Well, we covered it back up.”
“So we can’t see it?”
“Nope. It, uh, had to be preserved.”
Looking back on my impressions of Chicago today, I cannot help but think that there’s a greater message in the distinction between the Windy City and the City of Brotherly Love. While I cannot put my finger on the exact reason for Chicago’s relative success when compared with Philadelphia, it has something to do with wanting to grow, wanting to be great, wanting to be recognized. Chicago is obviously actively pursing new residents and, though I don’t know specifics at all, likely wooing business and industry as well; Philadelphia, as I learned from reading a lawsuit filed in the Court of Common Pleas a few years ago, killed a World Trade Center project two decades in the making back in 2007 by placing a 65-foot height restriction on the property in question.
To succeed, you must want success. Chicago, for all its internal problems, appears to want growth; Philadelphia does not. And the same goes for America. How odd that a president who came from this very city, a city that seems to yearn for success, obviously looks instead to stymie growth for the country as a whole? If we want success and prosperity and growth for America, we must take steps to ensure that people want to be successful and prosperous in America. Instead of looking to shut down the use of so-called “tax loopholes” and other benefits American companies seek overseas, why not make America the kind of business environment that companies from other nations look to be involved with? Instead of looking to drum up revenue and close a budgetary gap by increasing taxes more than we increase spending, why not decrease spending and decrease taxes in order to encourage growth?
Looking at the difference between these two fair cities, cities that are so similar, it seems as though we see the analogous difference between a growing America and a stagnant one. Now, don’t get me wrong — Chicago is not a “model” city. Far from it. I’m thinking of Chicago relative to Philadelphia. Kind of like ordering a steak at Waffle House versus doing the same at Outback Steakhouse. Sure, the latter is going to be better, but neither matches the filet at Morton’s.
We need America to be that filet at Morton’s. So, as I see it, a good start is to look at what makes the steak better at Outback than at Waffle House, and continue moving in that direction.
Well, it is the Land of Obama
En route to the wedding, we passed an interesting road sign. In fact, it was among several in and around the suburban Chicago areas through which we traveled.
“Project Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.”
The cynic in me wondered just how much of the $787 billion in so-called “stimulus” money was spent on road signs advertising the use of the $787 billion in so-called “stimulus” money. The pragmatist in me, however, acknowledged that if we were going to spend taxpayer money to boost employment and possibly jump-start the economy, it should indeed have been spent on shovel-ready construction projects like the ones behind this sign and the others like it. Of course, any money spent to facilitate immediate job growth should have also been buttressed by plans to create long-term job growth, those being proactive measures taken to reduce the tax and regulatory burdens on those who build, run and invest in business.
Popular among Republicans and conservatives like Sean Hannity has been the argument that NO stimulus money has gone to current projects. Obviously, that’s wrong. However, it’s also equally obvious that the vast, vast majority of such funds have gone to pork projects and other, non-stimulative endeavors. Nonetheless, perhaps it would benefit those of us on the right to acknowledge the miniscule amount of benefits, if for no other reason than to put the failures in perspective.
Think about it. Saying “nothing stimulative has come from this legislation; all $787 billion was wasted” sounds exaggerated and partisan and hardly as logical as the GOP needs to paint itself. Saying that “yes, there have been a few minor projects funded, and that’s nice, but $720 billion out of the $787 billion has been spent irresponsibly” smacks of a little less hyperbole, and seems to show that we’re not just here to point fingers, but rather to provide a solution for what this country needs. It shows us as reasonable, logical, in it for more than just political points. It insinuates that we’ve done our homework, and I believe Americans are less likely to dismiss non-constructive arguments than ones seeming born from pure partisanship.
Obviously, the plan hasn’t worked—so many of the jobs touted as saved and created by the legislation, including the ones at Caterpillar and the Cleveland Police Department spoken about by the president himself, have fallen through—but I believe the scope of the plan’s failure is easier to address and explain if we take an honest approach and laud any successes (there aren’t many) while providing a natural contrast by noting its many failures.
Open Bar, and Heeding a Self-Imposed Moratorium on Political Discussion
We’ll see how this goes. I enjoy talking with people on all sides of the political spectrum, so long as they have principles. Most of my liberal family know why they’re liberal. They believe it. They live it. And they’re smart enough to know that I’ll never agree with most of what they say, just as they’ll likely never agree with most of what I say. And I like that — it leaves discussions open as non-contentious and as a possible learning process.
Much later . . . The Blackberry was left in the hotel room. Thank goodness. The wedding was fantastic. The bride and groom looked happy and beautiful. The venue was gorgeous. The people, though, made it a great experience; everybody was wonderful. Without betraying identities and such—that’s not the point of this increasingly long-winded piece (my apologies!)—I can safely say that there was a large overseas contingent among the guests, and it was nice to hear perspectives when offered by some of those who came here from abroad.
Other than some fun jokes at American expense about the gargantuan portion size of meals served here (I agree), it wasn’t the hate America stuff that liberals like to believe. If “everyone hates us,” as so many lefties insist, I sure didn’t see it this weekend.
I may have been guilty of starting a political discussion with some of the folks from the U.K. Of course, I was on my best behavior. Still, I found interesting the broad consensus that the time of the Labour Party in power is nearly over, that our own Ian Thorpe was ahead of his time when it came to writing about the British politicians charging taxpayers for moat-cleaning and bags of manure, and that Gordon Brown will likely be out of a job at the next election. In fact, I think it will be extremely telling to watch the elections in Britain next May; it could serve as a harbinger of what might occur in November.
Surprising, though, was that nobody had seemed to hear of Daniel Hannan, the young Conservative MEP who absolutely, brilliantly excoriated the British PM a few months back over the same sort of spending and economic policies we’re seeing here. Part of me was hoping that Hannan had already begun campaigning for a turn at No. 10 Downing Street.
Because any excuse is good enough:
Another interesting tidbit came from a discussion with a young man from New Zealand. He and I got to talking about the music scene there, here and across the pond in Britain. In an effort to promote local musicians, it seems that the local Kiwi government has instituted a quota for radio stations, mandating that a certain amount of homegrown music be mixed in with the Top 40 stuff from the U.K. and around the world.
“But what if it’s all shite?” I asked, mimicking the Kiwi accent at the tail end of the question.
“Actually,” he said, “it’s all been pretty good. The response has been overwhelming, and it has done an awful lot in terms of making people aware of local artists.”
As a fan of obscure music, I nodded my head. Thinking of the American left and their attitude toward talk radio, I shook it. In the States, after all, it’s not about the government forcing music stations to highlight efforts by garage bands from coast to coast, it’s about the government forcing stations to broadcast progressive talk programs which are not only wrong but, frankly, not all that entertaining. The native Kiwi music may be pretty good, but the viewpoints and perspectives which would be forced upon the American people through the so-called Fairness Doctrine is, well, shite.
Looking back on it now, it was an excellent weekend. I shared a few beers with a trio of Swedes, and was delighted to know that people from the outside looking in see the very same things that concerned Americans worry about. The Windy City proved to be more vibrant than ever, and taught me a lesson about my own current hometown and the problems facing my nation. I got my photo taken with the president, and saw that much of his “stimulus” money went to signs promoting the “stimulus” package. I learned a ton while talking with and listening to people who came from across the globe to see this wedding. And best of all was the wedding itself. That people did travel from all ends of the Earth was a testament to family, friendship and the love which brings people together.
Joanna and I return home tomorrow morning. Most likely, this Web site will be silent as to new material on Monday, given that we both return to life and work and everything else. Heck, I’m headed to work as soon as we leave the airport. But come on, people – I think I’ve been long-winded enough this weekend to last a full week or more.
Regardless, it was an interesting experiment. For the two or three of you who stuck around to the end of this exercise in loquaciousness, thank you. For those who have not, and skipped to the end – I don’t blame you one bit.
Now, give me a day to recover, and we’ll be back to our regularly-scheduled programming.