Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The search for CNN's missing reputation

   On March 8, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a Boeing 777 carrying 239 passengers and crew en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, disappeared.
     That’s it.
     There’s really no more to say, no more facts at hand. Oh, a few details, if you are new to the story: Many nations have been looking for the plane. The few leads — some floating debris — have turned out to be red herrings. The black box data recorders are running out of juice. But most people know that already.
    If you need someone to tell you what likely happened to Flight 370, I can do that: It crashed into the ocean and vanished. I know this because of a logical principle known as Occam’s razor: When confronted with a mysterious situation, don’t conjure up wild speculation, just take the facts you do know and construct the most likely outcome: if the window is broken and the TV is gone, assume that someone broke the window and stole the TV, not that the TV hurled itself through the window and ran away.
    To be honest, after five weeks, the tragedy would have receded from memory — there’s so much happening in the world, no need to stare slack-mouthed at a mystery waiting for it to resolve itself — had not CNN veered into round-the-clock coverage. I never watch CNN, but my younger boy records Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” and I caught his delicious mockery of CNN’s swan dive into the story a few weeks ago. It’s been endless, wall-to-wall reiteration and speculation where no theory is too strange — black holes, Bermuda Triangle, UFOs — to be aired, no fact too minor or familiar not to be worn to a nubbin, like a lunatic rubbing an adored blankie, a news judgment process Stewart summarized in three words: “Let’s go nuts."
     Stewart’s take-down, as always, was so deft, so complete, there was no need to tune in for confirmation, to eye the smoldering ruin. Happy is he who doesn’t have to go to hell to see what the devil looks like. But “Chicagoland” is still running Thursday nights on CNN, repetitive in its own way, but with an interesting look at violence-plagued Fenger Academy High School (and, OK, because I’ve popped up in it a couple times) I tune in, accidentally catching a minute or two of regular CNN before and just after.
     Oh. My. God. You really have to see it. Because while planes disappear now and again, I can’t think of a news organization that has so thoroughly jumped the shark in search of ratings. It’s the top story, still. On TV and online. If you were on the Sun-Times home page Sunday, nothing about Flight 370. Ditto for the New York Times. CBS News. Fox had it as a tiny bullet, last under “World.”
     CNN? Top “DEVELOPING STORY.” “Official: Black boxes crucial to solving mystery.” (Really? Ya think?)
     Five weeks after 9/11, the World Trade Center attacks weren’t being given this kind of blanket continuous coverage.
     Why are they doing this? CNN’s ratings doubled. Because there is an addictive quality to news, to important stories breaking. I remember, when the news did cool down after 9/11, when new, jarring information stopped coming and we returned to a kind of normalcy, there was a strange letdown. I didn’t want new terrorist attacks, but rather missed the adrenalin rush of drama all the time. What CNN is doing is mimicking the iconography of important news occurring now — the music and the logos and the phrases — without having anything new to relate. (That’s “Chicagoland’s” main problem: no interesting new facts).
     It can’t be sustainable. You can only fool people for so long. At what point will even the most eager, tell-us-more-now viewer figure out, no thanks to CNN’s foray into performance art, that no new news is coming (“new news” as opposed to “CNN news). No new news about Flight 370 might ever be coming, and they can tune into another station (The New York Times actually suggested viewers seeking a variety of stories try Al Jazeera). Should anything develop, that station will tell them too.
     There is a price to pandering. All those in the media have is their reputation; otherwise, you can get information anywhere. Every organization does silly stuff to pump up its audience — the Sun-Times runs two astrology columns. But when silly takes over, you stop being a news outlet. Eventually CNN’s ratings will drop back to usual, and only the blot will remain. Perhaps then it’ll try to inflate another story into a new Flight 370. Viewers will realize, “Oh, they’re not telling us the news. They’re creating a little Theater of Exaggeration, trying to fool us.” Of course, that works for Fox, so maybe this isn’t an aberration. Maybe it’s the future.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Passover is a backward kind of holiday

     I might be the only newspaper columnist in America who writes regularly about being Jewish. I do it because it's part of my life, and I don't see a reason not to. Those who don't, well, they'd have to answer as to why — indifferent, I would guess, or ashamed.  Thus I've written a bit over the years about Passover which begins Monday evening.

 I like this snippet, from six years ago:

     Passover is a backward kind of holiday. It begins with the highlight, the Seder meal, then lingers on for a weeklong appendix of mundane observance. It's as if Easter were followed by Lent.
     Not eating bread -- in solidarity with our forefathers who fled Egypt — isn't the most austere religious regimen in the world. But it can be a challenge for the kiddies. Lunch is a big deal in public school — it breaks the torpor of the day and is a source of status among your peers.
     I  still remember unfolding my ominously flat square of tinfoil, to reveal a crushed matzo and bologna sandwich, and gazing tentatively around to see how this bit of ethnic strangeness was being received. And we wonder why Jews become agnostics.
     My older boy was going out to dinner Tuesday with a buddy's family, and that morning at breakfast my wife cheerily inquired whether he wanted some matzo to take with him to the restaurant. His eyes widened slightly as he said no thanks.
     Smelling fear like a dog, I zeroed in.
     "Good idea hon," I said. "Because they might not serve it."
     I turned to him, beaming obliviousness.
     "I have just the bag you can put it in. It says 'MY PASSOVER MATZO' on it, with a picture of a pony. It hangs on a string around your neck."
     Cruel, I know. But ours is a complex tradition, and eating crumbly crackers for a week in spring is just the start of it.
     —originally published in the Sun-Times, April 25, 2008

And this, from 16 years ago, sums it up:

     Like a lot of people, I had just enough religious training to make me feel guilty. I learned about all the rituals I don't practice, the prayers I don't say, the beliefs I don't hold.
     I might wish it were otherwise -- people who carry strong faiths and follow them seem so secure, so confident when pointing out the shortcomings of their inferiors. It would be nice to be like that.
     But you have to dance with who brung ya. You can't choose your upbringing. My folks gave me religious training because they felt they were supposed to. The central religious memory I have of my father is him sitting out in the synagogue lobby, with the newspaper on his lap, because he couldn't bring himself to go inside and endure the service.
     Now I'm the same way. I inherited not the proceedings inside, but the lukewarm obligation with which they were delivered. That's what happens.
     As if to cap it off, as soon as their children grew up, my parents stopped practicing entirely. I picture them spreading their arms and grinning broadly. "Ha, ha -- fooled you!" Sure did.
     Every once in a while I'll meet some deeply religious person who'll try to persuade me to plunge into the clockwork details of my faith. But I just smile and shake my head, as if someone from Dublin were trying to talk me into being Irish. It isn't that the route is unappealing, but I can't do it without fakery. Faith is not something you learn, it's something you acquire. I missed that train long ago.
     Except this Friday, which you may know is the start of Passover. In my view, Passover is the highlight of Judaism. Much attention is given to the High Holidays — the Day of Atonement and the New Year in the fall. But for me, those are like April 15, Tax Day. Something you do because you have to. You're in trouble if you don't.
     Passover, more than anything else in the religion, I do because I really want to. No pretending necessary.
      I'm tempted, in my cynical way, to ascribe its allure to the food piled on at the Passover meal, the Seder. And the typical lineup for a Passover Seder does read like the greatest hits of Jewish cooking: chopped liver, matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, kosher chicken, macaroons, those sugar-fruit-slices-that-you-never-otherwise-could-indulge-yourself-enough-to-put-into-your-mouth. There's also the wine, and the warm companionship of my family (well, technically my wife's family, which is my family now.    My original family is off sulking in various cities around the country; I couldn't drag them to the Seder with a winch and a chain).
     But there's more to it than that. You can eat well any time. The Seder -- the word means "order" -- is like a play, unspooling the story of the flight from Egypt.
     Now, there are a lot of silly, inconsequential things in the Bible -- lists of insects and rules relating how to take a bath -- but the Exodus from Egypt is not one of them. It's a grand, magnificent story that reverberates in every single person's life, particularly when told at a Seder, which stresses that this is not some dusty, irrelevant happenstance that we're all forced to recount before we can eat, but something that happened to each person sitting there. "You were a slave; now you're free."
     That makes sense to me. I can understand it and, each year, appreciate it anew. A nice double-pump meaning: first, historical. These people really fled across the desert so that we could be here, so that the world wouldn't be formed entirely out of Egyptian theocracy and Babylonian excess, but would have . . . dare I say it? . . . the spirit of God in it.
     And second, personal. Everybody is a slave to something, everybody strains against their chains and fights to free themselves. It's a great thing. Religion that means something. And good food, too.
    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 7, 1998

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sixty years ago, parents prayed for vaccines...

Iron lung, International Museum of Surgical Science, Chicago

    This started as a column about the 60th anniversary of the Salk vaccine trial — I figured, a chance to tell a gripping medical story that the average reader would know nothing about. Then the city desk asked if I could make it newsier, to run as a Sunday news feature, and, agreeable fellow that I am, I said, "Sure." Doing my due diligence, I phoned the city, county and state boards of health, plus the state and city school boards. And while I was at it, I thought I would invite Jenny McCarthy to re-think her stand on vaccines, since it has been a number of years since she came out strongly against them, and we work for the same place. Collegiality. She decided, since she had so much to say, that rather than give a comment to me, she would write her own column explaining her position. That column, last time I looked, had almost a thousand "likes," while this story, which prompted it, had about 40. There's the public for you. 

    The sickness came in the spring, with the warm weather. It struck children, who would flock outside and catch it from each other’s unwashed hands. There was no known prevention beyond washing those dirty hands and avoiding public places, especially swimming pools. There was no cure.
     Most who got sick got better. Others were left with a limp, a withered leg, or unable to walk altogether, or paralyzed or unable to breathe on their own. The disease came on very quickly: A child could wake up with a headache and be dead by supper. Or consigned to a life of braces. Or trapped in an iron lung.
     The sickness was poliomyelitis, polio for short; 1952 was the worst year ever: 57,000 cases in the United States. In one week in July, 11 of the 14 Thiel children of Mapleton, Iowa, got sick. That September, four of six children in a family in Milwaukee caught a particularly virulent strain of polio and quickly died, one after another.
     That year Chicago saw 1,200 cases.
     “It was just so scary,” said Kurt Sipolski, 67, who contracted polio as a 2-year-old in Streator in 1948, and wore a brace for years, remembering how his mother struggled to help him recover. Parents rang doorbells for the March of Dimes to fund its private search for a cure — the government, worried about socialized medicine, kept its hands off medical research.
     But medical science already had the answer. Dr. Jonas Salk, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, and his team found a vaccine. But first they had to prove it worked, through tests, trying to ignore a public demanding it now.
     As opposed to the public view today. With the horrors vanquished by vaccines — not only polio, but scarlet fever, whooping cough, measles, mumps, smallpox, a catalog of plagues — now consigned to history or distant corners of the globe, parents are free to obsess instead on the infinitesimal risks that have always been associated with vaccines, or imagine larger ones, such as autism, which has no link to vaccines other than a single bogus, repudiated English study. Based on hearsay, these parents spurn the greatest engine ever devised for avoiding disease.
     "I don't vaccinate 'em," said Julio DiVito, 47, of Elmwood Park, referring to his two children, 11 and 9. "Because they're unproven. A lot of this is unproven. It proves nothing. I don't worry that anything will happen."
     Sixty years ago, in April 1954, thousands of doctors, nurses, principals, teachers, mothers and other volunteers banded together in what is still the largest medical experiment in U.S. history: to test the Salk vaccine. The parents of 1,349,135 children offered them up in a blind trial. Half got the cherry-red vaccine, the rest a placebo or nothing.
    There were 244 test areas around the country, two near Chicago. In DuPage County, most first-, second- and third-graders participated, as did thousands of children in Peoria.
     The test was almost scuttled. Then, as now, some viewed vaccines with suspicion. Just before the test began, Walter Winchell, an incendiary radio broadcaster, went on the air and hinted that the vaccine "may be a killer" and that authorities were stockpiling "little white coffins;" the next week, 150,000 children dropped out of the test.
     Salk, who had tested the drug on himself, his wife and his three sons, pushed ahead.
     On April 26, 1954, 6-year-old Randy Kerr of McLean, Va., offered his left arm for the first injection. "I could hardly feel it," he said later.
     The trial continued through the spring and summer. Hundreds of the children in the study died— from accidents, cancer and polio. The question was, were the kids dying of polio the same ones who got the vaccine? Did it work?
     The Illinois Department of Health reports that 97 percent of schoolchildren in the state receive their vaccinations, which means about 70,000 out of 2.3 million students don't.
     "We'd like to do better," said Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, noting that we are at a "critical balance" when it comes to immunization.
     He blamed schools that are supposed to bar unvaccinated students without religious or medical exemptions but instead wave them in so as not to lose federal funds.
     "From a public health standpoint, we really want to see schools enforce this," he said. "One unvaccinated kid puts everybody at risk."
     There are indications we aren't keeping track of how low vaccination rates are.
     In 2012, Illinois had its worst year for whooping cough in 62 years: more than 2,000 cases.
     In Canada, medical authorities estimate as many as 20 percent of new parents delay or skip vaccinations.
     "What we're seeing is outbreaks of disease, a lot of disease among people who have not been vaccinated," said Dr. Julie Morita, medical director of immunization programs for Chicago. She called vaccines "a victim of their own success."
     "We've gotten rid of so many of these diseases, we don't remember how bad they were or how serious," she said. "There is a lot of misconception."
     Crunching the numbers from the 1954 test took months, tabulated by hand at the University of Michigan and using another new technology, a "decimal, drum memory machine" that IBM had built in Detroit.
     Pressed to offer a date for an announcement, the Michigan team chose April 12, 1955, the 10th anniversary of the death of the most famous polio patient of all, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
     The meeting room was packed. University officials had to stand on a table and throw handfuls of the press release into the scrum of newsmen who went at them "like hungry dogs." It began, "The vaccine works. It is safe, effective and potent."
     People compared the resulting hoopla to V-J Day — the news was read in factories and schools. Church bells rang.
     "SALK POLIO VACCINE PROVED A SUCCESS!" the Sun-Times trumpeted across its front page.
     Still, the path was not smooth. A California pharmaceutical company, Cutter, produced a spoiled vaccine, which instead of preventing polio caused it in several cities, including Chicago, in the summer of 1955. Even when prepared properly, the vaccine wasn't universally taken and didn't always work — it didn't protect everyone who took it — and Chicago had another outbreak in 1956 with hundreds of cases and a dozen deaths.
     But the overall success was undeniable. There were 38,476 new U.S. polio cases in 1954. In 1961, there were 1,312. It kept dwindling. The U.S. has been polio free since 1979, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last month India announced that, having not found a case in the past three years, polio is now eradicated there.
     More good news: The anti-vaccine movement is on the wane.
     "The pendulum has swung," Morita said. "Parents are having a better understanding of the safety and benefits. The vast majority of people see the efficacy of vaccine."
     Dr. Anita Chandra-Puri, a pediatrician with Northwestern Memorial Hospital, won't accept children as patients if their parents don't have them vaccinated.
     "It's amazing, the disconnect," she said. "When their child has a fever, they trust me. Why not trust me here? A lot of these parents [who spurn vaccines] are very educated folks, passionate about what they believe. So are we. We're trying to do everything safe and right for these children.
     "Vaccines have done an amazing job, been proven safe, effective, cost-effective," she said. "People have become complacent with what vaccines have done. They don't think illness exists anymore."
     Hasbrouck said, "They don't see the consequences of not being vaccinated, the bad things that happen. The paralyzed limbs from polio. The memory of it all is faded. Now folks see it almost as an inconvenience."
     "That's why it's so terribly important for people to remember these anniversaries," said Kurt Sipolski, who eventually recovered from his polio. "Because they have no idea what it was like."

Saturday, April 12, 2014

My grandma

     My mother and I talk on the telephone several times a week. A few days back, she mentioned that Friday, April 11, is the 30th anniversary of her mother's death.
    Which got me thinking: "I should write something about Grandma Sarah." That was the first thought, anyway. The second thought, arriving hard on its heels, panting, as if worried it would be too late to stop something embarrassing from happening, was this: Don't do it. Writing about grandmas is a fraught endeavor, best left to amateurs. What subject is more prone to schmaltz than one's grandmother? How many buckets of ink, how many pixels, have been slathered on the subject by writers less mediocre than I? Has anyone, in fact, in the wide swoop of literature ever written anything good about their grandmother? She loved us. There's nothing more to say.
     Back away slowly from grandma and nobody gets hurt.
     Which I was about to do. When a third thought, so far sitting in the audience, arms crossed, scowling, shot up its hand, waited then, when called upon, identified itself: "Too timid to write about his own grandmother."
     Fuck no. Never. Better to be bayoneted on the field than expire of fear cowering behind the battlement. That's not our way.
     Sarah Bramson was a tiny, birdlike woman. She was trim, put together. I never saw her sloppy or disheveled or anything other than ready to go. She was a professional woman. She worked in the May Company department store in Cleveland, a salesclerk—we were all proud of that. It was a sign of respectability. Plus there was the 20 percent employee discount, proof that we were not only an industrious family, but insiders, connected. We all benefited. I remember being, oh, 21, tucked into the back of my grandmother's blue Chevy Citation, with her and my mother, on an outing to the department store to purchase a Calvin Klein bomber jacket for me, the discount taking off a bit of the sting. I loved that jacket.
     She sang, with the Jewish Singing Society, the played poker and mahjong. She had cronies who would try to fix me up with their granddaughters. When I was small, she would stack the deck on our excited greetings by keeping Hershey's bars in her purse. Our grandma AND chocolate! What's not to love?
     She was the center of her world. My mother has written a lot of poetry, but the one sentence she wrote that really nailed her subject was the opening line of a poem about her mother: "She achieved the fame we all seek." Yes, exactly.  She was the sun in our solar system.
     Yet she was part of a matched bookend set with my Grandpa Irv, who was quiet and Polish and smoked and drank Old Grand Dad and popped Luden's for his ravaged throat. If there was an edge of vague menace to him — he would give my mother "a licking" when she was young — there was the story of him chasing her down the street, belt in hand. There was the implication I could get one too, if I didn't watch myself. I watched myself.
     They lived together on the East Side of Cleveland, in Cleveland Heights, where my mother grew up. I was 22 before I ate a Thanksgiving dinner that she hadn't made.  She baked — "garbage cake" is what I recall, a pastry roll with whatever was around the kitchen tucked inside (hence the "garbage") -- jam and raisins and walnuts and cinnamon and apples. I'd happily pay $100 to eat a slice now. There's no recipe. My mother has tried to make the dough, many times. Couldn't do it.
    My grandfather died in 1981. He was ailing, but robust, and it took us by surprise. He took ill having lunch with my mother, and was gone in a couple hours. My grandmother wanted to climb into the grave. Then she did something that shocked us. She recovered, fast, and was living, doing things. She had a gentleman friend, Dave. She was Blanche DuBois, only Jewish and in her 70s and in Cleveland.
     Then she died too. Also in a day.  Good for her, bad for us. Her death was worse, 30 years ago Friday, because we didn't have her to worry about. We didn't have anyone to worry about. Only us, and what were we now? It was over. My mother's extended family never gathered together in the same room after her funeral. My wedding, maybe, but then that was it. What would be the point? Half of us didn't even like each other. She had been the glue. The house was shut down, her possessions scattered. I took a photo of my grandfather as a young man, and a compact she bought on her honeymoon, at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago.
     I only remember one thing my Grandma Sarah ever said to me — and grandparents, this might be a hint to choose your words carefully. There had been an episode of "The Price is Right" — she and my grandpa loved to watch "The Price is Right." A woman had said, during the little pre-game interview they do, that she had worked as a dresser in Hollywood in the 1930s, and the host asked her if she had any regrets from the experience and she said, according to my grandmother, why yes, that Clark Gable had asked her to sleep with him but she had refused.
    "Of course she should regret it; the woman's a fool," my grandmother snapped, her eyes hard. But then a soft look came over her. "I would have said, 'Just let me get my clothes off."
     To which I, maybe 19, replied, "Grandma!" But I always cherished that, it was who she was, a romantic, a dame. She had aspired for better things for herself — she cried, my mother always said, to see the house on Rossmoor. It was so small. A person such as herself deserved a better house. But she lived in it for 35 years. She was smart though, and followed things — she subscribed to The Reader's Digest, so the best of news and writing would be delivered monthly to her door. I'd be embarrassed to touch it in any other setting, but a visit to her house entitled me to a happy half hour lapping up its bowl of predigested pabulum.
     There is another memory, oddly tied to my post Thursday mentioning the Eurythmics. A high school buddy of mine, Jimmy Armstrong, had a band, The Pony Boys, and were playing at the Agora in Cleveland in 1984. The Agora was a sort of music hall bar in Cleveland. He asked me to come see them and, being a supportive kind of guy, I agreed. But the Agora is on the East Side and I figured, if I'm there late, rather than schlep the hour back to Berea, I'd just crash at my grandmother's house. She was delighted to have me. I had never done it before.
     His band I've completely forgotten. But Annie Lennox — turned out the Pony Boys were opening for the Eurythmics — had short, carrot-colored hair and played the flute. During "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)" she stuck the microphone into the audience, right into my face, and not only did I sing a verse, but slowly, and very gingerly, I reached out, with two fingers, and touched her hand which, at 23 years old, was something.
     Thus, the next morning I woke up in my grandmother's house. At breakfast, the strongest memory I have of my grandmother, a happy woman in a pink dressing down setting a plate heaped with scrambled eggs in front of me, so happy her grandson is right here, telling her about his big night.
     The next time I was in the house and she was dead and I was looking at everything with flat sorrow, for the last time. On the mantle, by the bookshelves lined with volumes of Reader's Digest Condensed Books, there was a newspaper clipping and a desiccated bunch of flowers. The clipping was a photo of myself and Edie—she never met my future wife, but she saw her, because the Tribune took our picture, backstage at the ballet, identifying us, incorrectly (The Tribune regrets the error) as "balletomanes," lovers of ballet, when what we were in fact were young people who had scored free tickets. No matter. Years later I was glad she had at least seen Edie's picture. Next to the clipping, the dried flowers, and I went to read the card, still attached. They were the flowers I had sent, months before, to thank her for putting me up for the night I went to the Agora. She had kept them there, in their cheap white porcelain FTD vase, even though they had drooped, died, then shriveled up. She hadn't been able to throw them away. Heartbreaking. I was both relieved I had sent them and sorry that over the years I hadn't sent more.

Friday, April 11, 2014

You? You can pay tax. But LaSalle Street? Against the law...

     Two utterly true, impossible-to-argue generalizations about people: a) they like to insist they are right about everything; b) they often are wrong.
     Notice a conflict? There is nothing you can do about b); try not to be mistaken, but it still happens. But a) can be worked with, and I find if you readily accept errors as they occur, you’re way ahead of the game.
     Thus when Tom Donovan called Wednesday to say, in essence, that my column on the idea of a financial transaction tax overlooked a key point, I was not irked. I was not shamed. I was glad; I had tried to figure out pensions, absorbing a range of opinions from the mayor’s office to the Chicago Teachers Union. But I am not the Jedi Council and certainly was interested in what the former president of the Chicago Board of Trade had to say. Donovan started by comforting me: I am not alone.
     “What people either don’t know or tend to forget is: Everybody talks about a transaction tax — aldermen keep raising this — but I passed a law prohibiting a transaction tax from ever being enacted,” he said.
     Donovan happened to have a copy of the 1980 law before him and read it to me:
     “Sec. 1: No unit of local government shall levy any tax on stock commodity or options transactions. Sec. 2: No home rule unit, as defined in Article VII of the Illinois Constitution, shall have the power to change, alter or amend in any way the provision . . . ”
     OK then. Why did you pass the law?
     “The reason I did it was was to protect the exchanges from the city ever taxing them, naturally," he replied. "We were in a competitive environment, we were building buildings and I wanted our members to feel safe and secure, not subject to taxes by the city of Chicago. So I pushed through this piece of legislation."
So such a tax is impossible?
     "As much as [CTU's] Karen Lewis talks about it, you'd have to go to Springfield and change the law, which they won't be able to do."
     I've known Donovan for years and like and respect him, and felt flattered by his candor — "which they won't be able to do" has a whiff of the iron scent wafting off Michael Madigan's "Nothing-happens-that-we-don't-foreordain" way that Illinois government is run, and has been run, for years. Money always wins. Still, with a representative of the usually faceless world of Big Finance on the line, I had to ask, in my piping plebeian voice: why not? Why shouldn't brokers and bankers toss a penny in the till when they make a transaction? I pay tax when I buy a stick of gum.
     "You may pay tax on a stick of gum, but you don't pay tax on your job," Donovan said. "Markets are very competitive and price is a factor. We were always able to make that argument. I won that argument in Washington for 20 years. I was able to get that passed, my first year as president of the Board of Trade, that gave us the comfort and security to invest in the city of Chicago."
     One of those who kept trying to create a tax, Former Ald. Virgil Jones, called. "I put that into the council back in 1995, and it was tabled," he said.
     Well, points for trying, alderman.
     Odd. Religion inspires people to rant and be mean when crossed. But money replies with a murmur. From a lawyer at a big firm:
     "You, like many others, do not understand the mobility of money," he wrote. "If Chicago imposed a financial transactions tax, many of the transactions that take place here would likely go to other places that do not have a transactions tax. The CME itself might move. That would be expensive but is not hard to do. In my case, I have a national practice with no specific ties to Chicago. . . .
     "My firm has an office in Dallas and I have been considering moving there lately [no personal income tax]. If the State increases the income tax, I will move and it will take many people making a lot less money to replace the lost revenue. I was speaking with another of my partners who spends part of the year in Wyoming (also no personal income tax). He is likely to move there if taxes increase. Chicago, and Illinois, are nice places to live but they are not what they once were. Raising taxes further, rather than raising more revenue, will move Chicago and Illinois one step closer to Detroit."
     Ah, Detroit. Can't let that happen. You could argue that the history of Chicago is the history of rich folk fleeing, starting in the Prairie District and heading for Wyoming by way of Kenilworth.
     There is also a counterhistory of common folk trying to get a better deal than the one the powerful force upon them and call fair. When does that dynamic come into play?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Talking music with the kids

     The newspaper has a Starbucks machine on the 10th floor, plus a big red soda machine, and cereal, candy and ice cream bars, not to mention fruit and juice and varieties of almond milk in a cooler. After I get the column going, I like to pop up there for coffee, fuel for the rest of the morning. 
    I've dubbed the area "Pleasure Island," not just for the candy, but for the arcade games next door. It's intended to demonstrate that we are not a stodgy analog newspaper filled with old coots like me, but a glam high tech digital business buzzing with bright young people, and we are all supposed to mingle as we caffeinate and sugar up (and beer up, during the weekly social hours, or so I hear). Most grab a bowl of Raisin Bran or a banana and run. But sometimes they do linger and talk, and I certainly don't mind joining in for a bit of a chat with my coworkers.
    Or trying to. 
    As I pumped my coffee, two guys in their early 20s and a woman about the same age were talking.
     "...it was one of three bands that are important to me," the young lady was saying solemnly as I ferried my cup of black regular over to press its lid on. "I still can't believe they're going to accept my ticket and let me in."
    They were talking about music. I like music.
     "That's a phrase I haven't heard in a long time," I mused brightly, taking a step toward them. Three heads swiveled in my direction, their faces slightly surprised, as if a chair had spoken. "The phrase, 'bands that are important to me,' that is," I elaborated.  
     I smiled, slipped a protective brown sleeve around the cup and tapped the cup top in place. "Then again, I think of the the Eurthymics as a new group," I continued. Self-deprecation—always useful in conversation. Shows I'm an easygoing sort.
     Still nothing from the trio. Maybe because the name "Eurythmics"—very big in the 1980s—meant nothing to them. Maybe it did evoke a spark of recognition, but in a bad way. Maybe my name-checking a 30-year-old group is the moral equivalent of Larry Weintraub—50ish, goatee, tattoo of an inkwell on his bicep, wrote a column where he dressed as a circus clown and dipped himself in pudding and such, dead for a decade— had burst in on a conversation me and my pals were having in 1988 about R.E.M. and U2 and Jane's Addiction  and said, "Of course, nothing can top The Dave Clark Five."
     The three young folk gamely tried to continue their conversation.
     "Where are they playing?" one guy said.
     "Lincoln Hall," she said. The concert was last night, so don't get your hopes up.
    "I saw them in a bar in Cleveland," I added, not quite willing to let my great musical moment with the Eurythmics go, impressing no one.
     Another pause. The trio sighed. Apparently this old person was still talking to them.
    "So what group is it?" I asked, so that someone would be saying something.
     "Julie Ruin" she said.
      The name meant nothing to me. All groups do nowadays. She could have said "Peg Board" or "Meg Odon." Turns out to be a group, not a person. Like Jethro Tull. We all looked at one another.
      "What kind of music?" I continued, still doing the talking thing.
     "Feminist punk."
     "Like Ani DiFranco?" I ventured, tossing out the one name of a female singer I knew who had a slight edge and became popular after Ronald Reagan left office ... Sort of like Larry suggesting Brenda Lee when the conversation shifted to 1980s female singers.
      "With a harder edge," she said.
      "Sort of a female Big Black?" I continued, grabbing at an edgy group, forgetting it was another band that's 30 years old. Actually even older.
      "Yeah," she said, fleeing, before I could deploy the sentence forming in my head, "And the only reason I know who Big Black were is because I went to college with Steve Albini." She didn't quite break into a trot, not in actuality, but she might as well have.
      I took my coffee and shambled toward the escalator, a little more stooped than when I had shuffled in. Julie Ruin is a Brooklyn band. I would define it as the type of music that appeals to people who haven't listened to much music, but what do I know? You can decide for yourself. I'm going to have to stop this talking to young people business. It frightens them and saddens me.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Trying to defuse the pension time bomb

      It hurts to have your pension cut. Trust me on that; I know of what I speak.
     In 2009, when Jim Tyree bought the paper, the deal he offered was: the union loses its right to seniority and takes a pay cut, and the company stops funding our pensions.
     What made the union vote to swallow that bitter pill was the alternative: If we didn’t accept it, Tyree promised, he wouldn’t buy the paper and it would go out of business. The only question was, was he serious?
     After exploring the subject from all angles, the honest answer seemed to be yes. So we took the deal.
     In the past five years, I have had no cause to regret that decision. I’m glad there is a Sun-Times and glad that I work here, and while I am not glad that my pension was frozen five years ago, it’s better than nothing. Should I someday actually get a pension check for any amount, I’ll be glad for that too, not to mention surprised.
     The situation facing city workers is neither so dire nor so clear cut. They don’t risk losing their jobs, not immediately anyway. They aren’t even facing pension cuts — their pensions can’t be cut, by law. The bill passed Tuesday in the Illinois House only scales back future increases in the labor and municipal funds, two of four pension plans the city funds. No matter. From the union perspective, promises were made.
     In an ideal world.
     In the real world, what happened is that Rich Daley gave away the ranch. The parking meter fiasco is small change compared to the pension disaster where, if the city keeps its obligations, Chicago will be hollowed out. The $600 million the city legally must contribute next year looms. Something has to happen, because if it doesn’t, Chicago becomes, in essence, an elaborate pension plan that also puts out fires.
     And then we become Detroit.
     So Mayor Rahm Emanuel is probing, looking for revenue, hoping to pry more money from real estate taxes, the standard mechanism to pay for city pensions.
     As he does, something keeps echoing in my brain — not the most economically savvy brain, I should point out — that Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, suggested to me in November. We were talking about schools, but it might as well have been about funding pensions.
     “So raise taxes on the rich guys,” she said. “Do the financial transaction tax. Do something. Why is New York not in the kind of mess, financially? Why is that? You think about it, New York has Wall Street, those guys actually do pay their fair share.”
     The mayor’s financial brain trust points out that while New York does have a financial transactions tax, so many investors fled that now it reimburses them 100 percent.
     While there isn’t any exodus of Chicago companies — the mayor regularly shows off new corporate headquarters — the population is shrinking: 150,000 people lost over the past decade. Does not real estate tax affect that trend, in a bad way? Again, Lewis:
     “We have the CME. We have the Board of Trade. These guys are getting away with highway robbery. Those are the people [Rahm] respects and cares about. Because when you say we have to make hard choices, hard choices are not closing down schools in poor black neighborhoods. That’s not a hard choice. That’s an easy choice. A hard choice is going to the CME and saying you guys are going to have to put in a financial transaction tax. The city needs the money. That’s a very hard discussion. That’s a hard choice, and if you were really a good mayor, that’s where you would go. You would say, ‘Look guys, I know you like every single penny and more and blah blah blah. But guess what? You can’t even spend it all, you can’t spend this money. Let’s do the right thing, make the schools good, c’mon, 10 cents a trade, whatever. You guys aren’t really going to notice that. Let’s do that.’ ”
     I don’t want to go all Occupy Chicago on you, but that made sense to me. If this is a citywide problem, it should have a citywide solution. We won’t solve it on the back of business — nobody is suggesting that. But doesn’t business benefit from cops? From firefighters? From having roads and a nice city, run and maintained by hardworking city employees? Spread the pain around. At least appear to spread the pain around.
     Because there is a lot of pain to spread: $32 billion in unfunded pension obligations. The city’s entire operating budget for eight years.
     If it were an atomic bomb sitting in the middle of Daley Plaza, with one of those big red LED readouts ticking down the seconds, we’d figure something out. Quickly.