Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Unexpected circumstances have brought memories of my late younger brother, Rex, into my life again. He drowned a little over two years ago—and I was surprised to find how distressed I was (and remain).

I say ‘surprised’ because we weren’t close. Indeed, for much of his life he was actively hostile.

He craved to be “the head of the family” and strongly resented the fact that I had been born first.

Not something I had planned!

Since there were twelve of us siblings in all, he could have had a veritable cricket team to captain if I hadn’t been in the way. Actually, he would have had to dispose of my sister, Maxine, as well, since he was third in line—but her existence did not seem to grate on him. She was a girl, after all. Those were very different days.

His jealousy could have led to serious trouble except that I was away at boarding-school for much of the time, and when I was home on vacation, we moved in almost entirely different circles. Also, I was four years older, so I was taller, and stronger, for much of our childhood.

Then came the day when he grew taller still and decided to challenge me. He wasn’t just taller—he was fit and extremely strong.

We had a long and truly epic fight which I might well have lost except that I was a student of unarmed combat—albeit mostly learned from books. That said, I was reluctant to use it because I was quite aware of the consequences. A couple of years earlier I had thrown someone, who had taken a swing at me, over my head—and then, as he rose rather groggily, I had hit him in the throat with my extended fingers. He went blue-ish and nearly died—and thereafter I tended to stay out of fights. They were one thing in books and movies; but, in real life, it was alarmingly easy for matters to get out of hand.

In this case, I had had little choice in the matter, and finally resorted to a blow—not in the Marquis of Queensbury boxing rules--which both ended that fight, and left Rex sufficiently wary not to try for a re-match. I was much relieved, because he kept on growing, and would probably have beaten me next time.

Also, we had smashed a valuable Hogarth print as we rammed each other against the corridor walls in the course of our fight, and I didn’t fancy encountering the wrath of my stepfather if we broke a second one. He, my much loved step-father, Alfred, had been furious. Not only had the print been an original, but so had the frame and glass. It was irreplaceable.

Rex could be surly, vindictive, and violent to the point of being dangerous—but  he could also be utterly charming; and, by all accounts could be a very good friend—and when he was in form, could be excellent company. In fact, despite the bad blood between us, there were good times too.

After he died, I was berated by a good friend of his—Hilary Conde Mark (see photo) whom I had never met (sad to say)—for not writing a tribute to Rex.

I explained that it had been a year of death as far I was concerned—a series of people I was close to had died—and I just hadn’t felt up to it. She apologized with considerably grace, and talked about how she had met Rex and that she had become something of a confidant over the years—though she had never been a lover.

I found her warm of heart, generous of spirit and absolutely captivating (and, at that time I had no idea what she looked like).

Ye gods? A woman to die for? Much more, I suspect.

Truthful? Let’s not go there. How can one tell—especially from a distance. But, I would like to think so.

Given Rex’s success with women—he was good-looking, with a terrific smile and a keen sense of humor, that was something of a surprise—but he showed good judgment in recognizing that the best intimacy with an attractive woman is not always physical (not that I thought that back then—and not that I’m entirely sure of it now).

I then learned that the Hilary—whom I have still never met—was a fellow author, and, by all accounts, a very good one. ‘Exceptional’ may well be the correct word. Her Amazon reviews give her 5 out of 5 stars. The following is from one.

I was pleasantly surprised when I started reading the book. To have Talleyrand narrate the story of Napoleon and Bernadotte was a touch of genius. It combines three very different personalities who have to relate to each other for the good of their country. I love a good physiological biography and this one definitely is. Never boring, very fluid. I'm just sorry that she didn't include the escape from Elba and the battle of Waterloo. But, as my husbands says, it keeps you wanting for more. I just wonder if it is enough material for a second book. I enjoyed it immensely.

If you judge people by their friends, there was a great deal more to Rex than I appreciated when he was alive.

Now go and read Hilary’s books.

As for Rex, wherever you are, all I can say is: You chose your champion well.

But—wait for it—Hilary wasn’t Rex’s only champion. In January 2013, I received the following e-mail via LinkedIn from William Kevan McNeill:

Subject: Rex

Good Day Victor,
We haven't met but I think I have met most of your family through the years including your amazing mother several times, the first being in 1978/9. Before meeting her Rex told me if I laughed I would be fired!!!!! I met Rex when I was 13 or 14 on the Isle of Bute. As soon as I left school at 16 he gave me a full time job.
Rex saw an ability in me and gave me the tools to perfect it!!! for that I will always be grateful unfortunately as I got older we grew apart although I still done little jobs for him until he died we had some great fun together!! We also had several serious fights, It was a love hate relationship but we always made up in the end, I am glad that I had the time to share a dram and a laugh with him two weeks before he died, He was a big part of my life and I miss him terribly. It is a great shame he didn’t keep a diary as his life would be a good yarn. I have read some of your writings on your web about you and your mother in pubs after theatre. I will get your books eventually. In the meantime i hope you have good health and if i can I would like to keep in touch now and again.

Best regards

Kevan McNeil..

If I write, and quote this way, I’m going to start saying I miss the SOB—and that would put both of us into deep shock. Being dead, I guess he would survive it better.

I find it hard to believe he is dead. On his worst day, he was such a vital force. I feel both disturbed and singularly saddened.


2013 was both a terrible and wonderful year as far as I’m concerned—though decidedly more wonderful than terrible. And it has ended with the kind of surprise that comes straight out of a soap opera.

I’d reveal it, but I have others to consider. Feelings and emotions are at stake (but then they normally are). All I can say is that I’m very pleased.

I was fascinated by the King Arthur stories when I was a kid. I can’t remember what book, or books, I got them from—and my focus was not on King Arthur himself—but on the knights of the Round Table, and their decidedly hazardous habit of clanking off on quests. The Green Knight came into all this somehow though I can’t recall the details. It was over 60 years ago. 

Such quests involved high risk and strange encounters—and normally were into the unknown, and did not necessarily end well—but they were high adventure, and that’s what I craved. And I guess I still do even though I have now been around long enough to know the price can be high—and that failure is commonplace.

But that misses the whole point: The adventure itself is the thing.

An adventure is an exciting or unusual experience. It may also be a bold, usually risky undertaking, with an uncertain outcome.[1] Adventures may be activities with some potential for physical danger such as skydiving, mountain climbing, river rafting or participating in extreme sports.

The term also broadly refers to any enterprise that is potentially fraught with physical, financial or psychological risk, such as a business venture, a love affair, or other major life undertakings.

Source: Wikipedia

One of the most interesting things about the Knights of the Round Table, is that although they are portrayed as a band of brothers, in the stories they almost invariably venture alone—which I guess reflects the reality of life. Fundamentally, despite family and friends, wives, lovers, children and grandchildren, you are always alone. And yet the paradox is that if you want to accomplish almost anything, you need help. In fact, I often used to think that if the knights had sallied forth in groups, they might have accomplished a great deal more—but the stories would have lost something. At heart, the best stories—and, perhaps the best adventures—are about individuals. The reason is scarcely a mystery. Despite the manifest merits of cooperation, we identify and feel as individuals.

To me, writing is the greatest adventure, and I feel endlessly lucky that I made this particular choice—or that it chose me. I have a friend who likes to say, “Work finds the man,” and I often think it may be true. Somehow, there seems to be a pattern to life which raises serious questions about free will. Do we really choose or are we chosen? I don’t profess to know the answer, but it is a question worth pondering. Its implications are fundamental.

The writing life is not only a great adventure, but I find that every day I sit down to write is an adventure in itself. It’s a journey into the unknown because you never quite know what challenges you’ll encounter, what you’ll achieve, or the degree to which you will succeed or fail. And like the Knights of the Round Table, you are venturing alone. Nobody tells you to press on. You live with high risk and the strong possibility of failure. You know you will never write quite as well as, deep down, you believe you are capable of. Regardless of your achievements, you will die not having quite succeeded. But you battle on because writing is your calling. Regardless of the other pressures on you—and there will be many—it feels like exactly the right thing to do.

The moral code of a writer dictates that, above all, a writer must write.

You are an extremely fortunate human being. You won’t have an easy life, but you’ll have an extremely satisfying one. It will be a great adventure—though it will hurt.

Endure! A knowledge of human nature and a facility with language are  fine things, but fortitude is a writer’s foremost requirement.

Happy New Year to one and all (subject to a few exceptions).







Monday, December 30, 2013


Declaration of interest—I’m an author (as you surely know) so scarcely unbiased when it comes to commenting on this scheme.

Check out the details on www.writeahouse.com


Our mission is simple: to enliven the literary arts of Detroit by renovating homes and giving them to authors, journalists, poets, aka writers. It’s like a writer-in-residence program, only in this case we're actually giving the writer the residence, forever.

Project Mission
Write-A-House (WAH) is a Detroit based organization that seeks to teach and support trade crafts and literary creativity. Our key tactic involves leveraging the easy availability of distressed housing in order to promote vocational education, home ownership, neighborhood stabilization, and creative arts. In short, WAH will work to support a more vibrant literary arts community that lives at a grassroots level and helps Detroit’s neighborhoods. 

Project Mission

Write-A-House (WAH) is a Detroit based organization that seeks to teach and support trade crafts and literary creativity. Our key tactic involves leveraging the easy availability of distressed housing in order to promote vocational education, home ownership, neighborhood stabilization, and creative arts. In short, WAH will work to support a more vibrant literary arts community that lives at a grassroots level and helps Detroit’s neighborhoods.

Project Goal

WAH seeks to (1) educate youth on carpentry and building skills (2) use those skills to renovate Detroit city homes and (3) award those homes to writers. Like any literary community, writers will be awarded based on their writing and their desire to be here. WAH seeks to support low-income writers by awarding at least three homes each year. We will also publish a journal of arts and creative non-fiction to document the process, work to determine a sustainable and green approach to home renovation, and connect writers to support a more vibrant literary community in Detroit. Our long, long term goal involves building a literary colony in Detroit, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Project Outcome

Through vocational training, we are giving kids job skills that will provide them with a self-sustaining future. Through home renovation, we are creating more stable and positive neighborhoods. Through our support of writers, we are creating a more vibrant literary arts scene in Detroit. And we’re giving writers homes.

Sunday, December 29, 2013


Most of us lack both the inclination and time to investigate the U.S. economy in fine detail (if at all)—and then there are the realities that the economy is both vast and complex. Accordingly, we go about our business, and only concern ourselves with such aspects of our economy as are directly relevant—if, indeed, we go that far.

The word ‘economics’ tends to make eyes glaze over and much of the reporting on it is superficial. Considerable information is out there, but tracking it down and linking the dots is not for the faint of heart—and it is a rare corporation that is not obsessively secretive. And then there is that permanent barrage of propaganda—a regular bodyguard of lies, distraction, consumerism and confusion—which constitutes an omnipresent backdrop to our daily existence.

That situation is an ideal environment for special interests to structure aspects of the economy to their particular advantage. After all, it is much easier to conspire than to compete—and one of the paradoxes of unfettered capitalism—supposedly prospering in a climate of perfect competition—is that it naturally seems to gravitate towards monopoly or de facto monopoly. In addition, business works very hard to influence the regulatory climate to its advantage.

In short, a free market is the last thing most businesses—particularly large businesses--want. They want the deck to be stacked in their favor and have become very good at achieving that happy state. In fact, restraint of trade is so common that most of us regard it as normal.

Why not! After all—it is normal in the U.S.. However, the end result is not a ‘Free Market Economy.’ Essentially, market sector after market sector is structured to restrict competition and to drive prices up. Conspiracy, secrecy, and restraint of trade rarely work to the advantage of the consumer.

U.S. business seems to be particularly adroit at using legislation to its advantage. Whereas the EU regularly prosecutes companies which it feels have stepped out of line—and imposes significant penalties—U.S. government, though it has broadly similar laws on the books, certainly does not enforce them with the same vigor. Under Republican administrations, it rarely enforces them at all.

Examples of restraint of trade are legion. For instance, the number of doctors is kept restricted in all kinds of ways, and though nurse practitioners could do much the same job as primary care physicians, (at much lower cost) they are largely prevented from doing so.

Similarly (though it is hard to believe) the supply of lawyers is kept restricted (which keeps fees up).

A completely egregious example of the free market not being allowed to function concerns the U.S. government being forbidden by legislation from negotiating down the prices of the drugs purchased under the Bush Medicare Modernization Act.

One of my favorite examples of restraint of trade concerns car dealerships. Research shows that a majority of consumers would prefer to buy their vehicles direct from the manufacturers. It could bring the prices down significantly. They aren’t allowed to because of the dealership franchise laws which are in force in just about every state.

There is no justification for these franchise laws, but they are enshrined in the current American Business Model.

Between monopolies, de facto monopolies, and endemic restraint of trade, the concept of a Free Market Economy has little to do with the reality, but might best be considered part of the Great American Illusion.

A consistent theme in all this—part of the hijacking of the U.S. economy—is that the end result is to the advantage of a few at the expense of the many.

What we really have in the U.S. is a plutonomy. It is defined as follows:

A plutonomy is a form of capitalism that is designed to make the rich who control a nation's government and its economy—aka, the plutocrats—even richer. Cornerstone policies of plutonomies include government deregulation and reduced taxes on the rich. In order to sell the idea of plutonomy to the citizens of a democracy, the plutocrats must convince average citizens that trickle down economics will not only work, but ultimately make it possible for them to get rich, too.

Ajay Kapur, a global strategist at Citigroup, coined the term,[1] which became public knowledge on 16 October 2005 when Citigroup published a large memo defining the meaning and the scope of the term.

Yes, it is extremely hard to distinguish between a PLUTONOMY and FASCISM. Arguably, the transition point is when the alliance between Big Business and Government becomes palpable, when oppression becomes the norm, and when there is clearly one law for the rich and one law for the rest.

The failure to prosecute those responsible for the Great Recession and the evolution of a highly militarized surveillance state in the U.S. bring us a great deal closer to the reality of Fascism.

Are we there yet? We could be. Today, if or when Fascism arrives, most of us are likely to be unaware of that fact. Propaganda is now so effective that it keeps us distracted from what is actually happening. Both the Mid-terms and Presidential elections illustrate the point. It is noteworthy that there is vastly more media coverage of the horse-race aspect than the issues.

Is what we see on TV, and over the internet reality, or are we in a version of The Truman Show?



Saturday, December 28, 2013


My guess is that most of us that most of us tend to think of a hijacking as a short, sharp affair either involving violence or the threat of violence. Accordingly, you might well consider my statement from yesterday’s blog: “The U.S. economy has been legally hijacked,” as not only being over the top, but actually inaccurate.

Though I’m satisfied that the word ‘hijack’ conveys the seriousness of the situation, and can have the desired impact, I was sufficiently concerned about its accuracy to do a bit of web browsing this morning.

Lo and behold some of the definitions of ‘hijack’ in www.en.wiktionary.org

  1. To forcibly stop and seize control of some vehicle in order to rob it or to reach a destination (especially an airplane, truck or a boat).
  2. To seize control of some process or resource other than its originally intended one.

Good grief! I seem to be right on the money where the second definition is concerned. Consider me much relieved. I try not to obsess about finding the definitive word, but I do strive for clarity.

Now you might well ask why I didn’t check a dictionary before writing yesterday’s piece—and you would be right to do so. All I can say in my defense is that I was recovering from one of the most enjoyable Christmas dinners in many years—where the hospitality was unstinting and the company delightful.

‘Unstinting’ takes a little time to recover from.

Our hosts are a truly remarkable family, generous in spirit and with their hospitality. We hold different views politically, but seem to be able to bridge that particular divide. They debate without rancor and with high good humor. They are warm-hearted, socially concerned, and impressively non-judgmental. All in all, they are thoroughly marvelous people—and the icing on the cake is that they are Irish (Irish-American).

Politically, primarily I’m interested in what works. If unfettered capitalism worked—in the sense that it delivered a reasonable lifestyle for all the population—I’d be rooting for it. But the evidence is that other forms of capitalism work better—and that our current economic system is deeply flawed.

According to recent polls, many think the current economy is not performing adequately but I ‘m not sure that enough have yet transitioned to the reality that it is not just the economy, it’s the American business model—our economic system—that lies at the root of our trouble.

It’s time to keep the good, remedy the flaws, and (as much as possible)keep labels out of it. The answers are not only out there, but—in most cases—well proven.

On an entirely different matter, I have just received some rather extraordinary, but delightful, news. I’m tempted to postpone this post and write about it—but I won’t. Not yet! But, I’m very pleased.

Friday, December 27, 2013


Recently, President Obama raised the ‘Income Inequality’ issue—without advancing fresh policies to deal with a situation that has been distorting the U.S. economy for decades. Quite why it took him so long to focus on such an obvious matter of concern is a good question. He has been in office five years, and he has had his pick of professional advisers on the economy—and, indeed, on any other matter of social concern. How come this impressive array of talent didn’t raise the alarm years ago?

Could it be because many of his policies—particularly in relation to the financial sector--have, in fact, exacerbated the problem? In short—he is not a concerned onlooker. He is a player, and an exacerbater of the many factors which have led to the current situation. He is complicit.

That said, his speech is excellent—as far as it goes—but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. As is so often the case with Obama, he pulls his punches at a time when he needs to lead. He needs to learn to define the debate with brutal precision—for, if he doesn’t, his opponents will.

The phrase ‘Income Inequality’ represents a wrong choice of words—and is likely to cause the debate to be lost virtually before it is begun. Few Americans are in favor of income inequality and don’t regard it as either necessary or desirable. In fact, most of us believe in an incentive based economy where effort and talent are rewarded—and we are remarkably un-grudging of the rich. Yes, income inequality does exist, and some of it is outrageous, but it is a symptom of the problem—not the problem in itself.

So if ‘Income Inequality’ does not define the problem, what does? In fact, just so we don’t put the cart before the horse, what is the problem? Does one exist at all?

Yes, it does—and the following are just some of the symptoms. 

  • The slowest recovery from the Great Recession since the Great Depression.
  • The decline of the Middle Class.
  • The earnings decline of most Americans.
  • The persistence of long-term unemployment.
  • The increasing prevalence of low pay jobs.

So what is the root cause of all this—or are there many causes like globalization which, supposedly, nobody can really be blamed for?

In fact there is a readily detectable root cause which boils down to a systematic distortion of the ground rules that govern the U.S. economy to benefit the ultra-rich, the corporations they largely own  and control, and the many who serve them—primarily politicians, senior corporate executives, senior academics, and judges.

In effect, the U.S. economy has been hijacked to favor the few at the expense of the many. The main technique has been to pay off legislators to tilt the legal system in favor of the hijackers. In effect, control of the economy has been bought (and fairly cheaply at that). The correct word for that is ‘corruption’ but the scale of such economic violence is so extensive, I would argue that stronger language is required, and the bottom line is that our economic system has been hijacked.

Can I produce evidence to support that statement? Yes, in profusion—but the point of this piece is not to prove the case, but to consider what choice of words might best define the problem—and lead to a successful resolution.

The track record demonstrates that the Right Wing is vastly better at framing the debate than the Democrats. Well, it’s about time the Democrats learned about the critical importance of words, because this is too important a debate to lose. A situation where a small minority is getting ever richer, while the majority is seeing its earnings steadily decline, is unsustainable. A situation where low paid workers are so badly paid that they need government support is equally untenable.

I have thought about all sorts of phrases which summarize what is widely known as ‘Income Inequality.’ However, the distortions which have been deliberately inserted the economy are so widespread and so severe that using language like “The economy has been tilted to favor the rich,”—which certainly is the case—just doesn’t have the necessary punch.

Imagine the effect of Obama starting a speech with: “The U.S. economy has been legally hijacked…” followed by giving just a few clear examples.

Strong leadership accompanied by strong language is what the situation calls for. Unfortunately, Obama seems to be two-thirds politician and only one third leader—and we need the reverse.

We can but hope he will rise to the occasion.

Not all economies have been hijacked. In fact, most developed economies have handled their economies with much greater economic fairness (and effectiveness) than the U.S. has. The results—as far as the average citizen concerned—have been spectacular, and demonstrate how badly the U.S. has done—and continues to do. High growth is of scant use if virtually all the increase goes only to a few.


  • AUSTRALIA   +64%
  • DENMARK + 220%
  • FRANCE + 154%
  • GERMANY +194%
  • U.S. +0.47%

Source: What Went Wrong by George R. Tyler—a fact-filled book that is well worth reading. In it, Tyler compares the U.S. system and track record with that of others. The results speak for themselves.




Thursday, December 26, 2013



The new, completely redesigned Mac Pro

When discussing technical matters, I am normally interested, frequently fascinated, and sometimes surprised—but rarely shocked.

About twenty years ago—perhaps a little more—I was shocked rigid when a friend in the computer industry told me that computers were now as powerful as were needed, but that the software still had to catch up.

I thought then that he was nuts—and still do—because I had already come to the conclusion that power was the way to go even if one’s primary task was something as relatively undemanding (in CPU terms) as writing. Even then, when the internet was still a toddler, I could see a time when it would not be unusual to have a dozen programs (or more)running-and it was my ambition to be able to be able to switch from task to task instantly so that my focus would be entirely on my work, and not on the sputtering of the computer.

Sputtering is being polite. The dinosaur days of Windows were awful, computers were grossly under-powered, RAM was expensive and so inadequate, and hardware reliability left a great deal to be desired. We pressed on because the promise was there, but I have to say I thought it would be realized sooner. My worst case scenario was that by 2010, computers would be near instantaneous, operating systems would be stable and user friendly—and software would be relatively bug-free.

Well, clearly I was wrong—especially where the Windows  world is concerned—though my friends with Macs seem happy enough. So my general sense is that we are getting there, albeit behind my schedule. By that, I don’t mean that computers won’t need to get ever more powerful (“Speed is life,” as fighter pilots like to say), or that software development will plateau out (quite the contrary), but more that authors like me will be able to work at our respective peaks without running out of system resources, being hindered by slow hard drives—and so on.

Apple’s new Mac Pro seems like a quantum leap in that direction. I’m truly blown away by their creativity. Just for starters, for all its power, the thing is tiny! It’s just 9.9” tall and 6.6” in diameter though its specs project raw power starting off with a quad-core Intel Xeon E5 processor.

Best you check out the Mac Pro on Apple’s site, but now you know what I hope will turn up in my Christmas stocking (as and when). I rather fancy working with a truly powerful computer before checking-out.

Meanwhile I think Apple are to be congratulated for raising the bar yet again.

Happy New Year!


Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Never give up

I have experienced some bizarre Christmases in my time, not to mention mixed fortunes, but I love Christmas nonetheless. Of course, being Irish (Anglo-Irish, if you want to get technical) I tend to think of Christmas as being a roughly ten day period including New Year’s Day. I don’t believe in treating Boxing Day as a normal working day—and taking off New Years Day is little more than common sense. You need time to recover. As for the rest of the Christmas period, you don’t need an excuse—it’s Christmas!

True, I’ll almost certainly write every day during Christmas—and some might categorize that as work—but writing, as far as I am concerned, is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. In fact, it’s fun even if the subject matter is grim (as was the case yesterday).

I don’t know what possessed me to write about such a serious matter as the effect of propaganda on the U.S. on Christmas Eve, of all days, but I expect the barrage of near desperate consumerism brought it to the forefront. Then I started to try and get a grip on my ever elusive thoughts—always a challenge—and the piece just escalated.

I think it’s a screamingly important subject though few others seem to. That should scarcely surprise me. The whole point of conditioning is keep one’s victims biddable—and that we clearly are (at least in relation to the blatant corruption of our political system, the economy, and the declaration of yet more unnecessary and expensive wars).  It’s as if we are on drugs (and, of course, the sad truth is that many of us are—and legally at that).

The above cartoon comes from a consistently provocative website fabiusmaximus.com run by Fabius Maximus (who I don’t know) and some friends of mine. Anyway, their blog of December 20 2013 demonstrates that I certainly don’t have a monopoly of concern about the U.S. – not that I ever thought I had.

It starts:

How can we arouse a passion to reform America in the hearts of our neighbors?

Summary:   People usually focus on the details of reform, such as the specific policies that if enacted will reform America. But that’s the easy part of the process, and several steps down the road. Instead we should focus on the first steps, such as how to arouse Americans and motivate them to work for reform. Today we try for a different perspective on this task: how to rekindle America’s passionate love of liberty.

It ends:

The comments to these posts prove my analysis to be a dead end, similar to the results of others (e.g., Naked Capitalism, to name one of hundreds or thousands). We producing entertainment, like News at 11.

Well, given that it is Christmas Day, I’m content enough with entertainment. So I have borrowed the mouse cartoon I found on the FB site—because it absolutely fits the mood—and now I’m heading out for Christmas dinner with some remarkably nice people.

Happy Christmas






Tuesday, December 24, 2013

“AND THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE!” (If you can find it—if, indeed, you care to look—if your conditioning will let you—if you are prepared to accept it) ‘IF’ is a profoundly useful word. It does not guarantee delivery.


I’m not quite sure what age I was when I decided that a great deal of what I was told in life was untrue, but I know I was pretty young—perhaps seven or eight.

I’d had my suspicions way before that, but I didn’t consciously reach that conclusion initially. I wanted to believe that conventional wisdom was correct, if only because it was clear that life would be much easier if one went with the flow. Besides, questioning and analyzing everyone and everything—thinking, if you will—was, and remains, hard work. It was much easier to accept things whether they made sense of not—whether they seemed right or not.

If you did that, you were accepted. If you didn’t, you were “not one of us.” And you made people uncomfortable. Accordingly, the sensible thing to do—surely, the only thing to do—was to conform.

Most were clearly happy to do so. A very few of us were not.

It was not in our nature.

What were some of the things I was brought up to believe? Let me give you a taste.

  • That the British Empire was the natural order of things—and beneficial to mankind.
  • That British boarding-schools offered the best all round education.
  • That people of color were, by definition, inferior to whites.
  • That the villainous Germans had started the war for no reason at all.
  • That Ireland should have remained inside the British Empire.
  • That the Irish were inferior to the British.
  • That women should know their place and leave the leadership role to men.
  • That homosexuality was a vice, was rightly illegal, and should be condemned at every opportunity.
  • That practically everything to do with sex was a sin.
  • That only Catholics could get into heaven.
  • That it was a sin to eat fish on Fridays.

And so it went—it was a long list--and when you are in boarding school, you are a captive audience. You can’t escape such propaganda.

The word ‘propaganda’ loomed large in my consciousness from an early age. I had been born in 1944, had heard endless stories about the war, and my grandmother was heavily involved with helping refugees. That gave me plenty of people to question—and that I certainly did.

Few would talk about combat—it wasn’t the done thing in those days—but virtually all would discuss other matters like the Blitz, rationing, shortages, what they had thought about at various stages, and the Germans—and why they had done what they did. Again, and so soon after WW I (And it is worth recalling that the Germans had invaded France in 1870 as well—and in 1815. One way or another, they seemed to be a bloody-minded bunch despite all their kultur).

One matter which obsessed me was how Hitler had come to power. How could ordinary decent people elect such a monster—or were ordinary people that decent?

It’s a matter I still ponder. 

It seemed to me, exposed to his image again and again through newsreels (televisions were rare in those days) that he was a singularly unattractive figure, so I was puzzled by his appeal. I also thought he was a terrible speaker though whether I was fit to judge when still only a young child—who did not speak German—is a good question. That said, even at that age, I found Churchill compelling.

In contrast, Hitler came across like a raucous buffoon. However, he was a buffoon who was elected into office. Hitler didn’t have to seize power. It was handed to him. We tend to forget that fact—and we shouldn’t. It’s pivotal.

I saw as many newsreels as I did—often many times in a single session—because my mother liked to dump me in a newsreel cinema while going about other business. Since the newsreels were packaged with cartoons, she knew I would stay glued to my seat even if I had to watch the same program repeatedly—and in those days there were usherettes to keep an eye on things. 

What is an usherette?  These were women with dimmed flashlights who showed you to your seat and tried to keep the most dubious behavior of the audience in check. I’ll leave the details to your imagination.  At the ages we are talking about, I was entirely screen focused.

I loved the movies and newsreels in particular. They were a window on an exciting world.  I enjoyed some cartoons and tolerated others. I loved Bugs Bunny, but thought Mickey Mouse was a wimp. Popeye converted me completely to spinach. I remain addicted.

The answers I was given again and again seemed to coalesce around the word ‘propaganda’—but I was led to believe that propaganda was particularly evil and unique to the Nazis and people like Goebbels, their Minister of Propaganda. I envisaged it as a sort of malevolent ray, near impossible to resist—and Goebbels looked like a movie villain. Most of that crew did.

When I had my epiphany that I was adrift in a world where lies outnumbered the truth by a fair margin, I didn’t immediately appreciate that propaganda was practiced by all sides, and at all levels, but instead contented myself with being skeptical of the world around me, but no more.

Such an attitude still made me a difficult child to handle, and certainly limited my popularity amongst my peers—though I made some very good friends—but it helped me academically. Good teachers tend to warm to the intellectually curious, and I was blessed with some exceptionally fine teachers. True, I loathed boarding-school—I regarded it as prison—but there were trade-offs. I had access to some some sterling minds and there were the libraries.

After I became an adult—less a date than a process—I became increasingly dubious of much of what passed for a successful lifestyle and mentally rejected much of it. I learned that it was wiser to keep many of my opinions to myself—because they would be considered outright heresy—but I remember being completely appalled by the notion that one should blithely spend one’s life doing something you didn’t enjoy for money.

Good grief, your time was short and not something you could purchase.

I was unconvinced of the merits of living one’s life being dependent on the automobile, regarded commuting as a dubious practice, and increasingly began to believe that corporate power was shaping up to be as potentially dangerous as fascism and communism.

Above all, I craved time to read, think, and write—to explore intellectually. It seemed to me that the answers to many of the issues that confronted us were out there, but somehow we weren’t taking the time to look. In fact, society seemed to be structured rather like boarding school where the whole idea was to keep you either working or distracted (normally through sports), when you weren’t asleep—because  otherwise you might start thinking for yourself.

Distraction is a major component of the conditioning process—as is the constant repetition of the Big Lie combined with a constant undercurrent of fear, financial insecurity, and the threat—and use—of violence.

As I have said: remarkably like boarding school.

I still hold to the view that the answers to many societal issues are at hand. We are faced with some ‘wicked problems’ (a philosophical term, by the way) but the solutions to most of the issues which prevent a good quality of life in the U.S. lie within easy reach—and are eminently affordable. It’s just that we choose not to avail of them, largely because of ideology and its close friend, greed. Another factor that comes into play, all too often, is an attitude of  superiority and self-righteousness whereby we deny the less fortunate because they are the less fortunate—and, therefore, deserve their fate. It thrives in the South. It is rampant there.

Ideology and rational thinking have a hard time coexisting. In fact rigid adherence to a set of opinions in the absence of proof, and in defiance of the facts—though common (perhaps even normal)—is the very antithesis of rationality.

And here is the kicker. Ideology is propaganda based, and governments do not have a monopoly of propaganda.

In fact, one of the greatest propaganda victories achieved in the U.S. has been for major corporations to demonize government while at the same time:

  • Denying U.S. workers the rights enjoyed by virtually all workers in the rest of the developed world.
  • Abolishing defined pensions.
  • Shifting an increasing proportion of healthcare costs onto the workforce.
  • Both neutralizing and demonizing the unions.
  • Largely eliminating job security.
  • Diminishing the availability of well-paid jobs.
  • Exporting millions of manufacturing jobs.
  • Causing the earnings of most workers to decline.
  • Suborning Congress and government at all levels.
  • Switching the tax burden from the rich to the less well off.

It adds up to deception and hypocrisy on a scale that would have had Goebbels reeling in admiration—and it’s an ongoing program. It is in active use.

In the U.S., the evidence would seem to indicate that propaganda both works and rules. On just about every level, this is a manipulated nation. From the time you are born to the time you die, you are conditioned to follow a certain pattern of behavior by a stream of propaganda unprecedented in world history—as are the means of delivery. The message is delivered by any and all means, and we first encounter it in the womb. In a word, it is relentless, much of it advocates a consumer culture—and its factual content is untrue.

Quite how we can consider ourselves independent thinkers in the face of such a fire-hose of misrepresentation defies rational thought in itself. We hold such thoughts because we are conditioned to hold just such thoughts (regardless of evidence to the contrary). In fact, conditioning forms the basis of much of what constitutes ‘The American Way of Life.’

The current consensus is that ‘Big Government’ is the villain of the piece despite the fact that any Americans love individual programs—such as Social Security—and depend on them. This is decidedly not rational, but it’s a pervasive view nonetheless.

We would be better served if we examined who really pulls the levers of power. There, the answer is clear.

Corporate power controls the U.S. and virtually controls the government. So who controls corporate power? A relatively small number of very rich people plus their henchmen.

In a way, the structure is positively feudal with the barons standing in for the rich, the management and professional classes equating to the barons’ armed followers, and the oppressed middle class and the poor being broadly similar to the long-suffering peasantry.

But feudal society was headed by a king?

Very true. Our modern equivalent is the presidency. In both cases, executive power—whatever be the theory—was (and is) heavily constrained by the barons (whether they be feudal or corporate). 

The most disturbing manifestation of corporate power is the degree to which it controls our minds, and, thus, our behavior. It conditions how we think to a much greater extent than we are prepared to admit. We like to think of ourselves as independent thinkers in the finest American tradition.

In practice, few of us are—and all of us are influenced. In reality, most of us are socially controlled to a degree which is truly alarming. Tragically, most of us are either unaware of that fact—or just don’t care. But even if we are aware and determined to resist, we are influenced,  Some might not not be persuaded, but—I am truly ashamed to admit—we are all influenced.  Propaganda works.

We are conditioned not to care==and to respond to our national mythology—even if it has scant basis in fact.

America remains the finest country in the world, is the richest country in the world, offers the greatest economic opportunity in the world, is the most socially mobile, boasts the most prosperous Middle Class, is the most innovative, has the best healthcare system in the world and—above all—is free, and the world’s greatest democracy.

Americans are self-reliant rugged individualists who neither want nor need more than a minimum of government in their lives. And they certainly don’t need unions.

 Conditioning works. It is particularly effective at conditioning us to believe we are not conditioned—and it is positively brilliant at persuading us to vote against our own interests. We are a propagandist's dream.

“The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.”
Adolf Hitler

The fates are not without a profound sense of irony. They are presiding over a tragedy,

This is a great country—which has lost its way—which (mostly) doesn’t seem to know it..






Monday, December 23, 2013


'Quick Robin, to the AirMule!'

You can make a good case that the Israelis are the most innovative nation around these days. Hard to be sure. Innovation knows no borders. Certainly, they seem to be when it comes to the military sector—especially when you consider their limited resources. But much of what they develop has civilian application too—and such is the case where the AIRMULE from Israel’s TACTICAL ROBOTS LTD is concerned. Simply put, it is an unmanned rotary aircraft designed to carry stuff. It’s an aerial pickup-and about the same size (though lighter).

Rotary? Surely those ducted fans at its tail aren’t sufficient for it to take off and land vertically?

No, they are not. The heavy lifting (no pun intended) is actually done by shrouded blades inside the aircraft. This makes them highly efficient, quiet, and the AirMule itself capable of landing in confined spaces (430.5 square feet—which is no bigger than many domestic living-rooms.

The AirMule is made by Israel's Tactical Robotics Ltd., and can be flown either by remote control or using its own autonomous control system – there's no onboard human pilot. Among other things, it's intended for the evacuation of wounded personnel in war zones while under anti-aircraft fire.

In its current form, it weighs 770 kg (1,700 lb), can carry a payload of up to 640 kg (1,400 lb), has a potential top speed of 180 km/h (112 mph), and can reach a maximum altitude of 12,000 ft (3,658 m).

So where does the cargo go?

Your guess is as good as mine. But note the payload it can carry. 1,400lbs is a useful quantity for such a small aircraft.



Sunday, December 22, 2013


In truth, Amazon Studios were launched in 2010, but I don’t think they were taken too seriously originally. They should have been—because, as always, they moved fast.

Check out the sheer volume of material writers have submitted to Amazon Studios. I’ve highlighted it below.

Is this a competitive business or what?

Clearly, we writers are both masochists and optimists—and you can make a good case that we have a few screws loose. Alternatively, it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer courage and tenacity of the creative community.

The photo is of famed author, Michael Connelly.

Read and wonder:


Amazon Studios launched in 2010 as a new way to develop feature films and episodic series--one that's open to great ideas from creators and audiences around the world. Anyone can upload a script and will then be notified within 45 days if that script is optioned. Amazon Studios will read and review all submissions and those who choose to make their projects public may also receive feedback from the Amazon Studios community. Recently, Amazon Studios announced 11 new pilots including: kids pilots Gortimer Gibbon's Life on Normal Street, Grid Smasher, Hard-Boiled Eggheads, The Jo B. & G. Raff Show, The Maker Shack Agency and Wishenpoof!; half-hour pilots Mozart in the Jungle, The Rebels and Transparent; and hour pilots Bosch and The After. The pilots will be available on Amazon Instant Video and LOVEFiLM early next year for all customers to watch and provide feedback. Last month, Amazon Studios debuted its first comedy series Alpha House and Betas available exclusively on Prime Instant Video and Amazon LOVEFiLM in the UK.

Since launch, more than 19,000 movie scripts and 5,000 series projects have been submitted to Amazon Studios. Amazon Studios continues to invite creators to upload their proposals for drama, comedy and children's programming at http://studios.amazon.com/getting-started/series or submit them privately via Amazon Studios.

Comprehensive cast and crew information, including bios and filmographies, is available on Amazon's IMDb (www.imdb.com), the world's most popular and authoritative source for movie, TV and celebrity content.

I’m constantly being told my books would make great movies—and they have all being optioned—but statistically the odd are against it. That said, if we authors contemplated the odds against writing success, we’d choose another line of work.

Every day, I give thanks that I didn’t.

Saturday, December 21, 2013



Most U.S. military aircraft are developed—not surprisingly—by one of the services, and have a tendency to take decades to transfer from design stage to flight.

Why so long? Well, it would take a book to explain that, but the short explanation is that the Pentagon excels in canceling itself out. For every effort, there seems to be a near equal and opposite effort—so people often work very hard—but get nowhere. And that’s a very good thing because if they got somewhere they would be working themselves out of their jobs—and that would never do.

In addition, it is extremely hard to pin down accountability because although people don’t lose jobs, they change jobs so often. And if they don’t change their jobs, they change their titles. And they are always changing their acronyms. Clarity is frowned upon in The Building. It makes things way too easy for the enemy.

What enemy? That is classified.

On top of all that, no Pentagon battle is every really over. A decision may go your way one day, but be reversed the next. Stir in constantly changing specifications and, with luck, you’ll never have to build anything so you won’t have be worried by the fact that it (whatever it is) doesn’t work.

But surely someone must be responsible? What about the chain of command?

The chain of command delegates. Good grief, what is the point of having a chain of command if you can’t pass the buck. Besides, there are always civil servants to blame. And they naturally blame Congress—for very good reason. And Congress doesn’t mind because politicians have notoriously thick skins—and get paid off. And if that doesn’t confuse the issue sufficiently, the services blame each other—which is what they do most of the time anyway. They are the real enemy—and war with them never ends.

Don’t knock all this. It keeps hundreds of thousands of people at work, pays for third level education for their children, finances comfortable retirements, and allows for extensive double-dipping. Besides, it’s all in aid of National Security so it must be a good thing—and it’s almost certainly secret. 

In contrast, the Scorpion is being developed privately by Textron Airland for all those countries who don’t plan to go up against China, but still want an aircraft that looks cool (very important) and can do some damage. Also, it looks like you’ll be able to buy a squadron of Scorpions for the price of one F-35 (not that anyone knows exactly what an F-35 costs—the Pentagon isn’t very good at book-keeping and has a creative approach to facts).

What else can I tell you?

That you don’t mean all that stuff about the Pentagon. Surely, it can’t be like that.


Friday, December 20, 2013


Apparently U.S. mobile ad spending now accounts for more than 22% of all U.S. digital ad spending—and it was less than 3% as recently as 2010.



The digital world is hard to keep up with these days. E-books looked to be taking over publishing, but their growth slowed dramatically 2013 (and hardback sales actually increased).

It will be particularly interesting to see book market figures for all 2013.



Another matter I’m curious about will be the effect of tablets on reading habits. Tablets seem to dominating the market—but you can do a great deal more than read on a tablet. Will multi-media suppress reading, or will reading thrive on tablets as well?

Tablets are generally considered to be less than idea for sustained reading because of glare. On the other hand, you can set up a tinted background on a tablet which cuts the glare considerably.

Overall, I expect to see the reading quality of both e-readers and tablets to improve considerably over the years—but I doubt e-readers will vanish. They are likely to retain the price advantage. So will reading. Multimedia is just more expensive to produce.

But a lot of multimedia is free!

Same situation with the written word.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


Occasionally, I think deep thoughts about mighty issues (though some might call it daydreaming).

Yesterday, I was in just such a state in Staples. I was idly wondering why most shop assistants today don’t seem to know anything—or to give incredibly bad advice when they do. Is training out of fashion in the American retail world—or what? Is intellectual curiosity dead? Don’t these people read?

Well, you get the idea. I wasn’t angry or anything—just mildly frustrated. I had just asked a technical question of someone who had professed expertise in the issue—and, as normal, had got the runaround.

Decades ago, when dragons roamed the streets—and I was a 16 year old university student—I got a Christmas job in Selfridges (a vast department store in London, UK) and was trained for all of a day and a half before being dispatched to the shirt department. Then I set to work to learn all about shirts because it seemed to me just commonsense to know about what I was selling. Besides, it was actually quite interesting, passed the time, and made me feel less like a blockhead when customers asked questions. And it helped me to sell a great deal  more product.

After Christmas, I was put into the shoe department—and repeated the process. I won’t say I became a world class shoe expert in a few weeks, but I learned a lot—and there was always the buyer to call on if necessary (and all the Selfridge buyers I encountered really did know their stuff).

And yet a half century later, though surrounded by all kinds of fascinating electronic gizmos, you are—more often than not—putting yourself at high risk if you ask for advice from the hired guns belonging to Radio Shack, Office Depot, Staples or the like. They are virtually all pleasant people and impressively polite, but they seem to know about as much about their products as your average dragon—and my money would be on the dragon.

I was thinking about all this, while still in Staples, when I noticed a woman approaching out of the corner of my eye. I then realized that my trolley was probably blocking her way—I was in one of the printer aisles. I muttered something like: “My apologies. I’ll just move this out of the way.”

I pulled at the trolley only to find it was a little heavier than I expected. I looked over it to see if a wheel had caught on something only to find a rather beautiful baby—still at the crawling stage--looking up at me indignantly. Evidently, he had been let loose to crawl and had decided my trolley would help him practice this two-legged thing.

The baby—eyes huge—and I looked at each other. His mouth turned down and his lip quivered. Tears were seconds away.

I felt in mild shock at nearly wrenching his arms from his sockets. I expected his mother to swoop him up and hug him.  Not a bit of it. This was a kid who was being trained to be self-reliant.

The tears never came. The lip stopped quivering.

She then smiled at me, picked him up, and moved on.

I was left thinking how fond I am of babies—albeit I’m not sure I feel the same way when they grow up. Just as well my heat melts when I’m around such small, vulnerable, things. I’m the eldest of twelve and the father of five.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


There are some who believe we don’t encourage and develop human potential nearly enough—and that we are capable of being vastly more creative than we are.

I tend strongly towards that view, but it’s best known proponent is, arguably, Sir Ken Robinson (see photo), who has been beating that drum for decades. He is also a thoroughly entertaining speaker so I would urge you to look up his TED talks and listen to the man himself. His original talk was entitled: “DO SCHOOLS KILL CREATIVITY?”—a provocative title if ever there was one. The answer is, of course, that in their current formats, though they do a great deal of good as well, they do.

Schools like you to conform—they call it “socialization”—and have yet to discover that creativity is innately non-conformist.

Sir Ken articulates two themes:

First, we're all born with deep natural capacities for creativity and systems of mass education tend to suppress them. Second, it is increasingly urgent to cultivate these capacities -- for personal, economic and cultural reasons -- and to rethink the dominant approaches to education to make sure that we do.

Best you watch the whole thing. He’s a hoot with a deadly serious message—and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t resonate.

The following is a heartwarming story of a young woman who clearly does not intend to be held back by anyone or anything—and who demonstrates what Sir Ken is talking about.

It is a tale of both grit and talent. It’s only a short story, but it is truly inspiring—just the thing for Christmas and reflective of the very best of America, of a ‘can do tradition’ which is currently in rocky shape. But, not in this case.

It all started with AISAYA CORBRAY being given the present of an electric keyboard by her grandmother. That inspired a desire to play the real thing so she asked her parents for a piano. She wanted the real thing with lessons to match. Trying to teach yourself is notoriously difficult.

She was promptly told that a real piano would be expensive and was unaffordable.

Undaunted, she asked what could be afforded and was given a maximum of $50.

It was mission impossible. Pianos are expensive, heavy, and costly to ship. $50 was short a zero or two.

Aisaya remained undaunted, went on Craigslist, and started looking and calling while concurrently asking her mother where the locations were.

Eventually, she found a decent piano  in Mill Creek (head North and bring snow-shoes) which she was able to bargain down to $50—so the family borrowed a truck and went to pick it up.

And here is the punchline. When Aisaya Corbray was eligible to get piano lessons in school—self-taught as she was—Aisaya was moved to Advanced Piano.

How cool is that! Aisaya is still only 16.

I was told this story by Aisaya’s mother, which is one of the most cheerful people I have met for a long time—and has the kind of personality which lights up a room. Good-looking too.

Why aren’t such people running this country!

Happy Christmas to you all—and especially to the Corbray family. I imagine by this time next year, Aisaya will have assembled a full orchestra..





Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Cartoon: it chops (medium) by toons tagged guillotine,french,revolution,beheaded,rotalty,peasants,medievil,kitchen,utensils

In truth, I’m not quite sure why I feel optimistic about this country’s situation because the core data would depress a saint. Here, I am not talking about the Stock Market, GDP growth, or the Housing Market—because these are lousy ways to measure the wellbeing of most of the population—but about the nuts and bolts data that concern how most people really live. In addition, I’ve recently uncovered something of a data treasure trove concerning how Northern Europe is doing—and why they are succeeding where we are not—and that would probably push the pope onto hard drugs (if he was an American).

In short, my optimism doesn’t make sense in any logical way. So, why am I feeling it? I suspect I’m feeling it because I detect the first stirrings of a real fight-back against the forces that have gone a long way towards wrecking this country. Or maybe I’m just in a good mood.

If the fight-back really is occurring—and the signs are very faint—we shall have the 1% and the Extreme Right (which, sadly, now seems to include most Republicans in Congress) to thank because their behavior is so egregious that it has to promote a reaction at some stage.

The latest nastiness concerns the 1.2 million long term unemployed losing their federal unemployment insurance on December 28 2013. It’s truly disgusting behavior and it’s inexcusable. It invites consequences—and they seldom refuse an invitation.

You know one of my direct ancestors, Benjamin Lentaigne, came to Ireland as a direct consequence of the French Revolution. Other family members were not so lucky and were guillotined. They were executed not because they did anything in particular, but largely because they didn’t act when most of the French population were having a very hard time economically. The Lentaignes were counts, aristocrats and the members of the 1%—and they paid the price.

Actually, the fully family name is Lentaigne de Logivieres and the ancestral home is in Normandy. It’s still there.

Guillotines in the U.S.? Probably not—this is a gun culture—but there is going to be a profound reaction when enough people realize how distorted this economy has become—and that the major it of the 1% don’t seem to care.

I say the majority because clearly some of our wealthy do care. On that point, there is an excellent article in the current issue of DEMOCRACY magazine by NICK HANAUER and ERICK BEINHOCKER which starts:

“For everyone but the top 1 percent, the American economy is broken…”

Since I have been saying this for more than a decade, it’s pleasant indeed to have company. But caring isn’t enough. We have to do—and above all get the message out.



Monday, December 16, 2013


Well of course every day isn’t Christmas for most of us, but I’m beginning to wonder if it doesn’t feel that way for major corporations—and whether such organizations are paying their way or living on welfare.

Yes, I am talking about corporations—NOT people—although I know the U.S. legal system considers that corporations are people in legal terms. I also know that makes no sense at all because corporations are palpably NOT people. They are no more than legal instruments issued by governments (state governments in the U.S.) which convey certain advantages for commerce (and which used to impose certain constraints and obligations).

All in all, corporations are an excellent idea providing they are operated within reasonable constraints by reasonable people equipped with a sense of social responsibility and a moral code. Here, I’m not talking about perfection (or even close). I’m talking about no more than a reasonable balance of interests.

I’m far from sure that there is a balance of interests in the U.S. any more. I think the evidence is fairly clear that corporate power has got out of hand, and needs to be reined-in, if U.S. democracy is to have a chance of functioning in the spirit of “We the people.”

I’m not going to try and prove that point in this piece. I’d merely remind you that corporate greed in the financial sector nearly wrecked the U.S. economy in the recent Great Recession—and that the earnings of the vast majority of Americans are in decline. Beyond that, it is truly remarkable that, despite abundant evidence of malfeasance by major financial institutions, not a single corporate executive has gone to prison. And as for the financial corporations themselves, they are back to mega earnings, bonuses and are bigger than ever. And they are also benefiting from the Federal Reserve spending $85 billion a month on Quantitative Easing.

But surely the Fed’s money finds its way into the real economy?

If you believe that, you are smoking something.  Lending to small business, for instance, is actually down (despite being heavily underwritten by the Federal Government). As the Fed itself has admitted, though it hopes it will benefit the real economy, the primary and immediate beneficiaries are the Rich and the corporations they own.

Clearly, we are all not equal under the law. That should scarcely surprise us given that corporate money now virtually owns Congress. So, if you are caught selling hard drugs you will go to prison, but if you swindle trillions of dollars out of billions of people (the Great Recession was global) you will be bailed out by the very people you swindled—and the Fed will continue to subsidize you for years.

Frankly, that doesn’t seem fair to me—and it certainly isn’t justice. Perhaps we should stop referring to the U.S. as a “Nation of Laws.” We are more a “Nation of Special Interests” where some interests are a great deal more equal than others.

Or perhaps we should just admit that this once Great Nation has lost its way—and has become deeply, and systemically, corrupt. Such a message has the merit of getting right to the heart of the matter—and being true.

But let me now zone in on the issue of whether major corporations are really paying their way or not.


  • The tax take from corporations has been in decline for years. In 2010, the Federal Government collected 9% of $2.2 trillion from corporations (which I’ll round up to 10% so I don’t have to strain my brain) which amounts to $220 billion. There was a day when corporations paid about a third of the tax take (and, as a matter of interest, the economy was a great deal healthier).
  • Major corporation are involved in widespread tax avoidance and are using a mass of tricks of dubious legality. Most involve keeping cash abroad and games with transfer pricing. They get away with it because they have a lock on Congress which makes the rules. That cash abroad totals something like $2 trillion. It would be rather nice to have that invested in the U.S.
  • Corporate payrolls are massively subsidized by the Federal Government. Fast Food may be the main beneficiary, but other corporate sectors are helped as well.
  • Major corporations are massively subsidized at state and local level to locate in the area. The total annual cost of all these concessions reportedly adds up to $100 billion.
  • Major corporations inflict huge environmental and infrastructure costs on the nation which they don’t pay for. Instead, the tab is picked up by the taxpayer. They are also dumping pension obligations and medical costs at a truly alarming rate.

This list is not comprehensive—and would benefit from a great deal more work—but even this quick and dirty look suggests that corporations are not paying their way, and that it is, indeed, Christmas every day for most of them.

But surely the major corporations are really owned by us all?

If you believe that, I’ve got a city I want to sell you. It’s called Detroit—and you can have it real cheap.


Sunday, December 15, 2013


The Pentagon Wars.jpgIn fact, a number of people have fought the MICC over the years, though were rarely entirely successful. That said, some enjoyed significant victories and escaped with the career equivalent of minor bruises.

Others have felt their efforts were worthwhile even if the price was high. To people of true caliber, the reward for doing the right thing can be vastly more satisfying than the tokenism of a star—or even a number of stars.

I must tell you that I find this obsession with careerism decidedly unpleasant. In effect, you have to accept the status quo regardless of the situation because if you speak up you are putting your chances of promotion at risk. In fact, there is a joke that most Army officers would risk their lives before their careers—but I’m not sure it’s a joke!

I was introduced to this world in the early Nineties as part of a wide-ranging research program to get material for future books. Typically, one researches a specific book, but I decided to spread my net wide and to become familiar with a number of overlapping worlds which I thought might be particular productive for a thriller writer. One introduction led to another, and I ended up with gaining quite an extensive knowledge of:

  • The NYPD
  • The FBI
  • The U.S. Army
  • Counterterrorism
  • Congress (and the whole Inside the Beltway scene)

Fortunately, I wasn’t starting from scratch, but was building on years of reading, spending time with military units, experiencing terrorism in Ireland, the UK, Italy, Cyprus and so on. Add in foreign travel, and some friends in both low and high places—and, after a while, people regard you as an expert. It is, so to speak, one of the pluses of the aging process.

Incidentally, somewhat to my surprise, I have found there to be quite a number of advantages to aging, and I’d probably be recommending old age with enthusiasm if death wasn’t such a prominent factor. But, what the hell!

But let me get back to defying the MICC.  Here, I will offer two examples. The first is of Colonel James Burton who fought long and hard to have the Bradley Infantry Fighting vehicle properly developed and tested. This was difficult indeed because he was up against the active hostility of higher command and rigged tests—in effect, corruption at its most blatant. In the end, he achieved his objective, but was forced to retire.

Many soldiers owe their lives to his efforts because he caused numerous deficiencies in the Bradley design to be remedied.

The saga was made into a thoroughly entertaining movie, THE PENTAGON WARS, which I thoroughly recommend. Actually, though the movie was made as a comedy, it is an appalling story—albeit a perfect example of the MICC in action. Believe it or not, the Bradley was in development for 17 years at a cost of $17 billion.

I never did get to meet Colonel Burton—his wars took place before I made it to The Building (which is what those in the know call the Pentagon) but he is one of my heroes.

The other hero I am going to name today is Chuck Spinney. He is one of the most knowledgeable defense experts I know---and not only gave testimony to Congress about the MICC, but lived to tell the tale.

In his case, there was a stand-off. Despite revealing all to Congress, he kept his job as a Pentagon analyst but was never given any more work to do. In effect, the idea was to freeze him out.

It didn’t work. Chuck had enough friends to keep him in the loop—and thereafter, he used his time to write one blaster after another exposing what was going on.

Now he is retired and spends much of the year with his wife on a sailboat in Europe—but he is still blasting away.

The kicker is that Congress—the institution responsible for allowing the MICC to continue—is part of the problem, and a fundamental part at that. So although Chuck has done everything he could, and has shown enough moral courage for ten men, the MICC lives on.

The MICC will only be killed when fundamental reform of Congress takes place. Right now, that seems like an impossible task, but there may come a time when enough Americans appreciate how bad matters have become and force change.

I’m of the view that this may happen sooner that many think.

Incidentally, you should know that despite the fact that the MICC consumes such a large portion of the national cake (over $1 trillion if you include everything we spend on Nation Security) you should know that the Pentagon cannot be audited. It is supposed to be—indeed it is legally mandated to be audited—but the Department of Defense books are in such a mess, that the task cannot be done. In effect, there is no accountability.

This problem has existed for years. Congress knows about. It remains unresolved.

Ponder on the significance of that.



Saturday, December 14, 2013


Yesterday, I wrote about the MICC—the Military Industrial Congressional Complex. Today, I’m going to flesh out my comments on the MICC by turning to the subject of  Army generals, and a phenomenon known as “Star Creep.”

Star Creep  essentially means an ever increasing tendency for the number of generals to increase—regardless of either the need or the number of troops under their command. In short, there is no need for it.

Simply put, it is an example of cronyism and a way for the boys (and girls) to generate more jobs for themselves at the taxpayers’ expense. It is also a great deal more costly than you might think, because not only are generals well paid, but they rarely travel alone. Instead they come packaged with a plethora of aides and assistants and other staff members—all of whom want to be generals too; and who need to be appropriately housed and watered.

It doesn’t stop there. Generals need suitable posts for generals to go to (after all, they have their dignity to protect) so they have a tendency to set up headquarters—WHICH CAN BE HUGE! We are in thousands here in some cases.

But what do all these people do? In essence, they slow up the process. But why are they there then? Because generals like to command large headquarters. You see the more troops you command, the higher your perceived status—and the more stars you are likely to be given.

Star Creep is unhealthy in a host of ways—not the least of which is that it slows down decision making—a rather fundamental problem in a line of work where (in war anyway) the ability to think quickly and act decisively is crucial.

You might think that Star Creep would be mainly confined to peacetime, when the military have little else to do but focus on but their careers, but you’d be wrong. The senior military’s alarming tendency to obsess about promotion ahead of their primary mission is all too evident even in time of war—and its consequences can be disastrous. As for the line soldiers, who do the actual fighting, they have entirely different priorities. Star Creep is a general officer sickness—and it is contagious and corrupting.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some good generals, and even some great generals, but more to say that the prevailing culture—which encourages such behavior as Star Creep is decidedly unhealthy; and wrong.

Star Creep isn’t confined to the Army. It affects all the services.

The above would be laughable if it wasn’t very real—and if you are laughing, reflect that you are paying for it. Also, it is yet another reason why our track record in war is not what we would like it to be.

A good Army is a lean Army.





Friday, December 13, 2013


European missile shield plan is expected to gain support

Friday the 13th seems like a good day to write about defense. After all, though I certainly believe in a strong America, with all due respect to the courage of our fighting men and women, the Defense Establishment, as currently constituted, is deeply disturbing—and, seemingly, cannot be constrained. In any way. For any time. For any reason.

Yes, there are cuts—and much wailing and gnashing of teeth—but much of those cuts are cosmetic, others are not implemented, and where actual cutting occurs, the victims are almost all junior, or on the margin in some way, or the service just hates the program in question (the Air Force’s dislike of the A-10—which basically supports the Army—is legendary). But the generals keep dancing to the defense contractors’ tunes—and the big bucks keep flowing.

Somehow, there is always a sequel because the money flow must never be stopped. As a consequence, the American Way of War is now the most expensive in history—and this in a nation which cannot balance its budget, which is over $17 trillion in debt, where average earnings are in decline, and where the outcomes of its wars and military adventures, have, more often than not, been contrary to the U.S. National Interest. Meanwhile our infrastructure has been neglected for decades, many of our cities require massive investment, and our economic structures are systemically corrupted and flawed.

The Defense Establishment is also known as the MICC—or Military Industrial Congressional Complex—and consists of those who have a vested interest in war, or the threat of war—but don’t have to fight it. Instead they see it, quite correctly, as both a career and profit opportunity—and they are greedy for both. In fact, they are insatiable, largely unaccountable, and normally unidentifiable. Regarding the latter, we tend to be familiar with a few public figures such as the Secretary of Defense, but there it stops.

President Eisenhower left out the word “Congressional” when he made his speech though, reportedly, it was in the original draft. I’ve added it back in. It belongs.

The MICC thrives because it is a network of mutually supporting politicians, lobbyists, civil servants, defense contractors, and complicit media, academics, and think-tank employees, all of whom stand to benefit from the continuity and expansion of the money flow—and because most of the activities of the MICC are—quite deliberately—obscured from public scrutiny. In addition, few Americans are either interested in, or knowledgeable enough, to question the system.

As for the few who do, their progress is blocked by secrecy legislation, endless delays, the excessive classification of documentation, misdirection, outright lying by public affairs officials, jargon, unintelligible briefings, the frequent renaming of projects, stove-piping, careerism, and being frozen out at every stage.

It takes a brave person indeed to defy the MICC, and he or she will, almost invariably pay a heavy price for years thereafter. The MICC is a vast structure, with a long reach, and a vindictive disposition. In extreme cases, where it feels seriously threatened, criminal investigations of its accusers will be initiated—and, reportedly, more extreme actions taken. You risk reputation, career, freedom, health, and your very life when you challenge the MICC—and you will find it a truly exhausting, frustrating, and stressful process. In short, though your cause may be righteous, you will suffer.

The MICC, in essence, is a system of extortion integrated into the very essence of the genuine need a for strong national defense, and designed to extract hundreds of billions of dollars each year to the advantage of its members. It represents a gross abuse of the patriotism of most Americans—and is cynical in the extreme.

The MICC’s corrupt gains have added up to trillions of dollars over the decades—in effect a tax on most Americans. If this reminds you of the Mafia, which originated as a justifiable reaction to oppression—and then turned to extortion and other criminal activates—you will have the right idea. Both the MICC and the MAFIA prey on the very people they purport to defend.

The MICC has operated since World War II, and so alarmed President Eisenhower that he made it the subject of his last speech as president. Over half a century later, his worst fears have been realized—and the MICC is now woven into the fabric of American life. In effect, Americans now think it is normal for the U.S. to spend more on National Security than the rest of the world put together, for the military to maintain more than a thousand foreign bases, for our troops to be in more than 100 countries, and for us to be kept in fear as the MICC hypes threat after threat after threat.

The MICC is as successful as it is because all its members are paid off in one way or another—and because because the very government institution, Congress, which is supposed to oversee the Defense Establishment, is complicit. First of all, Congress is dominated by moneyed interests (who own the defense contractors), and secondly the military have learned to game the system so that every senator and congressman relies on the Pentagon for defense jobs, and thus votes.

As for the other members of the MICC, let me paint you a quick picture.

  • The military rely on the MICC for promotion and for well-paid retirement jobs in the defense industry. By military, I am referring mainly to general officers and would-be generals. The MICC is rank-driven and is not interested in the common soldier.
  • Lobbyists are rewarded financially, and sometimes with government jobs. The revolving door is endemic.
  • The media are rewarded with (controlled) access and information. It is exceedingly difficult for a defense reporter to function without the cooperation of the MICC.
  • Members of think-tanks keep their jobs because various MICC components fund their organizations.

If you want to truly understand the degree to which the U.S. is overpaying for defense because of the MICC, it is salutary to look at the costs of other defense establishments—and particularly the Israeli.

The Israelis maintain a truly formidable defense structure for a small fraction of what the U.S. spends, and yet manages to operate at the cutting edge. 

We could do exactly the same thing if Congress did its job and the MICC was systematically dismantled.

As matters stand, the MICC is a threat to National Security. It is rotting us from within—and it’s costing us a great deal more than an arm and a leg. It’s costing us hundreds of billions of dollars each year—not mention the lives of a seemingly unending stream of young Americans.

How do I know about the MICC?

Well, as they say about combat, “I have seen the elephant.”

I’ll tell you that story some other time—probably in a book.