Sunday, December 9, 2012

Marvin Miller, RIP

Marvin Miller died two weeks ago. He was one of those people who looked old even when he was young (think Richard Nixon with a dapper mustache and a good tailor), and whose legacy was misunderstood. Miller was an economist by trade and had worked for the United Steel Workers. His background was labor unions, traditionally understood. And what does that mean? Very simply, to use existing laws and economic power to force employers to pay workers more than they otherwise would in a free and unregulated market. Thus, if factory workers are making $4.00 an hour in 1960, unions would try to negotiate a contract for perhaps $4.50 an hour and throw in more pension and overtime benefits, etc. The unions' ultimate bargaining chip was their ability to strike and the company's inability to fire them if they did. Of course, the workers would not get paid but they had a certain legal protection that protected them. Underlying every union/management conflict was a simple truth: the purpose of the union was to force management to pay workers more than they would under a completely free market. Prior to the labor laws of the 1930's, management had a very powerful weapon: "you don't like what we pay you? Quit and find a better paying job elsewhere." This is no different from shopping around for someone to paint your house. One person may offer to do it for $2000.00. If someone else offers to do it for $1500.00, you are not legally obligated to hire the more expensive painter. You have the freedom to contract with whomever you want. But unions restrict an employer's freedom to contract by creating a legal monopoly or cartel that an employer must negotiate with. Fast forward to major league baseball. In the mid 1960's (I use that era only because that is when I seriously started following baseball, every player had a contract that contained something called the "reserve clause." As interpreted by the owners, it meant that a player was forever contractually bound to the team he played for. Thus, every player was stripped of his most powerful negotiating weapon: the ability to sell his services to the highest bidder. He could always hold out as many a player did but all he was doing was depriving his team of his services and himself of money. Read properly, the contracts stated that a player could free himself of this legal language by simply holding out and not playing for one year after which he would become a free agent but the courts refused to so hold. Contrary to the economics of traditional labor unions, the baseball labor issues were almost the opposite power play. Unlike the factory worker, a baseball player's chief complaint was that there was not a free market where he could call the owner's bluff and sell his services to another team at a higher price. Where a factory owner could offer his workers the option of quitting and finding higher pay elsewhere knowing full well there was a plentiful supply of workers to fill the void, a baseball owner faced the opposite predicament. Faced with the prospect of a Sandy Koufax or Frank Robinson seeking employment with another team, an owner knew damn well that another team would pay double or triple for their services. Thus, the reserve clause sophistry. If a factory worker could at least double his salary by going from GM to Chrysler, there would be no union. Miller's players were agitating because there was not a free market for labor while the traditional unions recognized the effects of a free market for their members and sought legal protection against it. Imagine if, in 1965, every owner said that they were applying the same logic to baseball as was applied to every other business: "if the players don't like what they are being paid, hit the road fellas. You are now on your own. If you don't accept my offer, you are fired and good luck trying to get some other owner to pay you what I am paying you. You will come crawling back soon!" The players back then would have been ecstatic. A price war would have broken out for their talent. Any doubters need only look at what happened when the AFL competed with the NFL, or the ABA with the NBA, or WHL with the NHL. Miller deserves a lot of credit for accomplishing free agency. I read his autobiography, "A Whole Different Ball Game" years ago as well as the Curt Flood biography by Brad Snyder, "A Well Paid Slave." Miller may have been an egomaniac who always thought he was smarter than everyone else, but give the man his place in history. But it is wrong to equate him with other union leaders of his time. In a way, he was the complete opposite. Another point about Miller's success vis a vis other unions. A good baseball player will play for ten years or more. The injuries in baseball are fewer than in other sports and quickness and speed are not that important. Most players do not hit their prime until that are 26. Football and basketball place a very heavy premium on speed and quickness. Thus the average player is finished after three or four years. Going on strike in the NFL could destroy a career whereas in baseball a player would realize the benefits of a strike four or five years down the line. NFL and NBA players are not going to sacrifice their careers so some college kid can make millions after they have retired. Baseball does not have this problem.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Mad Men Season Five

Mad Men is one of the best shows on TV. It captures the essence of an era that was known for its male centric culture and hard living ethos. Think JFK meets Dean Martin all wrapped up in the veneer of Father Knows Best.

Like all good lies, it works for a while only to be done in eventually by the truth. Then instead of living a secret life, you find your deceit exposed for all to witness until you begin to hate yourself for having done it all to begin with. And to make matters worse, society's moral capital that you exploited perfectly to shield your chicanery from family and co-workers has been spent by you and millions like you to the point where your immorality has become almost pedestrian. What you used to do discreetly in a hotel room circa 1961 while sipping a martini is now plastered on every billboard and movie theater in Manhattan circa 1967. Sin is fun when it is restricted to those who have the good sense to exercise discretion but it becomes rather corrosive and corrupting when everyone else gets the hang of it.
This may all be fancy social theorizing but I think it is the direction Mad Men is taking. I started to watch the first episode last Sunday night. Funny, I had never watched it on TV and never will again. I have the DVD's and loved them without the commercials. I turned off the show after 40 minutes out of sheer boredom. The next morning, figuring I was too drunk and tired to perhaps appreciate the nuances of the show, I purchased the entire season on Itunes which will nicely be downloaded into my account after each episode airs. I watched Sunday night's premier last night and must say, my initial instinct was wrong. Contrary to many reviews, it was not boring at all. There were no blockbuster moments but the foundation has been laid for some great story lines. Here is what to expect in the next eleven episodes based on what I divined. Keep in mind that these are the prognostications of merely someone who made the mistake in life of going to law school instead of writing novels and movie scripts.
Don Draper. He turned 40 (plus six months). He will begin having an affair on his second wife. His very quick marriage to her was pure infatuation. He never loved her, something she at least shares with his first wife. You can see the seeds of his dissatisfaction by his reaction to the surprise birthday party and risque dance she performed in front of his co-workers. He has no respect for her. She exists only to the extent that she complements the image he wants to portray to the outside world. But then again, what second wife doesn't? More telling was his making love to her while she cleaned his apartment in her panties and bra. The purpose of that scene was not to highlight his prurient lust for her. What I saw were two things that spell big league trouble for any women: cellulite and sagging boobs. For a man, they can be replaced very fast. No different from getting rid of the rust on that '61 Cadillac by buying a '66 Continental. She will start nagging him mercilessly for material things. He will unceremoniously dump her. Expect her demise to be coupled with a crisis in the office as she diverts his attention from his responsibilities to his clients. But there will be one big twist.
Megan. She fits the stereotype of the middle aged man's second wife too perfectly. Call it a trophy wife, arm candy, or an antidote to a first wife who made love like a wet dish rag. The message is clear: your days are numbered sweetheart so start preparing for the downfall. And how does the ideal second wife do this? Simple. The same way Jane Greer tried to keep Robert Mitchum on her side in Out Of The Past: blackmail. Employ the Black Arts to get your way. There are two scenes that open the door to this angle. At the party, one of Megan's girlfriends alluded to her past as an actress. Megan replied that she was not successful at it. To the untrained ear and eye, this may have been meaningless. But it was not. It Manhattan, there is a time honored occupation for wannabe actresses and models and it ain't waiting on tables. Second, she apparently knows of Don's dual identity. Huge mistake on his part in telling her this secret. Here is how this will play out: Don will find out about her past. He really won't care but will use it as a convenient excuse to give her her walking papers or to just let him do whatever he wants. She will become, for him, well, what she used to be: a lady of the evening. But she will then play the trump card of all trump cards: what is good for the goose is good for the gander. He may have relieved himself of financially underwriting the real Mrs. Draper in California but now he will inherit an even bigger problem. And the lovely Megan will not be so accommodating. Like all gifted gold diggers and blackmailers, she will up the ante and push Don to his limits. Expect some big fireworks here.
Roger and Joan. There is a temptation to write him off, the victim of a heart attack. His role in the agency is becoming increasingly irrelevant. After all, he is only there because his father owned the agency with the eccentric Burt Cooper, another old fart who serves no useful purpose. But they own a majority of the agency so their weight is not that dead. But Roger adds biting humor that would be sorely missed. His one liners and even by 1960's standards, political incorrectness, are quite entertaining. And after all, getting drunk with potential clients to keep them loose is an underrated art.
He hangs around while fending off the backstabbing Pete. He is also the father to Joan's son. Expect her to dump this news on him when she divorces her husband. There is no way she is going to be content commuting every day from Fort Dix while married to a doctor who spends his days treating GI's for gonorrhea and syphilis in some desolate Quonset hut in the pine barrens. At some point, Roger will dump his airhead wife and move in with Joan.
Lane Pryce. I like this character. A very unhappy and complex man who is weak and compassionate. We learn that he is struggling financially and has shown a too eager willingness to hire Joan back and to get on her good side. There has to be an ulterior motive at least subconsciously. His money worries will get the better of him and he will start embezzling from the firm and expect Joan to cover for him. This will all blow up by the end of the season.
Pete Campbell. Not a likable guy but works hard and does put money in other people's pockets. He will give the partners an ultimatum: make him partner or else he goes. They will relent but it will be ugly.
Peggy Olson. I never liked the character. So I have no predictions other than that she will keep getting old.
Betty. A no show so far. She will divorce Henry Francis but not before having an affair with her ex husband. I predict she dies after going psycho. Maybe she burns down the house and takes herself along for the ride. She is that crazy.
A quick mention of one of my favorite characters: Freddy Rumsen. A reformed drinker who never pretended to be anything other than what he was. Worked hard and was responsible for giving Peggy credit for her first big coup: a basket of kisses. Even though he pissed his pants in front of his co-workers, he is my kind of guy.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

La Gloria Cubana R Serie #7

I like to smoke cigars. I picked up the habit in 1978 when I was 21. The reason I don't remember but I am sure it had nothing to do with taste and all to do with image. But like other habits acquired for all the wrong reasons, i.e., chasing women and drinking,
you begin to realize as you mature that the pastimes have many benefits independent from impressing your friends. So now in my mid 50's, I do most of my drinking and smoking alone. And I prefer it that way. As your weaknesses and deficiencies become more difficult to deny and obvious to the naked eye, the only antidote is to go it alone. Self delusion is so easy and comforting. I always entertain myself with a movie or music collection, all pre-1960, to help the charade along. That being said, I think I have found the perfect cigar: the La Gloria Cubana R Serie #7. Large ring, strong flavor, and always fresh. You can buy them at the El Credito Cigar shop on 8th Street downtown. I go there once a month to buy a box and always try to grab one piece of apparel. You can watch the old Cuban ladies hand rolling the sticks. What amazes me is that some things never change. We live in a world that is becoming ever more sanitized. The government seems to be regulating and trying to banish every sin that brings a man pleasure. Yet you can watch some 75 year sold woman roll a cigar and then she puts a piece of wrapper on the closed end by licking the cigar and making it stick through her spit. I guess they have been doing that for 200 years, the FDA and a hundred other idiotic laws and regulations be damned. So here is a salute to the perfect cigar:

And what better way and time to enjoy. Season Five of Mad Men begins tonight! So pour yourself a Scotch, light up a stogie, and step back in time to an era when all was well in the world.