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Monday, October 31, 2011

Is the American Empire at an End? (Part I)

In the late 1980s most political pundits were writing off the United States as the preeminent economic power in the world.

Japan, they insisted, had supplanted the U.S. as #1 and Americans watched as Japanese, rife with cash, bought up trophy properties from New York's Rockefeller Plaza to the fabled Pebble Beach Golf Course in Carmel, California.

I was in the middle of his hysteria, living in Tokyo as the Chicago Tribune's Chief Asia Correspondent. I have to admit as the plethora of books and news stories about the new Japanese Super State flooded the planet, it was difficult not to buy into the credence of these arguments.

America, the experts droned on, had lost its competitive edge. Its people were soft, lazy and inept.  The American Empire was in decline--another Great Britain, losing its status and stature around the world.

Then along came 1990-91 and the over-inflated Japanese economic bubble, engendered by a grossly over-valued real estate market, burst. Within a few years the U.S. regained its competitive edge and its economy embarked on a decade of unprecedented growth. Meanwhile, the Japanese economy has yet to recover.

Of course, that is not the end of the story. Today the U.S. is once again teetering at the brink of economic catastrophe and this time China is perceived as the nation poised to supplant America as the world's most powerful economy.

Now anybody who has been to China has to be impressed with the progress that nation has made. New cities, new buildings, new roads, new industries--of these things add up to a country on the rise. No argument there.

But travel out of the cities and you see a different China. This is a nation in which with some 150 million people are living below the United Nations poverty line of $1 (that's "one" US dollar) a day and nearly 500 million Chinese live on less than $2 a day, according to the China Development Research Foundation.

The Foundation also reports that nearly 85% of China’s poor live in rural areas, with about 66% concentrated in the country’s west and they share less than 12% of the country’s wealth. Only about 55 million Chinese (out of a population of some 1.2 billion) are considered middle-class.

Meanwhile, the U.S. trade deficit with China has surged over the past two decades, as U.S. imports from China have grown much faster than U.S. exports to China. That deficit rose from $10 billion in 1990 to $266 billion in 2008, fell to $227 billion in 2009, and then rose to $273 billion in 2010. For 2011 the U.S. trade deficit with China is projected to hit more than $300 billion.

 According to the Congressional Research Service, during the past decade, China has been the fastest-growing market for U.S. exports. U.S. imports of low-cost goods from China greatly benefit U.S. consumers by increasing their purchasing power. U.S. firms that use China as the final point of assembly for their products, or use Chinese-made inputs for production in the United States, are able to lower costs and become more globally competitive. China’s purchases of U.S. Treasury securities (which stood at nearly $1.2 trillion at the end of 2010) help keep U.S. interest rates relatively low. 

On the other hand, many analysts argue that growing economic ties with China have exposed U.S. manufacturing firms to greater, and what is often perceived to be “unfair” competition from low-cost Chinese firms. They argue that this has induced many U.S. production facilities to relocate to China, resulting in the loss of thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs. Some policymakers have also raised concerns that China’s large holdings of U.S. government debt may give it leverage over the United States.

These are all valid points, and they tend to mirror the same concerns that existed between the U.S. and Japan in the 1980s--but only up to a point.

Since the end of World War II, Japan has been an American ally--a bulwark for the projection of U.S. military might in Asia. China, on the other hand, has opposed the American military presence in the region and especially criticized U.S. support of Taiwan, which it considers a rogue province.

Unlike China, Japan is a nation built on post-war capitalism--albeit a more managed model than the type practiced in the U.S. The government in China is still a hard core Communist regime that would like nothing more than to see the free market capitalist democracy in America fail.

Thus, the relationship between China and the U.S., while mostly friendly since diplomatic ties were reestablished in the early 1970s, often has been strained.

Never was that more evident than after 1989 and the Tiananmen Square massacre--an event that I covered for the Tribune. After the Chinese government slaughtered some 2,000 to 3,000 students and pro-democracy protesters in the heart of Beijing in June of that year, Washington finally began to take the issue of human rights violations in China seriously.

It continues to do so, though the Chinese government sees any criticism of how it handles anti-government and anti-communist protesters as an internal issue that the U.S. has no business interfering with.

Give China points for creating a robust, semi-capitalist economy that has been built on enticing technology transfer from places like Europe, the U.S., Japan and South Korea. Give it points for refusing to buckle under to demands that it revalue its currency so its products are no longer dumped on international markets.

And finally, give it points for looking ahead while political leaders in the U.S. seem mired in the past, content to concede space exploration to lesser nations and allow energy independence to languish while greedy Middle Eastern sheiks hold us hostage.

While we squabble about the direction of capitalism, the redistribution of wealth and a plethora of questionable social reengineering schemes, our competitors (i.e. China) are innovating, moving forward and prospering.

It makes you wonder.

(Next: Is the American Empire at an End? (Part II)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Don Agrella: City Editor Extraordinaire

Don Agrella (R) & Ed "Lou Grant" Asner (Middle).
Tribune Metro Editor Bernie Judge is on the left

OK, right off the bat, I will tell you Don Agrella would have yelled at me if I ever called him City Editor "Extraordinaire."

But the fact is, Agrella, who passed away at 92 Wednesday, was an extraordinary Day City Editor and newsman. For about five years he was my boss at the Chicago Tribune. Between 1969 and 1974 I worked for him as a general assignment reporter, rewrite man and assistant city editor. During those five years he provided me with a newspaper education that simply doesn't exist anymore.

Agrella's trademark in the newsroom was to assign reporters to stories by yelling: "Hat and Coat!" as in, "Yates, hat and coat!"  

Never mind that I or few other reporters in early 1970s ever wore a hat.

That would be my signal to trot over to the Tribune's gray U-shaped wooden city desk where Agrella would issue my marching orders: "Go cover this (fill in the blank) speech, fire, trial, meeting, press conference, etc. and  let me know if it's worth anything."

Only once during my incipient career as a general assignment reporter for the Tribune did I return and declare: "It wasn't worth a story."

"Is that right?" Agrella replied. "Well then, why in the hell does the Sun-Times have a story and what about this City News copy I am holding."

All I could do is gulp. "Sorry," I said. "I didn't think it was worth a story."

"In the future you go cover the story, call me and I'll decide if it's worth anything," he told me. "That way, you won't have to apologize any more."

Then, noticing that my 6'4" frame seemed to be sinking into the newsroom floor, he took pity on me.

"Look, it's my job to decide if something is worth a story. It's your job to report. OK? Let me do my job."

Then he smiled. "Now go and write me a 4-head." (A 4-head was a short, 3-paragraph story that usually wound up somewhere in the back of the paper).

I went back to my desk and wrote what was (in my mind at least) the best 4-head story Agrella had ever seen.

The Tribune newsroom in those days was alive with sound. No cubicles. No cell phones. No carpeted floors. Just a lot of noise--as in the clacking of typewriters, telephones ringing off their hooks, editors yelling at reporters and reporters yelling "copy" at copy boys (and girls). In those days yelling "copy" didn't mean go to the Copier and make a copy. It meant: "get over here and pick up this story I just finished and distribute it to all the relevant editors."

Newsrooms 40 years ago were studies in semi-controlled mayhem. How anybody ever worked in them, let alone wrote anything of quality baffles me today. Yet, work we did and the stories produced were often damned good ones too.

Don Agrella saw to that. He was a tough task master. He did not suffer fools nor did he tolerate sloppy reporting.

"You sure about this, Yates?" he once asked about an exclusive story I had just put in front of him.

"I am," I replied.

"Would you bet your mother's life on it?"

"I would," I said.

"OK," he replied. "But don't forget, you only have one mother, but there are a million stories out there."

I have to admit, that gave me pause. But I soldiered on. "Damn it, Don, it's a good story."

"I didn't say it wasn't good...but is it accurate?" he demanded.

Accuracy was at the top of Don Agrella's list of reportorial essentials. He might accept a poorly written story (he could always have a rewrite man or woman rework it), but God forbid that it be inaccurate.

And one thing you learned early on in dealing with Don Agrella: you never, ever lied to him. Don wanted to trust his reporters and if he couldn't take you at your word, you were on bad paper with him. I witnessed a few reporters fall into that trap and few, if any, ever climbed out of it and into Don's good graces again.

Between 1973 and 1974 I became a City Editor myself. I was the weekend version of Don Agrella, assigning reporters to stories on Saturday and Sunday and putting together a local report. I am sure I could never have done that job had I not had the experience of watching Don Agrella at work.

In 1974 I was promoted to Foreign Correspondent and went off to Asia. I never worked for Don Agrella again.

But one day in 1975, when I returned to Chicago for a few days after covering the fall of Saigon in April of that year, Don grabbed me and took me aside.

"You did a great job covering Vietnam," he told me. "And just so you know, the Sun-Times never had a story you didn't have. Looks like you learned something in my city room after all, Yates."

A few years later, while I was based in Los Angeles for the Tribune, I met with actor Ed Asner, who at the time was playing the part of Lou Grant, City Editor of the Los Angeles Tribune.  It was 1978 and Lou Grant was one of the top TV shows in America.

Asner asked me if I thought his portrayal of a tough city editor was accurate. I told him he should go to Chicago and watch Don Agrella at work. He actually did do that and one day, when Don wasn't expecting it, Asner walked into the Tribune city room and yelled; "Agrella, Hat and Coat!"

When Don retired from the Tribune in 1979 it was definitely the end of an era. He was an old school newspaperman leaving at a time when the business was on the verge of changing in ways that make many veteran hacks like myself, sad.

Once in the 1990s a bunch of us Tribune-ites gathered at Ricardos (once a classic  Chicago hangout for news people) for lunch. Don was in town from Florida where he had retired. I had just returned to Chicago from Tokyo where I had been the paper's bureau chief.

"Well Don," I asked. "Are you ready to come back to the Tribune city room?"
"What city room?" he replied. "The place looks like an insurance office. I couldn't work there. There's no noise."

I was one of the lucky ones. I got to work in a noisy newsroom for Don Agrella: a City Editor who was, without a doubt, truly "Extraordinaire."

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

European Vacation: Part III (Getting There)

Rome Airport (Just Kidding)
So far, in recounting my recent European vacation, I have talked about the German and Italian people, the drivers, my impressions of cities, food, etc. And the news on that front was mostly good.

Now comes the bad news. Getting there.

Short of teleportation (a technology that sadly is not yet perfected) the only practical way to get to Europe from California is by plane. Yes, you can book a cruise and go by boat, but that takes more than a week from this part of the world. And then I would be worried I would have to row part of the way.

So it's the airplane or nothing.

In my case, it was via American Airlines. Now, I am an AAdvantage member, which means I have accumulated thousands of miles--currently about 96,000 of them. When I booked my ticket almost six months before my intended departure it was with the idea that I would use my miles to upgrade from steerage to business class.

However, I received a rude awakening. Because the tickets I purchased were very inexpensive ones, I learned that I would be at the end of a long line when it came to upgrading. Those with full fare economy tickets and a myriad other people with more perks would be allowed to leapfrog over me in the race to upgrade. Buying a business class ticket outright was not an option--not when a round trip from L.A. to Munich cost about $8,000.

On the American Airlines AAdvantage website there is a button that reads: "Buy Upgrades." That should really read: "Buy Upgrades--Ha!" Because even with more than 111,000 miles I was not allowed to do so.

I am 6'4" tall. So the idea of setting in the back of a plane for 10 hours like Gulliver in seats that are built for people 5'8" is tantamount to undergoing some medieval form of torture. Not only could I not find room for my knees and feet, by the time I reached London's Heathrow Airport, my knees looked like they had been beaten with rubber mallets. For most of the trip my feet were stuck in the aisle where they were continually stepped on and kicked by a parade of passengers on the way to the broom closet American Airlines calls a toilet.

For those of you who have tuned into the new TV drama called Pan Am set in the 1960s, let me assure you that THAT was the golden age of air travel. 
Stewardesses (that's what they called them back then) were attractive and polite; passengers actually wore shoes and normal clothing, not flip flops and dirty shorts. And there was leg room--even in the economy class cabin.

In those halcyon days when I was a foreign correspondent, I knew people at the airlines with clout and was often upgraded automatically--no mileage expended, no begging reservation clerks or airline counter personnel. Alas, these days I am just another wandering peasant consigned to the torture chamber called economy class.

Today, traveling by air is something akin to putting a grubby bus into a cannon and blasting it toward some far away target. Inside people are crammed together in intolerable intimacy. Flight attendants are short-tempered, passengers are petulant, the food is awful, the air is foul and sleeping (at least in steerage) requires training as a contortionist.

Germany and Italy were wonderful once I got there. But getting there challenged my body and mind in ways I hadn't anticipated.

First, there were the never-ending security checks. Now, I don't really mind that so much. I would rather spend a few more minutes on the ground getting patted down, x-rayed, zapped, and electronically undressed than watch helplessly as some religious or political fanatic attempts to blow up the plane at 35,000 feet.

Having said that, it seemed there was no end to the security checks. After taking off and putting on my shoes so many times, I began to understand why there were so many passengers wearing flip flops, dirty feet and all.

The smartest thing I did was travel with carry-on luggage only. That meant no waiting at the luggage carousel for a suitcase that may or may not arrive. I had everything I needed with me on the plane--along with a small backpack for my laptop, Kindle, I-Pod and noise-cancellation earphones (a must on long flights if you intend to get any sleep at all).

The problem is that a lot of other people are doing the same thing. That means the ridiculously tiny overhead storage bins cannot accommodate all of that carry-on luggage and if you are one of the last people to board, you can forget finding a place for your carry-on bag.

The most irritating thing I noticed is that people sitting in one area of the plane often put their carry-on bags in the overhead bins in other areas. Which means it is highly likely that someone who boarded before you has already taken the storage space above your seat. On one flight I watched a man angrily toss someone else's bag out of the overhead bin above his seat. That almost set off a fist fight, until a flight attendant (not a Pan Am stewardess) interceded and moved the encroaching passenger's bag to the front of the plane.

"You can pick it up on the your way out," she said. Problem solved. Not really. Airlines are creating more problems than they are solving by jamming too many people and their bags into planes that have too many seats and not enough storage.

Air travel today is not meant to be is meant to be efficient. Air travel 30 and 40 years ago was a relatively pleasant experience. And it was still efficient. I actually enjoyed it--unless I was flying into a war zone.

The difference between then and now is that planes were not configured like buses  and those who traveled in them were a classier group of folks--or at least they took some pride in their appearance. Today, air travel has been reduced to the lowest common denominator--hence the great unwashed, dressed in tank tops, grimy shorts, flip flops and reeking of body odor. Not a pleasant prospect when you are confined inside a metal box for 10 or 12 hours.

The one bright spot in my travels with American Airlines was that I was able to use miles to upgrade to business class on the final 5 hour leg of the trip home--from New York to Los Angeles.

What a difference. I could actually stretch out my legs and I had more than enough room for my carry-on bag and small back pack. When I arrived in Los Angeles I was tired, but  my legs, feet and body didn't ache as though I had been subjected to some ancient Chinese torture device.

I do believe there is a remedy for some of the problems I have cited here. It is quite simple. Require airline CEOs, members of the board of directors and the sadists who design airplane interiors to sit for 12-15 hours in those God-awful economy class seats next to the malodorous bathrooms and noisy galleys. Perhaps then they will learn how appallingly awful they have made air travel.

Of course, you shouldn't hold your breath. Those are the people who always fly first class. And they don't have to use their miles to do so, either.

So how will I get to Europe next year? I am looking into that. I plan to consult a physicist to see how far along teleportation technology is.

If that doesn't work maybe I will have myself deeply sedated and shipped in a coffin. At least I will arrive rested, without aching knees and legs.

Someday, I hope, I will be able to say: "Beam me to Munich, Scotty" and find myself seconds later at the Oktoberfest in a beer tent along the Wirtsbudenstrasse drinking a liter of Augustiner.  

Now THAT'S the way to travel!

Monday, October 3, 2011

European Vacation: Part II

Ron at Trevi Fountain.

It may be apocryphal but Yogi Berra, the former N.Y. Yankee baseball player and master of malapropisms is credited with this quote about travel:

"I took a trip around the world last week, and you know what, it hates each other."

I think I know what he was trying to say.

Fortunately, during my recent trip to Germany and Italy I didn't encounter that notion. In fact, I found people in both countries pleasant, helpful and generally welcoming.

And that is saying a lot. After all, I am an American and Americans aren't the most popular people in the world these days.

Europeans tend to blame the United States for their economic woes--something to do with the national debt crisis and its impact on markets everywhere, I believe. In Asia and Latin America, where I lived and worked as a foreign correspondent for several years, people see Americans as aggressive exploiters of cheap labor in search of profits at any cost.

Then, of course, there are Washington's international political policies--never a popular topic of conversation no matter where you travel.

When I was traveling around the world as a foreign correspondent, I can't tell you the number of times I would be cornered in some bar or hotel lobby by someone who always began the conversation: "You in "You Americans are always trying to impose your political system on the rest of the world...."or "You Americans think you have all the answers...." or "You Americans think you can buy friends with the all-mighty dollar."

Today, I avoid those conversations by keeping my journalistic past a secret. That way I don't have to spend precious minutes our even hours defending or explaining Washington's policies. And what's more, the almighty dollar isn't quite as almighty as it once was. More on that later.

When approached with such comments, I simply say: "Boy, ain't it the truth. Luckily for me I have a Southern California passport."

During this trip not one Italian or German accosted me about America's shortcomings--perceived or real.

Instead, they blew smoke at in cigarette smoke.

It seemed as if everybody in Europe smokes. Non-smoking areas are essentially non-existent in many places--restaurants, bars, hotels, cafes, shops, etc. As a consequence, there is a lot of passive smoke floating around.

It's not as if there aren't warnings about the health risks of smoking. Graphic billboards and chilling messages on cigarette packs warn of impending doom if smoking isn't given up. In Asia I once estimated that about 60-70 percent of men smoke and about 40 percent of women. In Europe it seemed as if about half the population smoked regardless of sex.

It is always dangerous to generalize about people. Americans get that a lot, as in "Americans are this" and "Americans are that," when in fact, it is difficult to pin down any trait that can be called 100% American--unless it is a love of baseball, fast food and cars. Even then, that would be a stretch. I know a lot of people who hate baseball, never eat fast food and prefer public transportation when available.

Having said that, I feel I must generalize a bit here. For example, Germans love their beer. And for good reason. It is damned fine stuff. Must better than the mass-produced, preservative-laden swill that Americans call beer. (Of course, I am not including the hundreds of new micro breweries that have sprung up in the United States in the past 20 years or so. Those beers are almost as good as what you will find in Germany--and some may even be as good).

It just so happened, I was there for the opening of Oktoberfest. What an adventure that was! Perhaps a half million people crowded into Munich's Theresienwiese area--all looking for a beer tent to visit.

Germans love their cars also--and no matter what kind of car it is, it must be a stick shift. None of those automatic transmissions in my BMW 700 series, thank you!
Why is that? "Driving in Germany is considered a kind of sport and shifting gears reinforces that feeling," a German told me. I think I can understand that. When I was a kid I used to drag race. All of my cars had four on the floor. Automatic transmission? No way!

Now, on to Italy and more generalizations. Italians are definitely more friendly than Germans. Not that Germans aren't friendly. It just takes a bit longer to get to know them. There is a coolness there--perhaps it is the climate.

Or perhaps Germans are still angry about all of those Roman legions that marched from Rome into places like Gaul and Germania 2,000 years ago to subdue the barbarians. In any case, going from Berlin to Rome in a day was eye-opening.

Maybe it was the hands. People in Italy talk with their hands in way that simply does not exist in Germany. By comparison, Germans keep their hands in their pockets. Not really, but it seems that way when you put an Italian and a German next to one another and tell them to start talking.

I don't speak Italian. But by watching the hand signals, I felt I was learning the language. I do speak German and German is a difficult language to learn. I wonder how much easier it would be if Germans adopted the Italian way of using hand signals when they spoke?

Italians love to hug one another and kiss each other on the cheek. I like that. It is demonstrative of affection, if not always genuine. Nevertheless, it breaks the ice faster than a cold handshake or a nod.

Rome is a very big city. Yet, I found people there really friendly. Everybody is in a hurry, but they always had time to help out a lost American trying to figure out how to get back to the hotel or to some piazza or another.

Of course, about half the people I encountered in Rome seemed to be tourists like me. And like me, most seemed to be constantly looking at maps or asking directions. That's OK. Rome is a great city to get lost in. No matter where you are or how far you walk, you will always come upon a wonderful outdoor cafe or some picturesque piazza where you can stop, have great meal, a coffee or a beer (and I must say, Italian beer is better than I expected).

In fact, it doesn't really matter if you get lost in Rome.

As Yogi Berra once said: "If you don't know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else."

Amen, brother.