Al’s Big Travel Book

Now that I’ve drawn the illustrations for my two latest books, I’m emboldened to try it again for the next one.

AL’S BIG TRAVEL BOOK will tell the story of airline fees in pictures. That won’t be easy because fees are just abstractions until you actually hand over the money – so nobody knows what they look like.

Then there’s this. Once airports became cesspools of human aggravation, I stopped traveling to any destination that is farther away than I can drive; so what do I know about airlines? Ah well, it’s humor.

Besides, it’s not just me. Airlines have a history of troubled relations with illustrators in general. Look at the wretched renderings on their seatback safety cards – walking-stick mannequins jumping out of emergency doors onto canvas chutes, their faces blank and their arms pointed straight in the air. The dregs of the illustration industry.

The airlines probably paid undocumented freelance artists $8 an hour and then charged them easel and palette fees by the color.

But back to the task at hand. The first drawing problem I have to solve is for a tableau that shows all the exclusive benefits of a US Airways Dividend Miles MasterCard.

As they teach at summer writers’ conferences, Show – Don’t Tell. So I want to picture myself and four companions “enjoying our first eligible checked bags FREE on domestic US Airways operated flights.” As if that weren’t head-scratcher enough, my traveling companions are on the verge of desertion – sick of striking poses so that I can picture them enjoying their fee-free bags.

Still, the mightiest challenge lies ahead. The most dramatic scenes in AL’S BIG TRAVEL BOOK will show me and two friends reveling in US Airways’ $99 companion tickets.

What a deal! Heck, my kid could illustrate that!

Actually, I have four kids, but this is tough enough without invidious comparisons (“invidious” comes from the Latin for “You can’t make a movie out of that”).

Since the $99 partner ticket offer is the book’s dramatic climax, I want to get it just right – especially the taxes and fees and special charges that have to be added to the $99.

How do you illustrate foreign departure taxes, customs and immigration fees, airport improvement fees, U.S. security fees, passenger facility charges, federal excise taxes, Canadian VAT/GST, and September 11 security fees? Or, for that matter, “additional government-imposed charges composed of a U.S. immigration fee of $7, airport fees of $10, Canada air traffic security charge of $9, and specific fees and charges that vary with itineraries and exchange rates and may be changed without notice.”

Oh, and then I have to draw a picture of 75 blackout dates when the offer doesn’t apply.

After my BIG TRAVEL BOOK, I may do one on mathematics, another subject in which I’m purportedly ignorant. We’ll see about that. I’m going to delineate the mathematical map of a $99 companion ticket, including all taxes, fees, special charges, and whimsical add-ons.

Simple arithmetic suggests a cost for each person of $65,000-plus, so I guess I can’t use simple arithmetic. I’ll have to use calculus, in keeping with airlines’ custom of confusing and ultimately out raging every last passenger. (“calculus” is Latin for the coating of plaque that forms on your teeth if you don’t floss.)

Fortunately, I have those four kids to help me with my homework.

Fran Shea -

Folding Money

So on the eve of a rumored extinction – the last days of reading and writing via the printed word – here comes another electronic post from The Horse to you, our 631st over the past seven years. Ironically, this one is about the invention of paper and its impact on the course of civilization.

The prompt to explore this subject is a new book by Alexander Monro, The Paper Trail: the unexpected history of the world’s greatest invention. Dumb title.

In Monro and elsewhere, paper’s invention is attributed to a Chinese civil servant named Cai Lun, who in 109 AD (or thereabouts) figured out how to macerate mulberry bark and other plant fibers into a pulp, then dry and press the pulp into sheets.

Unlike clay or stone tablets, papyrus, animal hide parchments, or uterine vellum, these new sheets could be cheaply produced in quantity.

Rudimentary printing techniques soon followed.

Monro’s consuming interest is the role of paper in spreading knowledge, culture, and religion – moving from the Chinese to the Arabs, thence to the Europeans, where the new paper intersected with Gutenberg’s moveable type for a second great efflorescence of the printed word.

Though not part of Monro’s thesis, it would have been worth mentioning that, along the way, the proliferation of paper also leveraged two other deeply entrenched human tendencies – to liquidity and inflation, the seemingly magical pathways to magnifying wealth.

It had taken the Chinese less than a hundred years from the invention of paper to the realization that this new material was the perfect matrix for money – far more convenient than precious metals or any of the other units of commodities or livestock in prior use as a medium of exchange or a store of value.

This quickly led to the wondrous discovery that you could print as much money as you could possibly want.

By 200 AD parts of China were deluged by inflation, and paper was abandoned as a currency.

Paper and printing did not make inflation possible, just faster and easier. Debasement of gold and silver coinage was already a chronic government malady, from ancient times to the day before yesterday – as the Romans showed in the sad case of the denarius,

Introduced in 211 BC as a 96% silver coin of the realm (worth 10 asses), the denarius was progressively cheapened over 250 years until its silver content was a small fraction of one percent – a an early shadow of Rome’s irreversible decline.

As for liquidity, it used to be that if you owned 600 acres on the island of Skye, you might be able to swap some of it for sheep, but if what you really wanted was a house in London or a boat in the Mediterranean, the trade would be difficult to impossible.

Paper money and paper instruments of various kinds – deeds, titles, contracts, letters of credit, promissory notes, stock shares, bonds – have made assets of almost any kind, anywhere, readily convertible to almost any other.

These days much if not most of this traffic is electronic, and over half the activity on the stock exchanges consists of algorithm-driven high-frequency trading. Thousands, soon millions, of transactions per second leave regulators wondering how they can ever monitor much less control the soundness, integrity, accuracy, and crash-resistance of such a system.

Paper’s share of civilization’s business, leisure, culture, and religion may keep shrinking, but rumors of its extinction are surely premature.

What Would an Economist Think?

My old friend Dave Barbour once met an academic-looking gentleman at a party and asked him what kind of work he did. “I teach writing,” the professor said, “to engineers.”

Dave was aghast. “You mean you TEACH them to write that way?”

That was decades ago and, come to think of it, must have been about the time an enterprise called The Great Courses got started, hitchhiking on The Great Books concept out of the University of Chicago.

I just saw an announcement from The Great Courses, appearing in the cunning camouflage of a full page ad in The Economist magazine (which ought to be a little more discriminating). The Great Courses logo looks like the United Fund torch logo, so l guess they steal from anyone and everyone, and their offerings have obviously failed to advance. This one advertises a book/DVD/CD,

Thinking Like an Economist

In DVD format, the book was $199.95. Now it’s $39.95, so we can be sure that demand for learning to think like an economist is none too brisk. The $134.95 CD is now $24.95.

I haven’t seen the book or played the DVD, but they show a list of the lecture titles, which get off to a rousing start with 6 principles and three core concepts, then “the myth of True Value,” the economics of ignorance, a few others, and finally the deeply subversive “Acting Like an Economist.”

So, yes – it’s true – they actually TEACH them to think that way!

Hence all the wacko forecasts on housing starts and consumer prices and unemployment and interest rates and all the urgings on CNBC to load up on equities in the fall of 2007, just before the stock market went through the floor.

I’ve known and/or read a few really good economists – Krugman, Stiglitz, Sunstein, Thaler, Al Blumstein, the late Richard Bernstein, The Economist magazine as a whole, and Mark (one of our editors) – and what sets them apart is that they know how to think beyond economics.

The Great Courses’ current ad doesn’t list its other course offerings, but I know they’re there. At a guess, I would expect,

Dancing Like an Armadillo
Gubernatorial Orating
Add and Subtract Like Einstein
(on golf) Putting Like Mr. Magoo
(on baseball) How to Throw Like a Girl
(on tennis) Serve Like Sophie Tucker

I know, I know. I’m being entirely too hard on The Great Courses. The trouble started when I took their course on writing book reviews.

Fleurs du Mal

I thought Jean Genet had written Flowers of Evil but was reminded when I checked that this was a book of poems by Baudelaire and also the name of a rock band, several albums, a manga, a play, and films from America, France, and South Korea. Genet wrote Our Lady of the Flowers.

What sent me on this goose chase was a report in Thursday’s Times on Flowers Foods, which turns out to be the nation’s most lopsided corporate political donor — 99% to Republicans over the past three decades. Democratic congressmen get $2 on their birthdays.

“Flowers of Evil” springs naturally to mind.

Not even Koch Industries is that one-sided in its smug philanthropies. Nor Charles Schwab, who donates alongside the Koch brothers in the worst of their right wing crusades and vendettas.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, coined the term, “edible foodlike substances” (think Twinkies), referring to the avalanche of synthetic snacks and “foods” consisting largely of fillers, preservatives, refined sugar, salt, and artificial flavorings.

Flowers Foods makes TastyKakes and Wonderbread, so it’s just business-as-usual when they support “corruptible legislator-like zombies” for political office. Likewise, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store gives 80% of its political money to Republicans, which won’t surprise anyone who has tasted their New England Clam Chowder – an obvious scheme to destroy leftist New England. It should carry an FDA warming label, “tainted by penchant for oligarchy”

But Flowers takes the Kake.

Only one Flowers officer is known ever to have given a substantial contribution to a Democrat — $500 to Georgia democrat Stanford Bishop from Robert Crozier, then a Flowers executive (“a lonely little petunia in an onion patch,” in the words of Ed King’s song)

Wonder what became of Mr. Crozier?

Banks Are Only Human

If a corporation is a person – as Laura points out in reference to GM, below — then a major bank should be seen as nothing more that a big, fallible human being.

I have a checking account at a particularly silly bank where, month after month, they show a balance 15 cents higher than the balance I arrive at counting on my fingers. This isn’t calculus. It’s addition and subtraction, and they should be good at that.

True, it’s a trifling amount, and it’s conceivable that I’ve made a mistake in counting the fingers I’m counting on.

At the other extreme, Bank of America just discovered a fat-finger error of $4 billion that no one had noticed for over five years – not the accounting department, not the finance committee of the board of directors, not their outside auditor, not the Federal Reserve or the Treasury Department with all their stress tests. As one bank analyst is quoted in the New York Times,

“There are signs that controls are not as tight as they need to be.”

Oh, Really? Shame on the Times. Even you or I could have given them a better quote than that. For example:

“They didn’t notice? Right. How big a lump do you have to have in your mattress before you wake up screaming?”

As the Times reported Tuesday, it’s clear that BofA’s management should have caught the error but less clear who else should have caught it. For instance, the $4 billion gap was hiding in the bank’s submissions to the Fed, related to stress tests.

Still, the reporter generously allows, “It should be noted that the submissions contained thousands of numbers …”

Presumably the Fed gets to be counted as a person, too. Any of us could get drowsy sorting through thousands of numbers, and maybe some teller or night watchman or customer who has fewer numbers to deal with should have alerted BofA to the gaping hole in their arithmetic.

In fact, I should probably call my bank about that mistake they’re making in my checking account. Today, it’s only 15 cents, but one tiny leak in the dike and who knows where it might end?


As small children, we were less concerned with the metaphysical questions (Why is my bank a pig?) than the practical (Now that I’ve learned to put coins in the slot, how do I get them back out?)

Having since grown in wisdom, in age, and in grace, we’re finally ready for the worldly whys (Why are bankers such pigs?)

We’re not talking here about Jimmy Stewart in the local savings & loan – more like Orwell’s pigs in Animal Farm. These days, that means the big investment banks with their own version of the one-way slot where your dollars go to die.

After the piggy bankers blew up the economy in 2008, some of us started to wonder if they were overpaying themselves with the help of our tax money. We noticed they were gloriously overcompensated all year long and then got huge bonuses on top of that. For what?

Don’t ask. It’s a wonderful life.

Understandably, in the U.S. and Europe there’s been a recent move to clamp down on excessive bonuses. Surely two or three times a banker’s annual salary is enough?

But no! But no! rose the terrible squeal of porcine lobbyists in unison:

“How is an investment bank supposed to attract top talent merely by paying bloated salaries and then tripling them at year’s end?”

Still, bankers are clever pragmatists, else why would we pay them so much? Once they had grasped that the word “bonus” had acquired a pigpen aroma, they got out the thesaurus to find other words – innocent terms that the new regulations had failed to anticipate.

Instead of bonuses, some banks now speak of allowances. Didn’t we all used to get allowances? Some call their bonuses “role based pay” or “reviewable salary” and, under such banners, are managing to hand out bonuses ranging to more than five times an employee’s already majestic annual wage.

Orwell’s pigs had learned to talk like humans. Ours have graduated to fluency in weasel words.

Starship Free Enterprise

Our favorite economist (and best of the best among New York Times Op-Ed columnists) is Nobel laureate Paul Krugman.

In recent years, Dr. Krugman has made a compelling case for government actions to stimulate growth, job formation, educational excellence, and infrastructure – as opposed to the fallacies, fakery, and futility of Ryan/Romney coddle-the-rich/bash-the-poor counterfeit economics.

But there was a day, as the Economist noted last week, when the world was saner and less grim and a younger Krugman – then “an oppressed assistant professor” – wrote a paper called “The Theory of Interstellar Trade.”

He described it as “a serious analysis of a ridiculous subject, which of course is the opposite of what is usual in economics.”

The paper explained why interest rates on Earth and on a hypothetical planet he called Trantor would seek the same level if there were trade between the two. We don’t claim Krugman’s endorsement for the following elaboration, but he started it

Whatever the interest rates, Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity tells us that an investor on a starship traveling to Trantor at nearly the speed of light would age more slowly than the bankers she left behind. When she returned, having aged, say, five years while a century or two had elapsed back home, her savings would be worth trillions in compounded interest.

Her only problem would be the cost of fuel for the trip.

During the Cold War, the U.S. devoted 4.4% of all government spending to send a few astronauts to the moon. The nearest star – where Trantor might be orbiting – is ten million times that far away.

A true starship, moving at even a tenth of the speed of light, would burn up more energy getting there than all of Earth’s civilizations use in a year. So you win big money from the banks, then lose most of it to the oil barons and the electric company.

Even so, that’s better than today’s deal, which is you lose to all three.

A Bribe by Any Other Name

Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way. True, there are earnest, honest senators and representatives. And earnest, ethical lobbyists who provide essential, albeit slanted, information needed to formulate legislation.

As Diogenes wrote to us a while back, both specimens may be hard to find — and even harder to insulate from subsequent corruption. Still, surely they exist.

But you don’t want to read about endangered species in the Beltway, so let’s talk about bankers in China.

J.P. Morgan makes fees bigger than parade dragons in that mysterious land, facilitated by the fact that they hire the sons and daughters of high ranking corporate and government officials.

That’s not uncommon, and the sons and daughters may be bright, capable people. But if there is a quid quo pro – if J.P. Morgan were to get big contracts from the parents’ agencies or companies as a direct result of the hiring – that would be bribery under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977. And that’s what the SEC, the FBI, and Hong Kong authorities are busy these days trying to determine.

Our question is this. Why isn’t there a Domestic Corrupt Practices Act to look into the quid pro quo relationships between lobbyists and congressmen?

As of 1974, according to The Economist, 3% of retiring policymakers became lobbyists. Now 50% of senators and 42% of congressman do that.

Special interests now spend $3.5 billion a year – that we know of — lobbying the federal government. And beyond the money they pour directly into campaign funds and other things dear to the hearts of congresspeople, there are those cushy, highly paid jobs they are dangling in front of them.

Why would a senator spoil his or her chances for a hugely enriching sinecure at a lobbying firm by putting the American people’s interests ahead of the lobbyist’s?

Until we can get a Domestic Corrupt Practices Act passed (over the fierce objections of all lobbyists and all members of congress who like money), couldn’t we at least change the name of K Street to Bribery Boulevard?

Figures of Speeches

By popular request, here is a treatise on economic statistics:

“Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.”

Well, enough of that subject. I heard that quote (attributed to Mark Twain) when I was eight or ten years old, and I remember it every time Paul Ryan is interviewed by some post-turtle like Wolf Blitzer about one of his smoke-and-mirrors budgets.

So I leave you with the definitive (also borrowed) example of an economic statistic, courtesy of Stephanie Coontz in the New York Times (“When Numbers Mislead,” May 25).

She notes that in 2011 the average household income in Steubenville, Ohio was $46,341.

If Warren Buffett and Oprah Winfrey were to move there tomorrow, Steubenville’s average income would instantly jump to $75,263.

Then Steubenvillians would be exactly as happy as you’re going to be when Paul Ryan uncorks his next bottle of snake oil.

You now know everything there is to know about economic statistics.

The Mother’s Milk of Politics

This will have to be a short post because I have a lot of checks to write in support of worthy charities who work to save drowning kittens and shade-bound petunias.

These are 501(c)(4) groups, otherwise known as “social welfare” organizations, who have solemnly assured the IRS that they wouldn’t dream of subverting my eleemosynary intentions by using the money to support crooked Republican politicians or to smear honest Democrats – or, vice-versa, theoretically, but we all know where the floodtide of dark money rises.

And, no, it’s not from “big labor,” which now consists of the last 16 guys who carry both a union card and a nail-driver.

My first check will go to American Crossroads, Karl Rove’s slush fund, which I assume uses the money to plant crown vetch and ornamental grasses around the off-ramps and leave Gideon bibles at toll booths. I’m fairly sure they’re clean because last November all of Karl Rove’s favored candidates lost.

Next comes the Mother Teresa Puppy Pampering Patriots Fund, then the Seraphic Redemption Coalition, which is devoted to rehabilitating sleazy crooks by getting them good-paying jobs as clowns or congressmen. Otherwise, they’d all be in jail, and it would cost us a fortune to feed them.

So many are in desperate need:

Quid Pro Quo (must be a Catholic charity), Mother’s Milk for Maggots (Who knew they were even endangered?), Eye of Newt, Unplanned Parenthood, Saturday Night Special Olympics, Greased Palm Sunday, Healthy Food and Uzis for Cub Scouts, Far-Righteous Oligarchs for Christ.

A few others look a little fringy, and you can’t really be sure they actually deserve their special tax status. Thanks to a few bad apples who hold a majority in the House and a few bumblers and bunglers in the IRS, the 501(c)(4) groups don’t have to disclose whether their donors are schoolteachers, gospel singers, animal shelters, bailed-out bankers, polluting industrialists, foreign intelligence agencies, drug lords, gun dealers, or terrorists.

And thanks to conservatives on the Supreme Court, there’s no legal limit as to how big the bribe.

I wish I could be sure I’ve picked the right “social welfare” groups, but they’re all cloaked in secrecy. I wonder why.

Just to be on the safe side, I’ll limit my contributions to $2 apiece.