Monday, November 24, 2008

America as Used Car Dealer

Way back in the fifties Dwight Eisenhower sold America on the need for an Interstate Highway System as a defense measure. There actually were defense guys testifying before Congress and writing articles about how all those miles of straight paved roads could keep supply lines intact and serve as emergency landing strips for our airplanes should the Soviets carry out a surprise nuclear attack on the United States. Little did we know at the time that the USSR only had limited capacity to actually deliver its newly acquired nuclear weapons.

Of course, the Interstate Highways had a profound effect on America’s culture and its economy. On the one end, it spawned Kerouac, Travels with Charley, and Route 66. On the other side, it gave the GI generation the opportunity to move to the suburbs where the post World War 2 promises of a home, a car, and college educations for every family appeared to be a very achievable reality. You could build such things cheaply in the west. Suddenly, you could throw all your possessions in your car, make the trip in three days on twenty cent a gallon gasoline, buy a house for eight thousand dollars, and commute to your job, your shopping mall, and all the suburban activities that would make your child’s life safer and saner than yours had been.

A few years later, Eisenhower warned us about the dangers of the military-industrial complex, but the lifestyle so many of us identify as our American birthright was made in part possible by a socialist program, the interstate highway system.

Fast forward fifty five years or so and suddenly American car makers are in serious trouble. The American taxpayer put an infrastructure in place for them, but let’s put it simply, “Asia and Europe build better cars”. In the last fifteen years, Korea got into the act and now India has a chance to be the world’s producer of City Cars. Some blame UAW, claiming that salaries got out of control, but I’m not sure that’s true. Has anyone ever seriously looked at Mercedes salaries or the salaries of American Toyota workers?

I may be one of the few people saying this, but has anyone taken a good look at the world’s current successful car manufacturers. Ten years ago, I spent a fair amount of my time looking at school to career programs. Hedrick Smith did a documentary on how they do it in Germany. There late teenagers get government-sponsored educational programs to learn to work for Mercedew/VW etc. Where did the Toyota Prius come from? Toyota takes pains to claim that they developed the Pruis on their own, but the truth is that government research helped them develop the battery and the hybrid drive system. The truth is that the most successful car makers in the world either got there or are in some sort of partnership with their governments.

Has anyone considered the possibility that America’s car makers are failing because the partnership faded away? If you’ve read David Halberstam’s book the Reckoning, you’re probably well aware that the Japanese auto industry was not the result of companies flourishing in a pure free market. The Japanese government went into serious partnership with those companies to make them internationally competitive. One thing the workers got in exchange was long term job security. Bottom line, those who insist that the only answers in this crisis must be completely-rooted in the free market really don’t know a whole lot about the history of the automobile or the role that the highways, the oil infrastructure, government research and development, and even war have played in making the world’s car industry possible.

One other point, does it occur to anyone that there’s another serious consequence to letting domestic auto manufacturers fail on their own? Not only do we lose jobs, but we also lose the capacity to build engines for tanks, trucks, and other vehicles that make us a world military power. Say we really did get in a war with China? Do we want to have to get our parts from them for our tanks? Yeah, I know that might keep us out of wars in the future if we had a truly global economy, but I am a little surprised that the most pro-defense folk out there are all screaming “free market” and maybe not so subtly making our troops a little less safe in the process. While there are limits to American military power, the last time I checked the US won World War 2 at least partly because it could produce more stuff than its enemies. Do we really want to give up that capacity?

So, I’m not talking about a partnership that’s good for GM, I’m talking about one that’s built around making America a better place. Yes, we impose real CAFÉ and environmental standards on passenger vehicles over the next five years. We also make sure that auto-work stays as a source of middle-class jobs. Finally, we talk about infrastructure at a serious level. Is the single family vehicle really the best way to go or is a mass transit hub and spoke system built around shareable rather than single owner vehicles more sensible in the long run? The information highway supposedly succeeded the interstate highway as the model for America’s future, but how might we combine the two in the next few years?


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Monday, November 10, 2008

What's a Burrata?

My wife and I were sitting in Vicoletto’s, a newish Italian restaurant in the North Beach area of San Francisco, on Saturday night. The décor was Euro modern, the waiters all had thick Italian accents (the real kind), and the prices in general looked reasonable. Since we were celebrating our anniversary either that or I forgot to bring my reading glasses again, I did my usual thing of ordering an item on the menu that I didn’t recognize. The “burrata” came with lettuce and sliced cherry tomatoes, so I assumed it was some sort of salad. The menu mentioned that they fly the stuff over from Italy once a week and this was the best that could be found. My wife gave me her “Oh not again” glance.

I took the precaution of ordering fried calamari along with the mystery dish. A few minutes later the waiter returned with a big white pouch of a cheese-like substance decoratively presented between a bunch of cherry tomatoes and some lettuce in a very good dressing. Two young Italian women were sitting at the bar speaking Italian to the bartenders and I noticed that they too had ordered the burrata. My wife and I poked at the cheese which had some sort of creamy substance pushing out from the middle and ate an occasional spoonful while we played “So, what do you think this is?”

The two Italian women seemed very happy with their burrata. In the meantime, the maitre-de dropped by to talk to us about the creamy white blob. He re-explained the bit from the menu about how it has to be very fresh and this is the best in the world. His wife had come in a few minutes earlier and brought along his maybe three year old son who didn’t like being trapped at the restaurant (I hated it too when I was a kid stuck at my dad’s restaurant for several hours). Every few minutes, the kid would scream at the top of his lungs. In between screams, we had a chance to ask what it was and he explained that burrata is a cousin of the mozzarella only way more expensive. I turned to my wife and told her “But it was only eight dollars.”

She shook her head at me. The maitre-de's son then started crying again.

The rest of the meal was incredible. Pasta was made from scratch and my wife kept praising the fact that they included spring potatoes in her pesto along with baby string beans. My tagliatelle in Bolognese sauce (spaghetti in meat sauce last I checked) was equally wonderful as was our desert. We maybe made it half way through the damn burrata. It was good, but how much mozzarella-like substance can you eat at one sitting? So, the thing sits at our table the rest of the meal until my wife asks the waiter to put it in a box so we can savor it at home.

I also ordered the mystery dessert, which turns out to be white and cylindrical or more or less like the burrata, though this time it’s dressed with a mint leaf, raspberries, and blueberries. The waiter tries to describe it in English and the best he can come up with is that it’s a kind of whipped cream or like their version of crème brulee which also happens to be on the dessert menu. We love the dessert. The poor burrata sits in a bag next to my wife.

The bill comes, it’s seventy two dollars for the two of us. It’s not that bad for two people out in the city, but it’s more than we expected. My wife, who has her reading glasses, looks it over and discovers that the burrata was eighteen dollars not eight dollars. “Dear, you’ve got to either bring your glasses or stop ordering things at random.”

“Seriously, I thought it was eight dollars, the same price as the calamari," I don’t tell her that I originally thought I’d ordered some Italian version of a burrito.”

Eventually, I go home and look up burrata on the wikipedia. I learn that it’s a cheese made from water buffalo (which came to Italy from China) and that it’s wrapped in leaves because it’s so delicate. Okay, I’m used to chevre, not quite ready for water buffalo.

I try to tell my wife we were having a burrata weekend. Even though we live within an hour and a half of San Francisco, we rarely go there. In fact, we were debating whether or not our youngest daughter had ever been to Fisherman’s Wharf. We spent the morning walking from Fort Mason to Pier 39 and back and even bought the crab cocktail from the street vendor next to Alioto’s. We had Thai food for lunch- spent the afternoon at the Asian Arts museum- stayed at the hotel Boheme in a room dedicated to Alan Ginsberg (I kept worrying that we’d find used needles in the bathroom) – bought lemon and hazelnut truffles from some tiny French specialty shop two blocks from the hotel – hung out at City Lights – bought dim sum the next morning. Bottom line, we decided to take a chance on doing different stuff now that we're free of volleyball tournaments. After all, America had done the same thing just a few days before by electing Obama.

I should say something about the Afghan exhibit at the Asian Art Museum which is built into what was the old main library for the city. Years ago, I used to attend the San Francisco Writer’s Workshop every Tuesday night there. The Holmes room where we met got turned into an administrative area. With all the talk lately about Afghanistan as a war zone, I’d forgotten that as a central part of the silk road it’s one of these places where Buddhism, Islam, Greco-Roman culture, and China all met. I guess with all the war, a lot of the artifacts had been looted. Depressing stuff, but also fascinating.

I guess this will always be our burrata weekend, one which we’ve sworn to repeat only maybe without the exotic-exorbitantly expensive-mysterious cheese. If we do though, it might not be the same somehow.


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Monday, November 03, 2008

Other Stuff

I just wanted the world to know that my friend Linda Saldana, who's a wonderful writer and part of my regular in person writer's group, won the Marin Independent Journal's Halloween Story Contest.
It's a very deserving story and in her case just one of many.

Outside the Box by Linda Saldana

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