June 13, 2017


I recently went to a nearby Pizza Hut/KFC restaurant. (Both chains belong to Yum! Brands, Inc.) I was interested in ordering a meal combo that included a spicy chicken sandwich, a combo I had seen advertised multiple times on television.

At my request, my waitress provided me with a menu. (She didn’t come to my table equipped with one.) The menu was long on Pizza Hut food but seemed light on KFC fare. What I had intended to order was nowhere to be found. I asked her about the advertised combo, but she knew nothing about it. (She was new on the job, she told me.) The waitress left to ask a manager about the combo, but the manager seemed not to know about it either. My waitress suggested that the sandwich I wanted to try was the Zinger Spicy Chicken Sandwich, which was on the menu, but not in a $5 combo.

Unable to order the combo, I ordered a two-piece chicken meal, which was mostly fine. Well, the meal was almost fine. KFC has always served tasty biscuits, and a biscuit came with my meal. Butter, however, did not. I asked for some and received a couple of the packets like this one:

KFC Buttery Spread packet
Buttery Spread packet (approximate size 3" x 1½")
I would have thought that an outfit that went to the trouble of using “11 herbs and spices” would at least serve real butter. I have no idea what I got in lieu of butter. The back of the packet was blank; the front of the packet gave little information about what was inside. All it declared was “KEEP REFRIGERATED” and “ARTIFICIALLY FLAVORED."

My visit to the Indiana, Pennsylvania, restaurant represented the second time I had been disappointed by its skeleton KFC menu. I once visited the restaurant in pursuit of a hot chicken sandwich. I had heard an NPR report on Nashville hot chicken, and I had seen a KFC advertisement for its own hot chicken sandwich. Alas, the Pizza Hut/KFC restaurant had no clue about the sandwich in question. On that occasion, I simply walked out.

Alas, one hand of Yum! Brands just doesn’t seem to know (or care) what the other hand is doing.

May 29, 2017

A Memorial Day Prayer

Memorial Day is most certainly an appropriate day of remembrance and gratitude for those who gave their lives for their country. But, it is all too easy to describe the sacrifices of our warriors as having been made to secure our freedom or to protect our way of life. In reality, some of those sacrifices were meaningless, either because they were the product of incompetent military leadership or because they resulted from wars that should never have been fought, that is, incompetent political leadership.

Earlier today, I read a prayer posted on Facebook that adopted a perfectly conventional attitude toward our war dead. We should, I think, both celebrate those who made the ultimate sacrifice—the usual subject of Memorial Day oratory—and meditate on whether their number should be as great as it is.

I don’t want to distinguish here between “good” and “bad” wars or between “good” and “bad” military encounters. Most of us could agree that at least some military deaths in some circumstances were meaningless and unnecessary.

Such thoughts led me to compose the following prayer. This surely should not be the prayer for Memorial Day, but perhaps it should be a prayer on our lips at some point on this day. My prayer:
Dear God, on this day we dedicate to the memory of those who died in defense of our country and its declared ideals, let us not forget the many whose death resulted from dreams of empire, hubris, or adventurism. Help us to comprehend and repent of errors that have needlessly cost lives, and give us the wisdom and humility to act, as a nation, with love and compassion, informed by the teachings of the Prince of Peace, in whose name we pray. Amen.

May 27, 2017


Some of my most treasured childhood toys were Smith-Miller trucks. These large-scale die-cast trucks were not museum-quality scale models, but they were realistic, fun to play with, and practically indestructible. I had four Smith-Miller trucks, all of which were purchased at a small, independent toy store that maintained a somewhat exotic stock. (I don’t recall seeing these toys at any other store.) My favor truck was a hook and ladder fire engine. (See the picture below, which is of an identical truck).

For some reason, I decided to look up Smith-Miller on the Web the other day. I was surprised that Wikipedia had no entry for it. However, I did find a corporate Web site for Smith-Miller, Inc. The site announces “Handmade Scale Toy Trucks in Miniature.”

I was happy to see that Smith-Miller trucks have not disappeared. The story of the company is not simple, however. I haven’t been able to learn much about the early history of Smith-Miller. It went out of business sometime in the 1950s, but it didn’t do it in the usual way. It simply stopped operating, leaving everything in the factory in place. A totally different company operated out of a portion of the toy company factory.

The subsequent history of Smith-Miller is recounted on the About Us/History page of the current company Web site. In 1979, a collector who had managed to track down the remains of the company in Los Angeles in search of parts arranged to buy what was left—lock, stock, and barrel—less the factory building itself. Eventually, that collector, Fred Thompson, sold off existing stock, including trucks that first had to be completed. The resurrected Smith-Miller then began producing trucks from new designs.

Not many kids will likely be finding shiny new Smith-Miller trucks under the Christmas tree. The trucks, which seem even better than the old ones, have an average price of about $1,000. (Currently available trucks can be found here.) It’s nice to know they’re out there though.

May 16, 2017

A Plea to Reporters

I was listening to Here and Now on NPR this afternoon. A reporter was interviewing some Republican woman; I wasn’t paying close attention at the time, so I can’t say who she was. My ears perked up, however, when the interviewee spoke of the “Democrat program” or some such. Although I had an immediate and negative reaction, the interviewer did not. She failed to comment on this phrase and on a similar use of “Democrat” as an adjective later in the interview.

“Democrat,” however, is a noun, not an adjective. In proper English, it is never an adjective. The correct adjective (and the one that should be used in referring to the Democratic Party) is “Democratic.”

Republicans—and by now, this includes virtually all Republican politicians—have taken to referring to the “Democrat Party” because the word “Democratic” has positive associations for most Americans. Republicans want citizens only to have negative feelings about the opposition party, and the use of “Democratic,” they believe, works against that objective.

Republican smear
“Democrat Party” (or “Democrat agenda,” etc.) is a gratuitous smear, and one that reporters should not allow Republicans to get away with. There is no “Democrat Party” in the United States, only a “Democratic Party.”

The reporter should have interrupted the speaker and said something like, “Excuse me. There is no “Democrat Party.” Are you talking about the Democratic Party?” Such an interruption, done repeatedly over the course of an interview should have an effect.

And so, reporters and Democratic Party politicians, stop letting Republicans get away with their now institutionalized slur. Better still, politicians can begin referring to the “Republic Party.”

April 30, 2017

Religious Designations

I was intrigued this afternoon by a discussion on the WNYC program On the Media involving the words “Jew” and “Jewish.” The point was made that, in some people’s minds, calling someone “a Jew” is demeaning. (The person asserting this was Jewish and didn’t mind the designation personally.) On the other hand, using “Jew” as an adjective—as in “Jew banker”—nearly always is an insult. It was suggested that politicians tend to use “Jewish” in order to avoid any possible negative implications. For example, a politician is more likely to say that someone “is Jewish,” rather than “is a Jew.”

The designations related to Judaism (or Jewish heritage, etc.) are odd in English. Words related to Christianity are not so problematic. For example, we say someone “is a Christian,” or we might refer to “a Christian banker.” Notice that (1) both the noun and the adjective are the same, and (2) neither phrase has negative connotations. (Well, mostly. For me at least, saying that someone “is a Christian radio commentator” might indeed suggest unsavoriness, but the adjectival form is mostly innocuous.)

Other religious designations operate mostly like “Christian.” Someone can be “a Muslim” or “a Muslim banker.” (“Muslim terrorist” is another matter—see below.) The religion itself is Islam, so usage differs somewhat from the Christian case, where the name of the religion is closely related. Also, we have the word “Islamic,” which we do not normally apply to people, except in cases where they have a formal or institutional relationship to the religion of Islam (e.g., “Islamic professor”).

I’m not sure why “Islam” and “Muslim” are seemingly unrelated. When I was young, I was taught about “Mohammedanism” and “Mohammedans.” These are seventeenth-century words, but “Islam” and “Muslim” seem to be somewhat older.

The related words “Islamism” and “Islamist” have taken on dark meanings in recent years. These have become specialized words related to a particular take on Islam. Mehdi Mozaffari, of Aarhus University, offers this definition of Islamism: “a religious ideology with a holistic interpretation of Islam whose final aim is the conquest of the world by all means.” Thus, we might speak of “an Islamist terrorist.” To speak of “an Islamic terrorist,” as do many Americans, President Trump most notably among them, is an unfair slur on the religion of  Islam.

Words related to Hinduism and Sikhism follow the usual pattern. Perhaps readers know of a religion whose related nouns and adjectives do not follow the usual pattern.

Most Christian denominations have words that follow the normal pattern (think Presbyterians, Methodists, Mormons, etc.) Episcopalians, as in many things, are different. We speak of “an Episcopal church” or “an Episcopal priest,” but an individual member of The Episcopal Church is “an Episcopalian.” Only the ignorant speak of “an Episcopal.” Go figure.

April 28, 2017

The Latest Concession to the Freedom Caucus Would Create Economic Inefficiency

One of the societal problems ameliorated by the Affordable Care Act was that people were discouraged from changing jobs if they had acquired a chronic medical condition that was covered by insurance at their current workplace. The ACA lifted pre-existing-condition limitations on insurance and made it easier to afford insurance not provided through an employer. This obviously helped many individuals, but it also helped the economy, as workers could more easily change jobs to one where their contribution to the economy would be greater.

House Republicans laboring to achieve consensus on a bill to repeal and replace the ACA have hit on a scheme to attract more votes from the Freedom Caucus. The latest proposal would give individual states the ability to tinker with insurance rates and coverage. If this idea finds its way into law, it will introduce a similar inefficiency into the U.S. economy. Workers who might want to change jobs to improve their lot (and that of the economy) would, with this provision, have to ask if moving to another state would cause them to lose vital medical benefits. This could deter worker movement. It could also encourage worker movement into more generous states, most probably those whose governments are not controlled by Republicans.

House Republicans continue their race to the bottom in their devising requirements for a new health care bill. It is to be hoped that, as the leadership tries to satisfy the Freedom Caucus, less radical representatives will realize that doing so will create a backlash that will sweep GOP members from the House in 2018.

April 26, 2017

R.I.P. American Health Care Act

President Trump’s second major initiative, his attempt to replace Obamacare with Trumpcare (a.k.a, the American Health Care Act) has crashed and burned. The disaster was even more dramatic than his failure to implement a Muslim travel ban, which, after all, though on life support, is not definitively dead. Alas, Trumpcare may not be definitively dead, either, as Vice President Pence is trying to sweet talk the Freedom Caucus into supporting a nastier bill that the one that went down in flames.

Now, between fights over health care, seems a good time to offer some thoughts on health care in general and on health care legislation.

Is Health Care a Right?

Liberals argue that health care is (or should be) a right. Conservatives contend that people should be held responsible for their own health care and that having it provided through the government breeds dependency and self-indulgence.

The Declaration of Independence asserts that among the “unalienable Rights” to be secured by government are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Without life, however, other rights and privileges are illusory. People who cannot afford health insurance—and even many who can—cannot be guaranteed the medical care required to keep them alive. Regrettably, medical bills are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States. Even with insurance, a person can be one accident or one infection away from a totally ruined life. Most people, however responsible, cannot protect themselves from every medical catastrophe. Ruined lives hurt the economy and any sense we might have of being a compassionate society.

Virtually all developed countries save the United States have decided that the right to life entails the right to health care.

How We Organize Health Care

Most people of working age get health insurance through their employers. It is individual employers who determine what sort of coverage is available to their employees at a reasonable cost. Why? There are historical reasons for the system, but they have nothing to do with health insurance being inherently connected to employment. Unemployed need health insurance, too. This senseless system has had unintended consequences, at least as far a public policy is concerned. It has kept people in jobs to maintain their health insurance even when the employee could be more profitably employed elsewhere. The ACA has helped mitigate this problem, but, of course, the GOP wants to get rid of it.

Private health insurance companies; for-profit hospitals, labs, and imaging centers; rapacious pharmaceutical companies, and the whole fee-for-service system all help to drive health care costs higher. This is where the real savings are to be had. These sacred cows need to be taken on. The ACA did not do it, and nothing the Republicans will propose will do it either.

The Republicans Fail

For seven years, the GOP railed against the ACA. Candidate Trump spoke about repeal as soon as he got into office. Undoing Obama’s premier legislative accomplishment had virtually become the defining feature of Republicanism. And yet, when the GOP found itself in control of both houses of Congress, as well as the White House, it was obvious that Republicans had no real plan to effect their number one goal. President Trump had promised to repeal and replace Obamacare with something great, but it was clear that he had no idea what that great something should be. Moreover, it quickly became clear that a legislative “victory” on the health care front was more important to him than keeping his promises regarding retaining the parts of the ACA that were universally valued. He therefore farmed out creating legislation to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, someone who didn’t care about Trump’s promises and who hated the ACA, taxes, and federal deficits.

The Ryan bill was created in secret with no Democratic input and minimal input from House Republicans. What emerged was a bill that jettisoned the most important objective of the ACA—substantially decreasing the number of Americans without health insurance—and adopted what seems to be the Republicans favorite, but unacknowledged goal, namely, providing tax cuts for the rich.

Alas, the Ryan bill, the American Health Care Act, was insufficiently meanspirited for the members of the Freedom Caucus, the outgrowth of the Tea Party. The Freedom Caucus simply wanted Obamacare gone. Attempts to mollify these extremists were not very successful and alienated non-crazy Republicans. In the end, the bill was pulled. At first, it seemed as though Trump and Ryan were ready to leave the ACA in place, letting (self-inflicted) wounds heal and giving time to craft a better-thought-out bill. It now appears that the Republicans will try to replace Obamacare sooner, rather than later.

The Danger Ahead

At the outset of the Obama administration, Republican leaders vowed to oppose the new president at every turn. They did so with great success, culminating in the blocking of Obama’s final appointment to the Supreme Court. Democrats tried valiantly—and foolishly, it turned out—to sweeten the ACA to attract Republican votes. Even though the basic outlines of the law were based on the plan implemented by Republicans in Massachusetts, congressional Republicans would not go along. Moreover, they and their allies whipped up opposition to Obamacare by lying about it. People were concerned that it would destroy Medicare, that their fate would be decided by death panels, and so forth. Countering the lies failed to move public opinion among Republican loyalists, and the belief that Obamacare must go became an article of faith disconnected from any objective analysis. Adherents to the faith increasingly elected like-minded people to serve in the Congress.

As the Trump administration was moving toward repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a program that would hurt more Americans than it helped, public opinion began moving in favor of keeping and perhaps improving the ACA. House Republicans failed to notice; their faith remained intact. They acted—and are acting—like Lucy in the strip below. When circumstances change or more information comes to light, old assumptions not explicitly contradicted tend to be retained, however outrageous that may seem.

Peanuts strip from November 18, 1960

As time passes, more Americans are concluding that the ACA may have more virtues than problems. Obamacare, it turns out, actually has helped millions of people. The next time Republicans try their repeal-and-replace trick. public opinion will be even more opposed to what Republican want to do. Rumors suggest that the next bill will be more draconian than the American Health Care Act. These trends almost certainly doom GOP plans, which will put yet another blot on Trump’s already tarnished escutcheon.

If Republicans truly want to change health care in this country, they just may have to work with Democrats. Democrats will not agree to tossing the ACA overboard, but they would certainly be willing to improve it. Unfortunately for Paul Ryan, any bipartisan bill will not lower government spending or give tax breaks to the rich. It might, however, improve President Trump’s reputation.