Friday, November 28, 2008

Breakfast With Saint Peter

Thanks to a man with troubles of his own, I was able to face mine.

This past spring, just two weeks after I turned 56, I was laid off after nine years at a company. The news came suddenly. One morning I got word, and by the end of the day I was gone from the premises. I rode the subway from Manhattan back to Queens, thinking about how to tell my wife. I was the sole support of a family of four, including a son in college and a daughter studying music.

Within hours of getting home, I reached out to people I knew -- friends, associates, recruiters, former colleagues and clients. Almost everyone lent some support: a lead, a reference, an offer of office space or a freelance gig, a kind word. Along the line, I reconnected with Peter. I'd known him for 15 years; we'd once worked closely together and over the years had stayed in touch, though mostly by phone.

Peter had gotten laid off a few times himself, so he knew how I felt. He'd always found new jobs. Over breakfast at a coffee shop just south of Central Park, he fed me advice and encouragement -- and in the coming weeks never stopped. Though Peter had his own job, a wife and three kids, a long train commute and other, much closer friends, he made time for me.

Make a to-do list, Peter suggested, and then do it all. Call everyone important you know. Meet with anyone influential who will see you. You're going to be all right, he assured me. I tried to believe him. But no one, even the most confident, can be sure. Meanwhile, every day brought a new, unwelcome "first": the first family dinner jobless, the first supermarket trip jobless, the first rent bill jobless.

I knew full well how long it might take to find another job, especially at my age. The older you get, no matter how significant your accomplishments, the harder it can be. The looming recession and the tough job market gave me ample cause for anxiety.
But Peter would hear none of it. Day in and day out, he doled out pep talks laced with hard-won wisdom. Talent always rises, he said. Hold yourself accountable to your goals. After you've done all you can, do more.

On any job hunt, Peter said, the candidate always fears the "X" factor, the other guy. Make sure you're the "X" factor. Always be locked and loaded (he's big on military metaphors). Never get down on yourself, or let anyone see you sweat, or sell yourself short. Talk to so-and-so. Tell him I sent you.

Now, none of this might be all that unusual, except for this: Peter had cancer. After suffering a massive heart attack six years ago, last year Peter was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Months of treatment, including external radiation and radioactive seed implantation, left him exhausted. It seemed his days were numbered.

The sight of him that morning at breakfast had taken me by surprise. Though still patrician handsome, he looked less than robust. Peter had issues of his own, and could have told me so, and I would have understood. But he never did, and just continued to help me. Thanks to him, I was better able to keep my own life in perspective. If Peter could face the end of life without complaint or a hint of self-pity, surely I could face my troubles. All I was missing was a job.

Eventually, by following his advice, I did land a new job. A better one, just as Peter had predicted. And so this Thanksgiving I hereby raise a toast to Peter, and to all the Peters out there.

Peter remains my guardian angel. His strength gave me mine. Remember your value, he said. If you believe in yourself, most of the battle is already won. He taught me the most valuable lesson of all: How to keep my head up. Peter made me believe we might be a city of guardian angels. A country, even.

I have extra reason for such a belief. Peter's cancer just went into remission.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A kosher revolution in the Holy Land

There are many things you might not know about Israelis. They drive like maniacs, they wear summer clothes through winter and when it comes to wine, they exhibit a surprising chauvinistic pride. With good reason. If you believe the Bible, the Holy Land is the oldest winegrowing region on Earth.

"We've been making wine around here for 5000 years," says Yaariv Katz, the owner of the Wine Hall, a popular haunt for wine drinkers in downtown Jerusalem. Noah, according to scripture, planted the first vineyard and then became the first man to get drunk when he siphoned off the harvest.

According to Israeli wine guru Daniel Rogov, author of the annual Rogov's Guide to Israeli Wines, the Bible refers to the vine "as one of the blessings of the good land promised to the children of Israel". Thursday night was a big night for Israeli vintners and wine connoisseurs, who gathered at cellars around the country to celebrate the first harvest of the new season. "It's a French tradition, to sample open the first Beaujolais of the year, but we celebrate it here with even more passion I think," Katz says.

After struggling for international respect for many years, Katz says Israeli winemaking has undergone a revolution.

"We now make what I think are among the world's best wine - perhaps not as good as the French but being a Mediterranean climate, we're getting close."

Drive south-west from Jerusalem and in about 45 minutes you'll end up in the Ella Valley, the site of David's battle with Goliath. The valley is home to about 25 wineries.

"We looked long and hard for best possible area to grow premium wine and we found it here - surely one of the best winegrowing regions in the world," Iris Berg, manager of the Ella Valley Winery, says.

Established in 1998, the winery is regarded as the producer of the world's best kosher wine. "Israeli wine has struggled with the perception that kosher wine cannot be as good," Berg says.

Little wonder, considering that winemakers used to have to boil their wine to get the stamp of approval from the local rabbi, leaving little in the way of taste.

Nowadays, winemakers like Doron Rav-Hon at Ella Valley can make premium kosher wine without sacrificing the quality of the product. To make wine kosher, the grapes of any new vines must not be used for wine within the first four years. No other fruits or vegetables may be grown in between rows of vines, the fields must lie fallow every seventh year, and, most importantly, only kosher tools and equipment can be used throughout the entire process.

And until the bottle is sealed, only observant Jews may come into contact with the wine or the winemaking equipment.

"It takes a lot of work and planning but we have proved that you can make a premium wine that is of a world standard that is kosher and can be drunk by observant Jews," Berg says. "Kosher wine does not have to be boiled and it does not have to pasteurised. You just have to be careful about who and what comes into contact with the wine as it is being made."

The Ella Valley winery produces about 200,000 bottles a year, 80,000 for export.

Back at the Wine Hall, Michael Steinberg, 37, says things have changed. "My parents only used to drink European wine. Now I'm happy to only drink Israeli wine."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hitler HAD only one ball

AN extraordinary account from a German army medic has finally confirmed what the world long suspected: Hitler only had one ball. War veteran Johan Jambor made the revelation to a priest in the 1960s, who wrote it down.

The priest’s document has now come to light – 23 years after Johan’s death.

The war tyrant’s medical condition has been mocked for years in a British song.

The lyrics are: “Hitler has only got one ball, the other is in the Albert Hall. His mother, the dirty b****r, cut it off when he was small.’

Until now there has never been complete proof Hitler was monorchic – the medical term for having one testicle.

But the document tells how Johan saw the proof with his own eyes. In the account, he relives the horror of serving as an army medic in World War I.

He died aged 94 in 1985, but had told his secret to priest Franciszek Pawlar, who kept a note of their conversation.

Johan’s friend Blassius Hanczuch confirmed the priest’s account of how the medic saved Hitler’s life. He said: “In 1916 they had their hardest fight in the Battle of the Somme. “For several hours, Johan and his friends picked up injured soldiers. He remembers Hitler.

“They called him the ‘Screamer’. He was very noisy. Hitler was screaming ‘help, help’. “His abdomen and legs were all in blood. Hitler was injured in the abdomen and lost one testicle. His first question to the doctor was: ‘Will I be able to have children?’.”

Blassius said that when the Nazis swept to power Johan began to suffer nightmares and blame himself for saving Hitler.

Hitler’s genitals have long caused controversy. Some historians dismissed the “one ball” song as propaganda. But an alleged Soviet autopsy on Hitler backed it up.

Records show Hitler did suffer a groin injury in the Somme.

It is the first time an interview with anyone who treated Hitler during WWI has come to light.

Dr Martin Farr, senior lecturer at Newcastle University School of Historical Studies, said last night: “This genuinely new twist is fascinating.”

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Field Marshal Douglas Haig would have let Germany win

He is the most pilloried military leader in British history, caricatured as a butcher and a bungler who sent hundreds of thousands of men over the top to their deaths. Now a new biography pins a further damning indictment on Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. Late in the final year of the First World War, it argues, he was pushing for a peace that would have left Germany as the real winner of the war.

According to Dr J. P. Harris, senior lecturer in War Studies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Haig was not quite the uncaring monster of popular myth but nor was he, as some recent studies have suggested, a clear-sighted and imperturbable leader who should take the credit for Britain’s ultimate victory. Rather, he was a poor battlefield commander who “didn’t have the sort of intellect that could penetrate the fog of war”.

In Douglas Haig and the First World War, published today on the 90th anniversary of the Armistice, Dr Harris argues that Haig’s failings led him to misread the strength of the German armies, counselling aggression when they were strongest in the middle of the war and caution as they weakened spectacularly in its final weeks.

Haig became the leading advocate of a compromise peace in Britain, Dr Harris said yesterday. “He wanted to offer the Germans very, very, easy ceasefire terms in late 1918.” This would apparently have left Germany armed and in possession of its territorial gains in Eastern Europe.

Among the arguments he cited were the weakness of the other Allied armies (the French were “worn out” and the Americans “disorganised”) and the threat of Bolshevism overrunning Germany if the peace terms were seen to be too humiliating. By 1918 Haig was “rather shaken, somewhat confused, subject to mood swings, oscillating in his strategic judgments and, at times, willing to abandon the pursuit of clear-cut decisive victory”.

Haig was a hero in his lifetime. As commander-in-chief, he presided over the greatest run of victories ever achieved by the British Army in the run-up to the Armistice and in later years he helped to set up the British Legion. More people turned out for his state funeral in 1928 than lined the streets for Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. By the 1960s his reputation was in tatters, with John Mills’s portrayal of him in the film Oh! What A Lovely War fixing his image as a buffoon.

The one constant belief has been in Haig’s unswerving pursuit of a final and complete victory. It is also inaccurate, Dr Harris said. In the final month of the war Haig “seemed to lose faith in his ability to conclusively defeat the German armies and thought it was necessary to offer them very moderate ceasefire terms followed by a moderate peace that may indeed have left Germany with many of its ill-gotten gains in Eastern Europe.” Haig did not even expect the Germans to disarm – they would be left with a full complement of weapons, including artillery.

The armistice that the Germans eventually signed amounted almost to unconditional surrender. Seven days later Haig was offered a viscountcy, which he bartered up to an earldom.

Terry Charman, senior historian at the Imperial War Museum, where In Memoriam, an exhibition on the First World War, runs until September, welcomed the new insights. But he added: “We tend to forget that it was the British armies that won the First World War in the field, not the Americans or the French or the Belgians and if we blame Haig for the disasters we must credit him for the victories too.”

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The real history of the Great Depression in Britain

By Dominic Sandbrook

Keynesianism did not, as is often imagined, put an end to the Great Depression. Indeed, the record of big-spending governments during hard times is not one to be proud of.

John Maynard Keynes was, at first glance, an unlikely candidate to become one of the great icons of Left-wing politics.

Born in 1883 to a Cambridge economist and social reformer, he was brought up in an atmosphere of high-minded privilege.
Eton and Cambridge, where he got top marks, gave him social gloss and academic distinction.

He was no scholarly drudge, though, but a lover of beauty and pleasure. (Asked on his deathbed, in 1946, whether he had any regrets, he was said to have remarked: 'I should have drunk more champagne.')

By 1925, Keynes was building a reputation as the most brilliant and controversial economist in the western world. After advising the Government during World War I, he seized attention in 1919 with an attack on the Treaty of Versailles, arguing (correctly, it turned out) that its punitive terms were bound to provoke a terrible German reaction.

And during the Twenties he cemented his image with a series of onslaughts on economic orthodoxy, chipping away at the three pillars of the old order - the Treaty, the gold standard (the system whereby bank notes were literally exchangeable for gold) and laissez-faire government, the economic ideology which advocates minimal state intervention.

But one of the great myths about Keynes is that when the Wall Street Crash sent shockwaves through the world economy in 1929, politicians seized on his ideas as a solution to the Depression. They did nothing of the sort. For although Keynes' brains were highly regarded, he remained a heretic.

His trademark notions - government borrowing and spending on public works to boost demand and alleviate recession - were unpopular on both sides of the political divide.

Although Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government brought him on board in 1930, it did not take up his prescriptions. For as a Whitehall joke at the time had it, if you asked five economists for their opinions, you would get six replies - two of them from Keynes. And when a major committee asked his advice on solutions to the Depression, he gave no fewer than seven different answers.

In fact, it was only at the margins of British politics than Keynesianism, as it eventually became called, really caught on.

Then, the most distinguished champion of government spending in hard times was the former Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George, one of the most dynamic and charismatic speakers in the country.

But Lloyd George was a political pariah, his image besmirched by a cash-for-peerages scandal and his private reputation damaged by a string of sexual misdemeanours.
Even many Liberals hated and despised him. 'The Goat', as he was called, was far from the ideal person to sell Keynes's radical economics to the political establishment.

Yet Keynes's biggest political admirer was even less salubrious. During the Twenties, he had met a dashing young Labour politician, Sir Oswald Mosley, and it was he who made the most determined effort to introduce Keynes' ideas into British economic life.

As early as 1925, Mosley was arguing for nationalised banks, an economic council and centralised planning for full employment. And in 1930, Mosley, who was then a minister without portfolio outside the Cabinet, presented his famous Memorandum to the Labour Cabinet, recommending 200 million pounds of public works and social spending to kick- start the economy into recovery.

This was Keynesianism pure and simple - and the Cabinet rejected it. To most Labour ministers, borrowing money to throw at public works during tough times smacked of profligate irresponsibility.

Mosley promptly flounced out of the Government and ended up founding the British Union of Fascists, horrifying his old friends and colleagues. He remained an admirer of Keynes's ideas, though - as did his great friend and mentor, Adolf Hitler.

Indeed, if there was one government that did embrace Keynesianism enthusiastically in the Thirties, it was Hitler's Germany - where borrowing, spending and public works were the foundations of the Nazis' economic appeal in a country ravaged by the Depression.

In Britain, meanwhile, Keynes remained a prophet crying in the wilderness. When the Labour government fell from office in 1931, ripped apart by the economic crisis and replaced with a National Government run by MacDonald and Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin, Keynes was not impressed. He thought the Tories' ideas were 'medieval' and despised Baldwin's 'stupidity'.

And he was even less impressed when the first thing the National Government did was the exact opposite of what he recommended - slashing spending and ruthlessly pruning unemployment benefits to impress the markets.

And yet the common image of the National Government, supposedly a cabal of rich, hard-faced men watching with callous indifference as millions of workers in flat caps trudged through the streets looking vainly for work, is complete nonsense.

Indeed, the very idea of the Hungry Thirties is largely a myth. By comparison with most countries, Britain escaped the Depression relatively unscathed.

Unemployment did rocket, hitting a terrifying 23 per cent in January 1933, but then it quickly fell back to pre-Crash levels. Wages remained high and, for those people still in work, life was better than ever. And as early as the end of 1933, while Germany and the U.S. were suffering the worst throes of the Depression, Britain was already in recovery.

What was the key, then, to Britain's escape? It was certainly not Keynesianism - for Keynes's ideas were never tried.

The key economic figure in the National Government, Chancellor Neville Chamberlain, was a strong believer in protectionist tariffs and tight money. Despite this, he was a keen reformer, setting aside cash for unemployment benefits, health and housing, but he drew the line at borrowing millions of pounds to spend on public works.

And although he approved a programme of aid to depressed areas, notably the coalfields of South Wales and Tyneside shipyards, it cost a tiny 2 million pounds - a hundred times less than the programmes Keynes and Mosley had envisaged, and nowhere near enough to make a major impact.

In fact, the real key to Britain's recovery was probably the moment in September 1931 when the pound, battered by speculators, was forced off the gold standard. Until then, the Bank of England had been compelled to keep interest rates high to maintain the ludicrously elevated value of sterling.

But as investors lost their faith in the pound at the height of the Depression, the Bank finally gave up the fight and abandoned the gold standard. Now there was no need for the cripplingly high interest rates and by June 1932, bank rates were down to a barely noticeable 2 per cent - the ideal level to stimulate a recovery driven by private enterprise.

For while industrial areas, especially in the North, Scotland and South Wales, were suffering from the collapse of international demand in the Depression, the paradox is that many people had never had it so good.

As even a socialist like George Orwell was forced to admit, when contemplating the popularity of the cinema, gambling and High Street fashion in Wigan, Britain in the Thirties was an increasingly affluent society. 'It is quite likely that fish-and-chips, silk stockings, salmon, cut-price chocolate, the movies, the radio, strong tea and the Football Pools have between them averted revolution,' he grumbled.

As a result, as early as 1935, the Depression in Britain was virtually over. By contrast, the U.S., where government intervention - in line with Keynesian thinking - was much more pronounced, did not begin to recover until the outbreak of World War II.

While President Franklin D. Roosevelt's innumerable government schemes and unprecedented welfare spending undoubtedly protected Americans against the ravages of poverty and unemployment, they certainly did nothing to bring recovery.

In many ways, the New Deal, with its obsession with government control over the economy and money supply, intervention to control prices and agricultural production among myriad social projects, was a terrible advertisement for big government. For when businesses should have been investing for the future, they were defensive and angry, their confidence shattered by Roosevelt's attacks on them.

The great myth about Keynesianism, in other words, is that it was tried in the Thirties and proved successful. In fact, Keynes did not publish his landmark General Theory until 1936, and his ideas did not take hold among senior Tory and Labour politicians until the Forties.

And in the years after the war his complicated theory of demand management was gradually diluted into a recipe for government spending, with prime ministers such as Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson printing money rather than facing up to the realities of Britain's industrial decline.

By the mid-Seventies, the result was rampant inflation, soaring unemployment and a bloated, bureaucratic public sector, prompting Labour's Prime Minister Jim Callaghan to issue a famous repudiation of Keynesianism. 'We used to think you could spend your way out of recession by boosting government spending,' he told his party in 1976. 'I tell you, in all candour, that option no longer exists.'

Callaghan's words marked the end for Keynesianism in Britain - which makes it all the more surprising that it is making a comeback.

But while even Keynes's critics, such as the monetarist Milton Friedman, acknowledge that he was a brilliant economist, it would be a dreadful mistake to turn back the clock to the theories of the Twenties and Thirties.

In fact, as a die-hard Liberal who hated socialism and supported capitalism, Keynes thought of government intervention only as a last resort. He never envisaged a public sector on the scale we have today and would be horrified by the current regime of welfare entitlements.

What is more, he never anticipated the problems of soaring world commodity prices and massive inflation, which is why Keynesianism collapsed in the Seventies.

His admirers insist that he would have tackled the problem of inflation had he not died in 1946 at the age of 63 - but this only hammers home the point that, at best, his theories were a work in progress, not the definitive answer to the world's ills.

Above all, Keynesianism was the product of a world of national tariffs, protectionism and jealously guarded economic sovereignty. In a globalised world when governments badly need to win the confidence of international exchange markets, the idea of heedlessly borrowing and spending your way out of recession is as outdated as the films of George Formby and Gracie Fields.

The crowning irony, though, is that Keynes himself would have been the first to mock his new admirers. A daring nonconformist who loved to poke fun at conventional wisdom, he would have shuddered at the thought of dusting down the orthodoxies of the past instead of thinking up solutions based on changed global realities.

In other words, Keynes would have been no Keynesian. For as he rightly put it, politicians are never so ridiculous as when they make themselves 'the slaves of some defunct economist'.