Friday, September 5, 2014

A cornucopia of shlock: 72 pages of gifts related to White House you can buy from 2014 White House catalog

By Marc Jampole 

Two years ago I noted that it was September 28 when the first Christmas catalog arrived in my mail box. This year the first catalog showed its pages on September 4, stretching the holiday shopping season to one third of the year.

The winner of this year’s award for first Christmas catalog to arrive is the White House Catalog, 72 pages of tchatchkes that have some connection to the White House.  The catalog comes from the White House Historical Association (WHHA), which describes itself as a nonprofit educational association “for the purpose of enhancing the understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of the Executive Mansion.”

And in America, what better way to enjoy or appreciate anything than to buy something connected to it!

How WHHA can come up with 72 pages dense with commemorative products is an exemplar of 21st century merchandising. 

Let’s quickly dispose of the first few pages of the catalog, which display White House tree ornaments. Evidently every year since at least 1981, WHHA has designed and sold a unique tree ornament, typically dedicated to one of the presidents. This year’s is a model train elaborately chiseled with details in red, white and blue, dedicated to Warren G. Harding, who evidently loved trains. The past collection of Christmas ornaments and Christmas cards featuring the presidents or the White House take the catalog to 12 pages. The ornaments are clever and well-crafted.

But what about the other 60 pages? They are jam-packed with merchandising’s greatest hits. Let’s make two lists to illustrate:


  • Address book
  • Book mark
  • Calendar
  • Candy bowl
  • Coasters
  • Decorative boxes
  • Jewelry
  • Jigsaw puzzle
  • Letter opener
  • Mug
  • Napkins
  • Note cards
  • Pen
  • Prints
  • Scarves
  • Ties
  • Tote bag
  • Tray
  • Umbrella

  • Green room
  • Blue room
  • Red room
  • Medallions in Eisenhower’s china
  • Cherry blossoms
  • Scenes from White House neighborhood
  • Artists’ views of the White House
  • Eagles in White House decorations
  • American Impressionism
  • White House in 1914
  • White House Christmas tree lighting ceremony
  • For children
  • For business people

Evidently the White House Historical Association took these two lists and matched many products from column A with every theme in column B. For example, red room themed products include a letter opener, Limoges box, jigsaw puzzle, scarf and jewelry.  The cherry blossom themed items include a bookmark, note cards, puzzle, Limoges box and scarf. Scenes from White House neighborhood offers us coasters, cocktail napkins, a tote bag, placemats, jewelry and a puzzle. The Christmas tree ceremony theme brings us another two jigsaw puzzles, bookmark and prints.

Oh yes, WHHA does dedicate some pages to books and art work, mostly portraits of presidents but also scenes of the White House and other patriotic fare such as Norman Rockwell’s “Statue of Liberty.” But mostly we see a succession of themes applied to the standard mix of items people buy as gifts when they go on vacation: mugs, note cards, tote bags, scarves and puzzles.  There are even plush toy replicas of several presidential family pets.

It’s a merchandising plan that writes itself and makes the White House Historical Association Christmas catalog look no different in product mix from the catalogs of other museums, associations and nonprofit organizations.

What’s interesting is that other than the Christmas ornaments, the product category with the most items is the jigsaw puzzle. There are enough puzzles in the catalog to keep a family of four busy every evening for several years.

The ornaments are first rate, if you are into exotic Christmas ornaments, and several of the books go beyond encomiums of mealy patriotism.  But for the most part what we see here is a cornucopia of schlock, which is Yiddish for the bargain basement, the cheesy and the coarse.

But it represents something more American than apple pie or gas guzzling cars. It represents the transformation of emotion into the purchase of a product—any product. The WHHA puzzles, bookmarks, mugs and tote bags are perfect stocking stuffers or small gifts for the seventh or eighth night of Chanukah. You can give them to whomever’s name you drew out of the gift exchange hat at the office. When you visit Washington, D.C. you can do all your obligatory souvenir gift shopping at one of the association’s two shops.
These are the throwaway presents that clutter the tables and walls, but also the drawers, closets, attics, basements and garages of much of America. 

Although schlock they are, the relative worthlessness of the products is what gives them their special value, because it’s not the product that’s important, it’s the fact that a purchase was made.  It’s the fact that a relationship, emotion or holiday was celebrated by buying something and then giving it to someone.  Without the “buy” there is no emotional transaction. The advantage of cheap schlock is that it is so cheap and the reason it’s so cheap is because it is schlock. But as long as organizations make it, Americans keep buying it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Progressives all over the country should Reach Out for Teachout!

When I analyzed the long-shot possibilities of progressive Zephyr Teachout winning the Democratic primary for New York governor a few days back, I made a huge analytical mistake.  I forgot that the Working Families Party has already nominated Andrew Cuomo for Governor, so even if Teachout should pull off the miracle of miracles and defeat Cuomo for the Democratic nomination for governor of New York state, Cuomo will still be on the ballot come November.

There is no telling what could happen: New York is the bluest of blue states, so many voters may vote the Democratic party line, no matter who the candidate is. Cuomo’s name recognition may swing the election his way. Cuomo already has $23 million in his election kitty. The national Democratic fundraising machine may do nothing for Teachout.

Or Teachout and Cuomo may split the votes, swinging the election to conservative Republican Rob Astorino. Most progressives believe that electing Astorino as Governor would be an unmitigated disaster.

On the surface it seems as if New York progressives better vote for Cuomo or risk Astorino.

But consider the facts: Both Cuomo and Astorino are for fracking. Both are for lower taxes for businesses and against higher taxes for the wealthy. Both support union-busting charter schools.  Hasn’t Cuomo just spent four years playing ball with Republican state legislators?  It is true that Cuomo is much better on social issues than Astorino, but it’s New York we’re talking about. No one is messing with a woman’s right to an abortion and no one is taking away the hard earned right of gays to marry. Evolution and climate change will be taught in the public schools.

Consider, too, that Cuomo has refused to debate Teachout and has said that debates can be a disservice to democracy. This kind of fascist double-talk in and of itself should disqualify Cuomo from our consideration.

In her career and political life, Zephyr Teachout has never swayed from standard progressive positions on the environment, the economy, social issues and education. She is a true progressive who deserves the votes of those opposed to fracking and charter schools, and in favor of more support of education and alternative energy and government policies that promote job growth and an equitable distribution of wealth.

Progressives in New York have an historic opportunity to send a real message not just to New York state but to the country that we want policies that lead to economic equality, higher wages, more jobs, smaller classrooms, lower tuition, more unionized workers, alternative energy development, more mass transit and a cleaner environment.  It’s easy for the ruling elite to ignore and invalidate a series of demonstrations like the Occupy movement. But they can’t turn their backs on the voters—that is, if we vote.

Because of the national implications of the New York state primary race for governor, I’m proposing a national campaign by progressives to “Reach Out for Teachout.” 

To be part of Reach Out for Teachout, all you have to do is identify every New York state resident among your friends and family and contact all of them about Teachout by email, Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. Ask all of the New York residents in your vast (or not so vast) network to vote for Teachout on September 9 in the Democratic primary election.  And tell them to tell all of their friends to vote for Teachout.

Starting with OpEdge readers, maybe Reach Out for Teachout will go viral. We have seen the power of social media to aid in revolutions in other countries.  Maybe it can help start a revolution by vote in the United States. First beat Cuomo, then beat Astorino. Put the Democratic Party and our elected officials across the country on notice that we expect policies that help others than just the top one percent of the wealth ladder.

I urge you to work your lists and get out the New York vote for Teachout, even if you live in Duluth or New Orleans.

Reach Out for Teachout.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The lesson from LA’s decaying infrastructure is that tax rates are too low

The front page of today’s New York Times tells the sad story of Los Angeles’ crumbling infrastructure.  Roadways, sidewalks and water pipes are in a state of decay thanks to several decades of tight municipal budgets. Close to 40% of LA’s roads are graded D or F. The average age of a city water pipe is 58 years. More than 4,000 miles of sidewalk—37% of all pedestrian walkways in the city—are in severe disrepair. A nonprofit transportation research group says that the average LA driver spends $842 a year just on car repairs resulting from the bad roads. How much more does fixing the water damage from broken pipes cost residents each year? 

In total, city officials estimate that it will take $8.1 billion to fix the worst roads, repair the sidewalks and replace aging water pipes.  Much of the Times article bemoans this expense in light of the total LA city budget of just $26 billion. 

But $8.1 billion should be chump change for LA, a city with a population of about 3.85 million.

Let’s do the math, something that the Times and the city officials and experts quoted in the article fail to do. $8.1 billion breaks down to $2,085.30 per person living in the City of Los Angeles.  If bringing the LA infrastructure up to snuff were financed over 10 years, it would cost less than $210 per person per year, or $420 per year if only households in the top half of the annual income spectrum were obligated to pay for these necessary infrastructure improvements. In the scenario in which the top half of income-earners were assessed the entire bill to fix what’s broke with LA roads, sidewalks and water pipes, the poorest taxpayers paying the assessment would see an additional 7/10ths of a percent in income taxed. But on average, these people would save a minimum of $422 overall, since auto repair costs would plummet.

Now one could make a very strong argument that the roads, water pipes and sidewalks of the City of Los Angeles serve all residents of the county. If we therefore spread the costs over all 10 million residents of Los Angeles County, it would compute to $810 per resident, or $81 per year for 10 years, or $161 per year if only the top half of income earners paid.

If presented with the option of spending $81 of $161 more per year for 10 years and getting safer and faster highways, more efficient water systems and more walkable pedestrian ways (probably not of too much interest to Angelinos, who seem to prefer riding in cars), most county residents would vote “yes.”

But of course, we’re never presented with the costs broken down in such a common sense way. We get the big number and a lot of hand-wringing from politicians.  And in all too many cases such as the Times article, we’re reminded how much of the municipal budget is dedicated to paying the pensions of former city workers. The implication of course is that if we walked away from our commitment to pay pensions—as many on the right would like us to do—we’d have the money to pay for maintaining highway and water pipes.

In Los Angeles, and throughout the country, we are seeing the disastrous end-game of the lower tax philosophy that began strangling the nation some 35 years ago. The big idea behind the brand of conservatism called Reaganism has always been to starve government. Now we know what anorexic government looks like: Pot holes everywhere. Frequent flooding from broken water pipes. More slip and fall accidents. Larger school classes. A gutting of extracurricular activities and enrichment courses such as art and music in public schools. Public colleges that are unaffordable to many of a state’s citizens. Inadequate mass transit.

And what did lower taxes get people? Not much unless you’re wealthy or upper middle class, since those are the people who have received the lion’s share of the income transferred to private individuals through reducing federal, state and local tax rates so many times since 1980.

Also think of these numbers: Trillions of dollars spent to destabilize Iraq through invasion (not to mention thousands of American and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives). $34 billion in grant funding from the Department of Homeland Security to militarize local police department with sophisticated vehicles and weaponry meant for wars, not domestic policing.  

Anyone interested in the future of our country should judge all elected officials on their willingness or lack of willingness to raise taxes. Don’t vote for anyone who wants to lower taxes. Actively support anyone who explicitly states they want to raise taxes on the wealthy, near wealthy or businesses. It doesn’t matter that much what the candidate wants to do with the money—we have pressing needs in education, infrastructure development, mass transit, development of alternative energy sources and cleaning the environment. It doesn’t matter, as long as the candidate doesn’t want to use additional tax revenues to pay for more guns or tax breaks to businesses.