Vernon Robinson Digging for Ben Carson Gold

Folks who have been paying attention to politics in North Carolina, and Winston-Salem in particular, for any amount of time will instantly recognize the name Vernon Robinson. He’s a conservative gadfly who labeled himself the “black Jesse Helms” and ran some of the most vitriolic campaigns these parts have ever seen. While he’s never won a major office – he did at one point when a seat on Winston-Salem’s city council, but that’s A-League ball in the world of politics – he has been a heckuva fundraiser and he’s put those skills to work as he toils to draft Ben Carson to run for POTUS. Mother Jones has the story:

Dr. Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon, author, tea party hero, and Stuck On You star, is contemplating a presidential bid in 2016. He’s being cheered on by conservative activists—and by the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee, a super PAC founded in 2013 to urge Carson to run. The PAC sends out emails touting Carson, gathers signatures for petitions aimed at coaxing him into the race, and it raises money from conservatives enthralled with the prospect of a Carson presidency. A lot of money. According to Federal Election Commission filings, the Draft Carson PAC has raised an impressive $12.2 million since its founding—slightly more than Ready for Hillary, the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC. Draft Carson has, in fact, done very little besides fundraise…

The guy responsible for collecting and managing Draft Carson’s huge haul is Vernon Robinson, the PAC’s political director and a notorious, perennial candidate with a history of rabid anti-immigrant rhetoric. An African-American, ex-Air Force officer from North Carolina, Robinson has repeatedly run unsuccessful campaigns for Congress. He calls himself “the black Jesse Helms”—a comparison the director of the late senator’s foundation declared “sad.” His congressional campaign ads—one of which characterized undocumented immigrants as flag-burners and sex offenders—are so out-there that political science professors use them to illustrate mudslinging at its dirtiest. In 2006, a Republican running against Robinson in a House primary said that he “scares me.” But win or (almost always) lose, the common thread in his political career has been remarkable fundraising success, with a big chunk of the proceeds Robinson has raised flowing to a small camp of conservative fundraisers, and sometimes, himself…

Robinson, meanwhile, has quietly turned his quixotic Draft Ben Carson effort into a lucrative enterprise for himself. FEC filings show that the PAC paid out over $250,000 to a consulting firm called Tzu Mahan. Buzzfeed reported in November that Tzu Mahan—its name a mashup of ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu and 19th century Navy admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan—is a one-man company, run by Robinson. Robinson’s reaction, when asked about his high salary, was candid: “People get paid to do politics,” he said.

Ten years ago on this blog I made a standing offer to any local elected leader to help them learn how to use this revolutionary new medium called blogging to communicate directly with their constituents. The only person who took me up on it was indeed Vernon Robinson. We met for coffee at the Starbucks on Hanes Mall Boulevard, and had an interesting meeting. I ended up helping him set up a blog on my blogging platform, but he really didn’t do anything with it. Ten years later what I remember most about the meeting were two things: First, that he tried to pay for his coffee with a gold coin that was alternative currency to the US dollar and the manager had to inform him he wouldn’t allow it to happen in the future, and second that he seemed far less vitriolic and more politically pragmatic in a one-on-one conversation than he was when talking to the press or campaigning.

So here’s my advice if you’re considering sending some dollars to the Draft Ben Carson campaign: caveat emptor. Heck, that’s my advice for sending money to any political campaign.

Squeezing the Middle

The Wall Street Journal, that bastion of the liberal press <sarcasm>, has the story behind the squeeze on America’s middle class. In a nutshell the economy has rebounded nicely and consumer spending is up, but when you dig into the numbers you find that the spending is happening at the high and low end. Some interesting excerpts from the article:

Since 2009, average per household spending among the top 5% of U.S. income earners—adjusting for inflation—climbed 12% through 2012, the most recent data available. Over the same period, spending by all others fell 1% per household, according to Mr. Cynamon, a visiting scholar at the bank’s Center for Household Financial Stability, and Steven Fazzari of Washington University in St. Louis, who published their research findings last year.

The spending rebound following the recession “appears to be largely driven by the consumption at the top,” Mr. Cynamon said. He and Mr. Fazzari found the wealthiest 5% of U.S. households accounted for around 30% of consumer spending in 2012, up from 23% in 1992…

Revenue for such luxury hotel chains as St. Regis and Ritz-Carlton rose 35% last year compared with 2008, according to market research firm STR Inc. Revenues at midscale chains such as Best Western and Ramada were down 1%…

For the first time, U.S. builders last year sold slightly more homes priced above $400,000 than those below $200,000. As a result, the median price of new homes exceeded $280,000, a record in nominal terms and 2% shy of the 2006 inflation-adjusted peak.

Total sales last year, however, were up just 1% compared with 2013, and more than 50% below their average from 2000 to 2002, before the housing bubble…

There are some real issues with this kind of market, not the least of which is that it doesn’t do enough to create the kind of economic ripple that benefits everyone. For instance the fact that builders are focusing on fewer, but larger and more expensive houses definitely has a down side:

Homes are generally the biggest purchase Americans make. Housing dollars ripple through the economy by triggering spending on appliances, furniture and landscaping.

Fewer homes means fewer new buyers and that means fewer appliances, furniture and other household goods and services sold. In the end that means fewer jobs. Fewer new homes being built also means that demand for existing homes will rise, which leads to higher prices and thus even more would-be buyers are priced out of the market. That puts more demand on rentals which leads to higher rent; higher rent means less money to save each month which helps put a down payment ever further out of reach. In other words a very nasty cycle.

Of course markets are inherently cyclical and at some point in the future this will all turn around, but what’s become very apparent is that the Great Recession continues to have a negative effect on our country long after it officially ended. The middle class has been bearing the brunt of it, and it looks like people are starting to figure it out. It will be interesting to see if anyone in the political field figures out how to use that to their advantage; someone like, say, Elizabeth Warren.

48 Years of Sewing Balls

The whole “Deflate-Gate” kerfluffle from this year’s AFC Championship Game put the most focus on the actual footballs than we’ve seen in years. That makes this five minute video about the making of the balls, and one lady who sewed them for 48 years, seem super-appropriate as we get ready to watch Super Bowl XLIX.

BTW, have you heard that the powers that be don’t like the idea of identifying the 50th Super Bowl as Super Bowl L? Instead it will be Super Bowl 50, which kind of irks me because I was really looking forward to getting all kinds of schwag with my last initial on it.

Ever Wished You Could Just Crap Money?

If you’re really healthy you might be able to make a pretty penny selling your poop:

Some people with Crohn’s disease also benefit from fecal transplants. So a company called Open Biome has been facilitating fecal transplants to patients in need, and paying healthy poopers a hefty sum for their services.

Fecal matter is transferred either through endoscopy or swallowed capsules, and Open Biome has already shipped about 2,000 treatments to almost 200 hospitals, according to theWashington Post. They’ll pay you $40 per sample, plus an extra $50 if you come in 5 days a week (the donations have to be made on-site.) The only thing is, you have to be super-healthy: only about 4% of prospective donors make the cut.

As someone with a decidedly juvenile sense of humor I found this next part to be particularly good:

Open Biome gives their anonymous donors names like Vladimir Pootin, Albutt Einstein, and Dumpledore

Personally I prefer Sir Poopsalot or The Godfather of Poo.

Support “The Beast”

When it comes to sports I’m generally what you’d call an “old school” kind of guy. Basically I believe in good sportsmanship – I’ll let you define that – and I don’t much care for showboating. That probably explains why I have what probably looks like contradictory opinions about two very good football players: Marshawn “The Beast” Lynch and Cam “Superman” Newton. I love watching Lynch play and Newton just makes me shake my head.

Here’s my reasoning in a nutshell: Newton is know for his “Superman” pose that he strikes after scoring a touchdown. That does indeed irk me, but touchdown’s are hard enough to come by that I long ago accepted touchdown celebrations as part of the game and I definitely understand why people do them. On the other hand, Newton has a habit of doing this goofy pointing thing (seen here) whenever he’s gotten a first down and that just drives me around the bend. Getting a first down is kind of a minimum expectation of a quarterback’s job – it’s like getting a √ on your report card when you were in kindergarten. Celebrating it is like me running around my desk after sending a fairly well written email.

Another thing that gets me about Newton is that he can seem so disengaged and sometimes just looks like he lacks a fire in the belly. Certainly some of that can just be outward appearances – some players are truly so gifted that they look like they aren’t trying because they’re literally so good that they make it look effortless. Newton, however, has some fairly significant swings between his good and bad games and those bad games seem to coincide with those instances where it looks like he’s not 100% there.

Then there’s The Beast. While he will do his share of smack talking during the game he most certainly is always 100% engaged on the field. He seems to relish playing hard, initiating contact with the defense and never taking a down “off.” The guy’s earned his nickname and if you like football then you have to appreciate how hard he plays. He definitely defines an “old school” or “throwback” runner who resembles players like Walter Payton who play with a fire in the belly that’s apparent to everyone watching.

Off the field is where this comparison gets even more interesting, and where I think people might find my opinion of these two players to be contradictory. Newton is personable, affable and seems to generally be a “good interview” with the press. Lynch, on the other hand, can appear surly and dour, and most definitely is not a favorite of the press. Hell, Lynch is becoming just as well known for his non-answer-answers as he is for his play on the field, but to be honest that’s one of the reasons I like him and also why I think he defines “old school.” Over at The Week Sarah Jaffe explains why better than I ever could:

Having been fined $100,000 over the last two seasons for refusing to play nice at press conferences, Lynch showed up at Media Day in a cap and dark sunglasses with one answer for reporters’ questions: “I’m here so I won’t get fined.” He gave that same answer some 25 times.

Rumor had it that Lynch was threatened with a $500,000 fine if he didn’t show up for the conference; instead, he made it very clear that his appearance was compelled, and that there was only so far the NFL could push him…

There is no doubt that Lynch gives the game everything he’s got and more — we should always remember when we watch football or any other physical, contact sport that we are watching people literally putting theirsafety and lives on the line for our entertainment. So why, on top of all that, does the NFL demand that its players show up at press conferences and answer the same inane questions with a ready smile?…

After many in the media branded him a “thug,” Richard Sherman embarked on a press tour in which he mostly made mincemeat of his critics, but public debating is a particular skill that few people have mastered. It’s not surprising that Lynch, who has heard the T-word a few times in his life (and even, when playing in Buffalo, was stopped so routinely by police that he finally called a meeting with a local chief to discuss the problem) wants no part of it. His job, as he sees it, is on the field. When he wants to give back to the community, to the fans, he does it with his charity in his hometown of Oakland.

That, my friends, is why I’ll be cheering Mr. Lynch during the Super Bowl. I just like the way he rolls and I also like that he’s found a way to expose the NFL brass’ hypocrisy and general crappiness.

The Friendship 9

For those of us who live or work in Greensboro, NC the story of the Woolworth sit-in, an event that is generally considered the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, is very familiar. Subsequent events in the movement may not be as familiar to those of us who aren’t experts on the movement so it’s always interesting to read or hear about them. That’s why this story about The Friendship 9 caught my attention:

Fifty-four years ago this week, nine young black men sat down at the whites-only counter of McCrory’s five-and-dime store on Main Street in the town of Rock Hill, South Carolina. After ordering burgers and cokes, the men were asked to leave; after they refused to leave, they were arrested for trespassing.

The Civil Rights Movement was, relatively speaking, in its infancy at the time. Less than a year after the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Friendship 9 were arrested on the same day that James Meredith submitted his college application to then-segregated Ole Miss.

On Wednesday, the eight surviving members of the Friendship 9⎯most of the nine men had been students at nearby Friendship College in 1961⎯were back in a Rock Hill courthouse to see their sentences vacated and their convictions overturned. “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history,” Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III told the courtroom to high applause as he threw out the cases⎯a poignant flourish given that Hayes’ uncle had originally sentenced the men in 1961.

As NBC News noted, the men “were represented in the hearing by Ernest A. Finney Jr., the same man who defended their case 54 years ago,” who later served as South Carolina Supreme Court’s first black chief justice since Reconstruction.

Quite frankly it was refreshing to read this story because, of late, the news in Greensboro has been about the managerial and financial problems faced by the International Civil Rights Museum which is housed in the former Woolworth building where the sit-in occurred. At least one of the museum’s principal players has accused the city, which basically holds the financial future of the museum in its hands and has proposed taking over management of the museum, of wanting to whitewash history:

Earl Jones, one of the founders of the museum, said he was “outraged” by an offer from Mayor Nancy Vaughan on Monday to have the city operate the museum. Jones called the offer “disrespectful.”

“It’s my speculation that there’s a part of the mayor’s group that would like to see the museum taken over so the history and integrity of the civil rights movement can be undermined and whitewashed,” Jones said. “I think that’s what it’s about.”..

Vaughan said she and the City Council just want to be sure the museum stays open. That will require more professional management, she said.

Given the context of what Judge Hayes said – “We cannot rewrite history, but we can right history.” – it seems ironic that Greensboro’s history continues to be one in which color divides people. In this case green.

O Teacher! My Teacher!

If you read nothing else today, this week, this month, this year, then you must read To the Teacher Who Changed My Life: Thank You

Most of all he testified to the messiness of life. In high school a lot of people are trying to fix you and improve you and elevate you. Neal Tonken listened and affirmed that things were confusing. Because he loved passionately, spoke loudly (and occasionally out of turn), and found life overwhelming in both beauty and frustration, he understood what you were saying. What I was saying.

He did all of this without letting us off the hook. I got a C-plus each semester in his class. I might have been newly alive but I was messy, and it was no good to be alive if you couldn’t make something of that passion in a way that makes sense to other people. “His work suffers from lack of personal discipline and attention to detail,” is how he put it.

He had high standards and expected us to meet them. But we wanted to. He did not have much time for BS. In the tributes after his death, classmates remembered his comments when they tried to sneak something by him. Dan Manatt, now a documentarian, tried to loaf by with a paper on The Great Gatsby that used a lot of fancy words to cover up that he was winging it. “There’s much less here than meets the eye,” wrote Mr. Tonken. Sam Thomas, now a novelist, did the same thing on a paper. “This is pure fluff. If it weren’t well written it would be an F. D.”…

Another student, who had graduated almost 20 years after I had, drove straight from Ann Arbor when she heard the news. She brought her Norton Anthology of Poetry. She came into the room to read him letters that were just arriving from students who heard he was ill. A special inbox had been set up, and it was filling rapidly. She read letter after letter from students who weren’t just recalling events from his class but how he had changed their lives too. The room filled up with grateful souls.

That was Neal’s last lesson. That example. To let us see life in that rich tally—an accumulation of gratitude deserved and expressed. I got a chance to thank Neal, and it makes me think of other teachers to whom I am grateful—Bonnie Mazziotta, Sally Selby, Juan Jewell, George Lang, Ellis Turner, Susan Banker, JoAnne Lanouette, Harold Kolb and Anthony Winner. I carry with me what they have given by their instruction and their example. Perhaps you have teachers like that in your life. Write them. Be clear and direct. Tell them “thank you.”

I’ll take this another step and say that you shouldn’t just thank those who taught you in school. Think of the mentors you’ve had at work, church or civic organization. Think of the friends and peers who helped guide you through life with a perfectly timed piece of advice, a nudge in the right direction or a much needed “I call BS” moment. Think of your grandparents, aunts and uncles, and close family friends. Think of your spouse. Think of your parents. And after you think of them you most definitely should reach out and thank them.