Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Of Candy Bars, LLCs, and the Unfortunate Notion of Trumps Limited Liability Presidency

By Bob Ferris

I like an occasional candy bar.  Not sure that I can lay claim to any true favorite, but when Halloween comes around there is a little over-buying of sweets in our household.  Sampling before and after doorbell rings happens consistently—almost exclusively by me.  My sense is that Limited Liability Companies or LLCs are meant to be in concept a little like candy bars.  Unfortunately many of our country’s richest treat LLCs like an economic food group and worse still our sitting president sees them as nearly the entire Happy Meal.   Both of these happenstances are problems that need to be addressed.

Launched first in Wyoming in 1977 and refined by Delaware in 1993, the LLC structure is like a semipermeable membrane that allows cash to flow to the those organizing it while protecting the personal assets of the LLC members and managers.  It limits their liability which is another way of saying that it excuses them from responsibility for the messes they might make.  Further, the arrangement goes beyond what was granted by the S-Corporation structure through allowing foreign and corporate partners and, in some states, shielding the identity of the players like lead wrapping Kryptonite.  

In all this it is important to remember or understand that corporations were first created because they were meant to precipitate public good via positive outcomes such as reinvestment, stability, and increased employment and investment opportunities.  The public forgave or forestalled certain taxes for that permission so we essentially paid for those benefits.  The LLC takes the idea of the corporation and its sometimes public good that was compromised once with the S-corp and then acts to remove nearly all of the remaining societal benefit like someone squeezing the last water out of a kitchen sponge.  This wouldn't necessarily be a problem if LLCs were indeed treated like candy bars, but something approaching three-quarters of the new filings coming out of Delaware at this point are LLCs.  Allowed candy bars, it seems that is what far too many eat too often.  

Hopefully Michael Cohen while contributing to taking down this president will also lead to an understanding that LLCs in the future should not be the free-wheeling beast they now are.  How exactly is it desirable to have a relatively-sideboard-less financial vehicle that effortlessly and without casual visibility facilitates hush payments to a porn star while collecting millions of dollars from corporations, both foreign and domestic, that seemingly have the same weight, texture, and stench of bribes.  Where is there even a whiff of public benefit in this construct and use?  And our president has danced in this LLC ballroom hundreds of times much to his betterment and often at the pain of others.  It is curious that Mr. Trump who was on the verge of financial collapse in the early 1990s emerged from that crisis rose-scented at nearly the same time as LLCs sprang broadly on the scene.

My sense from experience is that change will be difficult not because of the logic of doing so but because of the way the issues are constructed and subsequently argued in this country by those trying to retain wealth and power.  Here I think about the Capper-Volstead Act that created agricultural cooperatives.  Great idea to help farmers and ranchers defend themselves against markets manipulated by the big and crushing, but then the greedy and large created and stacked their own co-ops.  At the same time these larger entities also worked to build a virtual stockade fence of the small and vulnerable around them to protect the legislation from surgical reforms such as revenue restrictions or geographic scope limits.  

In the above, Land O Lakes as well as the co-ops with connections to the American Farm Bureau Federation come to mind.  Land O Lakes has more than $14 billion in annual sales and 1,000 member co-operatives.  Hard to imagine this financial juggernaut protecting the little guy or what the enabling drafters had in mind when they eased some anti-trust restrictions.  The same is probably true for those cobbling together the LLC and the thought of someone like Trump collecting them like one obsessed with baseball cards, candy bars or even wafer-thin mints.

I don’t necessarily think that the LLC option should be done away with as it grants access, levels certain playing fields, and encourages innovation as well as risk taking.  But just like Halloween candy bars and trick-or-treating are for kids, the LLC should be designed to be the infrequent tool of the wiry and hungry rather than the constant refuge of the fat and overfed--witness the graphic Monty Python commentary on greed above for a recollection of the consequences.  Perhaps concepts like size, means testing, and time limits should be entertained as well as limits for numbers held and failed attempts.  

Thought of another way, one could look at LLCs as get-out-of-jail-free cards.  People make mistakes and should be given an opportunity to do so.  Cool.  But Trump, if this 500 LLC number cited above is accurate, has played this card roughly twenty times a year since the early 1990s (for reference, the game of Monopoly has two of these cards).  He does not just visit the land of insulated failure and reduced responsibility he lives there which brings us back to the LLP, this president, and his legally-engineered Teflon veneer.
“I’m the king of debt. I’m great with debt. Nobody knows debt better than me,” Trump told Norah O’Donnell in an interview that aired on “CBS This Morning.” “I’ve made a fortune by using debt, and if things don’t work out I renegotiate the debt. I mean, that’s a smart thing, not a stupid thing." 
“How do you renegotiate the debt?” O’Donnell followed up.
“You go back and you say, hey guess what, the economy crashed,” Trump replied. “I am going to give you back half.” 
Candidate Donald J. Trump quoted in here.
The linked set of circumstances that we often fail legislatively and in regulatory approaches to include protective governors in many of our laws and customs to prevent ironic abuses and that this imprudence gives tacit license to those who happily wallow in the grayness created by our failure are the fertilizer and the seed of the tree of Trump and others like him.  One could argue that Trump is a person pre-adapted to the LLC approach from his bone-spurious draft dodging to his serial responsibility ducking in everything from tax liability and civil rights violations to money laundering and fraud.  Sure one could argue that he often settles or pays fines for much of these latter transgressions, but given his debt renegotiations, bankruptcies, taxation sleight-of-hands, and financial obligation avoidance it is somewhat difficult to ascertain whose money is really at play.  Election (and I used this term guardedly) of this LLC poster-child has created what I would characterize as the Limited Liability Presidency or LLP.  

There is nothing in Trump's candidacy or presidency that deviates from his all-LLCs-all-the-time circuitry.   Money and accolades (from certain sectors) flow in Trump's direction yet he and those in his family or closest (and shrinking) circle pay little or nothing for the damage they have wrought or the threats they pose.  They are much like the relatives who come late to a family dinner avoiding the set-up and leave early to side-step the clean-up while eating too much of the choicest food and dominating the table conversation with braggadocio based little on fact or reality.  When confronted with the inappropriateness and ugliness of the actions taken, the response is a shocked and offended expression but no acceptance, understanding, or correction.   

After the initial bafflement comes, the defensive arguments flow.  How is this a problem?  We have not broken the law.  We know this because we always define our own laws in the LLC operating agreement.  The president is in charge (1,2,3).  Absolutely.  The problem here is that we already have an "operating agreement" in the US Constitution which includes mechanisms which are able, if appropriately exercised, to prevent any of the three branches from wielding absolute power.  Unfortunately, the controlling action is slow in coming because the two other branches are behaving like indulgent parents complicit with or denying the gravity of their staggering neglect.  

My wife and I occasionally play Gin Rummy using a deck emblazoned with images of Jane Austen.  She normally wins in spite of her issues with numbers and decimal places.  To keep it interesting we often make up new rules which we write in the little red notebook where we keep the scores.  For instance, we stayed at a cottage in Bandon, Oregon one Thanksgiving where we developed the "Bandon Rules" that allow round-the-corner runs.  Trump and his children have spent nearly a generation using LLC rules.  That is why, I suspect, that criticism of foreign and corporate actors in this past election and in policy-making gets a condescending shoulder shrug instead of a chastised wince.   It is what we have always done.

The intellectual armature in Trump-land appears to be what benefits the King benefits all which was certainly an attitude extant when the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were written.  The problem for Trump (and for us) is that this notion was the catalyst for the creation of this nation not a guiding principle or welcome happenstance in these lands.  We must take a deep breath and remember that this was the flag of the other camp in the country where that wedding recently took place and take appropriate actions to reclaim our dignity and the character of our nation.  And we have to do it soon.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Memories Written on a Stubborn Heart

My sister and I at her summer camp sometime in the mid-1960s.

By Bob Ferris

When my sister was sprinting towards her teens, she went to a summer camp.  She would have been ten or eleven and I was maybe fourteen or fifteen.  I cannot recall which.  I do remember going with my folks to visit her for a parent’s event that included performances from the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown.  Nice but what made this remarkable other than a bunch of young girls with fake beards acting like gold miners and singing Belly Up to the Bar, Boys was that one of my sister’s camp mates was the step-daughter of Debbie Reynolds.  The fact led to the late and diminutive Ms. Reynolds being there and watching this production of the musical she brought to the screen (see below).  In retrospect, it must have been intimidating for my sister, but I was a teenage guy and much more concerned about wetting a line in the South Fork of the Kings River deep in Kings Canyon with my father.    

My mother is a wonderful woman, but she was never one to let fishing take its true course on family vacations.  She never would give it the space and time it needed and deserved.  We had an allotted fishing period and that was it.  Knowing this my father and I rock-hopped down the granite-lined canyon flipping flies and lures.  Soon we had drifted into a one-more-pool mentality which can be dangerous at times.   And then we heard the falls and saw the mists drifting across a massive pool below.    It was not that we needed to go…we had to.

Not sure, but this very well could be the falls in question.  The pool looks right.
The drop was probably seventy or eighty feet but it looked more like two hundred.  So we crawled and butt-slid managing not to break our poles or ourselves on the way down.  We also managed not to notice the setting sun as we caught rainbow after rainbow in the days when most fish big enough to bite were also large enough to be bitten.  My rubberized-canvas creel with the built-in ruler and springy-steel closure was full when we realized that the dimness was not due to canyon depth, but hour.  

The going up was much harder than the going down.  It also lacked the punctuating casts in pools looking for that spot where a fish might hide or an eddy waited to perfectly present a tiny hook decorated to look like a gnat, mosquito, or ant.  It was a forced march at a time when I was training for the coming two-a-day football practices in the approaching heat of August, but my father was not.  He was in his late 40s.  In later years he often reminded me that his heart was still thumping more than hard at midnight.    I was a mid-teen and did not think about such things.   

Mt. Shasta above Lake Siskiyou.  
My father lived to nearly ninety-five.  It was his heart that finally stopped him when all else couldn’t.  I thought of this recently as I stubbornly pedaled and pushed my bike up the road following that section of the Sacramento River that feeds Lake Siskiyou near Mount Shasta City in Northern California.  When it was climbing, but not steep, I pedaled.  When my knee hurt or my wind failed I walked like a cooling horse run too hard.  I did not start with a goal but goals came.  I wanted to reach the snow that fought the ninety-degree weather.  I wanted to find the source of the river.  I wanted to find my fifteen-year-old self that I had sped past a half-century ago.  

The way up looking back at Mt. Shasta.

My “next pool” strategy was one of using curves or noteworthy trees as stepping stones.  Fleeting glimpses of painfully-blue sky acted much like mirages luring me on with the promise of a concluding ridge or logical ending point.  Perhaps a vista acting as a visual reward waited in one of these azure vees?  The river had its own ideas and led me up still steeper and steeper.  

The tree seems to be making some sort of editorial comment with the only means it has.

I was driven on too by occasional postings of mining claims—rectangular pieces of plywood, faced with chlorine-bleached paper, and nailed to trees at river’s edge.  It was a taste of environmental insult announcing a greater insult to come.  These were non-sensical,  quarter-mile long reminders of campaigns I’d fought against suction dredging in salmonid waters and other public land abuses.  I resented this anachronistic poodle-peeing on the public landscape and would be damned if I would stop whatever quest I was on within the confines of that which I thought should not exist.  

My breathing challenges and the sweat in my eyes brought to mind the stinging irony of some of these gravel-sucking dredgers rallying behind and associating themselves with the ancient cry of Molon Labe (upper left above).  This iconic phrase was purportedly uttered by the leader of the Spartans who fought three days and sacrificed everything to save those in Athens and ultimately Greece from the Persian onslaught.  It baffles me how some can compare defense of selfish and destructive acts against nature with such bravery and sacrifice.  But I drift in the manner of someone who has outrun food and breath, yet calls on themselves for more.  My bike had become more walking aid than hinderance at this point holding me upright like the elderly using shopping carts in their slow and obstructing meanders through supermarkets.  (Yes, I know, I will get there soon enough.)  

Eventually I stopped for lunch and water which I knew would gift me a few more miles.  I found shade and quickly pounded down nearly a liter of water and inhaled the day-old, discount sandwich I purchased at Ray’s in Mt. Shasta City.  I ate a lot and fast but my fifteen-year-old self would not even have considered this a respectable snack.  I did, after all, grow up in a time when my mother bought our beef in quarter steer increments from Whitecliff Market.  This beef was not styrofoam-ed and cellophaned but divided into cuts and wrapped in grease pencil-marked butcher paper then imprisoned in a standup freezer that deserved its own address.  

We ate a lot then because we were young, growing, and often fed on the dietary equivalent of bunker fuel.  Some might cringe at the mention of quarters of beef, but that ignores Wonder Bread, Sugar Pops, Flav-r Straws, Necco Wafers, and those massive Tootsie Rolls which some of us ate as surrogates for a chaw of chewing tobacco because classic western character actor Slim Pickens did so in some movie.  And then there were the original Fizzies...   

Off again I was to where I was not sure.  The internal debates continued with the next turn winning and the tree-branch-checkered, blue flag of a promising notch rolling over fatigue and reason.  I plodded on watching the river shrink and become more stream-like than riverine.  Then I rounded a corner and was passed by a roaring motorcycle whizzing by me without a nod or wave.  That corner brought me to the number 26 on a Forest Service sign and a view up a step incline that showed me spotty snow several hundred feet above a sturdy bridge to my left.  I was sorely tempted, but I knew the bridge led only to the ridiculous and that which should be left to another day.  Time to turn.  Go back.

Yes, Honey, I did wear my helmet and safety vest. 
So I did not reach the snow and did not find the river source.  I did not even find that insistent cardiac song that would keep me company until the hour of witches.  I sensed my fifteen-year-old self walking on and accelerating while muttering criticism and chuckling over his shoulder at me.  But the beauty of age is that you do reach a point where you do not care.  Your heart is still stubborn, but you no longer need to be the fastest, strongest, richest, or smartest.  And that is a mountain peak hard-earned and more valuable indeed.  

Friday, May 4, 2018

Healing Cast or Basalt and Battery

Rocks along streams are often interesting for their texture and color, but they do not often make the walking easy.

By Bob Ferris

I had my grasshopper and pebble moment yesterday.  It came with sledges and wedges.  It came with love and a shove.  But let’s digress, at least twice.

The North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette near Westfir, Oregon.
While shoveling mulch recently, I spied a section of oak trunk left by the tree crews who obviously did not want to deal with it.  The crew dumped it and never looked back.  But I am my father’s son and this chunk of wood seemed to spit in my face and challenge me.  It sent insults to me the first time I saw it and I found that I could not lift it whole into my truck.  It continued its expectorate-laced teasing by coming to me just before sleep…”your father would not have left me here.”  True.  So I pondered and stewed.  I rode my bike by the chip piles a week later and it was still there taunting me.

My climb down to the first hole I fished.

I found myself in a conundrum, a silly and phobic see-saw.  This choice piece of firewood, similar to what Aldo Leopold claimed warmed twice in his essay Good Oak, was in a public place and because it was not pine would not only require my axe and splitting maul but also the use of wedges.  So what is the problem with wedges?  I had three and had moved them nearly a dozen times.  But…

It was a hot day in the Santa Cruz Mountains nearly thirty years ago.  I had an old cottonwood tree taken down and although I knew the wood would smell like cat piss when I burned in my Franklin stove heating my uninsulated cabin, I told the tree crew to cut the large stuff in fireplace lengths which I would then split and stack myself.  On the last and largest log at the end of the day I hit the wedge a tired and glancing blow.  A half-moon of metal flew like shrapnel into my leg followed by a gushing of blood that would have made an oilman proud.  I reached down stemming the flow and climbed the stairs to my living room with my hands choking my calf as I navigated steps and risers.  I called my father on my land line in a panicky tone. He was not pleased and even less so when he drove the eight miles on winding roads only to find me on my front porch dripping rather than spurting.

My father knew true shrapnel and was not happy with me.  Furthermore, my mother was in the process of getting ready for a big social event and my father’s to-do list was intimidating.  I was still feeling a little faint so I asked him to retrieve my t-shirt from the scene of the crime.  Upon his return he looked at me and asked if I had slaughtered a pig in my backyard.  It was an acknowledgement of sorts which removed the worst of the wimp implication, but I still have a little lump in my leg and have not used my wedges since that time.  Axes and splitting mauls but not wedges.

Oak trunk in four movements.
That is until yesterday when the clarity of my silliness sat on my shoulder, laughed once, and then released me.  I made it through the episode unscathed and stored the still wet and green wood near some dandelions that might soon become salad.  I gave my wife a Charles Atlas-like pose apt for a conquering hero and proceeded to cut my palm on a sharp little bit of metal on that very same offending wedge as stored it in its place.  Fine.  Once the annoying trickle was stopped, the resultant stack of split oak told me that my shoulder and I were likely healed enough to begin to play fully again.  I was ready to flick flies again in mountain streams with slippery rocks and unsure footing.  

The punctuation point to this came from my wife who gave me Dan Hicks-ian encouragement (see above) to leave the house and go fishing.  Please.  Or climb a mountain.  Or take up the violin as long as it was somewhere else and not at home.  See you tonight or tomorrow, honey.  Bye-bye.  It is amazing that our post-retirement house had the same address, but was much, much smaller than the one we lived in when I was working.  So I went fishing today on the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette.

I started by finding a nice pool fed by the river and a rushing side stream.  It was way below the road and as I fought my way down a steep slope through timber slash often stepping in holes covered with twigs and leaves that worked much like miniature, Malay tiger traps I tried to think of myself as Daniel Day Lewis and Russell Means speeding through the forest in the opening scene of Last of the Mohicans (above).   Unfortunately, I moved much more like the little friend I encountered below.  Perhaps it was good that I was alone.

During the day and into the evening I snagged flies on any number of branches and all variety of sub-surface vegetation.  I slipped and fell a few times, some with wet landings.  The water was freezing and I dumped an entire fly box in the river cobble. Ferns grabbed at my fly line and my net slapped me in the face and changed my balance each time I leaned too far forward.  My rear was covered in mud, which was good because that meant it matched my elbows and knees.  The knots came and the tangles too.  And I did not catch a keeper but landed and released two. Nothing for my wife to eat.  I returned home only with the sweet smell of baby trout and me.   It was a wonderful day and I’ll have to do it again.

Towards the end of the day I caught three.  This wild rainbow was nearly large enough.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Pondering Random Connections of Life and Before

By Bob Ferris

I am often amazed at the seemingly random connections in life.  My great-grandfather William Gouverneur Ramsay, for instance, was born in California the same decade as the Yahi (Yana) Indian who later became known as Ishi.  They both died about six months apart in 1916.   I was born roughly a century after them in the Golden State.  And I have often walked around the Presidio where my great-grandfather started life and fished a few times in Deer Creek that runs through lands once occupied by the southern band of the Yana known as the Yahi.  We, therefore, share a sprinkling of geography and experience.

Aldo Leopold and his bow.
I also have a rock on my office desk from near Aldo Leopold's iconic Shack in Baraboo, Wisconsin.  It is deep, blood-red chert which is how it caught my eye while digging a hole to plant a tree.  Dr. Leopold was a fan of archery and made his own bows and arrows after reading Hunting with the Bow and Arrow (1925) by Dr. Saxton Pope Sr.  Ishi shot arrows with Dr. Pope who later was considered the father of modern archery in America.  Pope was also a conservationist like Leopold (see Pope and Young Club) .

I have written extensively about the Bundy family and the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge which combined biological, cultural, and constitutional insults (1,2,3,4,5,6).  The recently-deceased writer Ursula Le Guin also wrote about the Bundys and made public comments in addition to her many novels and poetry.  Having been dabbling and struggling in the realm fantasy writing myself for roughly two years I can relate to her notion that fantasy writing is an excellent platform for social and intellectual commentary.   But the tendrils of connection in the above context are stronger as Ms. Le Guin was the daughter of Anthropologist Alfred Kroeber who studied Ishi and his second wife Theodora Kroeber who wrote about the last Yahi years later using Dr. Kroeber's notes rather than direct experience.

I have an old Bear Archery bow (above) for which I recently made willow arrows to understand the process and practicality of green branch use for this set of novels that may or may not see the light of day.  I find that working with my hands often activates my mind and imagination.  Lazy and anxious I fletched the shafts with duct tape thinking guiltily of Ishi, Leopold, and my perhaps my great-grandfather too.   I suspected as I drew back before launching my wobbly but serviceable arrow that they might have had the patience to fletch with feathers or leather.
Fishing with Aldo Leopold in the Honga River in Maryland.  

I am never far from these influencers and they seem to stack one on the other.  For example, the late Ray Dasmann was one of my professors at UC Santa Cruz and he was a student of Aldo Leopold's son Starker at UC Berkeley where Alfred Kroeber worked less than a decade before.  I also met Aldo's daughter Nina and once named a dog after her father (above).  I wonder at times about these connections and whether they mean nothing or everything.  I find that I lean towards the latter.

My great-grandfather Major William Gouverneur Ramsay who likely had more ready access to feathers.

That I am who I am and others are how they are, in part, because of these type of connections seems a reasonable deduction that travels beyond what some philosophers might call hermeneutics.   I was taught that this concept could mean that one was trapped within the circle of their own interpretations which seems incomplete.  My sense is that the net which holds us and defines us can easily contain both these external and internal threads and and there are likely more fibers at play.  I am fascinated in this by these ideas of cultural inheritance, epigenetics, and so-called genetic memory

With all this circling us it would appear to leave us little in the way choice.  I suppose your view on this depends on how you see these connections and molding forces.  My sense is that they are doors rather than confining walls, an infinite library from which to read and learn.  But that could also be what these others thought as well.