CEO pay and the American way of life

Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders has proposed levying punitive taxes on corporations with CEOs whose compensation is more than 50 times that of the median worker.

Wow? Some CEOs really make that much?

Most CEOs make a lot more, in fact (numbers to follow). You don’t have to be a glassy-eyed socialist like Bernie Sanders to object to the astronomical pay levels at publicly held corporations. Lou Dobbs, a right-leaning Republican commentator, has also raised the issue. Back in 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot complained of “rock star salaries” among America’s CEOs.

Just what do we mean by adjectives like “too high” or “rock star”? In 2018, a CEO at the average S&P 500 company was paid $14.5 million per year. There are plenty of rock stars who would like to be so handsomely compensated.

To put some numbers on Sanders’s proposal: Let’s imagine a company where the median worker earns $50,000 per year. The Sanders surcharge tax would still permit a millionaire salary for the CEO. Fifty times $50K is $2.5 million. Every dollar above that would be taxed at the surcharge. 

No one within the mainstream argues that CEOs—or other members of corporate management—should be compensated at the same level as the guy or gal in the mailroom. If that were the case, no one would ever want to rise beyond the mailroom. But there is a point at which compensation becomes excessively high, at a company that the CEO does not own, and did not found. 

There are also historical precedents to consider: CEO pay has risen 940% since 1978. During the same period, the compensation of the average worker has risen only 12%. 

Something is out of whack there, as my grandmother would have said. 

CEO pay of the immediate postwar years was far more restrained. Average workers did very well during the period from 1947 to 1972. For decades, the general rule of thumb was that the top man (and yes—it was always a man, in those days) ought to make about ten times what the average worker makes.

This is the number I often heard cited as “common sense” during my years in the Japanese automotive industry: 平社員の十倍ぐらい. Japanese CEOs make considerably less than their American counterparts, and they always have.

What brought about the change in the American corporate mindset?

It’s important to remember why there was so much self-restraint among the CEOs of yesteryear in the first place. During the 1950s, there was a widely shared understanding that America was locked in an epic struggle: between free-market, liberal capitalism on one hand, and top-down, command-and-control socialism on the other. 

American CEOs of the 1950s knew that the Red Menace didn’t reside solely in Moscow. They remembered the surge of interest in Marxism in America during the 1930s. Many senior managers were old enough to remember the U.S. presidential election of 1912, when “card-carrying” Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs also carried 6 percent of the popular vote. 

By the mid-1950s, revelations about what life was really like in the workers’ paradise of the USSR had tarnished the image of Soviet-style Marxism. But there were still plenty of Marxists around, even if they preferred to call themselves something else. 

American CEOs of the 1950s understood that in order for free-market capitalism to flourish, a plurality of Americans had to recognize that they had a stake in maintaining the free market. During this period, millions of average workers (including my grandfather, who worked in a Ford Motor Company plant) prospered under American free enterprise. 

Of course, the CEOs and senior managers prospered more—but not 290 times more, which is the current average. 

The end of the Cold War brought about psychological and philosophical changes in the American boardroom. (So, too, did the overarching focus on shareholders, versus stakeholders.) Today’s CEOs might not actually see the publicly held corporations they control as their private bank accounts; but they certainly give off that impression. 

We now face another threat to the American way of life. It is not Soviet-style communism this time, but a generalized leftwing anarchy, as embodied by rock-throwing antifa goons, and far-left politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar (not to mention Bernie Sanders himself). 

The future direction of America will be determined not by Americans in MAGA hats, nor by Americans who obsess about their role in the #RESIST movement. The future direction of America will be determined by that great mass of Americans in the middle. 

And that mass of Americans is likely to choose freedom and the free market—but only so long as they see capitalism as a system of individual effort-and-reward, not as a game rigged for the benefit of a handful of CEOs.

Bernie Sanders longs for a world in which the government decides everything—including CEO pay. We would be better to have a world of free markets and minimal government interference. But this will require CEOs to exercise self-restraint, like the CEOs of the Cold War era.

‘Meeting Gorbachev’ and the state of the world in 2019

I watched the documentary Meeting Gorbachev on the NatGeo channel.

This is a very worthwhile documentary for old folks like me who remember the 1980s, as well as those too young to have been there.

There are many interesting tidbits in Meeting Gorbachev, even beyond the in-depth study of the ex-Soviet leader himself. For example, the deaths of three Soviet premiers–Brezhnev, Andropov, and Constantin–in rapid succession in the early 1980s. For a while, it seemed that the Soviet Union had a new head-of-state every other month. 

Meeting Gorbachev made me nostalgic, but also a little sad. In 1986, the year I graduated from high school, the US, USSR, and the UK were governed by Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Margaret Thatcher. In China, a reformer (but alas, no democrat) named Deng Xiaoping was at the helm. 

In 2019, 33 years later, we have Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Boris Johnson leading the US, Russia, and the UK. The Chinese ruler, Xi Jinping, is a short-sighted, saber-rattling autocrat. 

In 1986, the world was far from perfect. The technology, moreover, was not nearly as slick and convenient as it is today. There was no Internet, no cell phones, and a lot less to watch on TV.

There was, however, reason to believe in 1986 that the world was in basically capable hands, and heading in a more positive direction. 

Today? Not so much…

Revolutionary Ghosts: $0.99 on Kindle through 10/17

If you haven’t yet read Revolutionary Ghosts, here’s your chance to get it on Kindle for just $0.99 through Oct 17th!

Description:

A coming-of-age supernatural horror tale filled with vengeful spirits from the American Revolution. In 1976, Ohio teenager Steve Wagner discovers that the Headless Horseman of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” has returned to terrorize America in the 20th century. And the Headless Horseman has brought others with him!

China: “in another 30 years”

This has been the hopeful litany from American business interests since at least 1989, when I started seriously watching China. 

That was the year the Chinese government killed several thousand of its citizens in Tiananmen Square, in case you don’t remember. 

Wishful thinking on China

The hopeful refrain on China is based on two pillars:

1.) “If we could just sell one of our widgets to every hundredth Chinese citizen, we’ll be rich!”

2.) “China will be a fully developed country in another 30 years!”

Thirty years after Tiananmen Square, the American business community  continues to hold out hope…for another 30 years.

“China will be a fully developed nation in 30 years. Its economy is going to be as big as the US,” JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon told Bloomberg in March. While he cited a litany of challenges — including corporate corruption and a lack of transparency — he also pledged his bank’s commitment to doing business there. “We’re all in. And so we’re not slowing down,” Dimon said at the time.

CNN

The reality of #1) above is: Your widgets will probably be pirated in China.

The reality of #2) above is: That’s what they said 30 years ago. 

“Sexy Mister Rogers” Halloween costume

This one almost makes me long for those mind-numbing debates of a few Halloweens ago, about costumes and “cultural appropriation“. 

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired for the first time in February 1968, just months before I was born, and aired for the last time in 2001. So yes, I’m among the multiple generations who grew up with the show.

That said, I was always more of a Captain Kangaroo kind of guy, personally.

Fred Rogers was, by all accounts, a wonderful man. But even by the television standards of my 1970s youth, the red sweater-wearing Mister Rogers lacked a certain pizazz. 

Which makes me shake my head at the hubbub over the “Sexy Mister Rogers” Halloween costume, nearly 20 years after the show went off the air.

Who in the marketing department thought that this was going to be a winner, for a holiday targeted at young people, who were all (in 2019) born in the post-Mister Rogers era?

Social media’s format problem

The very nature of social media is biased against text. Hence the neurotic obsession with video on these platforms.

This bias is based on format, rather than anything specifically ideological.  (The ideological biases of Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and other social media oligarchs is certainly an issue worth discussing, but this is another matter.)

Ezra Klein mentioned this 4 years ago, when the whole “blogging is dead” conversation began in earnest:

And I think this is a problem, or at least a manifestation of a problem. The incentives of the social web make it a threat to the conversational web. The need to create content that “travels” is at war with the fact that great work often needs to be rooted in a particular place and context — a place and context that the reader and the author already share.

Ezra Klein, “What Andrew Sullivan’s exit says about the future of blogging” (2015)

The point here being that you really can’t have an in-depth conversation on Twitter. For that matter, you even can’t go on an in-depth rant on Twitter.

Twitter is good for shouting one-liners and posting inflammatory news bites. (“Hey, did you see what so-and-so said today!”)

And I tend to think that’s intentional on Big Social Media’s part. The Twitter business model is based on convincing users to scroll from one quick snippet to another. 

That may be good for clickbait and pageviews. It isn’t very useful for an in-depth discussion about anything more complicated than the weather. 

Ever-free stories: online or in Kindle Unlimited

Thanks to those of you who purchased 12 Hours of Halloween during the recent $0.99 sale. The sale was a big success, when combined with the promotions that I ran for it on several sites.

I’ve got some more fiction in the works for Amazon/Kindle Unlimited publication. Remember that I also have a new story here on the site, “I Know George Washington”. 

“I Know George Washington” will eventually find its way into one of my upcoming anthologies. My plan, though, is to keep this story–along with many others–ever-free here on Edward Trimnell Books (or in Kindle Unlimited)

For me, publication is about more than just Amazon. I am also a big fan of the ezine/webzine concept. That means lots of stories and other content here on Edward Trimnell Books, for you to read online.

Very fake Facebook: Did Facebook lie about video stats?

Facebook (just like Reddit, Twitter, etc.)  exists for a single purpose: to sell ads

I maintain an author page on Facebook, in addition to my personal profile. Every time I log on to Facebook, the platform encourages me to buy ads.

Facebook has been pushing video ads in particular over the past few years. I mean, really pushing them.

It now appears that Facebook sold these ads based on inflated video stats. As a result, Zuckerberg’s brainchild has now settled a class action lawsuit for $40 million.

If you own a business, you have to rely on social media, the saying goes. 

And indeed, it would probably be unwise to completely ignore Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc. Social media is a sewer, but it is still a force on the Internet–for now. 

Never forget, though, that these companies are ultimately flight-by-night operations that are clinging to the dying business model of social media.  The aim of companies like Facebook is to squeeze as much money from advertisers as they can, for as long as the party lasts. Because they know that the party won’t last forever.

And never, ever–no matter what–make the mistake of building the entire public face of your business on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. This is a fatal mistake, whether you’re an author, a musician, or a plumber in Boise, Idaho.

The Brown Bess

For those of you following the snippets of  I Know George Washington: a video about the Brown Bess, the musket used by both sides during the American Revolutionary War.

This weapon, like other smoothbore muskets, did not have a rifled barrel. The lack of rifling made the Brown Bess considerably less accurate than modern (mid-1800s onward) weapons.  

The limited accuracy of the smoothbore partly accounts for the 18th century’s formation-based style of warfare.

 Soldiers in formations typically lined up in open fields, and fired in rows at their opponents.

Harper Collins and Kindle Unlimited

When you think “Kindle Unlimited”, you probably think “small press and indie publishers”.

That may be about to change.

Harper Collins has recently decided to test the waters in Amazon’s subscription service. The Big Five publisher will enroll several thousand of its backlist titles into Kindle Unlimited in the UK and Australia on an experimental basis.

In and of itself, this doesn’t really mean much. A big publisher like HC owns the rights to thousands of books, after all–some of which barely sell.

The indie publishing community is presently divided about the costs and benefits of Kindle Unlimited. I don’t look for New York publishing houses to embrace KU in a major way anytime soon. If a book is capable of selling, they want to sell it, not enroll in it in Amazon’s per-page payment system.

Not that I’m against the Big Five jumping into KU, mind you. If Harper Collins, Penguin, and the other major publishers were to make Kindle Unlimited a regular part of their strategy, they might be successful in negotiating an end to the exclusivity clause of the program.

FBI: Season 2

I was lukewarm about CBS’s FBI during its first season. For season 2, however, the producers of the show have really upped their game on the scriptwriting front. 

Episode 2 centered around the kidnapping of the child of a famous (fictional, of course) “mommy  blogger”.

There were lots of twists and turns, with a surprise ending that I didn’t see coming.

The show is not perfect, of course. This is network television, after all; and some of the gunfights (to cite one example) aren’t completely realistic. 

Overall, though, FBI is a solid cop show; and it augments CBS’s already strong lineup in that genre. (CBS is also the home of Blue Bloods, Hawaii Five-O, and S.W.A.T.)

Postcasting is the new blogging? Not so fast.

Well, it must be, right? Because Seth Godin says so.

I don’t want to beat on Seth Godin here. (Well, not too much, anyway.) I’ve read a few of the glorified PowerPoint presentations that Seth Godin publishes as books. They contain a few worthwhile nuggets. The guy has been saying stuff about marketing for 20 years now. It can’t all be wrong. But let’s not forget that Seth Godin mostly markets himself.

The obsession with audio/video

And of course, Seth Godin isn’t alone in his obsession with noise, and his relative disdain for text. Many of the marketing gurus are telling us that in this short-attention span, post-literate world, you have to hit them with some form of electronic noise. No one has the time for text anymore! If you must use text, make it an emoji! That’s the way Gen Z does things, after all!

(Twenty years ago, these same gurus were telling us to ape the Millennials, until the Millennials lost their luster.)

It depends.

Text or voice/video? It depends on what you’re selling, and whom you’re selling it to, of course… If you want to demonstrate the performance of a new sports car, then video is perfect for that. Likewise, a vacation spot. No one can describe the beauty of Hawaii like an image or a video can show them.

But there are many marketing situations in which the current obsession with yammering in people’s ears, or bombarding them with video, can be counterproductive. If I’m going to invest in a stock, for example, I’d rather read a prospectus. If I want to learn about the causes of World War II, I much prefer a well-written text to a YouTube video, or even a podcast.

I do listen to podcasts, because they’re a handy way to consume certain kinds of information when reading is impractical (such as when I’m driving a car).

But if I need to absorb something complicated, I prefer text.

Text also permits us to skim, and easily backtrack–something that is much more difficult with audio and video.

I still read print magazines, too–and I’m not the only one– because they provide a depth of information that you simply can’t get from a 5-minute YouTube video, or even a 1-hour podcast.

Audio and video can be annoying.

While we’re on the subject of print versus audio/video: I know you’ve had this experience: You navigate to a website that you’ve found in a search result, and the website contains one of those autoplaying videos that immediately starts talking at you. Shut the #$@! up! you shout, and hit the mute button on your computer.

But what do the gurus preach? More audio! More video!

Text: more “high-tech” than talking

There is nothing wrong with podcasting. (There is nothing wrong with video, either.) There is something wrong with the sudden trendiness of declaring text obsolete, as if forgetting how to organize one’s thoughts into text somehow represented an advancement.

Remember that verbal communication is nothing new.  On the contrary, it is the oldest, most primitive form. People have been yammering at each other, and yammering before crowds of others, since the invention of language.

Written language (text) developed because it allowed more complex ideas to be expressed in more systematic ways. If we must be trendy here, then it is text that is more “high-tech”. We should not be too eager to let text go, in the pursuit of more primitive noise.

“I Know George Washington”: about the story

A college student takes a summer job in a very unusual company in rural Virginia. 

What’s unusual about the company? Everyone insists that George Washington—the George Washington—is the founder and owner of the firm. 

Moreover, the great man himself will make an appearance before the end of the summer.

That’s the setup for the story, “I Know George Washington”.  

This is one of those stories that came to me in a dream (as so many of them do). 

Or, I should say, the basic idea came to me in a dream—not the complete story. 

After getting the initial seed of the idea, I spent some time fitting it into a narrative. The result is not quite a horror story, but something that might be called psychological suspense, in the spirit of the old Alfred Hitchcock movies like Rear Window and Vertigo. (I am a big fan of Hitchcock, and his technique of playing with the protagonist’s—and the audience’s—hold on reality.)

I’m presently posting snippets of “I Know George Washington” on Edward Trimnell Books.

On coauthoring and author “teams”

Someone asked me about this the other day.

In a word, no. Just…no. Or maybe…hell no.

I realize that in the indie space, that’s the thing right now. The idea is that if writers pool their efforts, they can crank out even more volume…Get more Kindle Unlimited page reads!

Some successful indie writers have even become James Patterson-like book packagers, whereby they are hiring other writers to write in their “universes”.

As we used to say in the 1980s, gag me with a spoon.  

Or: sorry, not for me. If I wanted to work in committees, I would have stayed in the corporate world.

Sometimes collaboration is a necessary evil. Some art forms require groups by their very nature. For example, try to start a rock band by yourself, just you and your drum kit. It can’t be done.

But if a committee isn’t a necessary evil, why would you want to subject your creative process to that? My cousin’s boyfriend is an ex-member of a very successful rock band from the 1990s, and he’s told me about the challenges of dealing with bandmates.

Why would anyone want to bring that into their writing?

Writing stories and novels is a one-person venture. At least it is for me…

Rambo: First Blood

I rewatched the original Rambo movie, First Blood.

Not bad, for a film that was released in 1982. It’s a fast-moving, barebones action movie without any fluff. 

As such, the movie suffered from some limitations. 

The most glaring of these is that there are no female characters in First Blood.

No, this isn’t a statement of my personal feminism. It’s just to acknowledge that a story that contains characters of only one gender (either male or female) is going to be somewhat limited in scope and appeal.

First Blood is basically a men’s struggle/survival tale. In that regard, First Blood reminds me of Deliverance, which preceded Sylvester Stallone’s film by about a decade.

First Blood is also notable for its political message, regarding the treatment of the Vietnam vets in the 1960s and 1970s. (This would be a consistent theme throughout the first three Rambo movies.)

I Know George Washington: Part 6

Tucker was aware that he was standing on a wooden platform. A scaffold, actually. The scaffold had been erected in the middle of a clearing, within a fog-drenched forest.

There was a distinct chill in the air. The smell of gunpowder. 

Tucker’s hands were bound behind his back.

A rope—a noose, to be precise—was tied taut around his neck. Not quite choking him. He could feel the itchy fibers of the rope. The rope’s hardness.

He looked down and got yet another surprise. He wasn’t wearing any clothes that he would recognize as his own. He was clad in white breaches, and black riding boots. 

He was wearing some kind of a jacket that was heavy and woolen. 

From somewhere back in the foggy woods, a crow cawed. 

Then Tucker heard a slow, rhythmic drumbeat. On one side of the scaffold, a row of soldiers became visible, half-shrouded by the fog. They wore tricorn hats. About half of them were standing at attention, with muskets at the ready. The other half, bearing drums, were the sources of the beats.

Closer to the scaffold, an older male voice said Tucker’s full name. Tucker looked down, and saw a portly man in a blue uniform, standing beside the platform. He wore a tricorn hat, too, and a powdered wig.

The stranger raised his hand, and the drumbeats stopped. Then he unfurled an old-fashioned scroll. He read aloud from the document, in a strange accent that was not quite contemporary American, but not quite British, either. 

“By order of his Excellency, General George Washington, you have been charged with high treason. You have been sentenced to hang by the neck until dead. May the Almighty have mercy on your soul.”

“No!” Tucker cried out. “I didn’t do anything!”

Tucker heard the slow clopping of an approaching horse. He looked in the direction of the clops, and saw a horse and rider approach out of the darkness.

George Washington sat atop a black horse. The general  wore his military uniform, complete with gold epaulets. He stared directly at Tucker, his face hard and implacable. But that wasn’t all.

Washington’s skin was as white as his powdered wig. He looked skeletal inside his uniform. Because he wasn’t much more than that—a skeleton.

Washington’s eyes were two solid black circles. 

“Tucker,” someone else said. 

Tucker looked down, and Joel was standing at the nearest corner of the scaffold, not far from the man with the scroll.

“You see, Tucker,” he said. “I told you that you would have a chance to meet George Washington before the end of the summer. Well, now you’re meeting him—”

Tucker awoke in the darkness of his bedroom, breathing hard. He occasionally had dreams that he remembered upon waking, but it had been some time since he had had a nightmare as vivid as this. 

A few more weeks, he thought, until he reported to George Washington Investments to begin his co-op job. He hoped that the strange events of today, and that horrible dream had been nothing but jitters, brought on by his anxiety over his employment situation.

But he feared otherwise.

End of excerpt

 

I Know George Washington: Part 5

As he drove home, Tucker savored the triumph of the job offer. But he couldn’t shake the eerie feeling left over from that conversation with Joel French. 

Why couldn’t Joel have told him the truth? 

The mere fact that the firm had been founded by a man named George Washington was an interesting tidbit, but nothing extremely unusual. In the more than two hundred years since the real George Washington had died, countless American men had been named for him, after all. 

One of the most famous of these was George Washington Carver. Born a slave in the waning days of the Confederacy, George Washington Carver had become an accomplished botanist, and carried out groundbreaking experiments on the cultivation of peanuts and soybeans. 

Carver’s connection to his namesake had been merely incidental. The George Washington who had founded George Washington Investments, by contrast, had obviously wanted to turn the associations of his name into a commercial gimmick. 

Joel, the general manager of the firm, had gone along.

Fine and good. But why carry an inside joke so far? Tucker had been led to believe that that sort of pranking was for teenagers and college kids. 

“Grown adults” didn’t do that sort of thing.

Except…some apparently did. 

When Tucker arrived back at his apartment, he immediately started googling George Washington Investments. He was able to find a bare-bones corporate presence website, with Joel French listed as the general manager. There was an obligatory portrait of the Father of His Country, but nothing that hinted at the strangeness that Tucker had seen and heard during his interview. 

On a whim, Tucker started googling the real George Washington. He thought he already knew much about the man, but apparently he hadn’t known everything. 

He came upon an article entitled “Washington’s firing squads”.  Apparently, Washington had been responsible not only for the deaths of British soldiers—but for some of his own men, as well. And not only deaths on the battlefield.

Washington had been a stickler for 18th-century standards of military discipline. Continental soldiers who were charged with gross insubordination, assault, or desertion were subjected to drumhead trials. Those found guilty were sentenced to death by firing squad. 

Anyone charged with treason, meanwhile, was sentenced to hang.

Those were hard times, to be sure, and Washington had been fighting a war. Nevertheless, this presented a portrait of Washington that belied his image as the almost saintly, fatherlike figure.

“I wonder if Joel French knows about all that?” Tucker said aloud into his empty apartment. 

Part 6

Table of contents

I Know George Washington: Part 4

The George Washington Investments firm occupied a sprawling, converted plantation mansion. Joel’s first-floor office, with its high ceiling and Persian rug floor, had at one time been one of the mansion’s multiple parlors, Tucker supposed. It wasn’t like any corporate office that Tucker had ever seen. 

But then, neither was the rest of the building. 

The doorway of Joel’s office was just a wide open space, with no physical barrier. Tucker stepped across the threshold, off the Persian rug, and onto the hardwood floor of the main hallway of the mansion. 

He came immediately upon a large staircase with an ornate balustrade. He had briefly noticed both on his way in. 

He was about to walk past the stairs, when the sound of footfalls came from directly above him, on the second floor.

Two distinct thumps. Then silence. 

Tucker paused, feeling a slight chill in the stuffy air. 

He glanced up the staircase. He could see only to the first landing, where a large antique mirror permitted a partial view of the next landing up. 

Tucker looked in the mirror for any sign of movement. He held his breath. All he could hear, though, was Joel talking to a client in his office across the hall. 

Seeing nothing and hearing no more, Tucker continued on toward the main exit.

The main foyer of the house had been converted to a small lobby. There was no receptionist or security guard. There were two chairs and a sofa for visitors. A glass-topped coffee table was covered with recent copies of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated, arranged in a fan pattern.

Tucker heard a creaking sound, and looked up. High above his head was a large crystal chandelier. 

The chandelier was moving, just a little, from one side to the other.

A house this size would have drafts, Tucker thought, its own interior weather patterns, practically.

There was a rational explanation.

Without lingering any further, Tucker hurried out the main exit of the building. 

On the other side of the front door, Tucker found himself on a long covered portico. A series of four doric columns supported a white wooden awning, two stories above his head.

The air out here was humid in the late May sunshine. Also thick with the scent of pollen. 

No wonder. A row of blooming magnolia trees lined the front perimeter of the main yard, just before the rural highway that connected the old plantation with the present century. Blooming rose bushes rimmed the front porch. Bees and wasps buzzed everywhere. 

Hay fever weather. 

Tucker started as something thumped against the front door, from the inside of the house.

Joel, perhaps? Had the general manager followed him out, for some reason?

Tucker stood still, waiting for the doorknob to turn, waiting for another thump.

Nothing.

It was just the old architecture settling, he decided. Nothing more. 

The parking lot was a cleared and blacktopped rectangle beside the mansion. It didn’t take much suggestibility to imagine this space being used as a parking area for horse-drawn carriages in another era. From the carriages there would have emerged men in frock coats and top hats, women in crinoline dresses and whalebone corsets.

Attended by slaves, of course. This had once been a plantation, and Virginia had been the heart of the old Confederacy.  

A lost world, Tucker thought. He started his car, and reached for the knob that controlled the air conditioning. 

Although he would be back here in two weeks, he had had enough of George Washington Investments—and this plantation house—for a single day. 

Part 5

Table of contents

I Know George Washington: Part 3

What the hell?

Tucker was feeling the slightest tinge of annoyance now. He knew that the names of the Founding Fathers were public domain, and more than one company had used them over the years. There were Ben Franklin five and dime stores in many American small towns, and the John Hancock Life Insurance Company. Tucker supposed that more than a few companies had taken the name of George Washington, too. 

That was all fine and good, as a branding strategy. But Joel was taking the George Washington schtick a bit too far, wasn’t he?

Maybe this was a test of some kind. Tucker would find out. 

“Just to be clear,” Tucker said, “when you say, ‘the founder’, you aren’t talking about the actual founder of this brokerage house, right?”

“Of course I am,” Joel said. “I know George Washington. He’s quite an inspiring individual, let me tell you.”

You know George Washington? You’ve met him?”

“Why, yes. I’ve met him many times, in fact.”

Tucker held his growing annoyance in check, thinking about that prorated junior broker’s salary, and those applicable commissions. 

This man was pulling his leg, obviously, though the reason for that wasn’t yet clear.

But Tucker couldn’t let it go.

“You don’t mean the George Washington? President Washington? General Washington?”

“Oh,” Joel said. “Mr. Washington hasn’t officially held the title of president for quite some time. And as for the title of ‘general’—well, he does have a very distinguished military record, though he doesn’t like to talk about it.” 

Tucker tried to speak, but found himself at a complete loss for words. Then Joel added something else.

“You’ll have a chance to meet Mr. Washington for yourself, Tucker, before the end of the summer.”

Tucker had a sudden, unwanted image of Joel driving him to Mount Vernon, not far from here, and then taking him into the crypt of George Washington. He imagined Joel prying open Washington’s white marble sarcophagus, and—

Tucker pushed the images away. They were as ridiculous as they were macabre. 

But what else could Joel be saying?

“Well, then,” Joel said, stepping around Tucker, and back to his desk. “We’ll see you here on the first Monday in June—in just a few weeks—at eight a.m. Oh—would you like me to show you around the facilities here before you go?” He added this last as an obvious afterthought.

“Thanks,” Tucker said. “But I can see that you’re busy. And I’ll have plenty of time to see your facilities over the summer, right?”

That logic made sense to Joel, apparently. He was already seated behind his desk again. “I do have some important calls to return, now that you mention it. But I’m glad we were able to meet today, and come to an understanding.”

Understanding? Tucker was uncertain if Joel was referring to the summer co-op position, this George Washington nonsense, or perhaps both.

“I’ll let myself out,” Tucker said. “Thank you again, Mr. French. I appreciate—I appreciate everything. Thank you so much for the opportunity. As we’ve discussed, this is a rough year for students in the finance field.”

Joel gave Tucker a final, friendly wave, and reached for his desk phone. “No problem, Tucker. ‘How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because someday in life you will have been all of these.’ Now, take care, and we’ll see you again in just a few weeks.”

Tucker nodded goodbye but said no more. He had a feeling that Joel’s parting words were quoted; and he didn’t have to ask whom they were quoted from.

Part 4

Table of contents

I Know George Washington: Part 2

Psychological suspense from Edward Trimnell Books

Joel broke into a smile. “I do have some good news for you, though, Tucker. I’ve given your file a thorough perusal. Your grades are excellent. Your résumé is a little thin, which is to be expected for a person your age, but you’ve made the most of the time you’ve had. Your letters of recommendation are glowing. Unless something unexpected comes up on your background check or drug test—and I don’t expect that, of course—I believe that we can offer you the paid summer co-op position.”

“Thank you,” Tucker said, exhaling audibly. He felt suddenly light, a weight having lifted off his shoulders. He was going to be one of the lucky ones, after all. He wasn’t going to spend the summer flipping burgers.

“This is how it will work,” Joel went on. “For the length of the summer term, you’ll be paid at the prorated salary of a junior, first-year broker, with all the applicable commissions.”

Joel then proceeded to give Tucker some numbers, a rough estimate of how much money he could expect to make over the summer. 

“Will that be satisfactory?” Joel asked, when he had finished.

“More than satisfactory,” Tucker said, beaming. “I accept!” 

Joel smiled and nodded, genuinely happy with Tucker’s reaction. “I can’t promise you a job after graduation, Tucker; but I can tell you this: If your summer co-op term goes well, you’ll have a leg up on other new graduates, should you decide to apply for a regular, full-time position. We have a few new ones open up each year, typically. George Washington Investments is a small firm, as you’ve probably noticed. We have a very unique, informal corporate culture here. But it suits us well, I think you’ll find.”

“I’ve always thought that it would be rewarding to work in a small firm—where you can know all of your colleagues. I find that appealing!”

Tucker wondered if he had just laid it on a bit too thick there. Those last two sentences had been less than honest. Tucker would have much rather been sitting in the office of a big brokerage house in New York or Chicago right now. But none of those firms had summoned him for an in-person interview.

“That’s good to hear.” Joel stood, leaned across the desk, and offered Tucker his hand. “Welcome aboard, Tucker. Even if it turns out to be only for the summer, we look forward to you working with us.”

Tucker stood to shake hands with Joel. The older man was about Tucker’s height, but also about forty pounds heavier. His face had a pasty hue. Despite the warm Virginia climate, Joel probably didn’t get out in the sun much.

Then Joel stepped around the desk, and stood beside Tucker. 

And then things got weird again.

Joel put an avuncular hand on Tucker’s shoulder—an unthinkable intimacy in New York or Chicago, but things were different here. 

“You see that?” Joel said. Joel indicated yet another painting—this one on the wall beside them. This painting, too, was familiar to Tucker. It was a reproduction of Washington Crossing the Delaware

“I see it,” Tucker said.

“See Washington standing in the prow of the boat? See the men pushing the boat through the ice floes? We both know that is only an artist’s depiction. But something like that really happened. Washington and his men were on their way to sack the Hessian encampment at Trenton that night. It was Christmas Night, 1776.”

“Impressive,” Tucker said. He remembered what Joel had said about George Washington just a few minutes ago. How could he forget?

“As I told you, Tucker, we have our own unique culture here at George Washington Investments; and our founder is a key part of it. As he once said, ‘Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.’ The old man doesn’t get into the office much nowadays, but his words—and his deeds—continue to inspire us every day.”

Part 3

Table of contents

The great Ohio heat wave

Heat waves past and present…

It’s been unseasonably warm in Ohio for the past week. Today the mercury hit 93 degrees for the high.

I’m familiar with the term “Indian summer”, but this is ridiculous. We’re having dog days of August weather, with Halloween just a few weeks away.

This isn’t the first miserable Indian summer in the Cincinnati area. I distinctly recall the hellish September/October of 1985. I was in my senior year of high school, and running cross country. There were a few races in which I was sure I was going to collapse from heat stroke.

Homecoming 1985, on October 12th, I remember sweating in my suit and tie at the big dance.

Why I am telling you this (other than my natural tendency toward nostalgia)? This late-season heat is a bit unusual. But if we had October heat like this 34 years ago, then the world probably isn’t ending (though you never know, of course).

According to the forecast, things are supposed to cool off here tomorrow evening. And not a day too soon.

I Know George Washington: Part 1

Psychological suspense fiction from Edward Trimnell Books

Tucker Bates found the air in Joel French’s office to be musty and uncomfortably warm. That was typical of the South, though, especially as late spring eased into early summer. And it was now May. 

Tucker had nothing against the South, per se; but after three years down here, he still couldn’t get used to the heat. He was originally from Pittsburgh. He would never have come to Virginia at all, if not for his partial scholarship at a major university in the Washington D.C. area. 

Tucker shifted his body in the visitor’s chair opposite Joel’s big antique desk. The visitor’s chair was an antique, too. It had a dark hardwood frame with old-fashioned, red velvet upholstery. 

Joel French glanced up at Tucker. “Not much longer,” he said, as he continued reading. “I’m on your résumé now.”

“No problem!” Tucker replied with artificial breeziness. What else was he going to say? He was the supplicant here, after all. 

Joel French was about forty-five years old. Joel was the general manager of George Washington Investments, a very small brokerage firm in rural Virginia, just outside the D.C. megalopolis.

Tucker needed this job. The financial industry was in the doldrums this year, and college students in the finance field were taking whatever they could get this summer. Paid co-op positions like the one on offer here were few and far between.

Joel nodded inscrutably as he read through Tucker’s application file—including his résumé—marking various sections with a bright yellow highlighter. 

Just give me the job, already, Tucker thought, but dared not say. 

While Joel read, Tucker found his gaze drawn to the painting behind French’s desk: The Prayer at Valley Forge

The painting was a copy, of course. Tucker had seen it many times in textbooks and museums: the beleaguered General Washington, kneeling in the snow in prayer beside his horse, during that hopeless winter of 1776. (Although Tucker was a finance major, he had gotten an A in every history class he had ever taken.)

Please, General Washington, pray for me, too, Tucker thought. 

At that moment, Tucker heard a set of footsteps immediately behind his chair.

He turned around, and saw no one. There was nothing there but the wide expanse of Joel French’s private office, with its high ceiling, more antique furniture, and the large Persian rug that covered the hardwood floor. Sunlight streamed in through the tall windows at the far end of the room.

But Tucker and Joel French were the only ones in the office. No one had walked up behind him.

Tucker resumed staring at the painting: General Washington, praying in the snow. 

Joel  finally looked up from the file. He noticed where Tucker was looking. 

“Ah, yes. I see you’ve noticed the painting. I find it very inspiring myself. Sometimes, on days when I’m feeling the pressure and things seem a little grim, I look at that painting, and I remind myself of what our company’s founder and owner once endured.”

Founder and owner? Tucker thought. What?

Tucker now noticed a few more items on Joel’s desk: a miniature bronze bust of George Washington…then a white ceramic penholder that bore a portrait of Washington.

The likeness of the Father of His Country was seemingly everywhere in this office. When Tucker had sat down, he had noticed the presidential Lansdowne portrait (a copy, of course) of Washington on the adjacent wall.

But the name of the company was George Washington Investments, after all. Maybe it was only a branding thing.

What had Joel meant, though, by “founder and owner”?

I should ask, Tucker thought. No, I shouldn’t ask.

“Anyway,” Joel went on. “You’re looking for a paid co-op position that gives you an opportunity to actually work as a broker. Correct?”

“Absolutely,” Tucker said, perhaps a little too emphatically. 

“I know this hasn’t been a good year for co-op students in finance. Nor for job seekers, either.”

“No, it hasn’t,” Tucker agreed.

“Well, I am gratified to see that you’re frank and honest. Here at George Washington Investments, we value honesty as one of our core values. As our founder and company owner is reputed to have once said, ‘I cannot tell a lie.’”

Tucker stared back at Joel, wide-eyed.

Part 2

Table of contents

Chinese censorship and American filmmaking

Movies in the People’s Republic of China are still subject to heavy-handed state control and censorship throughout the production process. This has been the case ever since the beginning of the Chinese filmmaking industry under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. 

In recent years, however, we have a twist: American filmmakers are now allowing CCP biases and hot buttons to change key elements of American movies, too.

In 2012, the remake of the classic 1980s film, Red Dawn, was modified to avoid offending China. The 1984 version of the film depicted a Soviet invasion of America. Since the USSR hasn’t existed since 1991, the 2012 reimagining of the movie was originally based on the premise of a Chinese invasion. 

But after outcry from the Chinese government, the entire movie was altered. The 2012 remake of Red Dawn that we actually saw was a North Korean invasion of the United States–a completely implausible scenario. 

We’ll soon see a remake of another 1980s classic: Top Gun. To avoid offending the Chinese government, the flags of Japan and Taiwan will be removed from Maverick’s leather jacket. (I suppose we should be grateful that Chinese government censors are allowing the inclusion of the American flag.)

Yes, I know: Hollywood has long demonstrated itself to be craven and greedy. (I certainly do my share of railing against know-it-all celebrities in this space. ) But the larger lesson here is that Chinese money always comes with significant strings attached.