Thursday, February 24, 2011

CALTECH vs. VINCE LOMBARDI

Last night, 19,763 sports fans paying hundreds to thousands of dollars for tickets jammed Madison Square Garden to welcome all-star Carmelo Anthony as a new member of the New York Knicks basketball team. The Knicks won.

Also last night, a few hundred students (paying nothing) attended the Caltech-Occidental basketball game at Caltech’s Braun Athletic Center. Caltech won.
A conference win! Caltech 46, Occidental 45

Caltech’s victory came despite the fact that President Obama attended Occidental for a couple of years, and he probably picked them to beat Caltech. But he had no more prescience in this game’s outcome than he did in picking the Bears to win the Super Bowl. Caltech still won.

There are some who think that the Knicks game was more worthy of national attention than was the Caltech game. Indeed, judging by the comparative press coverage (about 1,000 to 1 in the Knicks's favor), attendance (about 100 to 1), and ticket prices (infinite ratio), the Knicks seem to hold the zeitgeist edge.

But judging by historical implications, it’s Caltech all the way. For the first time in the last 26 years, Caltech won a conference basketball game. A record 310-game losing streak – longest ever in the United States by any sports team – was broken. Like so many of its achievements in science and technology, Caltech accomplished something that no one else in history has ever been able to do.


Havoc broke out in Pasadena. Nobel laureates raised toasts to the winning athletes. Students interrupted their problem sets to cheer a sports team. Even The New York Times featured Caltech, not in the Science section, but on the second page of the Sports section. This indeed was a Big Event.

Yet somehow, during these 26 years in athletic purgatory, Caltech still seemed to function. Heads didn’t roll. Presidents kept their jobs. Coaches weren’t fired. Scientific breakthroughs kept being made. Nobel prizes continued to be won. Incoming student SATs remained the highest in the nation. And every year it was ranked a top-10 university. Indeed, midway during The Losing Streak, U.S. News in 1999 awarded tiny Caltech academic hegemony over some other pretty highly regarded and far larger schools:

1.  California Institute of Technology 

2.  Harvard University 

3.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology
4.  Princeton University
5.  Yale University

6.  Stanford University 

7.  Duke University
8.  Johns Hopkins University
9.  University of Pennsylvania 

10. Columbia University

This raises a momentous question: Can it be possible that Vince Lombardi was wrong? Vince Lombardi wrong? Remember, he’s the ├╝ber-successful coach for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named. He’s the coach who’s currently being memorialized by an eponymous Broadway play. And he’s the coach best remembered for popularizing:

“Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

(Despite that saying’s enduring fame, it strikes me as a really dumb credo. But I digress.)

So here's my question: Is winning the only thing? If so, Caltech should have been completely embarrassed over the last 26 years. The school should have buried its collective head in shame. Losers, losers, losers.

But Caltech hasn’t been a loser. To the contrary, some consider it an American treasure. A small school (just over 900 undergrads) with an oversize reputation for academic and research achievement. A school where a surprisingly high percentage of the students engage in intercollegiate athletics, and for fun. Where there are no athletic scholarships. Where the institutional culture subscribes not to the Lombardi-esque philosophy, but rather to that hoary value that some of us were taught as youths, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.”


So team, enjoy your victory. But remember, keep having fun.

Ben Rosen, Caltech, ’54






Monday, February 21, 2011

CLASSICAL MUSIC ECONOMICS: IS THERE A SOLUTION?

American Orchestras: The Sound of Trouble
The Detroit Symphony, which has just emerged from a 34-day musician’s strike, is in such economic straits that it may have to disband.
Detroit Symphony Cancels Season as Musicians Strike
The management of the debt-burdened Detroit Symphony Orchestra canceled the rest of its season on Saturday, after executives and the players failed to resolve a strike that has lasted four and a half months.

Time magazine’s piece over forty years ago described the entire classical music industry as being in mortal peril, and not just in Detroit. Indeed, the death of classical music is a perennial topic, yet somehow orchestras have persevered. Should we be any more worried today than we were in 1969?

Is the Detroit Symphony’s dire situation a one-off phenomenon, or is it part of a larger problem affecting classical music organizations throughout the United States? Clearly, there are extenuating circumstances in Detroit. This once-proud centerpiece for American manufacturing has been in a four-decade economic tailspin. One measure of the decline: its population has fallen from 1.5 million in 1960 (No. 5 in the U.S.) to 900,000 now (No. 11).

Unfortunately, Detroit is not alone as far as its orchestra’s turmoil is concerned.  There are myriad other indications that classical music is in deep trouble financially.  Recent press articles have cited financial issues with a host of other orchestras. Most American orchestras are operating at a deficit – and that’s after philanthropic contributions. Indeed, income earned from ticket sales usually accounts for less than half the operating budget of a musical performing arts organization. Even selling out the house doesn’t solve the problem. Those orchestras lucky enough to have endowments have been eating into them to meet operating expenses. And, unlike European arts organizations, which are heavily subsidized, American groups get essentially zero financial support from federal or local governments.

There are at least two exceptions to this bleak outlook. The Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony have the luxury of owning cash cows that enhance the orchestras’ financial situations. In L.A., it’s the very profitable Hollywood Bowl, and in Boston it’s the highly successful Tanglewood summer festival. But outside of those two orchestras, it’s difficult financial sledding for the other majors, and worse for the smaller organizations.

So how will all this play out?

Well, there is one scenario that could be a harbinger.  It’s not a pretty scenario, but it’s one that has allowed a once-proud but financially strapped orchestra to survive.

In the early 1990s, after six decades of performing, the New Orleans Symphony ran out of money, donors and time. It went bankrupt. In its ashes, the Symphony’s musicians got together and created the Louisiana Philharmonic, the nation’s first musician-owned and –operated orchestra. The musicians run the organization, control the board, hire and fire, raise money, and pay themselves. And therein lies the rub. In order to survive as an orchestra, they pay themselves astonishingly little – an average of $23,000 per year. A little over $10 per hour. Pretty frightening, no?

By contrast, the Detroit Symphony members earned a minimum of $104,000 last year. (That’s a number somewhat below the salaries earned by members of the other major orchestras.) They rejected an offer in the low $80,000s.  Here’s the issue management faced, as reported by the Detroit Free Press this weekend: “The DSO has lost $19 million since 2008, remains in default on the terms of its $54 million in real-estate debt and is rapidly depleting its endowment to cover the red ink.”

There’s no easy answer. The musicians want not just a living wage, but one also reflecting their talent, years of training, and status as being among the elite musicians in the country. Management wants a solution that reflects the exigencies of a virtually bankrupt organization. As the Detroit meltdown illustrates, there’s a wide gulf that separates the two positions.

Now I believe that talented classical musicians are absolutely deserving of  earning far more than most of them are getting around the country, but they’ve run into an economic model that just isn’t able to properly compensate them anymore. And it’s not getting any better. Youth isn’t exactly flocking to classical music as tastes are dumbing down. Schools aren’t helping by cutting arts budgets.  Philanthropy is the only solution, and there are signs it’s stretched pretty far. New young philanthropists have to be developed to replace the ageing ones, but it’s not clear that classical music is attracting new wealth. It’s not a pretty picture.

By the way, we attended a concert Saturday night in New Orleans of the Louisiana Philharmonic, and it was terrific. The orchestra sounded wonderful, conductor  Carlos Miguel Prieto was electric, and the house was packed. There were encores, standing ovations, and even an audience member who mamboed spontaneously (this is New Orleans, after all) as the orchestra played a selection of Leonard Bernstein’s dances. There was a world premiere of Terence Blanchard’s Concerto for Roger Dickerson. And a spectacular performance of Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto No. 2 played by Robert McDuffie, for whom Glass wrote the piece.

The LPO model is one solution. They produce a fine product, one that an audience appreciates and relates to. But it’s a draconian solution that requires that the musicians provide the subsidy. Somehow, that doesn’t seem fair.

Solving the economic problem of classical music is not easy. If it were, someone would have figured it out already. Perhaps fresh thinking is required.

Any thoughts?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

FINALLY: THE SECOND AMENDMENT EXPLAINED

Reading about the plight of (former) Rep. Chris Lee yesterday, it was hard to ignore the photo that he posted to his would-be doxie. There was the handsome representative from western New York posing with no shirt on and showing off his reasonably well-defined pecs. Seeing a legislator dressed (or undressed) this way reminded me of the true, yet little-known, story behind the writing of the Second Amendment.

Just to get you interested, the Second Amendment does not mean what you think it does. It has nothing to do with guns. Never has a piece of federal law ever been so misunderstood. For over two centuries, everyone in this country has misinterpreted what the Founding Fathers had in mind. Now, for the first time, in an exclusive of Through Rosen-Colored Glasses, here is what they really meant when they gathered on that steamily hot day in Philadelphia to codify the rights of our newly independent citizens.

When I say it was hot, it was really a scorcher of a day. Nonetheless, our dedicated public servants had finished up on the First Amendment in the morning and were then proceeding on in the afternoon to frame the second. They had just begun the discussion when one member of the committee asked the chairman if, given the crushing heat, he could roll up his sleeves of his outer coat. Remember, this was not only pre-air conditioning, but it was a time when men wore decorative, multilayered and brutally warm costumes – wool, satin, frills, cuffs. Other members then asked the same permission, and it was granted. They all rolled up their outer coat sleeves.

But to little avail. They were still schvitzing. (You probably didn’t know Yiddish was spoken then.) They tried to write the rights, but they were just too uncomfortable. So another member asked the chair, “May we also roll up our inner coat sleeves.” Permission granted. And then later: “Our shirt sleeves?” Permission granted.

Sweet relief! They were all so happy with their new comfort, that they immediately got back to work and decided to share their newly gained right with all Americans for all times. And thus, on December 15, 1791, was adopted the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America:

The right of the people to bare arms shall not be infringed.

(Full disclosure: This idea was blatantly stolen from a New York Times op-ed piece of a couple of decades ago. I’d like to give credit where due, but extensive searches for the original have come up empty.)