Downtown View: Counterfeit Nation

Karen is taking her first break since beginning to write in this space. She is offering some of her most remarked-upon columns for you to enjoy again.

Counterfeit nation (first published March, 2009)

I could handle A-Rod. I managed to get through Bernie Madoff, especially since I wasn’t rich enough for him to have targeted me. I listened without too much fuss to the MBTA’s claim that the Silver Line was rapid transit, even though it is pretty obvious to any of its riders, especially when it is stalled in a lane of traffic, that it is only a bus. I could endure the myth that your airline trips earned free travel miles, even after finding out you could never use them because the airlines had so many restrictions and now charge real money for “free” travel.

I was even mildly amused when it turned out that the CEOs of banks, insurance companies, automobile companies and a lot of other titans of industry turned out to have no more idea of how to run a big company than my friends did. (I think my friends could have done a better job.)

I didn’t lose it until last spring whenI started to order my seeds. The Vermont Bean Seed Company turned out to be in Wisconsin.

Is nothing sacred anymore? Is anything real?

The whole world, or at least 80 percent of it, has turned out to be fake. The fakery may be impeding a recovery. How can you trust your investment company if you can’t trust the Vermont Bean Seed Company?

Speaking of seeds, they aren’t real either. Monsanto and other large “seed” companies now produce genetically modified, patented “seed.”

You know what seeds are. You plant them. They produce flowers that turn into seeds. You plant the seeds. You give them to your friends. They grow into plants that produce flowers that turn into seed and so on. It’s been like that for billions of years.

But not Monsanto seeds.

First of all, some of them won’t grow into plants that make seeds. And, like most real seeds, Monsanto’s seeds have a tendency to be blown about by wind and carried by birds. But if the crop you are growing with your own seed gets mixed with Monsanto’s seed and grows into a plant on your land, Monsanto will sue you, as they did a hapless Canadian farmer, for using their seed, even though it seems to me like your seed. It sounds like Monsanto isn’t producing seeds then, but something else. It also sounds un-American, but that’s another story.

So if A-Rod’s prowess, your investments, a bus line, airline miles, CEOs’ talents, and beans and seeds are a sham—and that’s just the tip of the iceberg—what’s a reasonable person to do?

I know what we can’t do. We can’t hand this problem to Obama, since he has enough on his plate and shouldn’t be fixing airline miles, no matter how important they are to me.

Congress isn’t up to the task either, since they keep hauling in sports stars to question them and nothing happens. (One could ask, even one who believes in government intervention, what Congress is doing mucking about in a private business enterprise that so far hasn’t asked for a handout, but never mind.)

I don’t have all the answers but I do have a few to get you started on planning your own strategy to avoid fakery.

First of all, grow your own plants from seeds that you get from a friend. That’s sort of hard to do in downtown Boston when you have no soil. So if you don’t have a window box where you can grow peppers instead of petunias, patronize the farmer’s markets. For the most part, even though I’m skeptical of everything, I think they are real farmers with real vegetables.

Second, put your money only with bankers who live on your street. That’s what I’ve done. I can watch my banker, and she can watch me. As far as I know, she doesn’t own a Rolex watch or drive a Jaguar so I don’t think she has fantasies about using my money to invest in mortgage-backed secured bond and stock derivatives or whatever those unfortunate things are called that gave the financial establishment their big bonuses and us the shaft.

Finally, as a wizened old newspaperman (my uncle) once told me, if you don’t understand something it’s because someone’s not telling you the whole story. So if you don’t understand something, don’t go after it.

That’s a start. If you’ve got other ideas about how to avoid the fakers, I’d like to hear them. We’re not going to get out of this mess until we have a real, not a counterfeit society.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at