Thursday, December 16, 2010

Health Care Law Unconstitutional

A federal judge ruled that the health care reform law is unconstitutional. I’m waiting for Fox News to howl about “activist judges”. Haven’t heard it yet.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Education–We’re Doomed

I read this in yesterday’s NY Times:

“…the best of China is now scoring better than anywhere else in the world. America’s 15-year-olds ranked 14th in reading skills, 17th in science and 25th in math, below the average.”

What is happening? We shovel money to the schools and our students perform like this?  I couldn’t find any data on China’s spending per pupil in US dollars, but I did see an article that said it is close to the spending levels in Latin America – which I see is less than half of what we spend. Seems they are getting better results than we are.

Our high school here in Batavia recently put up a $70,000,000 addition – for a drama auditorium and new athletic fieldhouse. Maybe that’s the problem – we spend more on drama and sports than we do on reading, math and science. Drama and sports will not make us competitive in the 21st century. We have serious problems facing us and we need serious, smart people to tackle them.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Hoping for Change? I Wouldn’t Hold My Breath… We’re Doomed

From today’s Yahoo News:

“Members of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus may tout their commitment to cutting government spending now, but they used the 111th Congress to request hundreds of earmarks that, taken cumulatively, added more than $1 billion to the federal budget.

According to a Hotline review of records compiled by Citizens Against Government Waste, the 52 members of the caucus, which pledges to cut spending and reduce the size of government, requested a total of 764 earmarks valued at $1,049,783,150 during Fiscal Year 2010, the last year for which records are available.”

I thought at least these guys could resist spending for a little while. Sure, it’s “chump change”, but that’s not the point.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Financial Speculation–We’re Doomed

A generation of our best and brightest have gone from making new things, tangible things, that people need to making deals. Instead of creating the next generation of power, transport and food technologies, our best and brightest are busy with financial speculation, mergers & acquisitions - shuffling around existing wealth into different pockets as opposed to creating additional wealth.  It's this activity, with the support of both parties of our government, that has gutted American manufacturing - and the housing business - the true creators of long-term wealth.

I've been curious what the value of financial speculation is. I read, over and over, that it is to provide liquidity. Without the speculators, the markets would have no buyers and sellers and everything would grind to a halt. I think that's an immense exaggeration. I think the truth is more that we, the aggregate of small investors, provide liquidity for them! Our money, in the form of our small individual 401K accounts, our mutual funds, and IRA accounts, provides the funds for them to play their games and walk off with hundreds of millions, sometimes billions of dollars in compensation. Without the accumulated funds from the "little guys" they would have no money to play with - and perhaps that's good. It would also keep them from making trouble for the rest of us. If only we had alternatives that could provide us with a decent return. I wish the best and the brightest would work on that.

Monday, October 25, 2010

He Kept His Secret in the Toolbox (Fiction)

It was a cloudy day, unusual this time of year in the Caribbean. It was just me and the bartender, but then again, it was 10 AM. He asked how I ended up on the island.

“How did I get here? Let me tell you a story.”

***

Cleaning out my parent's house was the hardest thing I have done in my life. We moved to that house in 1968, when I was 12, six doors down from the apartment building we lived in for the previous twelve years. I had a lot of emotion tied up in that street.

My mom and dad passed away within two years of each other. After my dad died, my mom was never healthy. After she died, it was up to my brother and I to search through the house. See, my parents came from the generation that hid cash in radiator pipes, jewelry in the freezer or buried in craft junk in the basement. We had to look through everything.

My father had many admirable qualities, but he was not a handyman. He had a toolbox, sparsely filled with a hammer, two screwdrivers, and one adjustable wrench - or so we thought.

On a gray, damp October day in Chicago, my brother Greg and I were sifting through stuff in the basement. He came across the toolbox.

"I guess we should look through this too," Greg said.

"Can't imagine there's much in it. Can't remember the last time I saw Dad with it," I replied.

Greg opened the toolbox and rummaged through it.

"What's this?" He was holding a little black box, about the size of a deck of cards. In the center of one side of the box was a red button and a little LED light. The black matte surface had no other markings, no brand name, no model number - nothing.

"It looks like a garage door opener, doesn't it?" I looked at it closer. "There's no brand name and it feels really heavy. Who would build a garage door opener out of such heavy metal?"

Greg pushed the button. The LED lit. We both turned to the back of the house and looked out the small, thin basement window, which faced the garage. He pressed it again.

"I don't see the light go on. It must not be to our garage. I need some air. I’ll take this trash out back."

Greg went up the stairs and out the back door. I continued going through boxes in the basement – pawing through Christmas ornaments and craft supplies looking for rolled up cash or jewelry.

“KEV – LOOK AT THE GARAGE!” Greg yelled from the yard. I glanced back at the basement window and saw a blue light showing through the glass brick windows of the garage.

I ran up the basement stairs, grabbed the garage key off the hook on the wall and dashed through the backyard to the garage. I unlocked the door and stepped in.

“What the heck is that?” The concrete floor of the garage had an opening in it. Part of the concrete had popped above the floor and slid back, revealing stairs and a room at the bottom bathed in blue light. Greg and I walked down the stairs. Directly in front of us was a long desk with 4 computer monitors and three telephones and a single sheet of paper. The view to our left was far more interesting – shelves of bundled cash and gold bars. I walked over to the desk and read the sheet of paper.

“Is that an AK-47?” Greg asked.

“How the hell should I know? Holy crap – listen to this,” I said.

Kids,

If you’re reading this, I must be dead. I know this is quite a shock to you. You remember all those times I went out “to get a paper”? You kids and your mother thought I was at Peterson’s Tavern all that time, but I really just drove around the block, parked on Francisco and snuck back down here to do my other job. I was a good salesman and it turned out there was a lot more money selling arms to third world countries than cardboard boxes.

Obviously, the less the government knows about this, the better. Call Mr. Manny Ramirez at 001-345-555-1029 and he can help you with arrangements.

Love,

Dad

PS – if you aren’t one of my children, don’t bother calling Mr. Ramirez – it won’t work out well for you.

***

“So, that’s how all of us ended up here in the Caymans. We miss the United States once in a while, but it turns out island living suits us. How about another rum and coke?”

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Reform Congress – or We’re Doomed

As many of us do, I get a lot of political e-mails from friends. Some are wacky, but this one I received recently made a lot of sense to me. It was titled the Congressional Reform Act of 2011. Hyperbole aside, I think these changes make a lot of sense:

  • Term Limits: 12 years only - total between service in the Senate or the House of Representatives.
  • No Pension: A Congressman collects a salary while in office and receives no pay when they are out of office.
  • All members of Congress (past, present & future) participate in Social Security. All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social Security system immediately. All future funds flow into the Social Security system, and Congress participates with the American people.
  • Congress can purchase their own retirement plan (IRA, 401K), just as all Americans can.
  • Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise.  Congressional pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.
  • Congress loses their current health care system and participates in the same health care system as the American people.
  • Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American people.
  • All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective 1/1/11.

The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen.  Congressmen made all these contracts for themselves. Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career.  The Founding Fathers envisioned citizen legislators. Serve your term(s), then go home and back to work.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Alternative Energy

I read today that the U.S. Military is accelerating their research into alternative energy, mostly due to the recent attacks on oil tankers in Pakistan. They see their dependence on oil as a threat to national security. Why don’t the rest of us?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Time

“Time waits for no one…” - Rolling Stones

My father warned me: time will go faster as you get older. He was right. It seems I took the tarps off my porch furniture a few weeks ago and now the leave are turning. Where did the summer go? I still have mini-golf coupons I meant to use – now expired. I thought I had plenty of time.

Why is time moving faster? I recall Einstein had something to say about time. I’m not a physicist, but I don’t think he’s going to be any help. It’s in my head.

Time hasn’t changed; it’s not really accelerating. My perception of time has changed. Is it because every day feels the same? Have I been in my routines so long that every day just melds into the next? I can do things in the same exact pattern every week, and that makes every week the same. Is the similarity and lack of novelty making time seem faster?

It does scare me. It goes too fast now. At this rate, in just a few months of perceived-time I’ll be really old, slower, and less capable.

“Hours are like diamonds, don’t let them waste…” - Rolling Stones

What to do? How do I slow it down?

Time goes quicker when I’m “in the zone” – writing a story, figuring out a challenging coding problem, or yoga class (sometimes). I’m happy when I’m zoning, but time moves even faster.

I really dislike flying. When I’m aloft, time crawls. Perhaps that’s the secret – just make yourself miserable and time will slow down. That doesn’t seem like a good idea either though.

Is the problem due to the lost hours? Hours drugged out on TV or the internet (billions of website and not one interesting thing to read)? Time has a way of getting away from you during the lost hours. It doesn’t go fast, but it disappears just the same. I finally turn the device off and wonder what happened to the last few hours.

I’m not sure if I can change any of this, but a few things seem clear. If it’s going to go fast anyway, I might as well spend as much time as I can zoning – at least that feeling of engagement with life is satisfying. I should minimize the number of lost hours. I should interrupt my routines more often to make the weeks different – cause some days or weeks to stand out more.

In the end, I just have to accept it – and do my best to enjoy what little perceived-time may be left.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Uh-oh – I go to Yoga Class – I’m Doomed

I read this article on Yahoo today. Apparently some Christian leaders think, and I quote from the article, that “practicing yoga is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus”. Wow.

These people slay me. Many of these folks are rock-solid certain that God hates homosexuals, that God is concerned about what we eat on Fridays, that God created all we see in 7 days around 6000 years ago, and now – that God disapproves of my yoga class. Yet, ask these same folks the big questions: Why is there evil? Why does a loving God allow genocide, the holocaust, child molestation, and natural disaster that kill hundreds of thousands? The answer you get is “It’s God’s will”. We’re told that we mere humans cannot begin to fathom God’s plan.

Why is God so transparent about petty, stupid stuff – but so vague, mysterious, even clueless about the truly important things?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Health Care Costs – We’re Doomed

We will never get health care costs under control until we start paying the bills ourselves. I don’t care if it’s private insurance or government money, as long as people spend “other people’s money” they will not care about the costs.

If we relied on auto insurance to maintain our cars, oil changes would cost $700, not $21.95.

September 24th Quote

No one asked me where the quote came from on my Sept. 24th post. I thought it sounded very tea-partyish. But it was from the 1962 Port Huron Statement authored by Tom Hayden and the Students for a Democratic Society. Others (Trudeau of the Doonesbury cartoon) have noticed strong similarities between the tea party and the 60s radicals in terms of their rhetoric. Though most of the platform diverges considerably, they both seem to share a basic premise that the people don’t need to be told by the “elites” what to do – that it is best if we’re left alone to live our own lives without interference.

We Are Doomed – Great Book!

A friend of mine recently turned me on to a great book: We Are Doomed – Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism by John Derbyshire. I am totally in sync with this guy. I like the use of phrases like “idiot optimism” and “tragic consequences always follow unbridled optimism”.

Let’s encourage more people to be homeowners by eliminating down payments and creating interest only loans! What could go wrong? Housing prices ALWAYS rise!

I’ve received a couple of requests to republish only one post in all these years – the post on realistic thinking. I think pessimism is properly called realism. I think many pessimistic people are generally happy, as long as their pessimism doesn’t slide to depression or obsessive worrying (which I admit I can slide to if not vigilant). I expect things to get goofed up, so when they don’t, or if they don’t screw up to the extent I expect, I’m pretty happy with the result.

His book is largely political, but his philosophy of realistic thinking instead of “sticking-your-head-in-the-sand” optimism applies to many areas in life.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Interesting Quote

“We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love. In affirming these principles we are aware of countering perhaps the dominant conceptions of man in the twentieth century: that he is a thing to be manipulated, and that he is inherently incapable of directing his own affairs. We oppose the depersonalization that reduces human being to the status of things--if anything, the brutalities of the twentieth century teach that means and ends are intimately related, that vague appeals to "posterity" cannot justify the mutilations of the present. We oppose, too, the doctrine of human incompetence because it rests essentially on the modern fact that men have been "competently" manipulated into incompetence--we see little reason why men cannot meet with increasing the skill the complexities and responsibilities of their situation, if society is organized not for minority, but for majority, participation in decision-making.”

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Superstitious? Me?

anna acorn 001

This is the lucky acorn my niece Anne gave me while hiking in Pennsylvania. The day I took it out of my pocket, I started feeling the symptoms of a very nasty cold. Coincidence? Perhaps…

Friday, August 27, 2010

Business Weenies – We’re Doomed

OK. Today I read about the slumping economy in a couple of places. One place was a blog I occasionally read and the other was the Chicago Tribune. The basic problem seems to be that businesses won’t hire because consumers won’t buy. What we have is a lack of demand.

What I think we have is a lack of cojones on the part of the free market capitalists. Consumers won’t spend because they are 1) paying down debt, 2) worried about becoming unemployed, or 3) unemployed. Government is tapped out – no more stimulus money. Both the blog and the article said that corporations are sitting on $2 Trillion (yes, with a “T”) of cash due to record profits the last three years. And they are the ones that are afraid? They’re the only ones with the money to make a difference and they are too shortsighted and timid to do anything about it.

I’m reading a biography of Henry Ford. He was smart enough to understand that for mass production to be practical, you need mass consumers. So, he paid workers far above the prevailing wage at the time (though ironically, he despised unions). He could think long-term. If the industrialists that made this country great were as timid and shortsighted as the current crop of business leaders we would still be using covered wagons and plowing fields with oxen. Pathetic.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

More Evidence We’re Getting Dumber – We’re Doomed

This was on Yahoo today, from the Associated Press:

“Average scores on the ACT college entrance exam inched downward this year, yet slightly more students who took the test proved to be prepared for college, according to a report released Wednesday.

The findings sound contradictory. But the exam's authors point to a growing and more diverse group of test-takers — many are likely scoring lower overall, but more are also meeting benchmarks used to measure college readiness.
...
Three in four test-takers will likely need remedial help in at least one subject to succeed in college, ACT officials are encouraged to see improvement as ever-larger numbers of students take the exam.”

Students are doing worse, getting dumber, but the powers that be are putting a positive spin on it by declaring more students are “ready” nonetheless. The article does not explain at all how readiness is measured, but people are so dumb that no one will think to ask and just accept everything is OK even though we’re doomed.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Home Ownership

“Our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them…I know one or two families, at least, in this town, who, for nearly a generation, have been wanting to sell their houses in the outskirts and move into the village, but have not been able to accomplish it, and only death will set them free.” – Henry David Thoreau

I think about this quote when I take my daily walk in our neighborhood and see homes that have had “For Sale” signs up since we moved back here in December 2007. I don’t know who owns the homes now, but they aren’t lived in anymore. Maybe a bank owns them, maybe a corporation bought them when they transferred an employee – either way, what a burden.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Done at 55?

“If they’re over age 55, it’s unlikely they’ll ever be back in the work force.” – Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich

I’m not 55 yet, but I’m awfully close. If my entrepreneurial efforts fail, I will probably be looking for work at 55. I know I’ll have a huge challenge re-entering the employed work force, but I refuse to believe that I’ll never find a job again. This is not just a financial consideration. I’ve realized that I’ll never be ready for retirement. The downtime I incur in my current activities is hard to bear. Once the novelty of not going to an office each day wore off, I realized that “retirement” may not be as appealing as advertised. In fact, the prospect of not doing anything meaningful or useful the rest of my life is very scary and very depressing. I know there are volunteer activities; I’ve tried a number of them. They aren’t engaging enough to replace paid work, even part time work. I miss being involved with others in an effort to build a business. Money is the scorecard and volunteer work doesn’t provide the same satisfaction. Plus, I now realize I will need more money – the market downturns and subsequent flat stock market returns have dimmed my financial future. 

If Mr. Reich is right (and I don’t think he is), the waste of human talent will be immense. It will be both a psychological and financial catastrophe for the United States.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Chicago Artwork: Eye “Sculpture” (Not sure what to call it)

eye

Buy More Junk on Credit! – We’re Doomed

The front page of today’s Chicago Tribune business section has a headline:

“Bailing on debt… Consumers are carrying smaller balances on credit cards, so issuers are ratcheting up reward programs to boost use.”

I hope we’re, collectively, not so stupid to buy into the credit industry’s pitches and buy more crap we don’t need and pile up debt all over again.

Surely we’re not that stupid. Of course today’s Tribune also reported 10 million people watched “The Decision” regarding LeBron James. We’re doomed.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Travel Agents and Self Checkout

I miss travel agents. Once upon a time I was able to pick up a phone and tell someone (usually a woman, but not always) that I want to go to Boston on Thursday after 4 PM and return home on Friday after 5 PM. That is all I would have to say. Magically, tickets would appear on my desk, car rental arrangements would have been made and a hotel reservation would be all ready for me. And, my trip would be on my favorite airline; I would have my aisle seat, and all my frequent traveler numbers would be there. Now, my wife and I pore over various websites searching for the best deals – it can take hours of our time and we’re still not sure we got the best deal.

I was at Jewel recently, buying avocados among other things. I chose to use the self checkout aisle, since it appeared the shortest. Of course, that is just an illusion – I’ll get back to that. I put my avocado on the scale and did the lookup thing (there was no little sticker on my avocado with the little code number). Who knew there were 4 different kinds of avocado? Which one do I pick? There were no prices on the screen, so I couldn’t pick the cheapest (the logical choice). So, I just picked one. Probably paid too much. It used to be that you could save time in the self checkout aisle, but that was when it was new, novel. Now, lots of people use it and, like me that day, stare at the screen trying to figure stuff out. And, it gets worse when something doesn’t work right – scanning coupons being the most common problem I’ve observed.  The whole process is slower than the paid checkout folks and it’s no longer the time saver it used to be.

It seems that we are doing more and more of the work in business transactions. They have shifted work to us. The corporations save on labor costs, and supposedly we benefit from lower prices, but I do wonder. Corporate profits have been very robust, even during this downturn. Perhaps some of that is because we now do work, for free, that they used to have to pay someone to do.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

We’re Doomed

A couple of items crossed my path Tuesday that reinforces my feeling that politics is a waste of my time.

First, I read an editorial in Barron’s about the financial services bill. In their opinion, it’s 2,300 pages of rules that will increase reporting requirements, but not solve any real problems. They compare it to the Sarbanes-Oxley bill that was passed right after Enron. Sarbanes-Oxley was a gold mine for IT consultants – it made me a lot of money for a while. But, did it really solve any problems?

Second, my friend Darrin commented on my previous post. In it he asked a very important question: do I trust Congress to write appropriate, effective laws? Well, based on my experience – no. I get enraged when I hear that they vote without even reading them. Of course, who would want to read them? I downloaded the health care bill (another poorly conceived 2000+ page group of new laws) and I couldn’t read it either.

So, I still believe that industry cannot regulate themselves, or control their instinct to make bad decisions to serve short-term profit motives. And, I now acknowledge that Congress (this Congress, at least) is not competent to write effective regulations. Where does that leave us? Doomed.

Monday, July 5, 2010

I Want to Be a Pure Economic Libertarian, but…

There are some who say they want a totally deregulated business environment. I don’t see how that is possible. I say that because some business decisions (cut corners on underwater oil drilling, create derivative financial products around probable bad mortgages) create collateral damage that the business has not, and cannot, account for. The accounting system (GAAP) has huge holes in it. The cost of an environmental disaster such as we’re encountering in the Gulf could not have been costed when that drilling platform was sent to do its work. The economic fallout (frozen credit markets, bankruptcies, unemployment) could not have been costed when CDOs and CDSs were created. How do you value such calamities?  If you could give it a wild-ass-guess, you’d never drill for oil or create new financial products – innovation would grind to a halt. However, when things do go wrong, somebody has to pay to clean up the mess. And the only “somebody” that can is the taxpayers, through the proxy of government. And, because the taxpayers generally foot the bill when things go really wrong, the taxpayers have a right, an obligation really, to create regulations to try and avoid those disasters from happening again. That is the reason I think a truly, fully deregulated business environment will never be practical. And that is the reason I can’t subscribe to pure laissez-faire free market economic theories, as much as it appeals to me for other reasons.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Canada the Envy of the G20

There was an article I saw in Yahoo Finance yesterday that said that Canada avoided the worldwide downturn. Their banks are healthy. The experienced 6.1% growth in the first quarter of 2010. They are enjoying the 12th straight year of budget SURPLUSES! Their employment situation is quite a bit brighter than ours.

How did they do it? First, they controlled government spending (I guess their government-run health care system didn’t bankrupt them – we must be way dumber than they are). Perhaps as important, through common sense regulation they kept their banks under control. They had reasonable capital requirements and did not allow their banks to sell mortgages to Wall Street, thereby maintaining the risk relationship between lender and borrower. Funny how banks are more careful with their lending processes when they have to worry about the loan’s risk. Duh. Banking is supposed to be boring, safe – not some risky casino-like operation.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Country: the Official Music of VODAG?

I’ve never really listened to country music until recently. Just for kicks, I’ve tuned into our local country station the last few weeks and really listened to the music. Wow. Most everything sucks with these people. I’m seriously considering officially endorsing country music as THE music of the voice of doom and gloom. I may even have to make a trip down to Nashville to see why these folks are SO gloomy.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Why I no longer am a member of the Sierra Club

I was a member of the Sierra Club for years and years. I quit a while ago. They still send me letters all the time with offers to rejoin. I still believe in their overall mission. Actually, I don’t know very many people who do not want clean air, clean water, and some undeveloped land. But I am no longer a member, and will not become a member because they are hypocrites. If you read the Sierra Club magazine, you’ll see a quarter of it (at least) is devoted to eco-travel. They promote sending plane loads of affluent westerners to ecologically sensitive areas of the planet on tours. Last time I looked, planes sucked enormous amounts of fuel and and are not emission-free. Then there’s the fuel and resources used to keep those tourists in comfort once they are there. If they’re serious about saving the planet, they should not be promoting this kind of travel. Sure, the tour operators claim to be ecologically sensitive, but common sense tells me that just leaving the most ecologically sensitive portions of the planet alone is probably the best policy.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Nature of Work

"Most (immigrants) are workaholics," Guillen said. "This country can't survive without (them). I'm sorry but a lot of people from this country are very lazy. We aren't. A lot of people from this country want to be on the computer and sending e-mail to people. We do the hard work. We're the ones who have to go out and work in the sun all day long." – Ozzie Guillen – Manager of the Chicago White Sox

I read this quote recently in the Chicago Tribune. Ozzie was reacting to the new law in Arizona. But, it caught my attention because I have often been plagued by the thought that the work I do is pointless, occasionally even damaging. I don’t make anything people physically use. I don’t grow anything for people to eat.

I now develop websites. Before this, I worked on database development. In some cases I can see a direct cause and effect between a website I developed and a businesses’ increased revenue. But often I question the bottom line value of what I do. Occasionally, I am bothered by the idea that all I ever develop is for soliciting money – whether it be for a non-profit or a business. Is that all the internet is about? Just a bunch of billboards?

Why do I care if I’m doing something useful to society or “meaningful”? I finished a book recently: Shop Class as Soulcraft
by Matthew B. Crawford. In it he extols the virtues of working with your hands, as opposed to cubicle-based office work. It’s a good read. Maybe I should have learned how to be a motorcycle mechanic.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Journalism

From “The Death and Life of American Journalism” by Robert McChesney and John Nichols:

“Jefferson: ‘The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.’

… Alas, those words have been spoken so widely in so many different contexts for so many different purposes they have lost their power, if not their meaning. The same person can invoke Thomas Jefferson, and then, incongruously and shamelessly, argue that we must allow journalism to collapse, unless rich people can make money providing it, and suggest that by some mad calculus this is the way of democracy.”

Will our lives be better if the free market declares that because journalism has no profitable business model it should no longer exist? Will our lives be better if the rich and powerful get to act with no checks and balances whatsoever?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

American Journalism

I attended a lecture last night at our local public library. It was “The Death and Life of American Journalism”. The lecturer was Robert McChesney, a professor at Illinois – Champaign-Urbana.

His research indicates there are about 60,000 paid journalists in the United States (down from about 130,000 about 5 years ago). About 1,000 are getting fired every month, and he thinks that number will only accelerate as advertising dollars shift to other media and the newsrooms of America become even less economically viable. You do the math: in about 5 years that could mean we have no more free press in the United States.

A couple more interesting numbers: according to his research, newspapers today print 70% less ORIGINAL stories than they did 20 years ago. And, out of the stories they do print, 86% were written by PR people, not news reporters. And most of those PR pieces are published unedited, not fact checked. So, the vast majority of our “news” is written by people who are paid to spin in favor of their benefactors.

What does this mean? Why should we care? Today, in most of our towns, very little government is covered. When was the last time you saw a summary of your city council, board of education, park district, library board, or county government meetings? Sure, you can wade through hours of local community TV and watch the meetings yourself (I can in Batavia, anyway), but how many citizens will do that as opposed to reading a summary of what was discussed and how the votes went? So, the citizens end up uninformed and government and private interests get to conduct their business with no one watching, no one reporting to the taxpayers. Who else is going to do it?

One of the audience asked about “citizen journalism”. The professor acknowledged that citizen journalists (primarily bloggers) do perform a role, but they lack two important things to truly replace what we are losing: resources and institutional clout. Most bloggers do not have the resources to truly cover city government, much less larger scale stories – good journalism, like good investment banking, must be compensated. To think that proper reporting can be done after hours, part time,  is not realistic. But, more importantly, the reporter needs backup – an institution that commands respect (“I’m Kevin, from the Wall Street Journal, do you have a comment?” – that call usually gets returned – not so much when it’s “Kevin, the blogger”), has lawyers to defend our freedom of the press, and some security so the powerful cannot eliminate your livelihood when they don’t like what you are reporting.

His solution is public subsidies. He says all the other industrialized countries subsidize the press, some (Germany) in the tens of billions. The reason is an acknowledgement that the free market cannot support journalism. The business model, advertising, is now “broke”. And, he asserts that the advertising business model was an anomaly anyway. Prior to around 1860, the United States subsidized the free press heavily, primarily through the Post Office. When advertising revenues began to make news reporting economically viable, we stopped the subsidies. I’m not sure about government supported journalism, but free market approaches don’t seem anywhere on the horizon either.

Who benefits from the demise of journalism? Ask yourself who would prefer to operate without scrutiny? Is this a future we want to bequeath to our children?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Road Trip

I took a little road trip last week. I intended to go to the Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH, which I try to visit every few years. But, it turned out that wasn’t really the highlight of the trip.

TOM

My first stop was Edgewood, Kentucky to visit my friend Tom. Tom has cancer and recently finished 7 weeks of radiation therapy. He looks good and the doctors say the prognosis is good. He finds out June 8th if the radiation worked. There are a couple of things he’ll have to deal with the rest of his life due to the radiation. If the radiation therapy worked, he felt the tradeoff was acceptable. We had dinner with friends from former jobs (Michelle, Garry, and Gene), laughed a lot, and it was fun.

Further observation: The Ohio River is pretty impressive. That area may be another road trip candidate.

THE AIR FORCE MUSEUM

I always enjoy this museum. There was nothing new this year; they had just moved the planes around. A few of my favorites were not available as they are getting ready for the 60th anniversary of the Korean War.

FORT WAYNE, INDIANA

I decided to head north from the Air Force Museum rather than stay in Dayton. Due to really nasty weather, I ended up in Fort Wayne. According to the news the next day, 4.5 inches of rain fell that night. There was very impressive lightning and thunder. Good thing nature was putting on a show because the hotel’s satellite TV was definitely not working during the storm (we had the same problem in New Hampshire – just when you can’t go anywhere and TV seems like a good idea, the darn thing stops working. Never get dish…).

RV / MOTORHOME HALL OF FAME – ELKHART, INDIANA

I’m really glad I stopped here. I’ve been by it a number of times and as I zipped by at 70+ miles per hour I would say to myself: “I should stop there.” So, I did. I’ll just let the pictures describe this part of my journey:

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This is one of the first Airstreams. 13 feet long.

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One of the first motorhomes, from the 20s – heated by pot-bellied stove.

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This is the dash of a 50’s era motorhome (called the Cortez). No navigation system? No AC? No backup cameras? How did they ever cope?

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The couple that owned this lived in it from 1948 to 1988. Charming and homey inside.

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This one is my favorite – someone converted a 1976 Cadillac. Truly hideous, but I wish I had one. I bet it would be like driving the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

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Here’s the interior of the converted Caddy. There wasn’t enough headroom for me to stand.

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The climate control and entertainment systems in a 1920’s travel trailer.

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Paramount Pictures built a motorhome for Mae West and this is it. The cool thing is it had a porch in the back. The back door here is opened to it. Supposedly, she sat out here in a rocking chair in the evenings. Why don’t today’s motorhomes have porches? I think this is really cool.

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This was my favorite trailer. I just loved the wood and it felt so homey and comfortable. It’s from the 30s.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Speed Kills

I want it now. I deserve it now. God wants me to have it now. We’re in such a hurry and so impatient. I think this is part of the cause of our recent financial troubles. Both the get-rich-quick financial players and home-buyers-that-should-have-waited participated in the debacle. But beneath it all is an impatience to have it all.

The recent 1000 point drop in the Dow 30 Industrials is partially the fault of computer trading. Apparently “investors” (can we really call them that?) trade via computers in 1,000,000 share blocks, making substantial money on a penny or two change in the stock price – trading many times per day, often “owning” the shares for seconds. How does this activity benefit American industry, or society? I know it’s an unfashionable question to ask – how does something benefit the common good is not a popular concept anymore. It’s all about “me” now – what’s in it for me seems to have become the only relevant question. And, if I can’t make my fortune NOW, well there must be something wrong.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Water

new_buffalo_beach

What is it about water that makes it so calming? I don’t feel comfortable in water – I can’t swim and I get scared when I’m in too deep. But, I love being around it. The sound, the beautiful colors, and the smells all make me feel better. 

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Another Story Published… Republished Actually

I posted Something’s Burning on the blog last year and now it was accepted at FewerThan500.com. Read it here.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

I’m Officially a Published Author

One of my short pieces was accepted for publishing on a site devoted to stories less than 500 words. See my story at:

http://fewerthan500.com/?p=150

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Wanderlust

What a great word: wanderlust. I start to get feeling this way when the weather gets warm. I want to just hop in my car and drive. I’m not picky about where – just go somewhere.

I have mixed feelings about the approach of spring and summer. Sometimes I think of those seasons as “yard-work” season. Maybe my wanderlust is just the urge to escape that work. But, most of the time I think it’s more than that. There’s an urge to hit the road, explore, see what’s in the next town, what’s in that state park I’ve never visited.

I think I’ll go to the Air Force museum this spring. I’d also like to visit a friend in the Cincinnati area while I’m down that way who’s battling cancer. I have hopes by the time I get down there he will have found out he’s won. Maybe that will satisfy my wanderlust. For a little while.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Life as a To-Do List

I am between projects. A few of my active clients and business partners have taken the week off for spring break. So, I have little going on this week. My to-do list is sparse.

I started working on a little project to get myself off of Microsoft Outlook. I am thinking of a new computer, and I don’t think I’ll spend the money on Microsoft Office this time around. There are too many far less expensive alternatives. For my calendar and to-do list, I decided to go old-school and bought a weekly planner at Office Depot. I transferred my appointments and tasks over this morning (my contact list is another problem altogether, one I am still working on).

I’m a list guy. Making lists calms me. Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night a list written at 2:30 AM will shut my brain off and allow me to sleep. Crossing items off my list gives me satisfaction.

But, I fear my life may have devolved to my to-do list. Some days it seems ALL I do is what’s on the list. My life lacks spontaneity; it’s too regimented. Perhaps taking my lists offline will help. We’ll see. 

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Deliveryman Fiction

I get lots of odd requests in my business, but this one didn’t really rate high on my all-time list. Picking up cargo at 4:30 in the morning was inconvenient, especially considering the way I spent most evenings, but not really all that unusual. What I found when I arrived at the rundown warehouse was another story.
"Colin. On time as usual," Joe said.
"Hi Joe. Everything set to go?" I asked. Joe is an artist. He  hired me to deliver one of his sculptures to a warehouse in LaCrosse. In my business I didn’t ask too many questions. But, I did wonder why he needed an armored van and an armed driver for a sculpture done by a talented, but still relatively unknown, artist. I noticed the woman standing next to him.
“Who’s she?” I asked.
"Let's go into my office. We need to talk," Joe said.
We walked to the back of the warehouse. I plopped down on the leather sofa in his office.
"Want some coffee?" he asked.
"Who's the woman?" I asked, again.
Joe sighed. “She’s going along with the cargo."
“That wasn’t our arrangement."
“I'll explain everything when you get back. I have no choice here. You have to take her. How much extra will it cost me?"
I walked to the office door and took a look at what might be my additional cargo. She had short brown hair, or maybe it was red. She wasn’t very tall, but at 6 feet most women seem short to me. She wasn't thin, but not heavy either. There was a Bowie knife strapped to her left leg. She hadn’t said a word; she just stared at the van.
“I'm trusting you here.” I told him, "Double my fee."
“Done,” Joe said.
I immediately thought I should have asked for more. This whole arrangement felt like more trouble than it could possibly be worth.

The sculpture fit into the back of my van without a problem. It was about 700 pounds of steel, iron and some copper in a shape that made no sense to me, but I’m hardly qualified to judge modern art.
The run to LaCrosse is usually uneventful. There is a stretch between Janesville and Madison where protection can be a problem. The corporation that owned that stretch of road was having financial problems and the public’s safety on the highways fell to the bottom of their priority list. The benefits of the massive privatization of 2014 were not evenly spread. The anti-government crowd finally got their way and not all were pleased with the results.
She sat on the leg without the knife, calm, but frequently looking at the side view mirror.
I knew I would be just asking for trouble, but I was curious about my traveling partner.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Moira"
"Moira, why are you in my van?"
"Look, I've been told you're a nice guy. Let's talk about something else - the less you know about that the better. How much time do you spend on the road?"
"Most of my deliveries are day jobs. I rarely have to overnight anywhere. I have a cot rigged up in the back for that."
"I see your wedding ring. I suppose your wife appreciates you being home most nights," Moira said.
"My wife died one year, 7 months, 3 weeks, and 4 days ago."
She slowly turned her head and gazed out the passenger side window.
"Crap, we've got company," she said.
I looked into the side mirror and saw a Lincoln Towncar approaching in the fast lane. It didn't look like anything to worry about, but out of habit I reached behind my seat to make sure the cold comfort of my Mossberg Persuader was back there. I always keep it loaded and close by when I'm working.
The Lincoln had come alongside and while I was thinking about my next brilliant conversational gambit the big car slammed into my side of the van, trying to run us off the road. The Lincoln was a big car, but no match for an armored van. The right wheels barely kissed the shoulder before I swung hard to my left and knocked the Lincoln into the median. I timed it just right, because the median had a really steep ditch and the Lincoln was nose down, the back wheels off the ground. I pulled off to the left shoulder and stopped the van. I heard the passenger door slam shut before I even had my seatbelt off. I got out of the van.
"Where the hell are you going?" I shouted, "We need to get out of here."
Moira walked quickly to the disabled car, pulling the Bowie knife out of it's strap as she walked. Only then did I notice she had the Mossberg over her right shoulder. She got to the passenger side where a man was slumped unconscious, still strapped in his seat. Moira yanked open the door and calmly slit the man's throat. The driver of the Lincoln screamed, furiously tried to get his door open, and pull his gun out of his waistband at the same time. Moira seemed unphased. She calmly walked over to the driver's side, pointed the Mossberg at the driver's side window and pulled the trigger.
As she walked back to the van, she tossed the Mossberg to me and walked around to her side.
"Let's get moving," she said.
"Who the hell are you?"

We drove in silence for about 2 more hours. I am no stranger to violence, it was my Mossberg after all, but her cold, calm attitude unnerved me.
We arrived at the delivery point, an art gallery in LaCrosse, around 10 AM. I would have been earlier if she hadn't murdered a couple of guys on the interstate earlier.
I pulled up right in front of the gallery. A couple of guys came out and stood on the sidewalk. They didn't look like artists to me.
"I hope we get to see each other again, sometime," Moira said.
"Hopefully under better circumstances,"
The guys on the sidewalk gestured their impatience.
"I have to go now," she said, "Joe can explain some of what's going on. I have a feeling you're going to ask, but it's best if you don't."
She got out and walked into the gallery. I waited in the van. A minute later, one of the guys that didn't look like an artist walked out of the gallery and handed me an envelope.
"Moira told me you ran into trouble. Here's some extra. We hired you because we were told you were discreet. That better be the case."
I took the envelope. I definitely felt I earned a bonus.
"I just want to get back home. Where do I unload the cargo?"
"That? It's yours. Take it back to Joe. Dump it in a ditch on your way back. We don't care."
I put the van in drive and headed back home. Despite the warnings, I had a lot of questions for Joe.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Gas Prices

When gas prices spiked a few years ago I read lots of whining about the “environmental whackos”. The complaint was that no new refineries had been built in years and couldn’t be built because of excessive environmental regulations.

Imagine my surprise when today’s Tribune reported that refiners are shutting down refineries at a brisk clip here in the United States and places with lax environmental regulations. Environmental whackos? Of course not. The refiners are trying to maintain their profits. This isn’t my guess – the article quotes them. They are shutting down refineries, firing workers, all to keep the supply down and the prices up. Logical free market capitalism – and of course, completely legal. But, let’s not hear any more stories that  overzealous people in pursuit of clean air and water are the reason gas prices are high. While I acknowledge environmental regulations have an influence, let’s not overlook corporate profits and CEO bonuses.

Which do you think has the greater influence?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Unrealistic Positive Thinking

I’ve written on this topic before, so I’ll try not to repeat too much. I think that the peculiarly American brand of gung-ho optimism is partially responsible for our recent economic meltdown. The “What Me Worry?” attitude hurt us. I ran across this quote that I think sums it up nicely:

“What passes for optimism is most often the effect of an intellectual error.”

Raymond Aron

I don’t know who this guy is, but I think he summed up the housing bubble / Wall Street idiocy quite well. 

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Corporations = People?

The Supreme Court, in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, recently ruled that corporations have the same rights as humans when it comes to financing election campaigns. This one ruling overturned dozens of laws, federal and state, going back to 1907. In an astounding act of judicial activism, the Supremes new conservative majority showed us that they will interpret the Constitution as they see fit to placate their corporate masters. Since the Constitution was written to secure HUMAN rights against tyranny, it is unlikely the founders conceived of a situation where corporations would have equal (in many ways, superior) rights to humans. In fact, the word corporation never appears in the constitution, or certainly the Declaration of Independence.
Justice Scalia:
“Most of the Founders’ resentment towards corporations was directed at the state-granted monopoly privileges that individually chartered corporations enjoyed. Modern corporations do not have such privileges, and would probably have been favored by most of our enterprising Founders—excluding, perhaps, Thomas Jefferson and others favoring perpetuation of an agrarian society.”
Wow. Talk about a stretch! The founders were wary of any concentrations of power – hence the system of checks and balances. I don’t think they would approve of today’s multinational mega-corporations with no allegiance to country, any country.
I downloaded the entire ruling, so perhaps I’ll write more about this. I think this is a ruling we will live to regret as huge corporations (including foreign corporations, which Congress will now have to re-address), with more resources than many countries, begin to get more involved in our election process.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Good Book by Bill Bryson

Once in a while I read a book that makes me laugh out loud. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson is one of them. It’s about growing up in the 50s and 60s.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Expectations and a Better Life

One of my readers wrote that we had to have expectations to have purpose, to improve our lives. I believe goals and expectations are not the same thing. However, it’s still a valid question: can you have goals without expectations? If you have no expectations, does that mean you live a life without hope?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Privilege to Fly? Privilege to Drive?

I read a letter to the editor recently about full body scanners at the airport. The letter writer, in a nutshell, said that “flying is a privilege” so put up with it and shut up. I’ve read similar sentiments from people regarding driving too.

I really don’t get it though. It’s a private transaction between two entities: me and the airline. I pay them; they fly me somewhere. So, according to these sheep-like people, the only way that transaction can take place is if government affords me that privilege? NO.

I get the need for regulation. If we didn’t have traffic laws, stop lights, air traffic control – there would be chaos and things wouldn’t work as well. But, those who think that the ability to drive or fly from point A to point B is a privilege only granted to us by a government are very sheep-like, subservient losers.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Practice What You Preach

A reader e-mailed me to ask if she could use one of my posts. Of course, I said yes. I’m always happy to have a reader. It was an older post about expectations and as I reread it, I couldn’t help but notice the contrast with my previous post today about the weather.

See, I’m angry that it’s cold, gray and snowing. What was my expectation though? It’s February 2nd and I’m in Chicago! Maybe I watch too much TV – seems it’s always warm in tv-land.

I truly believe if I could reset my expectations, I would be happier. I’m going to work harder to accomplish this. Thank you reader.

Cold and Gray

I’m so tired of being cold. I’m so tired of clouds. Yesterday’s Tribune said we’re having one of the cloudiest winters (3rd I think) since 1894. I know clouds affect mood. And my mood is lousy. I’m tired of being cold too. It’s been below freezing for quite a while, or so it seems. I just looked at the 7-day forecast and the warmest day is 34 – barely above freezing.

I’m tired of cold. I want warmth.

The American Dream – A Scam

Moreover, Altucher says the notion that buying a home is a ticket to financial security is a "scam" perpetrated on the American people by corporations seeking to keep us in debt, less mobile and with the storage to purchase all sorts of needless consumer goods.

James Altucher of Formula Capital

The discussion was about the investment return of a home. Since 1929, on average, a home has returned  0.4% per year. Compare that with stocks at roughly 8%, including the latest nasty downturn.

There are so many other expenses involved with a house that you would not spend if you were renting:

  • Insurance premium.
  • Property taxes (which usually offset any tax deduction you get from your mortgage interest).
  • Maintenance (pipes break, electricity problems, etc.).
  • Remodeling costs.
  • Utilities (utilities and maintenance for renters is often reflected in the rental price, but it's not reflected in a mortgage when you own).
  • Yard work, pest control, etc. (again, rents usually have this built into the price, but mortgages don't).

Many people say - "But, you have to live somewhere..." - true. But, you could rent, save a ton of money, and buy something else with all that money. A boat for instance. Or a RV. A house is so stationary. It doesn't do anything. I know some people like putzing with a house - home improvements, the garden; some even like repairs. Not me.

Now, with high unemployment, the stupidity of owning a home becomes especially clearer. In this economy, you can't just pick up and go where the jobs are. You can't unload the house. That's its largest flaw as an investment. It's not liquid - and it's not liquid at the most important time: when its value is tanking.