Saturday, December 27, 2008

Cheered by the holidays

I hope that your holiday was a festive one. For me, the best part of the past three days (including today) was having some time for myself that didn’t involve work. I love my job, but regardless of my fondness for work, it’s still nine to 10 hours of my day that is spoken for, not given to rare multiple choices of things to do.

For instance, having the leisure to prepare dinner Christmas night, with my wife, without time constraints, or feeling the usual crush that accompanies typical work nights was refreshing. We whipped up a wonderful meal of Farmer’s Pasta, a recipe courtesy of Food Network star, Giada DeLaurentis. This combination of four cheeses, pancetta, and creaminess, made it the perfect kind of Christmas comfort food. In addition to this great dish, I threw together killer Caesar Salad, another DeLaurentis contribution to our Christmas. The key here was the dressing, flavored by anchovies, fresh squeezed lemon juice, and Dijon mustard, superior to any supermarket concoction.

In addition to some wonderful food, which included this morning’s breakfast of locally-produced sausage from Maurice Bonneau’s Sausage Kitchen, now relocated to lovely downtown Lisbon Falls, along with some awesome Mimosa’s, and my own version of the traditional omelette, Miss Mary and I have enjoyed the luxury of time together, which might be one of the best parts of the holiday season—spending it with those you love.

This was our first Christmas in 25 years that our son, Mark, couldn’t be with us. That was tough because Mark possesses a larger-than-life presence that is particularly noticeable when not around. We managed to satisfy ourselves with two phone calls, one where he and I talked Celtics’ basketball like we would if he and I were sitting across the table from one another. This completed another circle in our lives, as the year he was born, a quarter century ago, was Mary and my first Christmas away from family. Mark was just six days old at the time, and we spent Christmas 1,500 miles from our extended families.

One of my favorite activities associated with having no constraints on my time, is the luxury of being able to devote hours to reading. As a lover of books, reading time is always hard to come by most times during the year. Despite demands on my time, I always have two or more books going at once, managing to plow through 40 to 50 books per year. Yesterday, I was able to finish Diane Roberts’ Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans, and Other Florida Wildlife. The Roberts book is one I meant to read back in 2006, during our final spring baseball trip, following Mark and his Wheaton teammates as they spent another 10 days in the Florida sun, prepping for what would be a season of magic.

The four springs that Mary and I spent in Florida, along with two prior forays—a Disney trip when Mark was 12, and one extended weekend in November 2005, unwinding after the completion and launch of When Towns Had Teams—helped formulate some understanding of the Sunshine State that extended beyond the typical Fodor’s, or AAA tourist propaganda. Roberts’ book brought an even more complete tearing away of the false fa├žade that creates the accepted mythology of tourists, and even residents that has become Florida, dating back a century, or even further.

Speaking of books and publishing, Sara Nelson, who is Editor-in-Chief at Publishers Weekly, was on C-Span2’s Book TV, talking about book and the nature of bookselling. Nelson said that book sales, like all retail, were down this holiday retail season. However, while publishing as we all know it will inevitable not stay the same, she writes on her blog “…that in the long run, …when the dust settles – and it will settle– there have always been stories, people to read them, and people to produce and disseminate them. Whether those stories (and people) will be part of large corporations, whether the stories will be measured in pages or bytes, and whether there will be hundreds of thousands of them produced every year—well, that we’ll have to see.”

For me, the single most telling trait about someone’s intellectual acuity is whether they read, or not. In my way of seeing the world, reading is essential to being able to sort and sift information in the midst of the snowstorm of white noise buffeting all of us in society. Those who haven’t developed the skills that are only acquired through reading, aren’t capable of critically conducting the required sorting of scarce pearls from the mass of swinish faux factuality.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bait and switch Barry

As candidate Obama, our next president never missed an opportunity to tout that he was going to be an agent of “change,” transforming forever the old ways of governance. If you have been keeping score at home, the candidate who would be messiah has fallen far short of what he proposed, if his appointments are any indication of what’s in store for the first 100 days, and beyond.

The recent appointment of Tom Vilsack, former governor of Iowa, and friend of Big Corn, as Ag Czar, is just another example of Barry being Barry.

Vilsack has a reputation as being a schill for agribusiness biotech giants like Monsanto. In fact, Vilsack regularly flew on the Monsanto jet, while governor. Because of his ties to Monsanto, and Cargill, proponents of sustainable agriculture are none too pleased by Obama’s appointment.

Both Obama and Vilsack are supporters of corn-based ethanol, which Robert Bryce, in Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Indepence," condemns as a scam. Other critics of ethanol, like Lester Brown, from the Earth Policy Institute, recognize that corn as fuel guarantees severe hardship to 2 billion of the world’s poorest people, who depend on corn as a food staple.

It’s not just environmentalists that have concerns about corn-based ethanol. Dennis Avery, director of global food issues at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington, D.C., has concerns that are remarkably similar to Brown's. Avery, like Brown, breaks the issue down to its most basic element—food or fuel?

From a paper that Avery published, he lays out the issue as such:

"The real conflict over cropland in the 21st century," wrote Avery, "will set people's desire for biofuels against their altruistic desire that all the children on the planet be well-nourished." He continued, "The world's total cropland resources seem totally inadequate to the vast size of the energy challenge. We would effectively be burning food as auto fuel in a world that is not fully well-fed now, and whose food demand will more than double in the next 40 years." Avery says that even if the U.S. adopted biofuels as the antidote for imported crude oil, "It would take more than 546 million acres of U.S. farmland to replace all of our current gasoline use with corn ethanol."

That's a significant amount of acreage, particularly when you consider that the total amount of American cropland covers about 440 million acres.

Michael Pollan was recently interviewed on NPR and spoke to the Obama appointment of Vilsack.

Pollan’s issues with Vilsack run to his embrace of corn-based ethanol. Pollan is concerned that corn-based ethanol production for fuel will continue to drive up food prices.

He indicates that the key in developing a national biofuels initiative is utilizing crop waste, trees, and grasses that don’t compete with the food supply. Pollan made the point that Stephen Chu, the former Nobel Prize winner, and new Secretary of Energy, is a “fierce critic of corn ethanol.” Actually, Chu is far from being a “fierce critic” of corn as a fuel, as Tom Philpott points out at Grist.

Chu apparently views corn as a “transitional crop” to cellulosic ethanol, which is 5-10 years away from viability.

Given Obama’s appointment of Vilsack, you can be sure that we’ll continue being forced to fuel our cars with gasoline tainted with ethanol, which robs me and others of about 5-10 percent of our fuel efficiency.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Choosing the proper rubber

The final weekend before Christmas, it appears that retailer’s plans of deep discounts and other enticements to consume have been foiled by the weather, at least in the northeast. A significant winter storm is chugging its way up through New England, this one promising whiteness and wind, on the heels of the previous mayhem brought by sleet and ice.

Each successive winter of my life, I marvel at the lengths that news stations go to frighten the masses at the mere hint of winter weather. Of course, given the evolution of the human race, enamored by technology, yet increasingly incapable of storing up a few cans of Campbell’s Soup to warm up on the wood stove when the power flickers and fails, it’s small wonder that these same fools descend on supermarkets for water, Wonder Bread, and toilet paper in the event that the power goes out.

Speaking of power outages, apparently the natives have grown restless in Massachusetts. A news report on NECN reported residents of one subdivision blocking the exit of Unitil power crews from their subdivision without restoring power to every home. Apparently one woman jumped aboard a truck and refused to leave until her electricity was turned back on. Probably being unable to finish her online shopping for the holidays drove her to this level of desperation.

When I came of age during the late 70s, mounting snow tires on the rear-wheel drive (RWD) vehicles of the era was standard practice. Living in Maine, it was a given that it snowed and if you wanted that behemoth of a sedan to be able to leave your driveway, let alone carry you to your job, then a good set of snow tires was a necessary investment.

The first car I owned was a ’74 Plymouth Scamp. I’m convinced that those of us who learned to drive on RWD cars, like my Plymouth, never acquired the false sense of security that plagues many younger drivers, and unfortunately, some of the older idiots occupying the ditches each and every storm.

Not only did we learn some basic safety rules of driving in the snow—proper following distances, don’t lock up your brakes in a skid, slow-the-fuck-down when it gets slick—we also had a sense that you made basic preparations for a winter of driving through a Maine winter, like tires.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I learned the intricacies of winter driving by trial and error, and plenty of mistakes. That first winter, I skidded off the Freeport Road, on my way to Pineland Center to work, cresting a hill and continuing straight off the other side of the road, so maybe my initial attempts at winter driving mastery were tentative. A passing pickup was kind enough to stop, back up, and pull me back onto the road.

The cars of that era were nothing like today’s vehicles, which practically drive themselves, which allows our current crop of motorists the freedom to concentrate on their cell phone calls, text messages, and work their doing on their laptops as they traverse our highways and byways.

Once I joined the world of FWD motoring, I accepted the wisdom that the newer vehicles no longer needed snow tires to get through our winter snow and ice. The all-season radial was now the choice of many drivers. Oh, there were still those that understood that while all-season tires were ok, they were far inferior to four winter tires, particularly if they had an aggressive tread design to funnel ice and snow out of the grooves. Studs were even better.

Approaching 200K on my 10-year-old Taurus, I upgraded to Ford’s newest version of their utilitarian Taurus brand this past spring. Refusing to buy-in to the environmentalist claptrap and eco-propaganda that foists hybrid jokes like the Prius on consumers, I bought another American-made Ford. The new Taurus is a joy to drive. Powerful, with a new design, and an interior cabin built for tall drivers like me, I don’t regret my purchase at all.

With the approach of the snow season, and recognizing the inadequacy of my all-season Continentals, a fine three-season touring tire, I began investigating my options for motoring through another Maine winter. A long-time fan of the Michelin tire line, I had my sights set on scoring a foursome of the new Michelin X-Ices, a topnotch tire that approximates studded versions of winter tires. Unfortunately, due to Quebec’s mandating that all cars have snow tires after November 15, there were no Michelins to be had.

I’ve been a customer of Lee’s Tire in Brunswick for nearly 20 years, dating back to my Central Maine Power days, when they provided tire service for our truck fleet. Unable to secure my Michelins, the recommendation was for a studded tire, particularly when I mentioned the amount of time I spend hurtling up and down the interstate, often north of Augusta.

I’m running four Nokian Hakkapiliitta 5s, a top-of-the-line studded snow tire. These tires, made by a Finnish company, are incredible. My first test was an icy storm that found me driving home from Skowhegan after dark. While most of the drivers were creeping along at 35-40 on I-95, I was able to maintain a steady speed of 55-60, and probably could have pushed it harder if I wanted to, without any loss of traction.

I think Quebec’s policy is a good one, although it’s caused shortages here and north of the border (including a new rash of crime--tire/rim theft). While you can find skeptics galore at various forums, criticizing the province’s mandate, they most often are drivers that haven’t experienced the superior handling, and in particular, the ability to stop that you have with winter tires that just isn’t possible with all-season tires. Granted, you can compensate by driving slower, allowing proper following distances, and planning ahead, but most drivers no longer even think about doing that. As a result, many drivers running all-season varieties of tires find themselves in a skid, and not knowing how to steer out of one, they are headed off the road, or possibly worse, into the path of an on-coming snowplow, or tractor trailer.

There's a a saying that goes like this--"It's not about the car, it's about the driver." I'll take it a step further. Being a good driver helps, but being a good driver, and investing in the best tires for the road conditions increases your odds of making it through the winter safe, and free from harm.

Take it from someone that’s a good winter driver, once you buy winter tires, you’ll never go back to running all-season tires in the winter again.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Weighed down by ice

The last major ice storm to hit Maine and other northeastern regions of the U.S., and Canada was in 1998, and now is known merely as Ice Storm ’98. A month shy of its 10 year anniversary, much of northern New England got whacked again, with severe icing, trees down, and significant power outages across large swaths of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

The ’98 storm brought with it nearly four continuous days of steady freezing rain, and drizzle. The 2008 storm, while it brought significant icing, was for a much shorter duration. Still, large pockets of outages remain, after two straight days of around-the-clock work by local utility crews, and large numbers of reinforcements pouring into New England, from points south.

It’s interesting reading some of the reports about this storm, and comparing it to my own recollections of 1998. With this one, large population centers—the Seacoast in New Hampshire, and cities like Worcester, in Massachusetts—were hit, as well as significant portions of southern Maine.

In ’98, our home went eight days without power. During that stretch, we spent time in a “warming center” provided by L.L. Bean, where relatives worked. Additionally, showers were commandeered at work, and elsewhere.

While this storm has significant numbers of customers without power, the damage to trees and power lines seemed more extensive, 10 years ago. I remember hearing reports, and seeing photos of the large pylons that carry high-tension lines through southern Quebec, collapsed from the weight of the ice.

Yesterday, I happened to catch part of a MPBN call-in show, where Sara Burns, the president of Central Maine Power was answering questions from callers. Like in ’98, many callers questioned the company’s response to the storm, wondering why they couldn’t have their power restored instantaneously. In other quarters, utilities come under fire when customers question what appears the selective nature of power restoration. This is now common whenever severe weather, or other disasters strike us. Technology has a way of making petulant children out of us, particularly when we’re inconvenienced in the slightest way. In 1998, I thought people's better natures were on display. This storm already has stories that indicate that just a decade later, we're less likely to come together, and instead look for ways to hedge our own bets.

Having worked for CMP for nearly 10 years, I’ve experienced several major storms, although I had left the company prior to 1998. It’s never fun to be out for five, or six days straight, particularly when you know your own family and loved ones are without power. I have nothing but admiration for the men and women who risk life and limb out in the worst of conditions. This current storm had crews starting at 5:00 am, and working until 10:00 pm, getting seven hours of sleep (which when you’re running on adrenaline, like happens during storms, you tend to get more like three, or four). They’ll continue with that routine until the majority of customers are back online.

As much as we’ve grown accustomed to flicking a switch and having the power be there, we also live in a section of the country where ice storms and severe weather happens. No matter how much maintenance trimming is done (Burns said the company spends $20 million per year on this), heavy ice and falling branches are a distribution system’s worst enemy. Compounding the issue, in my opinion, is the amount of resistance that power companies in northern New England get from folks who think that trimming is a bad thing (except when a tree falls across their service line).

I watched a tree crew do some fairly aggressive trimming on our road this past spring. They cut a large swath of overhang on the major roadway bordering our property. I viewed this as a good thing, and realize that it may have spared us from having a longer outage this time (we were only without power for about 10 hours).

Technology affords us many advantages compared to our grandparents. For most of us, our way of life has changed dramatically from those who lived 60 years ago. At the same time, we’re much less likely to take well to no television, batteries running down on our laptops, and no heat coming from our baseboards.

While some would argue that life today is superior, and I’d concur, when things happen, like the ice storm in 1998, a wise person takes stock, and makes provisions. While I didn’t get a generator, like many did, after being without power for a week, or more, I think I’m much better prepared in small ways, or at least I like to tell myself that I am.

Fellow writer/blogger, Margaret Evans Porter, lives in New Hampshire, and has been writing about coping with her own lack of creature comforts and the things we so often take for granted, on her blog.

Mild temperatures surely allowed significant progress to be made yesterday, and I hope that many homes that have been without electricity since the weekend, have it soon, as I know all too well what you start to feel like, and how cranky you start getting after three days, or more, without power.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Auto bailout redux (giving them what they want)

During the past several weeks of Big Three bashing, the media has amplified the regular drumbeat of criticism against the carmakers--that they have not been producing what American consumers wanted.

Like many other myths that are perpetuated because most people are too lazy to do a little investigation, the idea that Americans somehow want little shoebox cars, powered by rubber bands, after years of buying SUV's and full-size pickups seems preposterous at best. Yet, that never stops the media from running this out at every opportunity.

Let's look at the numbers, however.

While certain drivers think that driving a Toyota Prius is worthy of a gold star, sales of SUVs and pickups have bounced back. As gas prices have plunged, so too have the sales of hybrids. Keep in mind that in 2005, SUVs outsold hybrids 23 to 1. Even with an uptick in 2006, why hybrid sales increased by 28 percent, they only accounted for 1.5 percent of all cars sold in the U.S.

An interesting read on the subject of energy independence that's worth reading just because it runs counter to so much of the blather coming from all media corners is Robert Bryce's Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Indepence," which I happened to review at Working in Maine.

If Congress wants to ensure that GM, Chrysler, and Ford survive, they might want to reconsider mandating hybrids, and plug-in electrics, like the Chevy Volt.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

American's angst aimed at wrong target

It appears that Detroit’s Big Three have been left to twist in the wind long enough for the DC gentry, aka Congress. After a couple of weeks of being demonized by a cross-section of lawmakers, political pundits, and the American citizenry, Mssrs. Wagoner, Mullaly, and Nardelli brought enough substance back to Washington, sans corporate jets, and driving alternative energy sub compacts, and other assorted brands from their fleets, to budge the arbiters of all things holy and right. The best analogy I can come up with for Congress holding the purse strings on the auto bailout is akin to a fox guarding the henhouse. It’s hackneyed, I know, but oh so fitting.

[Mr. Wagoner goes to Washington]

Like errant schoolboys sent home with an assignment to come back with essays detailing their misdeeds, these captains of industry returned contrite and saying what Congress wanted to hear, apparently.

There's nothing more self-righteous than an American scorned. The hoi polloi are in a foul mood this holiday season because they won’t be able to stuff their oversized homes with more Chinese junk this year, and are instead being forced to endure a measly Guitar Hero game at best. Because of this, they’re looking for convenient targets for their angst. Rather than aim it at the true causes of their downtrodden economic condition, Wall Street, and yes, Washington, Detroit's Big Three automakers became surrogate whipping boys, and in particular, their wayward CEOs.

In a country where cars and horsepower have been kings for the past half century, suddenly, the great unwashed are feigning outrage towards an industry that's given them what they wanted--big, gas guzzling vehicles. I mean, no one was holding guns to the heads of the American males (and soccer moms) needing to massage their abundant insecurities by way of Hummers and Ford Expeditions. A casual drive through any upper middle class exurb will yield driveway after driveway choked with unwieldy, fuel-inefficient vehicles. We now know that they were forced on them by the “evil” Big Three.

[With lower gas prices, a used Hummer is more economical than a new Prius]

I contend that much of the anger and the chorus from those shouting "let them fail" are driven by an aversion towards America's working class, particularly those who make their living with their hands, having foresworn manicures, and the enticement of becoming a metrosexual. Since few have much regard for the men (and women) who build their cars, fix their furnaces, or unclog their toilets, carmakers are just another reminder of a past (family history?) they're more than happy to forget. Drawing an analogy ala Grover Norquist, “let's drown the car industry in the bathtub!”

Sadly, the new heroes of the workplace are the Wall Street vultures who have done damage that will take decades to overcome, if we manage to transcend this financial meltdown at all.

When these robbers and crooks came-a-calling to their comrades on Capitol Hill, the very same Congress that is now letting Wagoner, Mullaly, and Nardelli twist in the wind, couldn't hand over the money loot fast enough to the financial keystrokers from Wall Street.

If you bothered to read the Lewis article I referenced in a prior post, you'd be hard-pressed to justify $750 billion for these modern day robber barons, while at the same time denying the scaled down requests from Detroit's kings of industry. If we're talking basic fairness in the context of Congressional largesse, why does a Wall Street banker warrant favor over a suit that keeps three million Americans living their middle-class dream?

U.S. Bleeding Jobs at Record Rates

The American economy is reeling. Friday’s job report was absolutely brutal. For the month of November, 533,000 more workers lost jobs, the largest single monthly employment drop since December 1974. Since September, 1.5 million Americans have been idled, as the economy contracts tighter and tighter, as economic bad news keeps coming in Tsunami-sized waves of darkness and despair. All of this, ironically, is occurring just prior to Jesus’ birthday, or shopping’s high holy day, whichever one you’re inclined to celebrate. What’s particularly dire about the latest job losses is the broad losses across almost all sectors of the labor force. Other than healthcare and government, which saw employment gains, every other major category saw significant losses, including manufacturing, construction, the financial sector, retail, etc.

It’s obvious if you’re paying attention at all that the crisis facing Detroit has much less to do with bad management on the part of Wagoner and his cohorts, than on the great unraveling brought upon us by the Wall Street money changers. Interestingly, since the public has been made aware of the woes of the carmakers, everyone has an opinion about what should be done to right the ship, or worse, in my opinion, “let the suckers burn.”

While most on Capitol Hill gave Wall Street pretty much whatever was asked for, many of these same people think that GM and Chrysler would be well-served by bankruptcy. A recent CNBC/Portfolio.com poll however, indicates that more than half of the people surveyed would not buy a car from a bankrupt carmaker. The survey of 800 Americans, conducted from December 1 through December 3, reveals that 52 percent of Americans are unwilling to buy a car from a manufacturer that is under bankruptcy protection. Thirty-seven percent said they're willing to purchase an auto from a manufacturer under bankruptcy protection and 11 percent said they weren't sure. Only an idiot thinks that bankruptcy is a viable option to restore GM and Chrysler to profitability. Of course, these suggestions are coming from Congress, so I rest my case.

Additionally, much of the DC hot air directed towards letting Detroit twist in the wind is coming from Republicans from the south, whose region benefits from breaking the UAW’s back, which is another subtext in this industrial tale of woe. If the upper Midwest’s industrial core is shuttered, then many of their states, which have foreign car plants for Toyota, Honda, and others, paying lower wages than Detroit’s premium union wages, stand to gain. It’s another case of union-busting, with average middle-class Americans joining the chorus, clamoring that these workers in Detroit make too much money, have insurance benefits that are too rich, and other perks that were all negotiated for. What most of these people are ignorant of, as they’ve probably never negotiated a union contract with management, is that the bosses only give the workers the scraps from the table any time that pay and benefits get talked about.

There was a time in own my life when I had a union watching my back in the workplace. I could tell you a number of stories of how my employer was ready to throw me out in the street, if not for the protection afforded me by my union card, and dues that I paid for that protection.

I was a shop steward back in the early 90s for the IBEW, and I remember contract time. It was never a pleasant period, as the adversarial nature that exists between labor and management, when one side is looking to take from the other, promotes discord, rather than harmony. While the intent of these negotiations is that both sides bargain in good faith, rarely is that the case. Neither of the two contracts I was involved in negotiations for went smoothly. Management’s representatives always came to us, asking for concessions, taking a hard line stance straight out of the chute.

For a fledgling steward, this could have been intimidating, but some of the veterans warned me ahead of time about this, so I went into these with my eyes wide open. Back and forth it would go for weeks at a time. Reluctantly, we would be granted our cost-of-living demand for a salary increase, scaled down from our original bargaining point, or towards the mid-90s, limiting our out-of-pocket expenses for health insurance, even as the company’s financial status was sound, with profits rolling in, and CEO compensation increasing, only because our membership was ready to walk out, if necessary.

Having the right to bargain and strike only if pushed far enough, was the great equalizer in America for much of the 20th century. After Reagan fired the air traffic controllers, however, workers and their unions have been giving the bosses back much of the gains they paid for via pitched battles, and even bloodshed. Along with that giving back, the sentiments of the man on the street have also shifted. If they are still making middle-class wages, then its because people before them have paid a price, either with their willingness to take on management across a bargaining table, and at one time, even shedding blood, and laying down their lives for the right to bargain for wages and benefits that a family could live on.

Much of the canard that’s been brought up regarding labor over and over again by the likes of southern Senators Demint (R-South Carolina), Shelby (R-Alabama), and Sessions (R-Alabama), is a non-issue. Both Sessions and Shelby represent states with plants owned by foreign carmakers, like German-based Daimler AG and Japanese-owned Honda, as well as a plant making Hyundai automobiles. Hyundai is based in Seoul, South Korea. Both senators have regularly intimated that it’s ok for Detroit to go under. Other Republicans, primarily, have taken a similar tack.

“We have a very large and vibrant automobile sector in Alabama,'' Sessions told Bloomberg Television on Nov. 11. ``I don't feel like this is the end of the world.”

DeMint’s South Carolina is home to Munich-based Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, employing about 4,500 people at their Spartanburg, South Carolina, assembly plant. While these are manufacturing jobs that pay well, the wages are significantly lower than what automakers in Detroit make.

The south has traditionally been difficult to unionize, and Republicans, who routinely bash union workers for their wages (while ironically turning a blind eye to CEO compensation) and benefits would love to see car making shift southward. This mantra is now being parroted by many middle-class American, some of them benefiting directly in retirement, from the very same union largesse they now are keen to deny others.

Labor History for Dummies

It’s become a given in the U.S. that somehow, labor and unions are bad. Part of this may be due to the daily brainwashing that takes place courtesy of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other right-wing gas bags, dispensing with their Republican anti-union talking points.

Interestingly, direct labor accounts for little of the price of an automobile. Only 5 to 10 percent of automobile assembly costs (From Dispelling the Manufacturing Myth: American Factories Can Compete in the Global Marketplace). Unfortunately, facts matter less and less when discussing issues like these, given that most people proudly operate from a position of ignorance most of the time.

An area where I'd warrant a guess that nine out of 10 Americans are woefully ignorant of is that of labor history. That’s one of the reasons why workers are easily led around by their nose rings by anyone running down labor rights and adequate pay. In a Wal-Mart world, the subject of labor history now resides in a similar fringe category occupied by discussions about UFOs and the power of crystals. It wasn’t always that way, however.

While there are a few marginal programs left on college campuses devoted to the study of the great struggles waged by workers in the early days of the 20th century, those tales and much of the gains of the progressive era have been shunted down the rabbit hole.

During the 14 month southern Colorado Miners Strike, waged by the workers against the Colorado mining companies, and organized by the United Mine Workers of America in 1913-14, Ludlow was the site of the bloodiest event that took place.

The miners had been periodically attempting to organize in Colorado since 1883, for safer conditions, pay, and other rights that the mining interests denied them. The companies started purposely mixing immigrants of different nationalities in the mines to discourage communication that might lead to organization. Additionally, as was typical in the industry of that day, miners were paid by tons of coal mined and not reimbursed for "dead work," such as laying rails, timbering, and shoring the mines to make them operable. Under intense pressure to produce more and more to increase company profits, mine safety was often given short shrift. More than 1,700 miners died in Colorado from 1884 to 1912, a rate almost three times the national average during those years. The miners also felt they were being short-changed on the weight of the coal they mined, arguing that the scales used for paying them were different from those used for coal customers. Any miners that challenged the weights risked being dismissed.

Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation (CF+I) was owned by John D. Rockefeller, one of America’s Robber Barons, and similar in nature to many of today’s lords of Wall Street. Workers at CF+I went on strike after a labor activist was killed in one of many skirmishes that took place with thugs that Rockefeller employed to “keep the peace” and maintain production at any cost. The strike enraged Rockefeller, as often happens when workers have the audacity to put teeth behind their demands. As a result, he evicted striking workers from their company owned homes leaving them (along with their families) to face the harsh Colorado winter without adequate shelter. Assisted by aid groups from across the US, the strikers organized tent cities close to canyon mouths which lead to coal camps (in an attempt to block strike-breakers replacing them) and continued their strike.

On March 10th the body of a strike-breaker was found near railroad tracks near the Forbes tents and the National Guard’s General Chase ordered the colony to be destroyed. The strike was reaching a climax, and National Guardsmen were ordered to evict the remaining tent colonies around the mines, despite them being on private property leased by the UMWA.

Ludlow was the largest of the tent colonies, and on the morning of April 20th 1914, troops fired into the camp with machine guns, anyone who was seen moving in the camp was targeted. The miners fired back, and fighting raged for almost fourteen hours.

Many other acts of brutality were committed against the workers by Colorado’s National Guard, acting as Rockefeller’s personal police force. That evening, under cover of darkness, the militiamen entered the camp and set fire to tents, killing two women and eleven children who were hiding from the fighting in a pit below one tent. Thirteen other people were also shot dead during the fighting.

News of the massacre spread, and other workers from around the country went on strike to show solidarity with the remaining miners on strike in Colorado. Several other Colorado cities were taken over and occupied by miners, with some National Guard units laying down their arms and refusing to fight in support of the miners.

Ultimately, the workers failed to have their demands met along with union recognition and many were replaced with non-union workers. No National Guardsmen was ever prosecuted over the killings, even though sixty-six people had been killed by the time violence ended.

Upton Sinclair sent this letter to Rockefeller after the massacre. Here is an excerpt:

“I intend to indict you for murder before the people of this country. The charges will be pressed, and I think the verdict will be ‘Guilty.’

I cannot believe that a man who dares to lead a service in a Christian church can be cognizant and therefore guilty of the crimes that have been committed under your authority.

We ask nothing but a friendly talk with you. We ask that in the name of the tens of thousands of men, women and children who are this minute suffering the most dreadful wrongs, directly because of the authority which you personally have given.”

Rockefeller, of course, feigned innocence, denying complicity for the deaths.

This was just one of the countless battles waged by workers, in solidarity, for the wages, benefits, and other retirement pensions that the UAW is now partially conceding in a good faith effort to arbitrate a plan for federal assistance for Midwestern automakers.

A grasp of labor history offers a different perspective than right-wing talk radio. Unfortunately for many working-class Americans, their predispositions begin with the latter narrative, rather than starting with stories of Ludlow and other pitched battles, where their sympathies ought to reside.

Can Detroit Make It?

Some think the major problem with Detroit is that the companies are too big. In an era where efficiencies that come from lean manufacturing processes are required, with the ability to retool quickly, the number of brands that GM currently has seems to be a place where efficiencies could be made. Because each brand has its own set of dealers, each of them demanding vehicles and attention to their product lines, it becomes impossible for the companies to fill out each brand's lineup with innovative, quality products--let alone supplying the requisite marketing required for each.

Traditional bankruptcy is not going to solve the issues facing GM and Chrysler, either. Chapter 11 would discourage the very innovation required in production, by forcing the carmakers to laser in on short-term profits, at the expense of larger, macro issues, and a vision for the future.

As I mentioned earlier in the article, consumers are not going to buy an American-made car from a bankrupt company. They’ll walk across the street and buy one from a foreign competitor.

[Finding a way to put consumers "in the drivers seat" of a new car would help the slumping economy]


While the “devil is in the details” of what the final bailout agreement might look like for the Big Three, there are elements of Chapter 11, the “best of bankruptcy,” so to speak that might serve the carmakers, particularly considering the dire straits faced by GM and Chrysler in the short-term.

One proposal put forth by Susan Helper and John Paul MacDuffie, in their article in The New Republic made sense to me.

Similar to the "debtor-in-possession" financing that the private lending market would make available in a healthy economic environment, all "secured" creditors--banks and bondholders--would get heavily reduced payments (say, 30 or 40 cents on every dollar owed). They would also get equity, which means they'll have a chance to make back that money and perhaps earn some more if the companies rebound and stock prices rise. Suppliers, who as "unsecured" creditors would have to wait in line to have their claims heard in bankruptcy court, should continue to be paid in full. Their own financial state is too precarious to do otherwise and their contribution to the industry's recovery is crucial, because without them, any funding would be for naught.

Rather than have a bankruptcy judge overseeing the process, the government would appoint an advisory committee. The makeup might consist of knowledgeable, independent monitors--a mixture of former industry executives with experience working for Toyota or Honda; industry academics and experts in alternative engine technology or labor-management collaboration. The committee would set goals and require the companies to report on progress quarterly, as a condition for obtaining additional funds. If a company missed its goals, the committee could withhold funds, or prepare for liquidation or nationalization. As someone who is involved in workforce development, I liked the proposal to take the leftover money if this occurs, and use it for retraining workers and easing the impact of downsizing on communities.

This would eliminate messy litigation that only fattens the wallets of lawyers—and benefits no one else.

This plan would also ensure that automakers sit down with the United Auto Workers, as well, in order to make sure all plants featured regular, institutionalized labor-management cooperation.

Detroit and manufacturing still matter in America. Only time will tell if the U.S. automobile industry is able to weather these stormy economic times.

I might be in the minority, but I’m rooting for the Big Three to succeed.

Friday, December 05, 2008

A friend of Detroit

I've been listening with some concern to the travesty that has been Capitol Hill the past few days, and the grilling being given to the CEOs from the Big Three.

America's car manufacturers have been getting an earful from all sides—the political arena, from right-wing talk show hosts, and unfortunately, many misinformed Americans. This concerns me and I plan to weigh in on this over the weekend.

While the blog posts have been a bit less frequent, I hope that you've noticed the shift. I've traded some quantity, for what I hope you'll decide as quality. If the early returns from StatCounter are any indication, that strategy is paying some minimal dividends.

Stay tuned for my take on the American auto industry.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Stop waiting for tomorrow

Last week, the Wall Street Journal featured their CEO Council, where 100 top CEOs and influential policy makers were brought together to discuss what the new administration’s priorities should be. The list included some of the biggest names in corporate America, and their discussion covered a variety of topics including healthcare, energy policy, the U.S. in the global economy, and the environment.

Paralleling that discussion was an article titled, “Failing Our Children,” which included a discussion about what needs to be done in our schools and why we haven’t done it. John Bussey, WSJ’s bureau chief sat down with three “experts” in the education field: James Comer, a professor of child psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine Child Study Center; Joel Klein, Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education; and Louis Gerstner Jr., former chairman and CEO of IBM Corp.

It’s definitely worth checking out, as Comer, Klein, and Gerstner all had pertinent thoughts on the subject.

****

As someone who is usually late to the game when it comes to “hot” television shows, my wife and I have discovered The Wire (based on a tip and recommendation from noted reviewer, Mr. EDY), and we’re trudging through the series, one disc at a time, most Friday nights.

In some ways, the series, which ran on HBO from 2002, until this spring, reminds me of another police drama that explored sociopolitical themes, and was also based in Baltimore, the award-winning Homicide: Life on the Street. The characters have a depth that other shows often lack, it takes awhile to warm to the script, and once you’re hooked, you’re hooked for good. You also recognize that The Wire (and Homicide, before it) are television anomalies.

[McNulty and Bunk, from The Wire/HBO]


David Simon, who created, produced, and wrote most of The Wire (as well as being the author of the nonfiction work, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, which formed the basis of the NBC crime drama that ran from 1993 to 1999), shared some of his thoughts with fans and the series ending, in a letter on the show’s website. Some of his observations came to mind when I read the WSJ’s CEO Council.

Simon, speaking to various problems like education, that keep getting talked about, but nothing ever seems to change, had this to say:

This year, our drama asked its last thematic question: Why, if there is any truth to anything presented in The Wire over the last four seasons, does that truth go unaddressed by our political culture, by most of our mass media, and by our society in general? We're given our answer: We are a culture without the will to seriously examine our own problems. We eschew that which is complex, contradictory or confusing. As a culture, we seek simple solutions. We enjoy being provoked and titillated, but resist the rigorous, painstaking examination of issues that might, in the end, bring us to the point of recognizing our problems, which is the essential first step to solving any of them. The Wire is fiction. Many of the events depicted over the last five seasons did not, to our knowledge, happen. Fewer happened in the exact manner described. Fiction is fiction, and it should in no way be confused with journalism. But it is also fair to note that the problems themselves — politicians cooking crime stats for higher office, school administrators teaching test questions to vindicate No Child Left Behind, sensitive prosecutions and investigations being undercut for political motives, brutal drug wars fought amid a police department's ignorance of and indifference to the forces involved -- were indeed problems in the recent history of the actual Baltimore, Maryland.

While the problems addressed in The Wire, are problems more prevalent in an urban environment befitting a major U.S. city, I personally believe they’re still germane to a more rural state, like Maine.

All of us pay for the inaction of those entrusted to be something more, whether we’re talking politicians, law enforcement, educators, or Wall Street bankers.

****

Speaking of something more, Alan Shusterman is someone who eschews the “one size fits all” model of education that is far too prevalent in our country. Recognizing that much of what passes as public education is outdated, and not preparing students for the 21st century (or the 20th, for that matter), Shusterman proposes what he calls, the School for Tomorrow. You can read about him and his school via this Washingtonton Post article written last July.

Shusterman isn’t some wild-eyed reformer, and in fact, much of what he proposes—project-based learning—has been hailed by progressive educators like John Dewey, and others, for over 100 years.

There’s a good summary of project-based learning, at the Buck Institute for Learning site.

****

Here's another article (also from the WashPo), this one written by David Simon himself, about news, newspapers, and our current state of the media.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Reading good writers

For the segment of the U.S. that reads one, or two books per year, the name Michael Lewis is most likely associated with his 2001 title, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, if they’ve heard of him at all.

Moneyball was the first Michael Lewis book I’d read, and I had this to say about Lewis, the author, back in a December 2005 blog post about Moneyball:

“Lewis is a wonderful writer, who is able to transport his readers into the world of his subject matter and make you forget that you are reading a book.”

What made Moneyball such a success was Lewis’s development of his story arc about the Oakland A’s, and their general manager, Billy Beane, which in turn allowed Lewis to use his skills and abilities as a writer to make the book about how Beane and Co. turned the conventional wisdom of professional baseball on its head.

After reading Moneyball, I read up on Mr. Lewis to find out about his other books. His first book was Liar’s Poker:Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, which describes Lewis’s four years on Wall Street, progressing from Salomon Brothers’ trainee, to a successful bond trader, and the subsequent lessons and high-roller experiences, from 1983, through the 1987 crash.

Lewis, who graduated from both Princeton and the prestigious London School of Economics, parlayed these into a financial gig at Salomon Brothers. While Lewis traded bonds by day, he worked nights and weekends as a journalist and ended up with his first book, Liar’s Poker.

I read Liar’s Poker early this fall, after seeing it on the shelves at the local library. The jacket copy was compelling, and despite the book being 20 years old, it was remarkably pertinent and not dated at all, particularly in light of all that has been happening with the markets.

While I came to Lewis’s writing via Moneyball and another great read, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, I was aware of his financial background, and had read a few finance-related articles by him.

What sets writers like Lewis apart, I think, from most, is his ability to take a subject, almost any subject, and pull the reader into the story, particularly the human element. While I was somewhat hesitant to read Liar’s Poker, thinking it would be boring, Lewis, even in his first book, and not the writer he is today, still had the qualities of a great writer, just starting out.

From a link in the comments section at Megan McArdle’s blog, I got directed to a Lewis piece in Portfolio that might be one of the best things I’ve read on the current financial meltdown, helping to frame the issue, and show Wall Street, and capitalism’s fragile natures, and how it all came crashing down.

I highly recommend reading the article. I doubt you’ll be disappointed, and you might just learn a few things you didn’t know.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Taking stock, and giving thanks

It’s late November in the northeast. Early to dark, light at a premium, with winter’s icy fingers clawing at our doorways. While ice and snow will be flying soon (we got a preview, earlier in the week, particularly to the north and west), it’s the economic storminess that concerns me the most.

I read a newspaper story on Tuesday, about how food shelters are seeing an increase in people using their services, and a U.S. Department of Agriculture study indicating that 13.3 percent of Maine families are suffering from “food insecurity”—the study’s term for hunger. Only Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas and Arkansas had higher percentages. Maine doesn’t make national top fives often, and this isn’t the kind of dubious honor any state is looking to have heaped on them. For those keeping score, that’s 72,086 households who at some point over three years (the study was based on a rolling average between 2005 and 2007) struggled with having ample food for their families because they couldn't afford it.

In the same story, there was a quote from Mark Swann, executive director of Portland’s Preble Street Resource Center, indicating the seriousness of this winter’s need.

"I have done this work a long time and I've always avoided and even been careful not to say the following: I've never seen things this bad," said Mark Swann, executive director of the Preble Street Resource Center.

"I have literally never seen this kind of situation, sort of a perfect storm -- terrible economy, heating costs, the housing costs, employment concerns, the significant drop in food donations, in food from the federal government."

I volunteered at Preble Street five years ago. When someone like Swann, with his wealth of experience meeting the needs of the marginalized, and someone not given to hyperbole makes a statement like that, you take notice.

Shelters like Preble Street will be jammed with folks this Thanksgiving. In Waterville, Paul Morency, who operates the Midnight Blues Club, is providing 300 in the city, with a free Thanksgiving dinner, as his way of giving back to his community. Guests will be served turkey with all the trimmings—gravy, stuffing, mashed potato, squash, cranberry sauce, rolls and desserts. Morency is hoping for a good turnout.

"The more the merrier," he said. "We'll seat everybody and some of my staff have volunteered their time to come in, and I'll be there with my family as well."

In the Skowhegan area, anonymous donors have made it possible for two restaurants to feed another 300 people Thanksgiving dinner.

At the Empire Grill, an anonymous donor surfaced with an offer to foot the bill for 140 meals. Earlier in the week an anonymous donor said he would pick up the tab for 160 dinners at the What's For Supper restaurant in nearby Norridgewock, five miles away.

I’ll be traveling to the Granite State for Thanksgiving this year. I’m thankful for quite a bit this year. A job, particularly one that I love and one where I can impact people positively. My health is good, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been. Life is good for me right now, but I also recognize that many others are struggling during these difficult times. Be aware of that and do what you can do to support places like Preble Street and other shelters that are helping folks through tough times in their lives.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Choice for some

While many that didn’t vote for Mr. Obama are still bitter, and some seem intent on wishing that he fails, I don’t think his failure holds much promise for our country. In fact, the first 100 days of his administration could determine whether or not he is effective as president.

I have accepted that Obama is my president, so I’m trying my damndest to be supportive of him. I want to believe that he in fact will bring change to Washington, as he promised, and that it wasn’t just another cynical campaign strategy to get elected. America needs a leader, rather than a politician at this crucial hour.

There are so many areas that require a response that’s not rooted in maintaining the status quo. Take for instance education. Every politician talks a good game. Who would ever think of running for office and being opposed to a quality education? However, talking about the need to reform or revamp education is different than actually having a policy that accomplishes that task.

When the Obamas made the decision to send their two daughters, Malia and Sasha, to Sidwell Friends, they were following in the footsteps of other prominent Washington pols—the Clintons sent Chelsea to Sidwell, as did Richard and Pat Nixon with Tricia. Al Gore’s son graduated from the school, and Joe Biden’s three granddaughters are currently attending. Both girls were attending private school in Chicago—University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

I’m all for the two Obama girls receiving a topnotch education. I’m also not unsympathetic about security issues. Given the amount of competition this apparently generated among DC’s elite institutions, it is quite apparent that there’s much more than politics at stake on this matter.

Since Mr. and Mrs. Obama are able to make choices about what’s best for their children, and I think they should be able to, shouldn’t every parent have a choice about where their son or daughter receives their education? Unfortunately, for many DC parents, they send their kids to their neighborhood public school, and that’s the end of the matter.

Interestingly, DC school's chancellor, Michelle Rhee (whose own kids attend the local public schools she oversees) could have benefited from an Obama choice bucking the usual Democrat response of private, over public. Rhee has been attracting attention for her bold efforts at trying to turn around one of the nation’s worst urban school systems. A vote of confidence (like this DC mother hoped for) coming from America’s educator in chief would have been an endorsement of the kind of leadership that many of America’s failing schools require.

Given that America’s elite, like Barack and Michelle Obama, have the choice of where their daughters go to school, and knowing the importance of education on success later in life, it would only seem fair that other DC parents were afforded some measure of choice.

According to public opinion polls, 65 percent of adult African-Americans and 63 percent of adult Hispanics favor the use of school vouchers, and more than half of minority adults give higher marks to their local police than their public schools. Yet, the number of minority students that are quitting the education system is staggering, says the National Journal.

Since a majority of minority parents favor vouchers has me hoping that the Obama administration will break from the traditional Democrat position and allow choices for other parents that may not have the means to send their kids to a school like Sidwell Friends.

Please bring the change you spoke about on the campaign trail.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Saving the Big Three

There is much debate going back and forth about whether the U.S. auto industry warrants a lifeline, much like the banking industry received.

This debate isn’t about American car quality vs. foreign automakers, as some have made it. Detroit has made tremendous strides in quality, so for lawmakers, talk show hosts (like Howie Carr and others), and pundits to trash the Big Three as putting out poor quality, is to show your ignorance. On a personal note, I drive a Ford, made in the U.S. My wife owns a Toyota. Both were purchased recently, and I think in many ways, the Ford is equal in quality to my wife’s Toyota, so quality isn’t the issue here.

Secondly, U.S. manufacturing, despite huge job losses, is still a viable aspect of our economy, and to think that dumping over two million jobs, in the midst of one of our worst quarters in recent memory is asinine. How are those kind of job losses going to be positive for our economy, moving forward?

Manufacturing is a wealth-generating sector (unlike the financial services sector, which just pushes money around by keystrokes), one that few politicians know firsthand. Because most of them have never made their living with their hands, and since they deplore the people that do, I think this has more to do with Washington’s reluctance to help U.S. automakers than any other smokescreen that they are currently putting forth on Capitol Hill. It’s particularly disappointing to see Mitt Romney say that these companies should be left to their own devices, given his own family history with the automobile. For Republicans, like Romney, however, the issue is about bringing organized labor to their knees, and not bailing out the big three is a way to do that. The Democrats don’t seem particularly willing to come to labor’s aid, even though the unions have given back with concessions.

What I’d like to see happen is Congress extend some bridge loans to get the automakers through this tough patch, while at the same time, convening talks about where they need to go with R & D, particularly as it relates to new technology.

My ideas about what's best for Detroit are best summed up by Richard Posner, in a recent blog post on the subject.

A worthwhile primer on the importance of manufacturing can be found here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Changes in consumer behavior (retail shopping)

The Maine Mall in South Portland was built in 1971, near the convergence of Interstates 95 and 295. The current mall site sits smack dab in the middle of what had been a large swath of marshlands and agricultural terrain, including 137 acres of which the city of South Portland bought in 1965, with an eye towards some kind of future development. The actual mall footprint sits on the former Dwyer’s pig farm.

[Photo from USM website on history of Maine Mall]

For many living in Central and Southern Maine during the late 70s, a visit to the Maine Mall was something to look forward to, particularly for me and other youngsters of my generation. At the time, “the Mall” was Maine’s only large retail amalgam.

The mall’s anchor was Jordan Marsh, which actually opened two years prior, in 1969. The enclosed shopping mall was built adjacent and connected to Jordan Marsh and was comprised of 50 stores, including Sears and Woolworth’s. A decade later, Porteous, which had been a retail and clothing mainstay in downtown Portland, opened a mall location. This was part of an early 80s growth spurt that would see the mall double in size, with JC Penney and Filene’s also arriving.

In fact, much of the attendant sprawl that is the current Maine Mall area west of I-95/295 was perpetuated during the retail explosion in that area during the 1980s. For the past 20 years, it has continued unabated. In addition to the mall, which now has 140 stores (nearly triple its original store occupancy), the 90s brought big-box giants Home Depot, Borders, Target, and the Christmas Tree Shops to the surrounding area. Included in the retail build out are cinemas, specialty stores, a host of chain eateries, as well as office space, as the growth of sprawl has been never-ending over the past three decades.

****

For the past six months, my wife and I have dramatically altered our patterns of consumption. After taking stock of our finances and recognizing that strict adherence to a budget was warranted, we’ve dramatically curtailed all needless expenditures. For many Americans, the economic storm clouds on the horizon have produced a kind of paradigm shift. In addition, others are looking at foreclosures, possible credit card meltdown, or even worse, bankruptcy. All of this has produced a tsunami that threatens to swamp a retail sector that’s been propped up for decades by a smoke and mirrors economy that’s come crumbling down around all of us. Only the wealthiest Americans haven’t experienced some of the residual effects.

It’s interesting, given the litany of bad news coming across the transom, particularly the nightly news, NPR, and other MSM news sources that rather than address the systemic cause of the economic crisis, many moralizers on the right (and maybe even, the left) seek to blame members of the American middle class, as they plunge into the icy, churning waters, after their own economic shipwreck.

Elizabeth Warren, a professor of law at Harvard University, has written and lectured extensively on the economic issues afflicting the middle class. Warren attributes many of the current issues (bankruptcies, foreclosures, loan defaults) on U.S. tax policy, and the escalation of the cost of living, while recognizing that the growth of middle class income hasn’t kept up with those costs.

According to Warren, compared to 1970, in 2003, a family spent less on flexible items (clothes, food, appliances, per-car costs, etc.), but necessary expenditures had increased dramatically. In 1970, less than 50% of the family’s income was spent on the “big five” inflexibly necessary items (mortgage, health care, child care, cars, taxes). This rose to 75% of the family’s income in 2003, limiting the financial flexibility of the family and increasing the likelihood of default.

While a great deal of rhetoric was expended by both sides during the presidential campaign, talking about taxes, the reality of the past three decades is that the tax burden has dramatically shifted from the wealthiest taxpayers, to the middle income families that Warren is talking about. Currently, the first dollar of the second wage earner is taxed after the last dollar of the first wage earner, resulting in taxes increasing for families by 25%. That’s on top of the following increases born by families (married couples, median incomes, two children) since 1970:

  • Families spend 76 percent more on their mortgages.
  • Families spend 52 percent more on automobiles (this is taking into consideration that although per-car costs decreased, families with two wage earners require more cars. Thus the over-all cost rose).
  • Three decades later, there are an entirely new set of costs for child care, preschool, and university, which are now seen as necessary for success. This means that families in 2003 see six more years of educational costs, that they must pay for, than they did in 1970.
  • The above-mentioned tax increases.

Do you think any of this may affect why, with the tightening of credit, the dismal retail sales forecasts for the upcoming holiday season?

****

As a family, we’ve virtually eliminated going-out-to eat from our budget. Technically, it’s in our budget, under entertainment, but because we’re trying to build up a rainy day fund, any money we don’t spend on entertainment (movies, out-to-eat, take out) goes into savings.

Both my wife and I used to dine out at least once per week. Add to that one or two meals eaten out (usually fast food, like a Subway sandwich, McDonald’s or Sam’s) during our workdays, and an occasional take out meal from Amato’s, or similar eateries, and it’s not difficult to see why our budget never had anything left to plug into the column under savings.

Rather than hitting happy hour on Friday nights, and then seeing a movie, our fall routine has been preparing a light meal in, and watching our weekly fare from Netflix. Both of us enjoy cooking, and we find that our own DIY cuisine tops what we were sampling, even at some of overpriced, overhyped, upscale establishments so often touted by Portland’s burgeoning foodie scene. For a quick, non-objective listing, Hugo’s, Fore Street, Five Fifty-Five, and Caiola’s come to mind.

****

Given that some long overdue payments finally arrived from book stores from sales of Moxietown, I decided a respite from our 10-week austerity play was warranted. After consulting my better half, we were headed for Portland on Saturday afternoon. Our plans were to visit Portland Public Library, stock up on some books, and then hazard a visit to the Maine Mall area.

Portland had been a regular haunt of mine for much of the past two decades, either for work, or for a place to go for entertainment. Since 2006, I rarely head south for much of anything—work, entertainment, or errands. I can’t say I particularly miss Portland’s faux urban vibe that many residents—typical big fish in small pond types—give off.

Across the street from the library, there was a crowd holding signs and demonstrating about something. Monument Square is a regular home for some group advocating a cause, or protesting some perceived injustice. To be fair, I’ve logged some time in the square, holding a sign and hollering about some cause that I felt was important at the time. Interestingly, my prior efforts never amounted to shit, or changed any of the causes, or injustices I was championing.

Apparently, the crowd was part of a nationwide effort set on protesting “the unprecedented stripping of rights from gays and lesbians with the passage of California’s Proposition 8, as well as the passage of anti-marriage amendments in Arizona and Florida.” [not my characterization, but from some site called Box Turtle Bulletin]

The protest, at least from my limited, casual observation (lasting the time it took me to run from the parking garage on Elm Street, to the entrance of the library, on Congress) consisted of protestors holding up a variety of signs pro-gay, or highlighting some perceived grievance, and cheering when passing cars honked in support. Very revolutionary.

Safe from the rain and the protestors of the day, the city’s best branch provided my wife and I an hour of book search bliss.

The library holds many positive memories for me. It was here that I spent countless hours scouring microfilm and old box scores, while researching When Towns Had Teams. This particular Saturday, the downstairs area, which still houses the archives of microfilm, was jammed with people using the library’s computers, or sitting in the waiting area (which now resembles the waiting area of airports, replete with a screen listing waiting times for an assigned computer), passing the minutes before their foray into cyberspace is made possible.

We left with a book bag bursting with a variety of novels, non-fiction works, and my wife’s favorite—several books on CD.

We were now off to the sprawling neon-lit retail jungle of the Maine Mall area. Shoe shopping, a break from our restaurant fast, and a stroll around the mall’s corridors awaited us.

Rather than piss away the entire proceeds from my book sales, a joint decision was made to hit a former, favorite chain restaurant, specializing in steaks. Since it was mid-afternoon, and we had both not had any lunch, we were eager for some chow. It was off to Bugaboo Creek, a steak restaurant chain that we’ve always found solid. Given that it wasn’t yet 4:00 pm, we had a nice dinner fare of red meat, smashed potatoes, and a free dessert (courtesy of an online coupon), all for less than $50. Not bad, considering a similar meal might have cost upwards of $75, or more, if we had chosen a downtown Portland establishment.

****

Out on the tiles at the Maine Mall is always an experience. I never can quite remove the image from my mind of the scene from “Dawn of the Dead,” when the survivors are holed up in a local shopping mall, while zombies parade outside, seeking to break in. The scene was George Romero’s critique of America’s obsession with shopping, as his brain-addled zombies, reduced to flesh-eating automatons, were merely acting on a prior shopping impulse left over from their lives.

["Dawn of the Dead" photo]


Mary and I weaved in and out between shopping “zombies,” as they waddled up and down the mall’s corridors, on our way to our own shopping destinations.

I decided to visit Best Buy to look at computers, since my outdated work computer is in need of an upgrade. I thought I’d get a sense of what might be my options, and possible costs. As has happened during prior visits, you can never find a staff person to ask questions of, and the constant din of gadgets, games, and other electronic detritus forces me to exit before I find the information I was in search of.

[Another USM website photo]

One particular phenomenon I observed was the number of teenage (and some adult) shoppers tryout out Guitar Hero, and the ubiquitous Wii games that will dominant this year’s lethargic holiday retail season.

Why not buy a beginner’s guitar set-up and learn to play a real guitar? I’m sorry, but these games are for losers. With the outlay and time spent on Guitar Hero, you could learn enough to propel yourself to a lifetime of enjoyment with a real axe.

After a bit more than an hour within the mall’s confines, we were ready to leave. Walking out to the parking lot, I couldn’t help but wonder if in ten years, all of this retail sprawl might be veritable ghost town, given our current economic straits, a downturn among people like us in any unwarranted spending approaching previous heights, and the continued chain reaction tied to the credit markets.

With major retailers like Circuit City, Linens and Things, Tweeter, and Steve & Barry’s already filing for bankruptcy pre-holidays, it will be interesting to see who follows suit in early 2009.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Still counting votes in the land of 10,000 lakes

Democrats are holding their breath, waiting for the dust to clear and the votes to be counted in Minnesota. See, Democratic challenger, Al Franken, trailed "Stormin" Norman Coleman by a handful of votes, 204 to be exact (it was 800 on election night).

Coleman's been doing his doggone best to gum up the recount works by getting absentee votes tossed out. Franken probably doesn't stand a chance, and the taxpayers will end up paying extra, but seeing slimy Norm Coleman left standing in the rain would be worth it.

Back in 1998, Coleman, the former Democratic mayor of St. Paul, seemed like a slamdunk for governor. That was until former pro wrestler, Jesse Ventura, came out of nowhere to snatch victory from Coleman.

In 2002 in his first bid for a Senate seat, Coleman was trailing Minnesota legend, Paul Wellstone, when Wellstone was tragically killed in a plane crash. Coleman was the winner by default, and off to DC he went.

[from MN Blue] Coleman became a cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq and has a 100% voting record in favor of President Bush's War. In addition, Norm has provided little oversight of the Iraq War. As Chair of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations he had the unique ability to investigate anything. Instead, he overlooked the incompetence and corruption of the Bush Administration's policies in Iraq. Whether it was torture, lack of armor for our troops, pallets of lost dollars or no-bid contracts, Coleman couldn't be bothered investigating.

Coleman, tanned and well-coiffed, consistently voted for war-time tax breaks for the wealthiest 1% of Americans, all the while borrowing billions from the Chinese to prosecute the war. Coleman also supported a bankruptcy bill written by the credit card companies. Additionally, Coleman has written legislation to help bail out the banking industry from the subprime mortgage crisis on the backs of homeowners facing foreclosure. As an incumbent senator, Coleman has enabled our current economic tailspin, which shows little evidence of bottoming out soon.

This time, Coleman had his hands full with Franken, comedian, and former Air America talk host.

Both parties eagerly await the final vote tally, as the Senate's balance of power teeters on the results.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce...

While much of the financial news is bad, and often dire, particularly when it comes to consumers and spending, Americans are still getting their jones on for fast food, at least the McDonald's variety.

McDonald's Corp. reported an 8.2% increase in October global same-store sales, with a 5.3% gain in the U.S., which the company credited to new menu items such as southern-style chicken and its Monopoly game promotion.


This is big news for the fast food giant, as high gasoline and food costs, as well as slumping home sales and the credit market meltdown have seen the restaurant sector post a flurry of bad economic news.

The recent report follows a less than stellar one in March, when McDonald's reported same-store sales in the U.S. fell for the first time in five years, in part due to Easter falling during the month. Since then, however, the company has posted solid increases since then.

Staying with the burger theme, Burger King also posted a positive quarterly earnings.

Since this post is about hamburgers, I had my first Red Robin burger yesterday, in Augusta.

I had their gourmet cheeseburger, loaded, with Monterrey Jack cheese, and it was a winner. While my budget of late is more McDonalds than Red Robin, you can't really compare the two burgers by taste. The chain's crispy, bottomless steak fries are a nice touch, also.

Whether it’s choosing McDonald’s over the latest local flavor of the month restaurant, or trading in the SUV for a Chevrolet Aveo (with options like hand-crank windows vs. power everything), self-denial seems to be hot (haute?) again.

A recent column in the WSJ had columnist Christina Brinkley touting the joys of going without. Apparently even on Rodeo Drive, conspicuous consumption isn't what it used to be, at least according to sales clerk Michael Kors who told Brinkley that “there’s an umbrella of guilt over everyone.”

While consumers are toning down their purchases of high-end shoes, and organic produce, they're apparently turning to Karl Marx for comfort, at least according to this report.

Communication according to Lakoff

I started reading George Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (originally published in 1996) this weekend. Lakoff is a cognitive linguist who wrote the book to help explain the Republican gains following Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. The edition I have was updated in 2001, with a new subtitle, and additional observations and new material tied to the 2000 presidential election. The book also happens to be the first full-scale application of cognitive science to politics

Lakoff spends a great deal of time working through the differing worldviews of both ideologies, contrasting two family metaphors; the “strict father mode” of conservatives, with the “nurturant parent model” that liberals hold in framing their issues.

I’m always interested in theories and concepts on communication because I think the ability to communicate might be one of the key skills and abilities of the 21st century. The reason that I think this is true is because of the sheer volume of, as well as the speed that our modern communication whizzes by at. It takes some level of sophistication to cut through so much of the white noise of spin, and surface level analysis. Unfortunately, not enough Americans make much of an effort to move beyond a superficial and sophomoric understanding of the issues, in my opinion. Hence, the political pap slingers continue to multiply.

I found the section on metaphors, particularly metaphors tied to moral questions and framing those issues well, worth the time spent reading the rest of the material. In fact, I think this was the strongest section of the book.

Lakoff’s explanation of his metaphorical concept about how the moral books are kept was particularly fascinating. He walks the reader through what he refers to as a “moral accounting,” emphasizing several moral schemes: reciprocation, retribution, restitution, revenge, altruism, to name some of them.

Take for instance, retribution. If someone does something to harm you, you might say, “I’ll pay you back!” (often, with interest)

Where I think Lakoff’s work, and in particular, this book fits into the post-election fade, is in the way that president-elect Obama was able to grasp many of Lakoff’s points, in framing his own campaign, first against Hillary Clinton, and then, John McCain.

In all of the bitterness and blather coming from elements of the right, the similarities between Obama and Reagan are (and were) often missed.

Both candidates had a way of swaying voters to vote for them, even if they didn’t agree with them on the issues. I heard Lakoff tell a story recently, on C-Span’s Book TV, about meeting Dick Wirthlin, back in 1980. Who is Dick Wirthlin? He was Reagan’s chief strategist. According to Lakoff, the two men hit it off, even though they had very differing political views.

According to Wirthlin (as told by Lakoff), he recognized early on that people don't vote on policy, they vote for leaders—for people whose values seem American to them. Basically, they vote for people they feel they can trust.

While McCain and Sarah Palin did their best to frame the campaign around issues, attempting to paint Obama as a “socialist” and a “tax and spend liberal,” Obama met that challenge by figuring out how to say what the majority of Americans believed.

One example of this is in the story about the neighbor’s house.

If your neighbor's house caught on fire and is in danger of burning down, you wouldn’t lecture him on how incompetent he is. You would get out your fire hose and do everything you can do to help until your taxpayer-funded local fire department showed up to put out the fire.

In 2000, when conservatives were able to frame Al Gore as a “fabricator,” and in 2004, when John Kerry got pegged as a “flip-flopper,” the right was successful in their framing of the campaign narrative about their opponent. They weren’t able to in 2008, at least a frame that stuck, so Obama ultimately triumphed.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A progressive mandate to govern

From Megan McArdle, about Obama's supposed progressive (or to some, socialist) mandate to govern.

If the country is so progressive, how come Bush won the popular vote four years ago? Did all the center right people die? Or are American voters somewhat mercurial? Also, how come Bush had no mandate four years ago? Did the American voter get more mandative? Would John McCain have had a mandate if he'd achieved these kinds of numbers? Or would that be entirely different?

No need to answer. The rest of us already know what the answer is.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

President Obama

[AP photo of Obama, at Grant Park, Chicago]


In politics, like sports, you battle up until the final whistle, or your last at bat. Then, when you lose, you gather, shake hands, and move on. It's called magnanimity.

This morning feels a bit like sitting in the loser's dugout, watching your rival and their fans celebrate. It's tough at that moment, but over time, it begins to feel better, and often, you look back at the loss with some remorse, but you come recognize that you waged a noble battle, and acceptance gradually settles in. If you've tasted victory, you remember what that felt like and you empathize, and identify with what the victor's are experiencing.

Barack Obama is now America's 44th president, winning decisively. For many, the reality of the morning after is a hard one, but one they'll have to face and hopefully, come to terms with.

Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin, at Politico write,

Obama won on his own terms, strategically and symbolically. He rolled up a series of contested states, from Colorado to Virginia, long out of Democratic reach. And his victory reflected the accuracy of his vision of a reshaped country. Racism, much discussed, turned out to be a footnote, and African-American turnout was not unusually high. Instead, Obama drew his strength from an array of racially mixed, growing areas around cities like Orlando, Washington, Indianapolis, and Columbus on his way to at least 334 electoral votes.

The Obama victory has a historic quality in many ways. Consider that in more than 175 years since Andrew Jackson (the father of the modern Democratic Party) left the White House, only two other Democrats (Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson) have convinced at least 51 percent of the country to back them for president.

On the Senate side, Democrats had hoped to come away from the election with 60 seats. That bid fell short, as contested races, like the one in Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was able to hold off a strong challenge by Democratic businessman, Bruce Lunsford, to prevail, preserved a key Republican seat.

The great horserace of 2008 has concluded. The battles were legion, particularly through the primary season. Even among Democrats, there are still scars from the Clinton/Obama battles of that part of the presidential political journey that Obama travelled.

George Bush talked much about "being a uniter, not a divider," and we saw where believing him brought us. President Obama will face similar challenges of uniting a country that is polarized by ideology, and fears of where he'll take us as a nation.

As for me, I'm taking two steps back from it all. While I was not an Obama supporter, I'm interested in watching him take his first steps of governance. I've spoken and shared my thoughts over the past 24 months, and now, it's time to move on, and move forward. Only time will tell where America is headed, and what type of leader our newest president will be.

I leave you with one writer's take on what an Obama presidency might look like.