Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Hurricane How-To 101

As Alex, this year’s first hurricane, churns across the Gulf of Mexico, with the Gulf's namesake country squarely in its sights, perhaps now is as good a time as any to review what I consider to be The Logical Person’s Guide to Hurricane Survival:

  1. Don’t go running to Home Depot with all the other people who didn’t keep their plywood from the last storm. Sure, covering up your windows is a good idea, but how much space does plywood take up? Can’t you simply stack it up against a wall in your garage when it’s not protecting your home?
  2. Consider investing in hurricane shutters. True, they cost more than plywood, but something tells me that steel doors will withstand a lot more force than bits of wood shavings glued together. If you're going to buy a home in a hurricane-prone area, doesn't it make sense that you should budget for things that will help protect your investment? Or is going to the hardware store every time it comes a storm just part of coastal culture?
  3. If you have a garage, and it’s been emptied of the plywood you’re using to cover your windows, put your cars in your garage. How many times have we seen news reports of devastation with trees laying over cars left in driveways?
  4. Same for your patio furniture. News reporters standing out in the blinding rain always talk about the plastic chairs flying around.
  5. If an evacuation is ordered for your area, don’t assume it applies to everybody but you. Do you not realize how selfish you are to remain in danger’s path? Invariably, the storm is gonna get too much for you to handle, and then you’re gonna scream for somebody to come and get you out. Or you’ll try to out-drive the storm when its eye passes overhead. Hey – there are two sides to every hurricane. The eye is like an intermission. It don’t mean the storm has quit. What about the poor folks who then have to go out and risk their own necks because you didn’t think enough about yours? Here’s a news flash for ya: it ain’t their job to enable your stupidity.
  6. Try not to talk like a hick southerner when talking about people who defy evacuation orders.
  7. Those steel storm shutters help protect against looters if, as you say, that’s the reason you stay behind and defy evacuation orders.
  8. And that show of bravado about not lettin' no hurr-kane make you leave? That ain't bravado we seen'n your eyes; it's a mix of naivete, misplaced trust, and maybe a macabre appetite for chaos - none of which is too appealing for anybody with common sense. (Shoot! Remember Number Six!)
  9. Get your facts straight about all of the other hurricanes you’ve survived over the years. You lose credibility when every person a reporter interviews thinks a different hurricane was the worst.
  10. And speaking of reporters: hey, all you blow-dried TV news people: don’t tell us the wind is fierce when wide palm fronds dangling behind you aren’t moving at all. Don’t exaggerate the weather conditions just because your producer wants to juice the station’s ratings. Wear a hooded raincoat when you stand out in the rain – you’re getting no sympathy because your hair is sopping wet. And by the way, we’ve all seen rain, so unless cats and dogs really are falling from the sky, skip the bogus shots of downpours and water running down gutters and give us some more close-ups of people buying all the plywood at Home Depot.
  11. After the storm has passed, evacuees should wait until given the all-clear to return home. Don't assume you're the exception to the rule. In the meantime, what roads are clear will be needed by emergency crews to search for stubborn folks who ignored the evacuation order, start restoring power, and make sure areas are safe enough for residents to return.
  12. When you do get to return home, take an inventory of what preparation procedures worked, and what didn’t. If your property has unfortunately sustained considerable damage, don’t just say “we’ll rebuild” unless you know the reasons for the destruction can be mitigated by better construction. For example, if you had a beach house that was washed away, maybe Somebody other than your insurance agent is telling you something about building on sand.

Now, for people who live in The Big Easy, there is an addendum to this list:

  • If you don’t have a car, and Amtrak offers to let anybody who wants to obey the evacuation order ride their trains out of town for free, then what’s stopping you?
  • If you don’t have a car, and the city’s school buses will just get destroyed if they remain parked in New Orleans, why not organize an evacuation via school buses?
  • If you don’t want to leave your pet behind, you can’t afford any protection for your house from your hometown’s rampant crime, and nobody you know has access to a car (despite scenes of streets lined with cars submerged in water), then what are you doing living in a city next to the Gulf of Mexico that is below sea-level, and has such incompetent leadership that levee reinforcement money was used instead to dig up levees to install fiber-optic cable? Don't just assume the entire country is going to subsidize all the bad choices which come from living in one of the most corrupt cities in North America.
  • Yes, Brownie did one h*** of a bad job responding to the crisis in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina blew through. But if Katrina has taught us anything, it's that there’s no better resource than personal responsibility when it comes to dealing with hurricanes.
  • And it starts with you and me.

Happy hurricane season, everybody!

_____

Monday, June 28, 2010

Higher Purpose to Falling Limbs?

I’m going to go out on a limb here – you’ll catch the pun in a moment – and put a voice to a question I’ve been mulling ever since a baby was killed by a falling tree branch in Central Park this past weekend:

Was this a surgical strike? Did God “take her out?”

Not Just Another Crazy New York Story

In our youth-worshipping culture, it seems abhorrent to suggest that killing a baby makes some kind of sense. Even most church people would probably be angry with the idea. But I’ll go ahead and ask anyway – and hereby forever disqualify myself for church nursery duty – if, of all the trees, and all the sidewalks, and all the people, in all of New York City’s vast Central Park this past weekend: why this branch and this baby?

For those of you who didn’t hear the news, you can probably figure out by reading this far that yes indeed, a falling tree branch near the popular Central Park Zoo killed a baby and critically injured her mother. Was it just another weird story from a city famous for weird stories? Or is there more that we can't see?

From all appearances, the tree and the branch were healthy. The location of this tragedy is a high-pedestrian-traffic area located near a Central Park Conservancy facility and the only zoo on Manhattan island (well, aside from Times Square and pockets of SoHo); these trees aren’t in some overgrown area off of the beaten path that is rarely maintained. Indeed, all of Central Park can be considered one of the most well-groomed plots of land in the world.

Tragedy, Yes; Accident, No

From God’s perspective, this wasn’t an accident, was it? He didn’t have one of His angels rush into His presence Saturday afternoon after taking tree inventory and discovering one of their branches was missing. This baby was chosen by God to suffer this fate in the arms of her mother on this day for a reason.

We’ve heard of the military’s use of the term “surgical strike” to describe the intricate killing of a person or group of people from thousands of feet – or hundreds of miles – away. Many evangelical believers give lip service to the notion that God is indeed in control of all things. Yet oftentimes, we fail to draw the obvious conclusion from current events: that incidents like the fallen-limb-killing Saturday are nothing other than a holy surgical strike.

Now, I’m not going to mention the names of the baby or her parents, because for my purposes here, it’s not about them. My intention isn’t to personalize this tragedy by putting names on the characters. They’re sinners just like you and I, although I don’t know what they may have done – or left undone – that would have invoked God’s particular action in this case. It may not even have been a punitive strike on God’s part. It may have always been His holy, sovereign plan to bring this child back to Heaven at this young age, since after all, our lives are not our own anyway. But even if it was a punitive strike, God has already made His judgment, so who are we to heap on the blame?

The fact that this child wasn’t anywhere close to an age of accountability means she is with Christ now, which is better than anything she could have ever done or become in her earthly life. We should pray that her family can be witnessed to this hope as they mourn her loss.

Look: Up In the Sky

Oddly enough, there have been at least one other death and a serious injury caused by falling tree limbs in Central Park within the past year or so. The latest incident happened this past February. Granted, with so many people visiting Central Park at any hour of the day, and with so many grand, old trees along well-used walkways, the chances of any branch falling and hitting somebody might be pretty strong. But really, what are the odds? How many branches fall during the dead of night, when nobody’s around? How many branches fall in the middle of the day and don’t hit anybody? To run a scientific test concerning the chances of being struck dead by a falling tree limb in Central Park would require significant effort, but I think we’re safe to assume that it’s a pretty rare occurrence. Otherwise, lawyers for the Central Park Conservancy would be issuing hardhats to every visitor, or closing off walkways.

If you’ve ever been to Central Park’s mall, where statues of poets are interspersed among ancient trees whose branches arc luxuriantly over the wide promenade, you’d think that would be an ideal place for branches to fall. Indeed, thick boughs cantilever over the walkway so densely that they create a veritable ceiling of bark, twigs, and leaves. While for decades it's made for a mystical stroll, I’m sure only now have pedestrians begun to see it as a possible deathtrap.

Some people say the tree limbs falling on Central Park visitors are freak accidents. Some have already voiced suspicions that either somebody isn’t pruning the park’s trees properly, or they’re unaware of some disease that is invisibly weakening the trees.

But deep down, we know better, don’t we?

It's the sovereignty of God. Just a little more exaggerated than usual.

_____

Friday, June 25, 2010

Law School Deceit, Tokyo's Funk, and iPhone 4tune

Schools Cheating on Law Students' Grades

If you’re looking for a lawyer, don’t hire one who graduated within the past ten years.

That’s basically the advice from a recent article in the New York Times which reveals the growing practice of law schools artificially inflating grades so their graduates can score jobs more easily.

How about that: law students being enabled by their schools to lie. Who’d have thunk?

Apparently, this trend has been on the rise for the past decade, as law schools across the country have tried to make their graduates look better to prospective employers. It’s become a big game, boasting of graduation-to-employment rates to not only promote the school to prospective students, but create a halo effect for their graduates in the job market.

And while many law practices profess to already be wise to this deceit, more and more schools have been climbing on the grade-falsification bandwagon. So much so that they’re defeating the purpose: as the Times article points out, when everybody cheats to beat the average, the average just rises along with the cheating. It’s a warped version of a rising tide raising all boats.

Perhaps the funny thing about all of this is that even now that the secret is out, most law schools have no plans to stop the practice. And even though some defenders of the scam claim old grading curves were similarly unfair and distorted, nobody seems bothered by what all of this means: people who supposedly are being trained to administer the law in this country are being indoctrinated into believing that what you actually learn is less important than what you appear to have learned.

It’s not so much about the client and the law as it is getting these students in high-paying practices so they can re-pay their student loans.

And people wonder why the legal profession seems thin on scruples.


Tokyo as a Second-Tier City

A friend who recently returned from a trip to Japan sparked my curiosity about Tokyo and its status as a World City.

Granted, whether Tokyo is a World City may not be a question that nags you. But as you've undoubtedly learned by now, I'm... different.

I'd recalled an article by urban sociologist Saskia Sassen who coined the term "Global City" to describe, based on some prestigious parameters, our planet's most important urban centers. Her first study of Global/World Cities, in 1991, yielded three: New York (of course!), London, and Tokyo. However, subsequent analysis of Sassen's criteria within the last decade put Tokyo on shaky ground, primarily because of its fizzling national economy.

And sure enough, the latest ranking of our world's major cities, from 2008, moves Tokyo to the second tier, leaving New York and London as the two current burgs with World City status.

For virtually 99.998% of people on our planet, this may seem irrelevant. Sure, New York and London are big, important cities, but what difference does it make if Tokyo falls to the number two level?

Actually, for demographers, business leaders, politicians, and international professionals, no longer having a city as stunningly cosmopolitan as Tokyo in the rare air along with New York and London carries significant implications.

Despite an economy which any third-world country would relish, Japan has been languishing – albeit in comparative terms – in an economic funk for almost two decades. Sure, the Land of the Rising Sun still ranks in the top five for world economies, but considering their recent high-flying past, today's Japan seems but a shadow of its former self.

For a while during the 1980’s, it seemed as though the Japanese were going to buy everybody out. Sony was an entertainment titan. American executives actually went to Tokyo to study their brand of management. When midtown Manhattan's iconic Rockefeller Center fell into Japanese hands, New York City virtually panicked.

But those were Japan's glory days. Flash forward to today, and Rockefeller Center has returned to American ownership. Chinese has replaced Japanese as the must-learn Asian language, and Toyota's stunning reliability fiasco seems to have smacked down the remaining gasps of nationalistic pride onto which the Japanese have so valiantly clung.

Meanwhile, the multicultural stew which had been brewing in Tokyo, attracting foreign investment and dispensing the Yen to far-flung outposts, has gone from boil to simmer. People don't beat a path to the Ginza like they used to. Beijing, Bangalore, and even Baghdad get more press coverage and fortune-seekers than Japan’s capital.

Not that Tokyo has hit the skids. Good grief – perhaps only Tokyo could fall to second-tier status and still retain all the glitz that masks such a noteworthy shift. And even at second-tier, Tokyo shares some prestigious company, including Hong Kong and Paris. But perhaps more disconcerting to the Japanese is that of the eight second-tier cities, all but two (Paris and Milan) are in Asia – a region Japan had dominated since the Second World War. That reality surely rubs some proud Japanese the wrong way.

While we Americans are known for our patriotism, how many of us would dive-bomb the plane we were piloting into an enemy warship? The Kamikaze perfectly epitomized the nationalistic fervor with which the Japanese have idolized themselves.

Of course, the Japanese are too industrious to fall apart over a slide in status most of the world didn’t even know happened. Nobody denies Tokyo’s continued dominance in global affairs. Indeed, as an example, just this spring, American Airlines fought tooth and nail to renew its industry alliance with JAL and its hub in Tokyo.

Even though JAL fell into bankruptcy at the same time.


First Adopters are Made for Each Other

Have you heard the new term buzzing around those long lines of desperate customers waiting to buy the latest iPhone? They're "first adopters" or "early adopters," instead of socially-stunted autotrons controlled by Apple guru Steve Jobs.

Indeed, reporters who canvassed people waiting in lines across the world yesterday found many of these young adults - eagerly anticipating paying through the nose for Apple's latest plum - bristling at such notions posited to them as:

  • that, if indeed they even had jobs, they appeared to be bad employees (did they call in sick today?),
  • that they spend their money poorly (don't they know you can get phones for free now?),
  • or that they simply don't have a social life outside of their lines at the local Apple store (you waited how long to get this gadget?)

More than one iPhone 4g customer tried to make themselves appear sophisticated and relevant by calling themselves "first adopters," like they're doing society a favor by wasting time in line to buy phones and test them before dweebs from the general public have access to them.

And then when they started going home to play with their new toys, many customers of the iPhone 4g started experiencing reception issues. No, not reception issues from their friends, whom they were ignoring. Telephone reception issues. In other words, the phones weren't working right.

As if Apple hasn't twisted their customer base around their pinkie already, Steve Jobs got online and said his customers weren't holding their new phones properly.

Uh-huh.

How does one hold a phone? In your hand, with fingers around the edges, right? Well, dissed Steve Jobs: don't do that. Apparently, he wants his customers to hold it by their thumb and forefinger, grasping the front and the back - not the sides or edges. How customers are supposed to make calls and use the built-in camera is their own problem.

Ahh, can you feel the love?

Actually, it's hard to deny the amazing functionality and sleek aesthetics of Apple's products. They're New York's Museum of Modern Art next to Microsoft's Smithsonian. Steve Jobs seems to be the only computer geek out there who actually understands how to take clunky technology and make it uber-appealing to the masses; not based just on what it can do, but how it does it and what it looks like. Indeed, Microsoft seems to have hit the silicon ceiling, whereas Apple keeps churning out products that defy the pundits - like the iPad.

That's how Apple has eclipsed Microsoft to be the world's most highly-valued technology stock.

And why Steve Jobs can tell his customers they're holding their phones wrong.

_____

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

McChrystal's Gone, But Not What He Said

Instead of "Rolling Stone" it should be "Rolling Head."

Of all the victims involved with today's unfortunate implosion of General Stanley McChrystal, hopefully truth can emerge relatively unscathed from the aftermath.

After all, nobody has yet to deny that any of the consternation, bickering, personality wars, and frustrations that McChrystal and his staff exposed to Rolling Stone – of all magazines – aren’t valid issues in the Afghanistan theater of operations. Or that Joe Biden is incompetent, that other politicians of both Democratic and Republican stripe haven’t made peace all the more elusive, and that our Commander in Chief may be running a losing battle over ideologies within his own administration.

Read the article carefully, and you’ll note that only one super-star politician actually wins on the PR front, and what a surprise it is: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Who’d have thought Bill’s better half could muster such warmth and admiration from a hardened core of army bigshots? Maybe it just says something about how poorly McChrystal and his aides have been treated by others in Obama’s cabinet. Conservatives shouldn’t forget, however, that Clinton is a senator from New York State, home to Ground Zero, and Afghanistan has been ground-zero for the fight against the Taliban. Her support of America’s efforts there may be pragmatism over partisanship, but it still proves that wonders never cease.

What comes as no surprise is the McChrystal camp’s loathing of Vice President Joe Biden. I mean, who can disagree with the Rolling Stone article? Everybody knows that Biden only happens to be vice president through an act of political contrivance on President Barak Obama’s part. To win the presidency, Obama knew he needed a white guy on his ticket, and Biden – despite already maligning his then-opponent in the primaries – genuflected the lowest when offered the chance to get inside the Executive Branch. Even at Obama’s press conference this afternoon, who stood the closest to him, as if he was afraid he might get cropped out of a photo? Yup – there was Biden, practically perched on Obama’s shoulder, his bald head reflected in the French doors behind him.

But the real truth that Obama and Biden may be hoping the American public ignores deals with nitty-gritty realities that dumping McChrystal for General David Petraeus itself won’t fix. Getting rid of the messenger doesn’t get rid of the message. And that message seems pretty stark: Obama’s plan has yet to get buy-in from everybody in his administration, petty personality squabbles imperil a fragile working relationship with the Afghans, and rapidly-demoralizing troops in that dust-bowl of a quagmire need somebody to listen to their tales from the front – tales that don’t jive with the sunny scenarios civilian military analysts are splicing together back in their air-conditioned bunkers at the Pentagon.

Not that we’re losing the war in Afghanistan. Good grief – there’s no way of knowing who’s ahead and who’s behind over there. The fact that we haven’t yet been hounded out of the country like the Russians were probably means we’re doing better than the naysayers want to think. And even top Afghan officials, including its president, wanted McChrystal to stay in command, meaning they thought he was the best choice to make progress there.

And what about Rolling Stone itself? Why kind of chutzpah does it take for a left-of-center magazine to propose a spread about the commander in Afghanistan? This wasn’t a patriotic piece about Patton leading the troops into battle, and the Rolling Stone reporters certainly weren’t going to turn their tape recorders off when McChrystal or his aides had to vent. Even if the reporters knew their piece would be controversial, did they intentionally abdicate any notion about what might have been in the national interest? Once they saw how the interviews were going, couldn’t they have pulled the plug and decided they weren’t going to be an accessory to a shake-up at the top of the Afghanistan command? Is publicity that important to Rolling Stone? Shame on them.

Ultimately, though, McChrystal takes the blame for ever granting an interview to any non-military magazine. What was he thinking? Giving such off-the-cuff remarks and letting his staff do the same? And then firing two army staffers as fall guys? In the end, it doesn’t matter if Obama and his cabinet are completely inept; he’s still the Commander in Chief, and we’re a nation at war. While McChrystal’s insubordination probably hasn’t significantly damaged the drive for peace in Afghanistan, it needed to be nipped in the bud before it was allowed to fester.

And who knows – if the Obama administration actually takes McChrystal’s perceptions to heart, and makes substantial improvements to how it’s currently executing its policy and personnel, then maybe troop morale can increase and quantifiable gains can be seen.

Of course, if cabinet in-fighting was one of the banes of McChrystal’s existence, the remarkably good press Clinton is getting out of this article won’t help much.

How funny to realize that she’s the only one coming out of this mess better than ever.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Glory Days in Maine

I don’t know about where you live, but here in north central Texas, it’s already purty hot. (y'all say it with me: PUR-tee)

Well, not hot as in fry-an-egg-on-your-truck’s-hood hot, but purt-near close. And it’s supposed to stay around 100 with no rain in sight for several more days.

The prospect of which made me put off my deep and dreary essay that I intended for today, and instead took me to a no less sunny, but far more enjoyable place in my mind... that wonderful cabinet where my memories of Maine are stored... (it's a wooden, two-tier cabinet; hand-made, of course... with a thick, faded coat of light blue paint...)

Memories not so much of Maine's atrocious cost of living, or the interminable distances between towns, or the fact that many of my relatives there work more than one job just to make ends meet.

No, on days like today in Texas, my imagination easily flits far away to where my gaze rises to behold an iridescent blue sky, sometimes with the puffiest clouds of cleanest white, betraying nary a speck of pollution in such pure, salt-tinged air!

Or maybe my gaze turns and stretches across miles and miles of the crystalline oceanic water, sharp flashes of sun glancing off the crisp waves, twinkling like millions of city lights that are oh, so far away. The water that comes to shore has a greenish hue, and turns a golden color as it washes over stones, pebbles, and rocks, themselves either caked in barnacles or flecked with veins of granite. As the waves pull back from the shore, lap after lap, they return to the deep Atlantic, perhaps to caress a whale or lick the bow of an ocean liner.

Ahh.. and the boats... they ride upon the waves… sail boats gliding peacefully, silently… lobster boats with hardworking motors, putty-putty-put, erratic as the lobsterman swirls around his buoys to retrieve his catch… all the while, the softly rhythmic lapping of the waves on the shore, the incessant uncontainable tide washing and waiting for nobody.

A tide that changes the hue and buoyancy of the water as it creeps up to the rocky coastline, and then mysteriously retreats back out to sea. Not in your timeframe, but to a clock all its own. Your view of the water, across its broad expanse of twinkling lights, stays the same yet changes constantly. Only nighttime hides its comings and goings from view.

And without those city lights, nighttime can be the darkest blue you can imagine. Never pitch black, like tar, except in the bleak wintertime. But I’m going to forget wintertime, just like I forget the high prices and high taxes. Cloudless summer nights seep into the fading sunlight and before too long, reveal their own twinkling treasures of stars and constellations nestled in the velvet of blackest navy.

The perfect summer day in Maine is so perfect – the only real explanation for why so many summer people, year after year, generation after generation, pay so dearly for the privilege to spend weeks or the whole summer there.

I used to wonder why I would see so many convertibles with Maine license plates, until I realized that even though Maine only offers a relatively few days for motorists to enjoy sporting around with the top down, what glorious days those are!

Those glorious Maine summer days… their memories keep me going here in the Texas heat.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Mired Waste-Deep in Political Muck

Yuck… the political muck and mire plopping out of politicians’ mouths regarding the BP oil spill appears to be giving the disastrous oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico a run for its money.

This week has been particularly bad.

"I'm In Charge"

First, on Tuesday night, President Obama takes the national television spotlight to announce, like Alexander Haig did years ago immediately after Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt, that he is in control. But of course, Obama is as wrong now as Haig was back then.

You may recall Haig triumphantly claiming to reporters that he was in charge as a wounded Reagan underwent emergency surgery. Except he wasn't, and everybody seemed to know that but him. Haig's position as Secretary of State made him third in the line of succession, behind the Vice President, George H. W. Bush. Haig's haste and ego never were forgotten. Fast forward to this past Tuesday night, when Obama ignored the recent history we've all witnessed and claimed that since this oil crisis began, he has been in charge. Which, of course, we all know is false.

From the outset, White House input on the growing disaster placed the blame and the responsibility for clean-up squarely on BP’s shoulders. So now, is Obama re-writing history by claiming to have been in control all along? After he met with BP executives Wednesday, and trumpeted a $20 billion escrow account for lawsuits, he insinuated that he had full authority to force BP to comply with its stated intentions of seeing this disaster through to the end.

Except that nobody has full command of the situation, do they? It's far too big for any one person or office. And by virtue of our separation of powers here in the US, only judges will have any right to force BP to pay out the now-famous $20 billion in escrow.

"I Apologize"

And then there's my own representative from Texas, the Honorable Joe Barton. Did President Obama extort $20 billion from BP during their White House meeting this past Wednesday? Barton says yes.

In fact, Barton made his blunt assessment – and apologized to BP on behalf of the president – at the beginning of a Congressional hearing Thursday, saying he was “ashamed” of Obama’s “shakedown” of the oil giant.

Of course, as the recipient of more oil industry money than any other member of the House of Representatives (according to the Dallas Morning News), Barton probably felt obligated to make some grand gesture of support for his patrons. Texas is oil country, not to mention pro-business, and as a red-blooded Republican with deep empathy for the money all three represent, he probably figured he had little choice but to utter such a controversial statement. After all, who knows how much of his investment portfolio has shrunk as BP’s value on the Big Board has tanked nearly 50%? Investor groups have already started suing BP because of the losses they’re suffering. Barton probably figured somebody had to stand up and make a public show of support for the beleaguered company.

And despite it’s still-healthy balance sheet, the media and public opinion have certainly been hammering England’s star oil conglomerate. We're almost two months into the spill, and to hear the press tell it, we’re no closer to capping this sucker than when the Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing 11 workers. Politicians of all stripes – from mayors of po-dunk Gulf Coast towns to Louisiana’s Republican governor Bobby Jindal – have been castigating BP for what appear to be colossal errors, mismanagement, and abysmal planning. The press has been running up and down the coastline, from Louisiana to Florida, breathlessly interviewing everyone from fishermen to tourists, painting a bleak picture of the human toll from this tragedy. Websites abound with BP jokes, parodies of company executives, amateurish suggestions for capping the well, and blogging blowhards venting about the ecological and economic aspects of America’s largest oil spill.

From the sidelines, Barton has probably been watching all of this unfold with a growing fury in his gut and sinking despair in his wallet. Don’t you figure he’d been itching for this chance to have his say and take to the Congressional microphone with a triumphant castigation of the person he most loathes in Washington today? It’s no secret that Barton and the President share little affinity and even less ideology. Couple that with Barton’s history of ignoring obvious conflicts of interest when making statements supporting his political patrons, and you have all the ingredients necessary for Capitol Hill fireworks.

But as quickly as the fireworks lit up the Beltway sky, they fizzled to the ground as fellow Republicans - shocked at Barton's egregious groveling and stinging callousness towards all affected by the disaster - swiftly rebuked Barton. By yesterday afternoon, he had issued an apology for the apology, but the damage had already been done.

It's Gettin' Deep 'Round Here

Not that the $1-million-plus the oil industry has spent on Barton over the years wasn't wasted. None other than the New York Times actually came out in his defense today with an article describing how corporate types around the world have grown weary - and wary - of the Obama administration's blatant spite for big business.

Sure, BP would probably have had to set aside something in the neighborhood of $20 billion to help pay down the claims it will have to settle, so did the President have to make such a grand spectacle of the announcement? Yes, the BP PR machine has made some absurd gaffes in recent weeks, but looking for somebody's posterior to kick is a little rogue for the White House, isn' it? Barton may have left his wallet sitting wide open on the table when he made his contentious apology on behalf of Obama, but he wasn't just speaking for himself.

The BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is indeed a disaster of epic proportions. It will require ingenuity, tenacity, many years, and lots of money to make everything right.

It's way too early in the game to have this much political muck clogging things up. We've got plenty of spilt oil doing that without Washington's help.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mega-Philanthropy for the Mega-Rich

By now, it’s old news that mega-billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates intend to prevent their heirs from inheriting their vast wealth. They’ve already announced their plans to give away their money and only leave their offspring with a comparative pittance – just something to remember them by.

But have you heard the latest twist by our surprisingly liberal top two capitalists? They’re inviting their 400 wealthiest brethren to join them in their stunning giveaway. Fortune magazine is gushing – or gagging – with the details of this grand race to the bottom of the money pile.

The idea is to encourage America’s highest-net-worth individuals to commit half of what they’ve acquired to charity between now and when they die. Buffett, Gates, and the woman who married into the Gates fortune, Melinda, have already hosted several discrete meetings with fellow billionaires, quietly launched a website, and gotten commitments from several lesser denizens of the Black Card class for the plan.

Depending on your perspective, Buffett and the Gateses are either inviting their own kind to participate in a grand legacy of humanitarian largess, or they’re strong-arming fellow billionaires with a guilt trip over their stupendous wealth. Either way, their aim is to divert as much as $600 billion from family estates to worldwide philanthropic efforts.

That's 600 billion - with a "B".

Wow.

At Least Their Estate Taxes Will Be Lower

Some people find their magnanimous charity almost heroic – that self-made people like Buffett and Gates view their wealth as a tool for such noble goals as the elimination of poverty as we know it. What better way to avoid all of the corruption and inefficiencies of bureaucratic multi-national aid agencies and Third World governments than leapfrog over all of them and pump your vast resources right where it can do the most good. It kind of makes Ted Turner’s $1 billion gift to the United Nations amateurish.

Then there is the churlish proletariat, who have already unleashed a barrage of invective on Fortune’s website, railing against the absurdity of throwing money at problems that have been exacerbated by the generational hubris of industrialized countries in the first place. What about the poverty so endemic in countries which have been stripped of resources and socio-politically marginalized by the West? Who but the Buffetts and the Gateses of the world have built their fortunes on the backs of the disenfranchised and oppressed?

At this point, die-hard conservatives will leave the discussion, disgusted at the reminder that most wealth isn’t so much earned as it is acquired – a nuanced distinction, to be sure, but a distinction with a negative flavor nonetheless. (For example, Bill Gates hasn’t “earned” all of his wealth. Sure, he led a team of computer geeks who came up with the world’s most widely-used computer operating system, but his corporation actually extorted competitors and coerced patents to cobble together the system which made it the dominant player. Remember all of the anti-trust lawsuits from the dot-com bubble? Therefore, he has “acquired” wealth through not only his personal genius and initiative, but also the products, efforts, and manipulation of other people. Buffett's story is far less ethically-challenged; he's simply been diligently prudent in his investments.)

Liberal Democrats, too, will leave the discussion, disgusted that those without wealth can be so jealous of those who have it. Where is our sense of social unity? Can't we just hold hands and feel the love?

Suddenly, The Family Silver Is Looking Good

Which leaves the rest of us, I suppose, wondering if there isn’t some sort of ulterior motive in all of this. Most of us don’t necessarily begrudge anybody whatever wealth they may have, as long as it wasn’t acquired illegally or immorally (the legacy of Bill Gates notwithstanding). But giving away up to 99% of what you’ve worked your whole life to acquire, as Buffett has pledged to do?

Is there a tax dodge underneath all this charity? Is there some sort of latent guilt about the ways in which these people earned their wealth? Have these moguls already tucked away small fortunes in secret trust funds for their kids? Has the process by which they've acquired their money really just been a big game; and now that we know who the current winners are, we put the earnings back into circulation? Does this prove that wealth really can't buy happiness - unless giving it way is how you purchase happiness? Whatever happened to the old – and Biblically precedented – convention of securing a financial inheritance for one’s children?

Or, as I personally suspect, is this just the latest fad for the ego-driven super-rich to try and immortalize themselves?

And who really believes that $600 billion can come close to significantly reducing the worldwide ravages of disease, starvation, and poverty? What about the personal choices people make to engage in risky behaviors that perpetuate ills like AIDS, crime, and drugs? How much social good can be sustained in countries where political corruption strangles democratic reform?

These are all questions America’s 400 richest families will be mulling over during the summer. And they’re not particularly easy questions, either. I wonder what their kids will be saying? What a pickle to find oneself in: either to join Buffett and the Gateses and lend your family’s name to whatever posterity will be secured in this exercise, or opt out and trust your best friends don’t notice the absence of your name on whatever lists will be published in the future.

Ahhh… having so much money isn’t easy, is it?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Unleaded EPA Overkill

When you hear conservatives clucking about the evils of big government, do your eyes glaze over?

“Big government, small government; who cares?” you may be tempted to complain, convinced the tug of war over expanding or contracting Washington’s role in our lives lacks any application to your daily life.

Which, of course, has been the genius of big-government advocates. They've spent decades incrementally upping the scope of government involvement and the depth with which it reaches into daily life for all Americans. Many bureaucrats and politicians want you to ignore the debate over big government. They want you to be the frog in the tepid pot of water, blithely acclimating as the water’s temperature quietly increases. Until... you’re boiled alive.

Indeed, it’s not until you run into something like the EPA’s Toxic Substances Control Act Docket ID #EPA-HQ-OPPT-2005-0049 that ordinary Americans get slapped in the face with the absurdity of government control over the mundane aspects of everyday existence. Or, Big Government.

One of the Biggest Rules You've Never Heard Of

Never heard of the EPA’s Docket EPA-HQ-OPPT-2005-0049? Funny… because it’s been working its way through the halls of Congress, the White House, three administrations, and the EPA for nearly twenty years. Where have you been?

A rhetorical question, of course. You’ve probably been doing things like, oh, remodeling an old house; something many Americans do, considering the vast supply of aging housing stock in our country.

House remodeling, however, sits directly in the cross-hairs of EPA-HQ-OPPT-2005-0049, which basically says you will now need to cough up a ton of money for lead-based paint testing, removal, and disposal if you or anybody you hire does any remodeling to a house built prior to 1978.

That’s right: if your home, or the part of your home you want to remodel, was built before 1978, it may have lead paint. The EPA says that if you’re going to change six square feet or more of that structure in any way – new carpet, new windows, new countertops, even new paint – you’ll need to hire a contractor certified in the EPA’s new, sophisticated, and expensive lead remediation program, Lead-Safe Certification.

What It Means To You

A friend of mine who works for a large, family-owned flooring company here in the Dallas area says his employers have forbidden them from quoting on any job in a house that even looks like it was built in 1978. Which is killing business, just when many homeowners, who think their employment situation has stabilized, are starting to cough up money again for new carpeting. If my friend’s employers get caught by the EPA installing carpet in an older home that hasn’t been cleansed from all lead-based paint, they face a hefty fine.

So far, so much confusion exists over this new rule, which went into effect in April of this year, that many home remodeling companies like this family-operated flooring store seem scared to test its boundaries. A contractor which has bid on a project at my parents’ 1960 house says that since the part of the house he will be remodeling doesn’t have paint of any kind, he thinks he’s good to go – but even he expressed frustration over this new rule. He’s afraid he’s going to lose a lot of business because here in Texas, homeowners can hire illegal Hispanics by the dozen to do the work for which he as an incorporated contractor would have to charge extra. Not only will illegals not know about the new rule, but even if they did, their lack of proper paperwork makes them invisible to the EPA, so they can avoid the rules and get the work done without fear of any penalty.

In effect, the government could be putting legal, ethical businesspeople out of work and bolstering illegal immigration at the same time. Way to go, Washington!

Sure, Lead Paint Is Bad, But...

Not that the EPA has pulled their new rule out of thin air. They claim it primarily exists to protect small children who are the most susceptible to lead poisoning, which we all know is a real danger. However, how many families who can afford contractors to remodel old houses have small children? Most of them are empty-nesters or retirees, and even if a family with young kids did this remodeling themselves, how can the EPA equitably enforce such rule? Require everybody who buys sandpaper at Home Depot to sign an affidavit saying they’re going to get certified in the EPA’s new lead paint program?

Obviously, this new rule goes far beyond what could logically be considered a legitimate public safety ordinance. Plenty of knowledge regarding the dangers of lead-based paint exists in our society. Most contractors should already be wearing a facemask when sanding large surfaces, simply because dust of any kind can wreak havoc on one’s respiratory system. Does making everyone from carpet-layers to cabinet installers take classes on the dangers of lead-based paint really enhance environmental quality?

Back in the 1970’s, the EPA championed the eradication of lead from paint. At the time, some people probably thought the government was going too far, but lead-free paint makes sense for a healthier environment. Besides, if every store only sells lead-free paint, the market is still equal, and manufacturers can still compete based on quality and price.

This time, the government really has gone too far.
  • First, they are unnecessarily penalizing owners of a certain type of home. In some housing markets, the EPA could actually be harming the value of older homes just because it might contain lead paint.
  • Second, the enforcement of this new rule will be hopelessly arbitrary, and therefore unfair. It pits businesses who want to play by the rules against both unscrupulous businesses and illegal immigrants, for whom the rules hardly ever apply. It also is impossible to enforce if homeowners opt to perform this work themselves.
  • Third, it penalizes small home improvement firms like flooring stores, contractors, kitchen installers, and others who can’t afford the time and expense of the EPA’s new training and enforcement program.
  • It deprives legitimate home improvement businesses of desperately-needed remodeling jobs by unnecessarily removing a significant portion of America’s housing stock from the available pool of customers.
  • Its interpretation of the lead-based paint problem is far too broad and punitive. For example, how much lead paint gets released into the atmosphere when new carpet is laid?

Why Big Government Is Bad: Exhibit A

Whatever health benefits might be obtained by strict adherence to this rule are handily overwhelmed by all of the rule's negative aspects. It’s overkill, plain and simple. But since it’s become part of the EPA’s rulebook, overturning it will prove to be difficult.

When you have big government, not everybody can watch what all of the government agencies are doing. The EPA’s website says that they’ve solicited public input on their rules regarding lead paint for decades, but at their last hearing, only several hundred people participated. The EPA took that to mean that only a limited number of “stakeholders” were interested in this issue. But that’s not true, is it?

This rule affects millions of homeowners, most of whom will be dipping deep into savings or taking out loans to perform the maintenance and updating most of us consider to be a normal part of home ownership.

In effect, the government is putting small-business contractors on the firing line of this rule, penalizing them with fines for not adhering to it, or penalizing them with uncompetitive labor rates if they do.

Our government. At work. So you can’t.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Push This Chevy Over the Levee

What’s in a name? For General Motors, apparently too much negative baggage. Or at least, so it implied in a memo Chevrolet executives sent out to the brand’s employees in Detroit this week, requesting that they stop calling their cars “Chevy’s”.

It’s “Chevrolet” or, depending on how you read the grammatically-challenged internal memo, “Chevrolet going forward”. Not that my grammar is stellar, but for a bunch of over-degreed head honchos parroting Madison avenue gobbledygook from their newly-hired PR firm, you’d think somebody in division headquarters would know how to properly incorporate trendy corporate-speak when composing correspondence.

Indeed, lame logic oozed from the memo. Attempting to explain why they wanted only one name for their brand (instead of two), authors of the memo pointed to Coke and Apple as examples of one-name products. Except, of course, “Coke” is shorthand for “Coca-Cola” and Apple is known by the names of its products, most of which begin with the letter “i”.

At any rate, the memo caused more than just a few raised eyebrows; one stunned Chevrolet employee sent a copy of the letter to the New York Times, and before long, the whole car world was buzzing about GM’s temerity to ignore one of the most widely-recognized names in the world.

Meanwhile, back in Detroit, GM officials cobbled together a response that was even weaker than their first message. Appearing to be caught off-guard by the maelstrom of indignation from the public about the name change, executives sought to reassure the world that the memo had been written poorly (which, of course, we’d already determined) and that GM was basking in the glow of so much heartfelt sentiment towards one of their storied brands.

Yeah, right. Like maybe this whole episode wasn’t some publicity stunt cooked up by their new PR firm? With advertising costing as much as it does, why not take advantage of the free publicity we can cook up on the Internet by dropping a sloppy bombshell like, oh, getting rid of the endearment “Chevy”? Think that’d work?

Yup – it sure did. Auto wonks got all worked up over nothing, and Chevrolet got a ton of indirect brand exposure for both “Chevy” and “Chevrolet,” not to mention volumes of free market research to gauge how relevant its brands remain in the psyche of North Americans. Then they get to say the customer has spoken, and aww, shucks, folks: you’re embarrassing us with all of your praise of Chevy. OK, we take it back!

Chevy's Already Taken This Customer For a Ride

Not that they heard any words of praise from me. When I read the story online, at first I thought it was just another idiotic exercise in corporate-think, but I lost my affinity for Chevrolet or Chevy years ago, so it just seemed like another dumb move for GM.

You see - speaking of dumb moves - back in 1998, I bought a brand-new Chevrolet Malibu after reading glowing reviews about how it gave imports a run for their money. At the time, it was the smallest car I’d ever owned, but the interior was spacious and comfortable for a car that size, and it had a lot of luxury features for the price.

Within six months, however, it had developed an unstoppable oil leak, sometimes the car wouldn’t start, and mechanics at the dealership determined the driver’s door had been improperly manufactured and installed. It didn’t fit into the doorframe, and the window wouldn’t close properly. I can’t remember how many times I kept taking it back to the dealership, and how may loaner cars I had while they tried to fix the problems. Finally, my exasperated salesman told me my best course of action involved filing a Lemon Law claim against Chevrolet.

Which I did. At the time, Lemon Law claims were handled through local Better Business Bureau offices, so I forwarded all of my paperwork to their Fort Worth office for them to review, and scheduled an appointment. My hearing was quite simple, with a moderator who used to be in the car business serving as judge & jury, and a Chevrolet representative on a conference call from Detroit.

When the moderator told me he used to be an executive for a local dealership, I figured I had my work cut out for me, since he’d probably be prejudiced towards General Motors. But I plodded through all of my evidence, we went on a test drive, and I had letters from friends and my boss all testifying to the problems I’d been having with that new Chevy Malibu. The moderator took it all with a poker face, not giving me any hint as to how he might rule.

Our friendly Chevy guy, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more obnoxious. He yelled at me over the phone’s speaker, he challenged the work receipts from the dealership (even though the mechanics had written them, not me), and he scoffed at the testimonial letters I’d brought.

Then he asked me what I expected Chevrolet could do with a car that allegedly had so many problems. They couldn’t re-sell it in the condition I claimed it was in. They’d lose all their profit on that car.

Like that was any concern of mine! Bewildered, I remember glancing over at the moderator, who kinda rolled his eyes, his discrete impartiality beginning to wane.

Unfortunately, I had read an article about car dealerships sending cars with troubled histories to Mexico and Central America, where they could get away with hiding the cars’ problems they were legally required to tell their United States customers. So I mentioned that article to the guy from General Motors.

“So, you’re some kind of racist then, huh?” he pounced, convinced I’d betrayed the weak link in my chain, by which he could hang me out to dry. You’ll have to remember that this guy from Chevrolet had long ago run out of logical defenses, and had been poking around for faults in my character for some time during this hearing.

“Those Mexicans are good enough for cars like this, but not Americans, huh? Are you saying you’re better than Mexicans? What kind of an attitude is that?”

I was stunned. How did we go from discussing the multiple faults of a six-month-old Chevy to me being a racist? I turned to the moderator, and I remember shrugging my shoulders, my hands outstretched, completely clueless as to how I could respond to such a personal attack.

Fortunately, the moderator had heard all he needed to hear. He chided the Chevrolet representative for trying to make a personal attack against my character, and he decided the case in my favor, telling the Chevy guy to cough up a check for me covering the bill of sale less depreciation.

I had won… but I felt awful. Not that I’d proven my case, but that the guy from Chevrolet had been so ugly to me. How dare he try to save Chevrolet some money by maligning me! And I didn’t even say that Mexicans deserved to have mechanically-inferior cars; I had merely pointed out that it was American dealerships that were sending these cars south of the border. Oddly enough, the guy from Chevy didn't deny that.

I vowed then and there that I’d never buy another brand-new Chevy for the rest of my life.

Or Chevrolet, for that matter.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Eye Doc's Review in Focus

Ah, the Internet age! So much information at your fingertips... but how much of it is legitimate? Illusion has become one of the most widespread characteristics of Internet content.

For example, when you’re reading car reviews online, how many good reviews have been actually written by car salesmen trying to sell that car? How many bad reviews have been written by competitors trying to discourage you from buying that car? There’s no way of telling how legitimate any of those posts may be. In a sense, they’re almost worthless, except to the website owners who get money from advertising on the pages whether the content is trustworthy or not.

With that in mind, it’s hard to tell how much of Janet Auyoung’s story is true, and how much of it is spin. Auyoung claims to be a disgruntled patient of suburban Dallas eye surgeon Dr. William Boothe. After what she describes to Dallas' CBS-11 TV as a year-long battle with Boothe’s Plano, Texas clinic regarding a botched Lasik procedure, Auyoung went on Google and wrote a scathing summary of her experience on the popular search engine’s review section.

Now, she’s being served with papers from Boothe’s lawyer, Charla Aldous, who claims that Auyoung’s post on Google amounts to defamation of character.

To complicate matters, Aldous and Boothe assert that Auyoung is acting on behalf of the good doctor’s competitors in the highly-lucrative world of Lasik surgery. They want to depose Auyoung to see if she’ll rat on the other doctors they suspect have put her up to the negative post. But Auyoung isn’t backing down, and intends to pursue the case against her because she says she has told the truth.

Which, actually, is the best defense against an accusation of defamation. But what is the truth in this case? Is it true that Boothe botched Auyoung’s surgery, that he was discourteous to her, and that he refused to refund her money? Is it true that Auyoung had unreasonable expectations about Lasik surgery, that if she’d read the fine print she’d have known no refund would be available, or that she’s secretly working for a competitor who wants to steer potential clients away from Boothe?

Publicity Works Both Ways

Either Boothe doesn't understand how publicity works, that the Internet is an imperfect communication medium, or that he's not the perfect doctor he tries to play on TV (commercials). How much money might he lose if people see both negative and positive reviews of his services side by side on the Internet? There is another website called doctorscorecard.com which claims that Boothe is trying to shut it down because they won’t remove negative reviews patients are posting about him there. Is stamping out all negative press the best way to build up your reputation? Sounds like something they do in Russia, doesn’t it?

Not that Boothe doesn’t have the right to protect his business and his name. But is hiring a lawyer to go after one of your patients the smart way of doing that? What is it about Auyoung’s review on Google that poses an imminent threat to Boothe’s reputation, especially when the positive reviews of him on the same page look suspiciously like plants Boothe himself may have orchestrated? If his claims are accurate regarding websites like doctorscorecard.com, and these public review sites don't have adequate response/clarification mechanisms to moderate falsified posts about doctors, that’s a much larger battle to fight - and this isn't the way to fight it. Is chasing down disgruntled patients and trying to muzzle them the easy way out?

Spotlighting One's Own Problems

I’d never heard anything one way or the other about Dr. Boothe until I saw this news piece on TV last night. What little I knew about him came from his local advertising. But now that I’ve heard about this story and done a little bit of research on him, I’ve discovered quite a bit of negative stuff against Boothe that I wouldn’t have otherwise known. Is any of it true? I don’t know, but if I was in the market for Lasik surgery, I’ve suddenly been prejudiced against Boothe from not only the material I’ve read online, but the way he and his lawyer seem to be mishandling the complaints by one of his patients. I don't want my doctor to be in the press or media under any circumstances unless he or she is receiving a humanitarian award.

Of course, if it’s determined that Auyoung is simply being a stooge for one of Boothe’s competitors, it’ll just make the whole Lasik industry that much less respectable in my eyes. A lot of these eye doctors have been touting Lasik as the great cure-all for optic problems and facial vanity, when they know it’s just a temporary fix. Eyes will continue to degenerate from simple aging, and people who spend lots of time looking at computer screens will still need to wear glasses. Back when I could have afforded Lasik, I asked my eye doctor about it, and she admitted that at my age and with the computer time I log each day, glasses would probably still be a part of my life.

Although she lost a Lasik patient, she retained her reputation with me, and I have to think that’s more important, even to an ambitious, successful doctor like herself.

Has Boothe Blown It?

It seems to me Boothe could have avoided this whole mess by simply being up-front and responsive to Auyoung from the very beginning. Is she blackmailing him into fixing the problems she claims to still have with her eyesight? How do other doctors handle troublesome patients (the Seinfeld episode about Elaine and the "charts" springs to mind)? Had Boothe been more proactive about customer service, perhaps Auyoung would have had a lot less ammunition to fire his way, and she may have ended up raving about him, like I have about my own eye doctor.

But, as they say, hindsight is always 20/20.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Limbaugh, Thomas, and Food Deserts

A diet of ramblings for today:

Rush Limbaugh and Elton John

A lot of people are clucking about Sir Elton's $1 million gig for playing at Rush Limbaugh's fourth wedding this past weekend in Palm Beach. A flamboyant gay guy from England tickling the ivories for one of America's most arrogant conservatives and serial marriage advocates... Hmmm...

I've never liked Rush Limbaugh, nor have I ever understood the hysteria over Elton John, so in that regard, whether either one of them gains or loses credibility with me over this joint venture of theirs is a mute point.

But to all of America's conservatives out there who have ignored Limbaugh's previous three marriages and dismiss his past drug addiction as an aberration, I have to ask: what is it about Limbaugh's personal life that validates what he pontificates on his radio show?

Helen Thomas Retiring after Blasting Jews

Sure, at 89, the once-venerable queen of the White House press briefing room probably had become more of a peculiarity than a legitimate reporter, so her retirement today from the Hearst Corporation doesn't come as a surprise. In recent years, she had leveraged her press corps longevity into some semblance of notoriety, which she co-opted to make caustic comments and share her blunt opinions on a variety of issues, enjoying the demise of media's old credo that reporters should tell the news, not be the news.

But to hear that both her agent and Hearst pressured Thomas to "retire" after what were, admittedly, troubling comments she made about Israel, Palestine, and emigrants to Israel seems puzzling: are reporters entitled to their own opinions or not? Are reporters not entitled to be stupid in how they express those viewpoints? To what extent are media outlets - who created a celebrity out of Thomas by virtue of her seniority - culpable by giving her the platform from which to spout her vitriol?

I don't agree with anything Thomas has said about Israel in particular and Jews in general. But it seems like the vehement castigation of Thomas by the Jewish community, which apparently led to Thomas' forced retirement, is just the type of suppressive retaliation that represents the antithesis of free press and free speech. Thomas wasn't a diplomat, bureaucrat, or politician; she wasn't expressing national policy, she was giving her own take on a story from her perspective as a seasoned, hard-core news junkie. So what if she thinks Israel needs to "get the h--- out" of Palestine?

If retirement is indeed the best way for Thomas to exit this ugly scene, then so be it. But hasn't the issue of rubber-mouthed reporters gotten at least a little more grim? And even if you don't think that's a bad thing, what does this say about the trajectory of free press and free speech in our country?

Food Desert Reporting

Last week, I watched a piece on fast food and bad nutrition in rural Mississippi on PBS' Newshour. Ever since Michelle Obama launched her get-fit initiative after becoming First Lady, I've wondered how such noble goals as proper nutrition and lowering childhood obesity might get twisted by the liberal political machine. Newshour reporter Betty Ann Bowser didn't allay many of my concerns.

"Food deserts" occur when supermarkets and restaurants either stay out of poor neighborhoods or only offer unhealthy food options. By doing so, they contribute to residents' deprivation of access to fresh fruits and vegetables upon which healthy diets can be maintained. In these neighborhoods, any foodstuffs that are sold tend to be of low quality and discouragingly high prices. If there are restaurants, they generally are of the fast-food, high-grease variety. In her story, Bowser tried to explain how similar food deserts in notoriously poor Mississippi towns contribute to high obesity rates.

At first glance, the connection between obesity and the lack of healthy foods in these communities is a no-brainer. Sure enough, I've lived in a crime-ridden, poverty-stricken neighborhood in Brooklyn, and at the time, what stores did exist stocked plenty of junk food, but only a few bananas (which the Puerto Ricans fried anyway). The neighborhood's only grocery store tried to carry fresh produce, but since it was only a small local chain with no ability to compete against bigger players in the city's produce warehouses, we inevitably got what the bigger chains didn't want. Indeed, Bowser and others who paint a complex picture for the conundrum of food islands are correct in asserting that its causes are varied and entrenched.

Yet in her piece, Bowser shows a McDonald's drive-through menu where the standard listing for salads is covered over with a sign that says salads aren't available at this location. But why would a franchise of the world's largest fast-food chain be unable to carry salads, just because it's stuck in the middle of poor, rural Mississippi? Is lettuce that much more costly to transport than hamburgers?

Of course not! The reason this McDonald's didn't carry salads is surely a simple marketing decision. Their customers obviously don't want to buy the salads. If their customers stopped buying French fries, don't you think the owners of this McDonald's franchise would take them off the menu? Sure, they would.

Hmmm... so what does this say about food deserts when customers for this McDonald's don't want salads? Maybe the free market concept is working more effectively than liberal anti-obesity pundits want to admit?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Paving Paradise, Redux

Unless you're a die-hard architecture aficionado, you probably won't find today's entry especially interesting or even understandable. But for those of you who treasure Fort Worth's jewel box of a museum, the Kimbell, and recognize its design as one of the the most highly-regarded in the great state of Texas, then you'll want to read on.

Without going into too much detail, trustees at the Kimbell have ordered current pop-star architect Renzo Piano, of Italy (not Italy, Texas; Italy, the country) to perpetrate an expansion annex of the original building by the late Louis Kahn on the verdant, expansive lawn which stretches luxuriously from the western porticoes of the museum's main entrance.

It's not quite the same as paving paradise to put up a parking lot, but it's similar.

Here is the
letter-to-the-editor that I sent to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram after viewing Piano's plans, which actually were modifications of earlier designs that critics - including myself - railed against as taking up even more of the lawn that his revisions do:

I suppose Renzo Piano's redesigned addition to Fort Worth's esteemed Kimbell is a step in the right direction. Now, if they'll only take a few more steps across Van Cliburn Way and build the addition where it belongs: on the empty lot east of the current masterpiece.

Why didn't original architect Louis Kahn clutter that extravagant lawn with a parking lot? Because its broad expanse speaks so forcefully against the built environment.

On beautiful weekends, the Kimbell's lawn is the gracious veranda, the brownstone's stoop, the urban plaza, only with real grass.

It's as much a part of Kahn's brilliantly orchestrated entrance sequence to the museum's western doors as the gravel walkways, low-profile fountains and trees that the trustees have let grow too tall.

In its review, The New York Times seems to have its fingers crossed as to whether Piano's design rates highly enough. That the Times is following this story shows how important Kahn's Kimbell is to the world of architecture. How unfortunate that decision-makers at the Kimbell apparently are more cavalier.

-- Fort Worth Star-Telegram; Monday, May 31, 2010

If you'd like to send the Kimbell's trustees your thoughts, please feel free to do so!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

What's Good for the Goose?

For some of my long-suffering readers, it may seem like I'm beating this theme to death:

Greed: bad.
Personal responsibility: good.

However, as a nation - and even as evangelicals - we don't seem to be getting it, do we?

What is the point at which the greed pro-business activists think is so necessary to capitalism becomes undesirable? Could it be when its perpetrated by the very classes of people off of which a society’s elite is trying to make their money?

In other words, when bankers act in greedy fashion and blur the standards for morality, conservatives consider that a good thing; but when their customers do it, greed suddenly becomes egregious.

Banking on Bankers Behaving Badly

When banks decided the time had come to bust loose from convention and shake free from the last vestiges of low-profit honesty, Wall Street – no stranger to cooked books – stood all too ready to help. Like wolves salivating for meat, capitalism’s laziest profiteers came up with one of their best stunts yet: packaging sub-prime mortgages with golden bows and hollow statistics they knew eager investors would take at face value.

Before anybody caught on to the con, the people responsible for starting it all would be buried so deep in other people’s money that no proof connecting them to a crime would be found. Sure, they came up with some amazingly complex financial “instruments” and wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if credit-challenged social climbers didn’t buy in to the charade, but the chutzpah celebrated by masterminds of our current mortgage meltdown assumed that they were in control.

So now that homebuyers who suddenly find themselves upside-down in their mortgages have simply stopped paying, who’s howling now? You guessed it: the pack of wolves who didn’t think they’d be left holding the bag: the banks. What an outrage to think that the people we duped are turning the table on us! Isn’t there any personal integrity left in this country?

Well, maybe the banks and capitalist wonks aren’t saying this out loud, but they’re thinking it, aren’t they? And they would have a case, too, if it wasn’t for the fact that their whole business model recently has been built on making other people poor.

You don’t believe me, do you?

The Free Money Call

Last week, a perky young woman representing Bank of America called my aunt in Brooklyn, New York. My father's sister is a proud octogenarian who worked into her seventies and has refused to move out of her dangerous neighborhood because her apartment is already paid for.

This friendly caller wanted to “give” my aunt a "bonus" of $500 just for joining a new rewards program at B of A.

“What’s the catch?” my aunt asked suspiciously.

“Oh, no catch at all,” the smooth-talking young woman cooed.

“No catch? You’re just giving me $500?” my aunt scoffed, almost ready to hang up.

“No catch!” the woman reassured my aunt. “Just make your minimum payments.”

“So, you’re not GIVING me $500, are you?” my aunt confirmed, “...because you SAID you wanted to give me $500. But making payments means you’re not giving me anything.”

My aunt had now gotten mad. She wasn’t hanging up now – she was going to prove this young lady wrong.

“Well, yes, ma’am… you’ll have to re-pay the $500,” admitted the woman. “But you don’t have to pay it all back anytime soon. You can use it to purchase something you want for your home, or maybe a vacation, or clothing… it’s up to you how you want to spend it and when you want to pay it back.”

The woman knew she had to hustle with her spiel to keep my aunt engaged in the conversation.

“So,” my aunt toyed, realizing she had this little bank representative right where she wanted her. “You’re saying that you want to give people $500 to spend on whatever they want, whether they can afford it or not.”

Apparently, the lady from B of A didn’t see that one coming.

"Hey,” my native-New-Yorker-aunt continued, going in for the kill. “I”ve worked hard all my life to provide for myself, and do you know what I did when I wanted something I couldn’t afford?”

“No,” the woman mustered, meekly.

“I SAVED for it. I worked and saved until I could afford what I wanted. That’s what my generation did!” my aunt triumphed. “And now I’ve got a bank calling me – a BANK, of all things! – telling me I can get free money and assuming I’m so desperate for something I'll jump at the chance.” My aunt was indignant.

“Haven’t you banks learned anything? Isn’t this the kind of stupid credit that got us into the mess we have today?”

Did I mention my aunt is a native New Yorker?

The rep from B of A made some apologetic comment, and thanking my aunt for her time, hung up.

It's Not Just B of A

I share this story just to show that even today, banks don’t get it.

Not to say that people who’ve stopped paying their mortgages are right, either. They’re just as much a part of the problem.

But like my aunt, I was incredulous to learn the old “free money” lie is still part of the banking industry’s business model. So really, should bank executives be surprised that their mortgage customers now want some of that “free money” for themselves?

It’s like a bunch of kids in the back of dad’s car in the middle of a family road trip: "He started it!” “No, she did!”

And then Mom bellows, “I don’t care who started it! Just cut it out! NOW!”

Remember the silence in the car that would follow? Wouldn’t that sound nice right about now?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Mortgage Chutzpah Not Just On Wall Street

Two years ago, while driving past a new subdivision of $600,000 homes in suburban Detroit, my sister-in-law told me an interesting story about one of the families who faced foreclosure in that neighborhood.

It seems she had overheard a group of mothers at their charter school joking about the family, who these mothers scoffed hadn’t “played the game” properly.

“What game?” my sister-in-law asked, confused. She knew the family in question - husband and wife are both highly-educated engineers - and was surprised to hear the snide remarks directed towards them by this group of women.

“Why, you don’t pay your mortgage every month, do you?” one of the mothers shot back.

My sister-in-law was caught off-guard. Of course, she and my brother pay their mortgage every month. What does that have to do with anything?

Apparently, quite a lot. That day, she learned that people all over Wayne County have been living beyond their means for years. Like a secret code, mortgages and car loans had become a big joke among social-climbing, keeping-up-with-the-Jones’es suburbanites all around my brother and his family, who had settled for a house they could afford and drive used vehicles. And when this group of mothers learned that my sister-in-law made sure the mortgage got paid monthly, they basically said the joke was on her. She and my brother were suffering through an unnecessarily low standard of living when, with a little overextension, so much luxury could be within reach.

Bankrupt Fiscal Morality

People who justify such a bankrupt fiscal morality do so by claiming that banks and mortgage companies scam their customers and jack up prices, so they have a right to fight back. How else could anybody afford to live in high-priced places like Michigan without scrimping on paying debt obligations? They still had other stuff to acquire, like vacations, boats, impressive wardrobes, and tons of toys to help their kids ignore the fact that both parents were working themselves to death trying to just keep up with the minimum payments on the bloated American Dream.

As we’ve now seen, however, the joke was on the entire country – both the people with ethics who paid their bills and lived within their means, those who bit off way more than they could afford, and those who helped create the illusion that debt was cheap.

These days, in suburban Michigan, it's no secret that many people have stopped paying their mortgages yet continue to reside in homes they’re not paying for. Anecdotal evidence suggests it will take about three years to process most foreclosures in Michigan, due to its sheer volume of defaulted mortgages. So many homes already sit empty that banks actually want foreclosed families to stay in their homes to prevent vandalism and keep the heat on. And next door, invariably, reside honest homeowners who’ve either paid up their mortgage or continue to pay, and in effect subsidize those who either can’t or won’t pay for their own debts. It’s a sad, sad scenario of greed, materialism, and selfishness.

A Nationwide Disgrace

In today's New York Times, an article entitled "Owners Stop Paying Mortgages, and Stop Fretting" confirms the stories my brother and his family began hearing two years ago about people who intentionally overextended themselves. In the Times piece, several Floridians who have stopped paying their mortgages have allowed their names – and even photos of themselves – to be used as examples of frustrated borrowers who find themselves upside-down in their loans. Apparently, there's no shame to be found anymore in financial mismanagement.

True, during the past ten years, money lenders have been particularly cunning in how they’ve marketed themselves to borrowers. No shortage of evidence exists to show how banks intentionally encouraged home buyers to purchase more than they could afford. Compounding the problem was the banks packaging and re-selling of mortgages they knew were sub-prime – and therefore of a higher risk – without fully disclosing the risk to their customers.

But what part of this scenario negates any borrower’s obligations to repay the loan for which they signed? Just because it might be proven that a bank employed deception – whether criminal or not – can a homebuyer simply take the law into their own hands and stop paying on their debt?

Pot = Kettle

One of the Floridians who has stopped paying on her mortgage justified her actions by derisively dismissing all bankers as “crooks,” which, granted, might aptly describe a good many of them. But is that a legal or moral reason for not waiting for due process? In saner times, when foreclosures were more infrequent, and therefore more punitive, homebuyers would scream bloody murder if banks called their loans in an aggressive fashion, expecting due process in the execution of the foreclosure. But now, when the tables are turned, suddenly due process doesn’t apply?

Another person quoted in the Times piece said the decision to stop paying their mortgage became a simple matter of survival, which almost sounds noble until you read further and learn they still visit casinos. Whatever happened to "once bitten, twice shy"?

It remains to be seen how all of the legal battles over the nation’s mortgage mess will be sorted out in courts of law. For now, it does appear that no individuals will be prosecuted for the lies and corruption which helped bring us where we are today. And for people who have desperately tried to figure out a way to escape the crushing mortgages they ill-advisedly signed, it would be terribly tempting to exact one’s own form of justice on this unfair system by simply stopping mortgage payments.

But two wrongs have never made a right, have they? And it is wrong, isn’t it, to not pay back what you’ve signed for on the dotted line. If you think people should be able to keep stuff they can’t afford, then our whole economic system will crash all around us.

We Keep Coming Back to Greed

The manifestations of the mortgage meltdown have proven to be complex, but the basic reason is simple: greed.

- Greed on the part of banks, mortgage companies, and Wall Street players for quick profits regardless of risk.

- Greed on the part of home buyers who wanted more house than they realistically could afford in the long-term.

- Greed on the part of real estate investors who flipped properties in a race to push up market values.

- And greed on the part of certain liberal politicians and bureaucrats who were pushing lower-income blacks into the housing market, waving the specter of racism against loan officers who questioned their credit.

Just because the cause is easy to identify doesn’t mean the fix will be just as easy. Indeed, the fix will require some painful choices, not the least of which will probably be further government meddling into our economy. Thanks a lot, all you greedy bozos!

In the meantime, how does having thousands of borrowers across the country refusing to pay their mortgages help anything? Are banks still steadfastly resistant to working with homebuyers to negotiate lower payments? Does not paying your mortgage put you in a more favorable light with your bank? Just because up to 40% of your home’s value is currently gone, does that mean that throughout the life of your mortgage, the 40% won’t be recouped, and you should just go ahead and throw in the towel now? How much longer might it take for property values in your area to rebound with people intentionally defaulting on their loans?

Has our nation reared a bumper-crop of such financially-stupid citizens that not paying one’s mortgage can make sense? If indeed, all bankers are “crooks,” does anything get fixed by dignifying their tactics with similar ones of your own?

Doing the right thing is rarely easy, fun, or cheap. But has easy, fun, and cheap usurped hard work and diligent morality as watchwords for the United States of America?