When Being Greedy Trumped Being Smart – Where Were the Geniuses? –

In the midst of the financial meltdown, everyone desperately looked for advice from someone who might actually know what to do to extricate the world from looming horrific economic catastrophe.  Unfortunately, no such person surfaced.  However, after the worst was averted, many luminaries surfaced with a proliferation of books and articles.   The all-knowing served up various dishes that were flavored by various bits of,  “I told you so,” to “Nobody saw this coming.  Nobody.”

That there was no economic superstar who, by near universal acclamation,  could be relied upon to find a way out of the quagmire seems, in many respects, odd.    After all, there was no shortage of  living Nobel Economics laureates, several of whom had predicted such a catastrophe.   Further, the government overflowed with advisors at all levels but, apparently, no go-to guy or gal.  Instead, the government seemed to be stuck with the dry-heaving Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Paulson, and his missives to quickly develop an action plan that could be sold to Congress.

Warren Buffet, on  the night before the House vote on Paulson’s first 3-page vague bank bailout proposal, stated on the Charlie Rose show that he had full confidence in Hank Paulson to steer the ship during this bubble crisis.  And  being assisted by Tim Geithner and Sheila Bair added to his confidence on Paulson being able to get the job done.  Contrary to Buffet, many were skeptical about a former Goldman Sachs CEO playing the part of honest broker.  To this day, serious questions about the mindsets and motives of the players handling the crisis remain unanswered.    Joseph Stiglitz in his recent book, “Freefall,” has revealed some of the more salient conflicts-of-interest, which occurred before, during, and after the debacle.  Suffice it to say here that the political and financial inter-relationships of many of the key players were fraught with ethical dilemma.

The dilemmas persist.  Most of the key men and women involved in creating the problems, hiding them, and ineptly trying to solve them are still in place.  Most of the investment bank CEO’s are still working at their old jobs.  Most of the decision-makers who precipitated the crisis are still in power in the government – in elected capacities, appointed positions, or as advisors.   Other than being sullied in the press and, occasionally in public, most of these people haven’t missed a beat.  One of the major reasons cited for their being able to save their skins is that they are the best we have – that, without their immense talent, the financial world would be adrift and rudderless.

Is the American public being traduced?

I decided to do a little economic thought experiment to put to the test my hypothesis that honest, unacquisitive world-class financial talent should exist somewhere on the grid.    Enamored by the little models and graphs of the modern-day economist (apparently, it is difficult for an economist to get anything published without some mathematical modeling), I decided to build a graph – entirely subjective, of course.  I am not a scientist, an economist, or even a Cargo Cult Scientist, as Richard Feynman described people who write goofy things and then make them look like science with hard math and statistics.   I am simply presenting an annotated scatter-point graph with my subjective data points and names.    It was created for one purpose – to make one think about people and greed, particularly so-called smart and/or influential people.   

Brinks Robbers – They found the vault, cash and coins – but damn, got caught!

Average Joe – Works, keeps a neat wallet, can use an ATM, and watches TV.

Einstein – Lived modestly.  Today, would not insist on granite countertops and stainless steel  appliances.

Gandhi – Salt, strikes, and sit-downs demonstrated his enormous financial insight.

Obama – Financial knowledge derived from advisors; well-above-average personal ambition.

Nobel laureates – We’re talking just the economists here. 

Christ – Chased the money changers.  Selfless.

Volcker – Greed is a funny thing.   A little too tight with Wall Street.

B. Gates – Always trying to innovate, but must protect turf.  Greed wins by 4 lengths.

Blankfein – Substitute any investment banker CEO here.  All out gaming the system.

Buffett – Natural-born financial genius.  $ 5 billion Goldman Sachs loan – ugh!  Surely he could have bequeathed his vast fortune to someone other than B. Gates.

Madoff – 40+ years as a broker-dealer, investment guru, working with and under the nose of government regulators. 

So, what’s to be gleaned from the graph, if anything? 

One  noticeable feature of the graph is the mid-to-upper-left void.  From that I suppose one could deduce that being greedy, but not astute, leads to something less than prominence – perhaps, business failure, poverty, or likely, jail. 

There is another, smaller void toward the lower right.  This seems to be a lonely place occupied by only the Nobel laureates in Economics.  I should think that if we are looking for financially knowledge and adept people, who have academic ambition superseding financial and/or political ambition, we may have found who we need to solve some of the complex macroeconomic problems that confound us. 

Next time, no – maybe still this time – let’s do more than listen to the commentary from that lower right quadrant.

 

 

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Published in: on March 30, 2010 at 10:58 pm  Comments (1)  

A BARFLY IS A BARFLY IS A BARFLY Limbaugh, Beck, Levin, and Hannity

I loathe the ad hominem argument — the “argument against the person.” 

But, sometimes, you just have to make an exception and use it.

This is one of those times.

Every bar has one.  You know, the guy who bellies up to the best seat – the one who makes sure to get there first and then sticks around to close the place down.  He’s got the best view of the whole joint but, more importantly, everyone  has a great view of him. 

He’s the guy that can get your attention with that resonant baritone  that carries so well – even in the loudest din.  When necessary, he can easily ratchet it up from 60 decibels (noise at a fairly crowded restaurant) to 120 decibels (a thunderclap or a typical rock concert).   Our guy is a natural-born blowhard with all the tools necessary for the task.  He’s got the pipes, the easy affability, and he knows that these gifts, being God-given, are his duty to use.

And he uses them non-stop.  He’s a wind-up machine, a veritable talking robot.    No one knows for sure what keeps him going.  Maybe it’s just part of the ineffable about what sustains this mouth-machine.  It’s not alcohol or anything artificial that induces his ramblings.   Our guy doesn’t need his tongue to be loosened with anything but a rapt audience – even when the audience is only the bartender.   However, the bigger the crowd, the more bombastic and stylistic the performance.  

A creature quite closely resembling this special breed of barfly is the radio talk show personality.  Who else has the ability to get up everyday and do nothing but talk?  Granted that radio talk show hosts usually have staffs who give them material to stimulate their instincts.  In that sense, they may have slightly less talent than the script-less barfly;  but they more than make up for that deficiency by their ability to turn their talent into a full-time job.   What we have here is a slight difference in nomenclature.  On the one hand we have barflicium uninterruptus gratis and, on the other hand, barflicium uninterruptus lucre.

One thing that you never want to do to either barfly species is interrupt it during the middle of a soliloquy (of course, almost everything spoken is soliloquous).  If you do happen to make this innocent mistake, be forewarned.  The first thing will happen is an uncomfortable pause followed by a re-doubling of the volume. “WHAT? NO? YOU”VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME? NOW LET ME GET BACK TO WHAT I WAS SAYING.”  And then, one of two things happens, as follows:  the interrupter separates and backs away, or a fight breaks out.  In most cases, people tend to just move away, shake their heads, and continue to let the verbal barrage continue.   For the people who have a sense of propriety about themselves, they either walk out of the bar or change the tuning dial.

Now, about the best of the best –  the world-class-millionaire-radio-talk-show-gasbags.  Maybe these jokers are entitled to their own special sub-species name, let’s say barflicium uninterruptus lucre grande.    Distinguished by the degree to which they have perfected the art of pompous and mindless yakking, they are indeed in rarefied air.  They are not just the bum at a bar; they have added ammo – microphones and well-heeled patron sponsors.   Large corporate/political types actually pay big money to this barfly sub-species  so that they can broadcast their noise pollution over the public airwaves.    Some sub-species are known to received 25 – 50 million in annual compensation for their bloviating.   If you’ve got the talent, it’s amazing what good Arbitron ratings can do for you.

Yeesh.

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Published in: on March 25, 2010 at 12:17 am  Comments (8)  
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Healthcare and Tax Increases – Two Sides of the Same Coin (check the votes)

So you think that the House Republicans are really strident over their opposition to healthcare reform?  Well, maybe they are.  But, their stridency is not  about healthcare.  It’s about taxes, and it’s always been about taxes.  How a about a little memory refresher here:    

 Omnibus Tax Bill of 1993 – Democratic Yes Votes – 219

                                                    – Republican Yes Votes – ZERO

Health Care Reform 2010  – Democratic Yes Votes – 219

                                                    – Republican Yes Votes – ZERO

Weird?  Bizarre?  Coincidental?  Not at all.

Bill Clinton’s bill was about deficit reduction and income tax increases on the upper 1.2% of taxpayers and tax decreases for 15,000,000 low-income Americans and  90% of small business.   Barack Obama’s bill is about some assurance that 30,000,000 more American citizens have the opportunity for a basic need that has been taken for granted in every industrialized in the world to-date, except ours.    The only difference between the 2 bills is that they represent a different side of the same coin – where the money is going to come from.

According to Warren Buffett, “The money has to come from somewhere.”   And he believes it needs to come from the very highest earners.  Bill Gates is of the same opinion.   The richest two Americans both believe that income tax rates for high income Americans are ridiculously low.   Buffett is often quoted as saying, “Tax-wise, I’ve never had it so good.  I’m in a lower effect bracket that my secretary when our social security and medicare taxes are included in the calculation.”

How many House Republicans do you think agree with Buffett and Gates?  You’re right:    ZERO

 

Published in: on March 23, 2010 at 12:01 am  Comments (8)  
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PROFESSOR ZINN – SORRY I MISSED YOU IN GOV. 101

                                             

Several weeks ago, my wife and I were invited to see a little baby, who had recently become a new member of our family.  When we arrived, several people at the baby-gathering were huddled in animated conversation.  I barely had my coat off  when I overhead the name, “Howard Zinn.”   I was instantly dumbfounded that a discussion about Howard Zinn was taking place – in a modest home in a small community in the middle of central Illinois.  Yes, he had just recently died, but I did not think that anyone from my neck of the woods would take note of that sad event, nor did I believe that he would inspire any discussion.  What was going on here?  Apparently, an amazing book of his was being discussed

I perked up and stopped the conversation a little cold when I interrupted to say that I had known Howard Zinn.  Actually, I was stretching it a bit.   I met Howard Zinn a long time ago, only had a few conversations with him, usually in the company of Professor Robert McShea. my mentor.   Nevertheless,  I felt that I had developed a kinship with him.   Over the past several years I had rediscovered and had come to fully appreciate, indeed revere, Howard Zinn.  However, that had not always been so.

When I arrived at Boston University as a freshman in the fall of 1968,  it was the largest private university in the United States.   It was a long way from my home  of Tremont, Illinois, and it felt eerie at first.   I had never before visited Boston, yet it was to be my home for the next 4 years.  I didn’t know anyone there and felt like I had been spun out of a bottle.  I was somewhat frightened by the dramatic change of environment in my life, but I relished the opportunity to see where I fit in.  What better place to be than in the Athens of America with such a diverse and enlivening atmosphere.   The Boston area boasted a whopping 250,000 college students, and I was one of them!

Shortly before my arrival at BU, I decided that I would  declare a major in “political science.”  I had more than a passing  interest in politics and law, and hoped to eventually establish a career in one or the other.   That would be a long way off though.  My immediate task at hand was to plan my course schedule.   I enjoyed spending day after day browsing through the college catalog, mapping out all the different possibilities.  I had plenty of time to do so.  Freshmen were required to arrive one week ahead of the rest of the student body for orientation purposes.     It was a long week.  Classes, though, did eventually began, and I thought I was ready.  The first course of my college career was to be a political science requisite entitled, Government 101.

As I quickly discovered, Gov 101 was the most popular course at BU.  When I walked into class for the first time, I was shocked to see a mass of students in the largest lecture hall at the school.  As I plopped into my seat near the back of the auditorium, I asked a nearby student how many students were in this course.  He replied, “1,200 – and that’s just this section!”  There were 1,050 people in my hometown. 

The big question that Gov 101 students asked each other was, “Did you get Levin or Zinn?”  The course  was taught in two separate sections by two professors, Murray Levin and Howard Zinn.  Murray Levin was the most popular.  He was a cigar-chomping, rotund, balding entertainer, who loved an audience, any audience.    Levin had a particular interest in Massachusetts politics, and required reading for his course included, The Compleat Politician: Political strategy in Massachusetts, which he published in the early 1960’s.   Howard Zinn was also very popular, known to be a fierce advocate for students but, more intriguing, renowned as a firebrand radical.   He presented as a gangly, long-striding, frenetic sort —  always on-the-move.  By reputation, he never hesitated to immediately get actively involved if he thought the issue was important.   Nonetheless, in 1968, I don’t think that many students on campus were aware that in 1965 he had organized the first public anti-Vietnam War rally in the United States.   There were only about 100 people on the Boston Common during that first rally, and Zinn was in later years fond of noting  that  important events in history usually start quite small.  Things happened quickly after that first rally,  however. In 1969, Zinn and Dr. Daniel Ellsberg led an anti-war protest of over 100,000 people on the Boston Common.  Both Zinn and Ellsberg were singled out as leaders, badly beaten, and arrested.  By then, everyone in Boston knew who Zinn was.

But back to the fall of 1968.   It was pure chance that I was placed in Levin’s rather than Zinn’s section.  Students were allowed to transfer between the sections at first if they had a preference, and many did.   I was happy to be in the comfort of good-ole Murray.  An additional plus was that his graduate assistants were known to be fairly forgiving graders.  Zinn’s reputation as a radical, on the other hand,  put me on edge from the beginning, and I was happy that I could keep my distance from him.  He was not just an academic, he was a political activist, who was not afraid of the streets.  Not only was I afraid of the streets, I was afraid of the sidewalks.  In fact, I was afraid that I would get lost on the MBTA.  Zinn just didn’t seem to be my kind of guy. 

At the end of my first semester, I ended Murray Levin’s course with an uninspired B.  Maybe I didn’t like Massachusetts politics.  Maybe I just didn’t know what I was doing. Maybe I should have gone for Zinn’s section from the beginning.  Maybe I should have switched majors.  Actually, I did switch majors, but just slightly.  Four years later in 1972, I graduated with a major in “Political Science and Philosophy.”  

30-something years later. . .  while browsing at a local bookstore, I saw a book entitled, “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn.  Somewhat stunned, I wondered if the Howard Zinn that I knew had a son by the same name.  No, I looked at the bio blurb, and it was the Howard Zinn of old.  After thinking about it for quite a while, I broke down and bought the book, read it, and was astonished to have discovered a masterpiece .  This book was an unprecedented look at history from a completely different perspective — from the view of the average person, the underdog, and from the people who were on the receiving end of the bully stick.  After reading the book I was saddened that I had not gotten to better know this man when I had the chance.

Howard Zinn lived a courageous life, and  feared no one in the arena  of advocacy for the betterment of all the people.   He was fearless in debate and fearless in action.  I cannot begin to memorialize his life here.  I just never got to know him well enough to do that effort justice.  However, I do want to say that he was a very good man who, at 87, died too young.   He sparkled until the end.  You may want to take some time to see and hear the great man give an interview on April 20, 2001 at the University of California at Berkeley.  I recommend it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMt7cFFKPeM

Professor Zinn, I wish that I would have had the other section of Gov 101.  I am certain that it would have vastly enriched my life.

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They Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot

As Joni Mitchell has told it, late one evening she flew into Hawaii where she was to perform in an upcoming concert.  When her plane landed at the airport, a taxi took her directly to her ocean side hotel where she immediately went to sleep for the night.  When she woke up the next day and drew back the curtains to take in her view of the ocean, she was startled by an immense parking lot between her hotel and the water.  Her reaction was the same as yours or mine probably would have been, namely, “Why on earth did somebody decide to do this?”  The next thing she did though was something that you and I would not have done or, rather, could not have done.  She immediately sat down in her hotel room and wrote a song.  It was called, “Big Yellow Taxi,” and the first verse is:

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
and a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

 One of my clients and I used to love to talk golf rather than business.  He was a world traveler and played the great game everywhere he went.  His favorite golfing spots were in Scotland.  He convinced me that I should go with his group on the next trip.  He told me  how I would love Turnberry, Gleneagles, Carnoustie, and the Old Course at St. Andrews.  He said, “Mike, you’ve just got to see Scotland – they never tear anything down!”  Unfortunately, his health deteriorated rather suddenly, and we never made the trip.  However, I often think about the  trip that would-have-been — and imagine playing those old golf Scottish golf courses and seeing all of those old, old buildings that they never tore down.

Back in December of 1969, I remember 2 of my fellow college dorm mates returning from a concert.  They were quite excited  to say the least.  They had been to a Joni Mitchell concert at Symphony Hall in Boston.  This was quite an achievement for one of the guys, George, since he rarely left his room, even to attend class.  But he had an exuberant smile  that night, and something closely clutched under his arm.  The two guys quickly gushed that they were lucky enough to persist in meeting Joni and that the experience was indescribable – at least they were having difficulty in describing it.  However, George was able to entangle himself from his own arms and show me his prized possession, a signed album from Joni.  I don’t remember now whether the album was personally inscribed to George, but I have never forgotten what that signature looked like.  It was a very feminine, graceful autograph and it had a sweet touch that I hadn’t seen for a long time.  She had dotted the “i” in Joni with a little circle, the kind of dotted “i” that I hadn’t seen since second grade.  Right away, I  thought Joni Mitchell’s music might be something that I might want try a little more.  I thought maybe I was a little late to the Joni Mitchell parade.  She was already playing Symphony Hall, and I was just discovering her?  Where had I been?   The guys told me that she going to play at some nearby colleges within the next couple of days, namely:  MIT, Brandeis, and maybe Holy Cross.  I really wanted to see her perform but I didn’t seem to have the time.  Maybe later.  I would be content for now listening to an album.

Regrettably, many years later, I have still not seen Joni Mitchell perform, nor have I been to Scotland.  I guess I have been a little too sedentary.  Maybe it’s just been circumstance.  But lately, I’ve started to think about Joni and Scotland a lot more.  You see, since, “Big Yellow Taxi” was written, they’ve torn down a lot of paradise and put up more than a few parking lots.  I have lived in Springfield, Illinois for the past 35 years and they have paved a considerable amount of paradise since I’ve arrived.  Cornfields, chunks of old neighborhoods, historic mansions , you name it – Springfield has done its share of demolishing paradise.  It also has had a inclination to put up paved lots subsequent to the demolitions.

Springfield, being the State capital, has a requisite number of buildings for conducting official government business.  The State, being the largest employer in Springfield, also has a requirement for parking spaces for its employees.  For reasons too involved and too complex to be discussed here (read entrenched political stuff), parking lots having developed as a big business here.  As a result, the ugly things are all over the place.  Parking lots are not monopolized by governmental employment needs alone, however.  Ubiquitous sitings dot the entire landscape of our community here.  For example, just down the street from my home sits a very large neighborhood movie theater that razed several blocks to build a massive asphalt parking lot.  The problem is that this eyesore has been abandoned for I’m guessing over 10 years, and there sits adjacent to this horrendous vacant shoe-box theater complex, an unused desert of obtrusive, asphalt nothingness.  Not to dwell on just my neighborhood, this sort of urban blight exists all over the city, and the people aren’t quite sure what to do about it.  I know I’m not.

I would like to find some answers though.  I’d like to know where all the urban planners, zoning officials, municipal leaders , planning commissions,  developers, outside corporate interests, and other miscellaneous idiotic bureaucrats are, who planned this urban morass, with which we are now stuck.  I suspect that they are either retired in Gstaad, Palm Springs or, more likely, comatose in Branson.  Wherever they are, no one every seems to step up as accountable.   At this point, I doubt that any of them could care a whit about the mess that we’ve inherited from these community muddleheads.  They got the money, and we got the asphalt.  And in the process, we’ve  lost at a piece of paradise, and we’ve got what we’ve got. 

Totally frustrated, I am going to do what I can.  I am pledging to do what I wanted to do years and years ago.  First, I’m going to Great Britain.  I do not intend to play golf, but I do plan to take in a lot of those old, old buildings.  In fact, I plan to stay for most of my 3 week trip in a university building built around 1265.  I understand that it is a very nice building, continuously occupied now for almost 750 years.  Instead of tearing it down, I understand they intend to keep it up-to-date in perpetuity.  No need to worry, I’ll have a high-speed ethernet connection in my room, although I’m not sure if I’ll have a rainhead shower nozzle or warming bar for my towels.  I’m guessing I will, though.  By the way, almost no parking lots are allowed anywhere near the central part of my destination GB city, which has a population of over 150,000 (larger than Springfield, IL).

Oh yeah, and when I get back home from my trip, I’m going to check out Joni Mitchell.  I don’t think she sings much, if at all, anymore, but I hear she paints.  Maybe I’ll buy a picture of paradise.

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The New Texas School Board Curriculum – Hee, Hee, Hee or No, No, No?

Oh, boy.

The Associated Press reports today, March 13, 2010, that, “A far-right faction of the Texas State Board of Education succeeded Friday in injecting conservative ideals into social studies, history, and economics lessons that will be taught to millions of students for the next decade.”  Apparently, down in Texas, there is a ferocious squabble as to whether students should be taught that Tejanos died at the Alamo alongside Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie.  There are also some prevailing gold bugs down in Lone Star country that want to be assurred that students learn about the decline in the value of the dollar and that they are aware of the history of America’s abandonment of the gold standard.   The history of hip-hop as a cultural movement is to be excluded, while classification of historic periods will remain to be taught as B.C. and A.D.   So, is this something to get worked up about here?  Is there really anything that is newly controversial about school history curriculums that  Texas has revealed to us in “three days of impassioned and acrimonious debate”?

In a word – No.

The late Howard Zinn, former professor of political science at Boston University, former activist, and former historian, said that he learned the same history in elementary school that he learned in high school, that he learned in college, and that he learned in graduate school.  The only difference was that, in graduate school, footnotes were included.  Professor Zinn earned his Ph.D. in history at Columbia University.  What Zinn learned later in his work was that there is really little dispute as to what took place in history.   Fact-checking can easily be used to determine whether something actually occurred.  The real issue with the writing of history is omission.   Zinn argued that what is chosen to be left out of history books is as important as to what is chosen to be included.

While Zinn’s opinion of contextual history was surely not original or unique, he did make a quantum leap.  Seeking to remedy many of the important omissions in American history, as we all learned it in school, he decided to write a book with an emphasis on the omissions.  His wonderful book was, of course, “The People’s History of the United States.”  In that book, one can read about American history, not from the powers-that-be viewpoint, not from the standpoint of the political/economic movers and shakers, not from the dogmatics who had the power and means to determine what our American children would read but, instead, from a completely different perspective.  Zinn made an incredible effort to write history from  minority perspective, from a dispossessed people’s perspective, indeed from the view of largely forgotten and historically invisible peoples.  He wanted to tell their stories, and he was not happy that these stories had been omitted from the teaching curriculum of not only elementary and secondary education, but also, from higher education – indeed from most all widely published sources.  He knew that he, as a professional historian had never learned about this omitted part of history in his education.  It was time, he thought, to shed some light to others on these historical events.

I say, “Let the powers-that-be in Texas re-write the student’s history books as they see fit in their parochial, political and regulatory process. There is really nothing new about these sorts of political squabbles.”  However, I do recommend that, when you deem your children old enough to read an alternative view about American history, encourage them to do so – and start with,”The People’s History of the United States.”  The book will, unfortunately, not likely be introduced into mainstream American curriculums in ours lifetimes, but why not hope?

Senator Durbin . . . Your Answer, Please?

In the fall of 2005, after the Senate Judiciary Committee had approved John Robert’s nomination to the Supreme Court by a vote of 13 to 5,  I became curious as to why the senior Senator from my State of Illinois had cast one of the “no” votes.  I decided to send a letter of inquiry to the Senator via his website to find out.  I was 55 years old at the time with this being my first letter to any elected official about any subject. 

I had watched a considerable part of the confirmation hearing and thought that Roberts had handled the process quite well.  It was fairly obvious that he was quite a conservative nominee, but I did not think that should matter much.  He was as qualified as anyone in the United States, even though he was fairly young for a Supreme Court nominee.    Somewhat naively, I believed that the vote for his approval, whether in committee or in the full Senate should be based on merit and temperament rather than political drift.   

 I carefully composed my letter and hit the “send” key.   I received a timely, well-written response from the Office of the Senator, and it was more than I had expected.  Although the letter had the readability and content of a plain-vanilla reply written for general purposes, it was quite thoughtful and seemed genuine.  Actually, I was pleased to have received any response at all.   Even though I suspected that the letter had been written by a junior staffer, it seemed to have been well-reasoned and, possibly, honed by the Senator himself prior to distribution.   All and all, I was satisfied with his response even though I thought his vote went the wrong way.  4  years later, I am not so sure.  Maybe I made a rookie mistake.  Who knows?  I suspect that it is too early to tell.

It took quite awhile before I wrote another letter.  I drafted the next one to Senator Durbin several months ago.  I don’t recall much of the specific language, but the gist of my letter centered around the Senator’s whereabouts in the health care debate.  I had read his statements on his website, but I was curious as to why his public profile on the topic was so low.    This was the period when Baucus and his gang of an indeterminate number ran the health care show (seems like eons ago, doesn’t it?).  Was Senator Durbin, as Majority Whip, staying out-of-the-way until final vote tally time, getting ready for the big-whip, or what?  Anyway, I thought that I might make a rather general inquiry as to his involvement in the process.

It was about 3 weeks later that I received a reply.  OK, a little tardy, but it was a response.   It was also, disappointingly, quite general and bland.  I remember thinking that it wasn’t much better than a grammatically correct high school term paper.  I gave it a grade of C+.  It would have been a B- had it been delivered a little more promptly.  The letter had not really delivered anything other than the most general of platitudes.  Disgusted with this response, I figured that I was done writing letters to my Senator – that is, until I read a short piece by the economist, Paul Krugman.

This is the piece that inspired me to write letter # 3 to Senator Durbin:  http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/05/the-senate-becomes-a-polish-joke/

My letter of inquiry was fired off almost the instant that I had finished reading the Krugman article.  I wanted to know what Senator Durbin’s opinion was, if he had one, on the Krugman piece.  Was the Senate indeed becoming a joke where, like in 17th century Poland, any Senator could stand up and scream, “No,” and the whole process would come to a halt?  It seemed a fair enough question.  After all, this was a question from a liberal citizen from Springfield, Illinois, to a liberal Senator from Springfield, Illinois (I believe we even had the same barber in the 1970’s) about a piece written by a liberal economist?  This would just be three ordinary, middle-age guys comparing notes, right?  Wrong.

It’s been about 5 weeks now, and not a peep.  Maybe the interns are on break . . . . 

5 years – 3 letters – 2 replies – 1 still in draft form??

(Update May 12, 2010 : A full 2 months since my original inquiry and still no reply.  I think it’s safe to assume that I can stop waiting.  Not a bit surprised though.  I believe that I can safely infer that the Senator’s Office only replies to mail inquiries that are convenient or self-serving.)

CAN WE PLEASE DISCUSS TAX POLICY? IF NOT NOW, WHEN?

Public discourse on American tax policy, as we generally hear it, usually begins with the election of President Reagan in  1980.  The discussion, if it develops at all,  proceeds through a garbled debate about the effects of the tax changes during his two terms in office, slides quickly through the Bush I tax increases, drifts to the Clinton tax increases on the wealthy, and finally settles on Bush II’s tax cuts set to expire on December 31, 2010.  This discourse usually does not take too long.  Despite the many nuances and actual effects of this 30 year history, most of the discussion, both public and private, ultimately gets distilled into 2 crude summaries, as follows:

Republicans:  “Tax cuts are good.  With less revenue to wastefully spend, the beast of government is starved, and its unnecessary spending is reduced.  Further, all citizens, with their tax burdens reduced, are more productive and have more money to invest, save, and spend.  As a result, there is greater prosperity for all.”

Democrats:  “Tax increases or decreases are, of themselves, neither good nor bad.  The amount of taxes that the government must collect depends upon the various needs of its citizenry and general economic conditions of the country.   The weight of any necessary tax burden and upon which groups of people it falls, nonetheless,  should be fair and equitable.”

I am not trying here to make short shrift of either the Republican or Democratic official positions, if there indeed are such things.  I am simply trying to distill the mantras that are repeated ad nauseum by political pundits, commentators, policy wonks, and government policy makers   These chants have become not only tiresome but just plain insufferable.  What has resulted is that the public policy debate never seems to elevate itself beyond  these buzz phrases.  On the rare occasions when it does,  standard canned pieces of innuendo usually follow.  However, there is a definite reason for this:  the art of political persuasion does not require more.

Both political parties have known for a long time that tax policy is not something that people want to spend time listening to or discussing at any length.  The subject of taxes is usually a topic that people enjoy complaining about, but there is not too much tolerance for in-depth or at-length reasoning.  Quite frankly, for most  people,  tax topics are immensely boring.    Glassy eyes develop quickly on the particulars.  Politicians know this and use it effectively in the choice of their rhetoric.

Paul Krugman has correctly pointed to this when referring to Republicans as “tax-cut zombies.”  Say the word taxes in connection with almost any assertion to a Republican, and “cut taxes” is the instant push-button response.  Of course, whether or not the “cut-taxes” response is a logical fallacy with respect to the statement being asserted is irrelevant to the discussion.  Depending on the assertion being made, “cut taxes” may indeed be a logical argument.  But the underlying logic of any argument  is never penetrated when the first response is always so quick, so pre-packaged, and so seemingly rigid.  No matter, the Republicans know that a quick and dirty tax-cut blurb is what people like to hear. 

The Democrats, on the other hand, while not having had the complete tax-cut brain transplant, have managed to produce their own form of Zombi-ism.  They don’t assert “tax cuts;” they simply don’t assert anything.  They have learned to literally stampede away from the discussion of tax policy.   However, when pressed, most Democrats will spit forth some version “right now, we probably need to wait and see,” or, “a tax cut may be in the future, but not right now,” or “we’re going to do what the American people expect us to do.”  They may expand their comments to say that more careful study needs to be made, but that is about the extent of it.   All and all, there is little substance from the Democrats –  hollow rhetoric, at best;  sophistry, at worst.

I suppose some of what is described above is a result of our “sound-bite” media.  Say it quick, say it loud, and say it more times than your opponent.  Make it like advertising – say it, write it, and promote it a million times.  Eventually, like a soporific, it will first numb the senses, then induce a stupor.

I just hope that we awaken sooner rather than later.

Published in: on March 11, 2010 at 12:04 am  Leave a Comment  
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WHAT’S GONE WRONG WITH TOYOTA?

I don’t know.

However, some of my personal experiences with the company over the years have led me to believe that I might have a clue.

I purchased my first Toyota in 1993.  Actually, it was a 1993 Lexus ES 300, one of Toyota’s luxury models.  I had been driving, actually wrestling, a 1985 custom GMC Van for the previous 8 years and was ready for a radical change.  I bought a fully loaded Lexus that even included the now-discontinued gold-trim package (gold-plated emblems and exhaust pipe tips!).  The car turned out to be a wonderful dream.  In the three years that I owned the Lexus, nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, ever went wrong.  I never had to so much as replace a tail-light bulb.  I was so inspired that I added the word “LEXURY” to the American lexicon and memorialized my new word on a vanity license plate. 

I continued to be so hooked by the magic of my Lexus that I traded that wondrous thing for a virtually identical 1996 model.  This time though I opted out of the gold package and switched car color from blue to green.  I honestly expected, that at some point , something would go wrong with my ultimate driving experience, and that maybe I would at least blow a tire or something.   However, nothing went wrong!  I continued to drive this car for 4 full years.  I had now chalked up a record of 2 cars – 7 years – and n0 problems.  Not bad for a fancy Toyota.

In 2000 Lexus and I went our separate ways.  Their sales force did not seem to need or want me even though I had been elevated to “preferred customer” status (never really sure what that meant).  Apparently, the good word had spread about Lexus reliability and performance, customer demand had significantly increased, and so renewing the same old deal with me didn’t seem to their liking.  Unfortunately, we could not get together on price, so I reluctantly said, “Good-bye.”  I proceeded to buy a 2000 New Beetle.

Like General MacArthur, I would return.   For some reason, the Lexus sales people needed me again, I needed them again, or maybe we just both needed each other.  Consequently, in late 2007, I pre-ordered a ruby-red 2008 Lexus ES 350, an upgraded version of my old standbys.  I couldn’t wait for it to arrive. 

When I went to the dealership to complete the paperwork and receive delivery, something odd and quite unexpected happened.  I was asked by a young woman if I was ready for my driving tutorial.  “Huh?  How long will this take?” I inquired, eager to get rolling.  “Oh, maybe 45 minutes to an hour, or maybe a little faster; it sort of depends,” she replied.   I must tell you in advance that, had it not been for that tutorial, I would not have made it out of the dealership lot.  The key-less entry instructions alone took about 15 minutes.   My lesson seemed to go on and on, but it was all requisite knowledge that I was glad I had received.  Almost nothing in this new car seemed intuitive.   When she got to the blue-tooth stuff, I was becoming somewhat brain-dead and begged off, telling her that I would take care of that at home with my owner’s manual.  As I finally drove off, I was wondering what had happened in the intervening years of 2000-2008.  The car seemed to feel like something familiar, but I did notice that it took quite a bit longer to stop (it was 400 lbs. heavier, so I later discovered).  No matter, I was a happy guy.

Then, things began to happen – not-so-nice things.  One night, while attempting to turn on an overhead light, I accidently pushed a button which activated a humming noise.  I laughed when I discovered that I had inadvertently opened the moon-roof.   I stopped laughing when it would not close.  With the overhead light now on and manual in hand, I gave it about 20 or so tries.  But all to no avail.   The moon-roof was stuck open.  No problem.  I’ll call the dealership tomorrow, get a quick telephone fix, and that will be that.   It didn’t work out quite that way.

The telephone fix didn’t materialize as expected, so the service department  suggested that I make an appointment.  “Sure – today or tomorrow?”  I inquired.  “The first opening we have is next week.”  Getting testy in a hurry, I replied that between now and 8 days later, I doubted that I could avoid bird droppings, tree sap, a spontaneous downpour, or agile thieves.  Maybe I could get lucky on 3 of the 4, but I really would like to have the company pick up my car in an enclosed 18-wheeler and transport it to the nearest dealership (90 miles away) as soon as possible.  “Can you do that?  That is part of the Lexus guarantee.” I  pleaded.  “Of course, if the car is not drivable,” was the well-rehearsed reply.  Naturally, this conversation went nowhere in a hurry.    I garaged the vehicle for a week, prayed that there would be no rain on the appointed day, and waited my turn.

The car was fixed a week later, but the service people told me that they had never before encountered such a problem.  They acknowledged that the mechanism had indeed been stuck, but they couldn’t figure out why.  “Chalk it up to a goofy computer chip,” was the best that they could offer.   Right.

A few weeks later I decided to set up my bluetooth.  That procedure did not go well.  I was surprised to discover the manual revealing that difficulties might arise during this process such that a visit to the dealership would be necessary.  I passed.

There continue to be glitches.  If a particular sequence is not precisely followed in turning off the car, it is not possible to lock it.  One is required to re-enter the car, start it up and turn it off again to re-set the locking electronics.  Not a safety feature here, just an annoyance caused by over-engineering or under-thinking, so I presume.  Recently, both rear-view mirrors bizarrely changed their alignment.  I actually saw it happen, and I was hands-free.  I have no idea.

Last week I received a recall notice for my 2008 ES 350.   I am instructed to make an appointment with my local Lexus dealer regarding a potential floor mat interference problem with the accelerator.  The problem is described as a floor mat problem that might cause the accelerator to stick in the wide open position.  Gee!  Interesting!  Could this be the  reason that when I picked up my new Lexus over 2 1/2 years ago that my floor mats were in the trunk, and that I was advised to keep them there for safety reasons?

Along with my recall notice, I was advised in an accompanying disclosure that certain 2008 Lexus ES vehicles needed an engine variable valve timing with intelligence (VVT-i) oil hose replacement.  Again, I need to bring the car in to have this checked out.  I am so happy that Lexus is on the case of my possible rogue oil hose.

(UPDATE:  On March 24, I took the car to the dealership to get the recall notice issues addressed.  They replaced my gas pedal with a new, shorter  one and replaced the oil hose.  The dealership people never used the word “recall” the entire day.  Several used the word “safety campaign” instead.  At the end of the service call my “service advisor” told me that it was my lucky day.  “Oh, really, why?” I replied.  “For your trouble today we are going to top off your gas tank free of charge,” he said.  I guess it wasn’t my lucky day after all – I had filled up the tank the previous evening.)

Maybe surprisingly, I want to confess here that I still love my Lexus.  I do not believe that I have a lemon.  Far from it.  It is a very, very nice car, and I recommend ownership to anyone who might ask.    But I do believe quite strongly that somewhere, somehow, the company slipped on the one thing that their customers have come to expect – impeccable quality, likely as a result of some of the finest quality control procedures in the world. 

How can it all be fixed?

I don’t know.

Published in: on March 8, 2010 at 5:44 am  Comments (36)  
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