Archive for December, 2008


Sweetie has a cold.   She probably got it from one of our kids who was here for the holidays.  Me…I’m constantly swallowing to check my throat.  Is it scratchy?   Is my head hot?  Am I getting it too?  So far no, but the week is young.

The grandkids were in and out of the house during the holidays.  Collecting Chanukah presents at our house, then down to the grandparents in Ventura for Christmas cheer.   Pretty good haul, though Isaac never did get that sweatshirt with the spooky eyes sewn into the hood.  Maybe next year.

With Sweetie on the couch and me not feeling like doing much, I’ve been watching the news and reading the pundit predictions for the incoming Obama administration.   They continue to marvel at the public’s high expectations.  A certain euphoria and comparisons to the second coming are easy to find.  How can that be?

The Israelis and Hamas further complicated an already severely agitated world.  Iraq hanging on by a fingernail.  Kabul virtually the only place in Afghanistan where the Taliban are not in control.  Pakistan and India waving nukes at each other.   Somalia,  Ethiopia and Zimbabwe troubled hotspots.   Blagojevich trying to sell the Cubs to Venezuela (why not…and you can throw in the Bears for good measure).

An economy that needs several more Christmas shopping seasons before it straightens itself out.  A stock market that lost eight years of gains in 2008 and gets vertigo whenever it inches up a bit.  Auto companies that can’t endear themselves to the American driver.  A school system that is running on fumes.  Nearly eleven million people out of work.  Forty million without health care.  Madoff skips out with $50 billion and no one in the SEC seems to have a clue.

And the media.  If real tragedies weren’t enough, the media will create them.   Turning good news into bad news is a real art.  I was scanning the NY Times home page the other day.  Lots of bad news…as usual.  I worked my way down to the bottom of the page.  I was breathing hard when I spotted this little gem.  “Amazon reports best Christmas season ever.”  And that was it.  No point highlighting good news I guess. 

And today,  the piece de resistance…

 Attention Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers, starting tonight, you will lose your favorite Comedy Central shows on TV and online because of a dispute with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

What!  No John Stewart!  No Stephen Colbert!  No Tina Fey!   No!  This can’t be.  What is Obama going to do about this?  It’s worse out there than I thought it was.

So why the euphoria?  Then I stopped and smelled the roses.  You know that little trinket I got almost four years ago?  I told you about it a month ago.  You know, the one that counts down the years, days, hours and minutes to the end of the Deluder in Chief’s term.  I look at it nearly every day.

 And I smile.  It’s euphoric.


If the shoe fits…

Poor George Bush.   Takes time off from the crumbling economy to fly to Iraq to tell everyone “Hang in there, I’ll remember you.”   And some guy throws a shoe at him.  So much for fond farewells.

The shoe guy, Muntadhar al Zeidi, had this to say…”This is your farewell kiss, you dog!  This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.”  Nicely put but hardly politically correct.  What Mr. al Zeidi fails to mention in his soliloquy are a couple of related items that I offer for your consideration.

While the Deluder in Chief was promoting, prosecuting and making excuses for the ill-conceived and poorly planned war in Iraq…

He turned a federal surplus into a raging deficit.  The American economy entered free-fall.  People lost their homes.  Retirement assets lost 40% of their value.  And at least 8% of us will be jobless.

The SEC was tiptoeing around Bernard Madoff as part of the Administration’s goal of regulation abandonment.   And the biggest investment fraud in American history cost us $50 billion in a blatant Ponzi scheme.

The reconstruction of Iraq was overseen by virtually no one…at a cost of $100 billion.  And it failed.  A new draft report shows that the Administration was informed enough to know about the failing effort.  So what did they do?  They simply put out inflated measures of progress.  Mission accomplished.

And lookee here.  A new Senate bipartisan report says that the Administration not only knew about the atrocities at Abu Grahib.  They produced them.   The torture wasn’t the fault of a few misguided psychopaths.  It resulted from actions committed by high ranking officials in the Bush cabinet including Rummy, Dickie and Alberto.  Actions that some would say should lead to criminal indictments.  As the Times reported…

…top officials, charged with defending the Constitution and America’s standing in the world, methodically introduced interrogation practices based on illegal tortures devised by Chinese agents during the Korean War. Until the Bush administration, their only use in the United States was to train soldiers to resist what might be done to them if they were captured by a lawless enemy.

The officials then issued legally and morally bankrupt documents to justify their actions, starting with a presidential order saying that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to prisoners of the “war on terror” — the first time any democratic nation had unilaterally reinterpreted the conventions.

Yet in spite of the potential benefits of maintaining a low profile in the remaining days of the Bush legacy, it goes on.  Like new regulations that can be rushed into place just in time for the Deluder’s departure.  Regulations that impact the environment, our privacy and a woman’s right to govern her own body.

Yes, I can hear some of you say “Enough already.  We know he’s a jerk and good riddance to him.  Why do you have to keep beating on a dead horse?”  Maybe because those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.  Or maybe because it was so awful that even I can’t believe it.

Yes, Mr. al Zeidi had the right idea when he threw the shoe.  Too bad it took us eight years to see it.


The silly season

We went to Buellton on Friday to pick up some olive oil bottles.  We got smaller ones this year because of the lousy harvest.  Hopefully, our friends and relatives won’t notice the size reduction.  And if they do, maybe they’ll use the precious oil with greater discretion.

Buellton’s the place where Pea Soup Anderson is.  I don’t know why they sell pea soup.  Tried it once and nearly gagged.  It’s an another example of how advertising can paper over a lousy product.  GM cars also come to mind.

Buellton is the wrong-side-of-the-freeway stepchild of Solvang, another overrated town that you just have to stop at if you want some Danish trinkets or must have some faux Danish delicacy.  Sweetie and I had lunch at Ellen’s Danish Pancake House surrounded by truckers and old ladies with blue hair.  Food was good, promptly and pleasantly served…and cheap.  The diner’s been there since 1943.  I don’t think Ellen is.

Takes about four hours for the round trip from Ojai.  Plenty of time to stare at the ocean, the oak-studded hills and the red tailed hawks that occasionally soar over the freeway.   The ride demands a pit stop at Gaviota, about twenty-five miles north of Santa Barbara.  It’s a smallish state-run freeway toilet house where you are amazed at the inability of the guy ahead of you to hit the urinal.  And why is it that the same jerk has to scratch unintelligible marks onto the top of  the hand dryer?  Isn’t it bad enough that it takes two days to dry my hands with that war-surplus dryer?  Do I have to gaze at graffiti too?

FM reception is spotty through the hills.  But you can usually get an NPR station that keeps you up-to-date on the lunacy of the moment.  Today was no exception.  Governor Blagojevich was still prominent with his attempt to cash in on a senate seat and assorted other outrages.   Candidates for the seat were falling all over themselves claiming to have never heard of the Governor.  One good thing about this absurdity was that I could now pronounce his name.

The on-again, off-again Car Guy bailout was a heavy hitter, with UAW leader Ron Gettelfinger refusing to back down even if it meant no Christmas goose for a couple hundred thousand of his colleagues.  In response to why it wasn’t fair to save the autoworkers,  Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina had this to say…

We’re going to have riots. There are already people rioting because they’re losing their jobs when everybody else is being bailed out.

I’m certain that Toyota’s and BMW’s presence in his state had nothing to do with his hysteria.

Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri was worried about a rider to the bailout bill that gave a pay raise to federal judges…

And my phone is ringing off the hook, Mr. President,” she said, “from people who want to be federal judges.”

But the funniest thing of all was the reporting of the remarks made earlier in the week by the Deluder-in-Chief at West Point.  This was the same setting where in 2002 the Chief enunciated the “Bush Doctrine of Preventive Attack.”   Never one to waiver from a bonehead decision, he now said…

In the years ahead, our nation must continue developing the capabilities to take the fight to our enemies across the world.  We must stay on the offensive.

Silly wabbit.


Saddling the next generation

When talk of bailing out the auto makers started, which seems like eons ago, I was firmly convinced that it was the right thing to do.  Then I talked to other people.  I changed my mind.  Let ’em eat cake, I thought.  Then I talked to other people.  We can’t let them fail, I thought.  Then I talked to other people.  I was confused.  I decided to get some facts.  Surely there must be a logical solution to this quandary.  Good luck.

For starters I decided to concentrate on labor costs.  Everyone else seemed to be.  The politicians and pundits were beating  up on the UAW and insisting that concessions had to be made.  Those greedy workers at GM were making $73 an hour while the Japanese were keeping their employees in a stockade and starving them at $44 an hour.  I wondered “What if those selfish GM workers simply reduced their pay by the difference in wages…cash flow problem solved.”

Being analytical, I wondered “What percentage of total auto costs does labor represent?  How much of a difference would it make if those greedy workers toed the line?”  I remembered that the auto companies are publicly held and have to publish financial reports.  The information I coveted must be readily available.  Google must know.  I began my search.

Lots of information about negotiations between the UAW and the auto companies.  Lots of blogs with charts and graphs.  But not one pretty pie chart that showed the component costs of a car.  We all buy cars.  We all haggle over price with those dimly lit guys at the dealership.  Cost was king.  I was amazed.  Surely Congress must have the information.  I searched the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Department of Labor.  Nada, zilch, zero.

I watched the PBS Newshour when Gwen Ifill interviewed Ford CEO Alan Mulally.  Impressive guy.  Smiled all the way through the interview.  I understood everything he said.  I thought…a guy like that should be a big corporate president, which he was.  And then Gwen said “I understand from some sources that labor represents only about ten percent of your total costs…is that right?”  Alan smiled again and changed the subject.  I knew right then and there that the answer wasn’t Googleable.

I decided to broaden my scope.  I thought about the sheer size of the bailout.  The Car Guys want about $30 billion give or take a billion.  We gave $700 billion to the banks and I still have to stand in line at the ATM.  We gave AIG $150 billion and and they won’t renew my earthquake insurance.   We gave Citibank $300 billion and didn’t ask how much their VP of Botched Investments makes.  And, even though they canned 52,000 employees they still get to spend $400 million to name the Mets stadium CitiField and drink booze in sky boxes.

Then I took a deep breath.  And thought about Iraq.  Something most of us haven’t focused on for months.  Depending on whose numbers you like, the war has cost nearly $700 billion (not counting 4,000 lives lost at an incalculable cost.)  And it’s still running at about $300 million per day…or nearly as much as we spend at our Ojai coffee shops.  Quite impressive.

And then I read about the President-Elect’s (still sounds good) plan to spend a gazillion dollars on our crumbling infrastructure…roads, bridges, technology and other trinkets.   I was still undecided about the Car Guys $30 billion when a paragraph in the Times article hit me between the eyes…

Mr. Bush and other Republicans have resisted such an approach in part out of concern for the already soaring federal budget deficit, which could easily hit $1 trillion this year. Borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars today to try to fix the economy, they argue, will leave a huge bill for the next generation.

I couldn’t believe it.  Where have they been for the last six years while we squandered money in Iraq…and saddled the next generation?   But I came to my senses.  It’s a new game.  It’s the President-Elect’s plan, not the President-Who-Was plan.  The Deluder-In-Chief is no more.

So that’s how I made the decision to give the Car Guys what they want.  Hey, we better saddle up together before the horse runs off the cliff.


Parallel Universes

Sweetie and I shlepped to Santa Barbara on Tuesday for an investment seminar.  I always think that Santa Barbara is just up the road…until I get close to Carpenteria and find that we’ve still got miles to go.

We hadn’t been to a Bernstein seminar since just before the bust of…when was it…the late nineties.  I vividly remember that meeting.   Sanford Bernstein Investment Management was founded by a New York Orthodox Jew with a conservative mindset.  The firm hadn’t invested client money in Internet companies while others gorged on them.   Bernstein clients watched and stock prices skyrocket while Mr. Bernstein dragged his fanny and their money through Ford,  J.P. Morgan and General Foods.   Folks at that 90’s Bernstein seminar were  pissed that they weren’t sharing the wealth.  But old Sanford had the last laugh when people finally said “sell my Internet stocks” and their less astute brokers said “to who?”

This seminar was a bit different.  Yes, it was at an expensive hotel, the Biltmore.  I feel awkward and out of place in expensive hotels.  Must be my Ukranian roots.  Sitting down for lunch, I knew right away that things were tough…no lamb chops.  Overcooked chicken was the featured entree.  The only thing that looked familiar were the people in the audience.  I thought, as I did at that 90’s gathering, if a terrorist were to spray the room with bullets, lots of well-to-do Jews would pass their wealth to their heirs sooner than expected.

The two hour message offered by some young (everyone is young to me) investment mavens was, in brief, “Hang in there…the market will rise again.”  I thought…I should live so long…then again.  We ate the chicken, arm wrestled the bread tray, skipped dessert, got back in the car and went home.

The next morning we drove down Highway 33, exited at the oil wells, and arrived at  Foster elementary school in Ventura.  It’s in a heavily Latino low to middle income neighborhood.  The Ojai Music Festival was sponsoring a Chumash Indian music participation program for fourth graders.  Julie Tumamait entertained the bright-eyed kids with stories, dances, flutes, drums, and rattles.

The classroom was crowded with the decor bordering on organized chaos.  The kids’ regular teacher, a lovely young woman, seemed at times the very picture of a drill sergeant.  I was amazed at how she kept her composure, all the while monitoring her charges and simultaneously grading their homework.

I think Julie must be almost as old as I am.  She’s the Valley’s resident Chumash expert and shows up at anything faintly related to her ancestors.  Sweetie and I have photographed lots of kids participating in all kinds of Music Festival programs.  It’s a daunting challenge for the instructor.  The kids usually start out with sort of a “what am I doing here” look on their faces.  They move on to studied indifference.  Keeping them from engaging their nearest neighbor in some sort of mayhem is common.  Getting their attention and keeping them interested is the goal.  Julie was a master.

She began by providing background information.  I don’t think anyone heard it.  Next, a video of Indian dancing accompanied by Julie’s jousting with the remote control.  The kids were indifferent.  Having set them up in this manner, she then went for the jugular.  Forming forty kids in a circle, the center of which was crammed with chairs and desks, she handed out all manner of rattles, drums, flutes and whatnot.  She showed the kids how to hop up and down while moving clockwise and blowing on or beating their Chumash instruments.  It was a sight to behold.  The kids were ecstatic.  They couldn’t get enough of it.  It went on in various forms for nearly thirty minutes.  I was exhausted…and all I was doing was taking pictures.

Before we left the classroom, we both hugged Julie and told her how happy we were that she survived.  So was she.  And she had to do it again half an hour later.

So what’s this got to do with old Mr. Bernstein you say.  I’m not sure.  Maybe it was the contrasts.  A bunch of adults listening to investment strategy versus kids who barely have enough lunch money.  Old folks wondering if their legacy would last til they keeled over versus kids who have no idea of mortality.  Skeptics who’ve heard it before versus kids who haven’t.

Bet the kids would love lamb chops.




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