Archive for March, 2009

Mission accomplished…not yet

I went to the Ojai Friends of the Library meeting last night.  As usual, on the way I picked up Martha.  “Hi Martha, waiting long for me?”  She said “No, I was listening to the President’s talk  and then answer the reporters’ questions.”  Crap, I thought.  I had forgotten all about the press conference.    “How did he do” I said.  “He’s pretty glib” she said.

Not a bad assessment coming from a 92 year-old woman who’s probably seen it all, even with severe eyesight problems.  I made a mental note to click on CNN when I got home.

CNN did a replay of the conference.  But by the time I plunked myself in front of the TV there was only about half of it left.  I watched, was mildly satisfied with Obama’s handiwork, and then prepared myself for the cynical…oops…critical reviews.  On came Wolf Blitzer looking like he was gassing up the Panzers for a frontal assault.  “Didn’t Obama look tired?  I thought he looked tired?  Didn’t you think he was tired?”  Quite incisive.  What did he expect after dealing with a gazillion dollar budget, toxic assets, Republicans who want a repeat of the Titanic disaster,  AIG screw-up bonuses, folks on the breadline and, most importantly, no pet dog yet for the White House.  Who did Wolf expect, Mary Poppins?

Visions of John McCain floated through my head.  I wondered what would’ve happened if the Old Guy had won.  Probably dead by now.  The Snow Queen stepping to the microphone to field questions from guys like CNN’s Ed Henry.  Compared to him, Katy Couric was a cakewalk.   Ed’s a frustrated thespian who wishes he was born during the time of Shakepeare.  Iago, a sinister sort, would have suited him.

“So, Mr. President, how come you waited for days before leaping to the TV camera to proclaim your hatred for those AIG bastards who stole all that bonus money?”  The burning issue of the day.  The issue that should leap front and center to Obama’s agenda.  A relatively composed President replied “Ed, you shithead, I thought I’d check out the facts before I made a fool of myself…like he who must not be named.”  Or something like that.

Yes, the President probably told a fib.  He wasn’t totally transparent like John C. Reilly was, singing Mr. Cellophane in the movie Chicago.  He didn’t tell us, again, that he screwed up.  He didn’t ask Ed to forgive him.  He didn’t promise to never do it again, cross my heart.  He’s like the rest of us.  At least, I thought, he didn’t manufacture the problem, like he who must not be named did when he sent a few thousand guys to Iraq.

We’re pretty lucky to have this guy around.  Mission’s not accomplished yet… but I bet it will be.

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And then I met a man…

Sweetie and I had dinner with Frank and Doris last night.  Doris cooked some great chili.  I baked a coffee cake that had nearly a pound of fat-laden butter in it.  Yummy.

We started with wine and conversation.  Frank’s brother and wife came from Woodland Hills to share the evening.  Subjects included AIG bonuses, toxic assets, the Holocaust, Afghanistan.  The usual stuff that everyone has an opinion on but no good solution.

 “Are you going to the Ojai Music Festival fund raiser in May?” Frank asked.  “You know, the one that’ll help raise money to rebuild Libbey Bowl.    I said “The invitation is on Sweetie’s desk. I’m in my procrastination stage.”

Frank’s question made me remember the Jim Lehrer News Hour that aired Friday.  It included a piece about Pomona high school kids.  The kids who created the film Is Anybody Listening.  It’s something like what Dorothea Lange  did during the Depression, photographing  poor souls whose faces reflected what the whole country was feeling.

Only this time it was live, on TV.  Kids looking into the camera, telling their stories.  Kids whose folks had lost jobs and homes.  Refrigerators with five pounds of dry oatmeal from the Food Pantry and a box of frozen burritos.  Kids who said “I’m hungry a lot of the time.”  Kids who have to go to work to support their folks.  Cancelled college plans.  Bright kids with an uncertain future.  Stuff that brings tears to your eyes.  Stuff that makes you want to do something.

I looked at the Music Festival invitation this morning.  It’s filled with a list of supporters.  Familiar names.  Good folks.  People who support the community with their time and their money.  All involved in an effort to generate $3 million to renovate the decaying bowl.  Music lovers.  Givers.

Only $195 to attend the event.  Not a lot of money for Sweetie and me.  A small percentage of what we give during the year.  Surely we could participate, be a builder.

But I couldn’t get the image of that refrigerator out of my head.  Or of Chris who worries about becoming homeless.  Evelyn is one of twelve in a one-room apartment.  Marittsa cries while describing her mother’s struggle.  Roger says “It’s not about what you want, it’s about what you need.”   Sonya asks “Do people really care?”

$195.  Not much.  Wonder how many burritos it will buy.

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Madame DeFarge would be pleased

AIG…bet you can’t even tell me what it stands for.  All you know is that it must be populated with hordes of money hungry capitalists.  People who are out for the fast buck.  Men (and women) who cut and run.  The worst of America’s shining lights.  In short, folks who reflect the values we all cherish.  Or seem to.

As evidenced by the remorseless blood-lust displayed by the media, members of Congress and the President, the 416 people who salted away $165 million deserve to be drawn and quartered, at least.  A public hanging might be better…with street vendors selling voodoo dolls and popcorn.  Bring back the guillotine.  Off with their heads.  Even Sweetie is beside herself not knowing who to blame for this effrontery.  So she, like you, blames everyone.

What self-righteous indignation.  The nerve of those people at AIG.  Expecting the American people to abide by the terms of a lawful agreement is just too much to bear.  Rebellion is in order.  Anarchy rules.

After all, we’re the good guys.  Congressmen expressing outrage and the squandering of public funds…the same ones who in 2008, along with the Presidential candidates, spent over $2 billion getting elected…with nary a concern about where the money came from or what was expected in return.  Us, after enjoying the bloated gains of the market based in part on the very security shenanigans that got AIG into the shitter, are the ready executioners.

And the poor schmuck who gave up his 5% wage increase so he and his fellow union members could keep their jobs.  What about them?  If a million dollar bonus from GM had dropped into his lap, would he have torn it up and gone back to searching the want ads.  Or the teacher who got pink slipped.  Or the guy in Elkhart who got laid off because folks aren’t buying RVs.  Would he have shipped back the nefarious bonus dollars to his employer and said…”take it, give it to someone who really needs it.  I’ll struggle along as best I can.”  Maybe.

Were the bonuses deserved?  I haven’t the slightest idea or the foggiest notion of the terms of the employee agreements.  Were they a smart idea given AIG’s incredible collapse?  Duh, I don’t think so.  Were they a good idea given the need for continuing public support?  An Einstein I’m not, but a little common sense I got.  Should some genius in the last administration, the current one or any of the zillion congressional committees that doled out the money have said “Ya know, maybe we should review any proposed bonuses before they’re paid.”

But that’s all hindsight.  Meaning they were all thinking with their asses.  Just like AIG did when they dabbled in securities that they couldn’t explain to a Harvard Business School graduate.  Then again, maybe they were Harvard Business School graduates.

So now it’s time for fresh meat.  Time to beat up on AIG and anyone who knows what it means.  Forget get about the real business at hand.

Madame DeFarge would be pleased.

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Some people should be spanked

On Friday Sweetie and I attended the second of a six part seminar on World War II…or as my dear friend Lenny would say “WW2, the big one, the one I was in.”

The program is taught by Rainer, a university professor who grew up in Germany.  Rainer’s relatives were in the war and served on the losing side.  One was a member of the Nazi party while another was an involuntary foot soldier.  A lot of family history to remember and regret.

It’s a tough subject for Rainer.  His mother won’t discuss the war.  Both by word and body language, Rainer is ashamed of what his countrymen did.  It’s painful to watch him pacing in front of the class, rubbing his face, listening to words catch in his throat.

There have been an onslaught of Holocaust movies of late.  The Reader, Defiance, The Counterfeiters, and Boy in the Striped Pajamas leap to mind.  The number of WW2 movies listed at Wikipedia goes on for pages.  The Holocaust has been a perennial favorite with book publishers.  There are 11,412 Holocaust books listed at Questia…and over 10,000 journal, magazine and newspaper articles.

What makes the subject so popular? First, it’s riveting.  You couldn’t invent it…no one would take you seriously…Holocaust deniers are proof of that.  For us Jews, The Holocaust is an essential part of our DNA.  The causes of The Holocaust go beyond anti-Semitism.  National pride, economics, expansionism, domination and the need for a scapegoat were all part of the Nazi formula.

But this isn’t a lesson on The Holocaust.  It is a lesson on the freedom of speech.  A right that was missing in Germany from 1933 to 1945.

Rainer began yesterday’s class by flashing an e-mail on the screen.  In short, the writer, probably a Jew, took exception to the existence of the class, the information presented and the belief that Rainer, of German heritage, could not possibly convey the horror of The Holocaust.  The writer implied that Rainer was probably minimizing the atrocity and the role of the Germans in the whole affair.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion.  However, the e-mailer had not attended the seminar.  It didn’t seem to matter.  It was enough that the subject was being taught by a German.  Guilt by association.  A convenient scapegoat.  He or she had lost sight of why there are so many books.  Why we must constantly repeat the lesson.

Lest we forget.

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Taking from the rich

My usual Monday bus driving ended on a high note.   I heard that rich people were going to be as poor as the rest of us.  Or nearly.

As I swung onto Sulphur Mountain Road I listened to an interview conducted by Warren Olney, host of NPR’s To The Point.  I love Warren Olney.  He gets the best from his guests without inserting his own opinions.  Much different than David Gregory, Tim Russert’s replacement on Meet the Press.  David doesn’t need guests.  He knows the answers to the questions before he asks them. Oh how I miss Tim.

But I digress.  Warren’s show focused on Obama’s proposed tax adjustments that would steal from the rich to give to the poor.  Visions of Errol Flynn in tights danced through my head as he battled Basil Rathbone, while Olivia DeHaviland waited with breasts heaving.

Warren’s first guest, Roberton Williams of the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, unemotionally laid out the facts.  I’ll be brief, so stay with me.  From 1979 through 2005, the bottom twenty percent of taxpayers saw their income grow by a whopping one percent…total.  Not per year…total…period.  The top twenty percent of taxpayers…that’s you he’s talking about…grew their incomes by seventy-five percent.   The top one percent of taxpayers…that’s probably not you…were the beneficiaries of a three hundred percent increase in income…inflation adjusted.  No kidding.

I don’t doubt that the 1.5 million taxpayers who saw their income triple deserve every penny of it, and more.  Especially guys like Bernie Madoff and Stanford Kurland.  You remember Stan.  He’s the guy who’s using your tax dollars to make a profit on the crappy mortgages he created while he led Countrywide to financial oblivion.   And how about Bernie’s wife, Ruth. She wants to keep the $62 million she saved using Costco coupons and swears her petty cash fund had nothing to do with Bernie’s adventures in wonderland.  But those guys are aberrations. Everyone else is pristine.

Obama’s proposed tax increase moves the top bracket about four percentage points to 39.6%…about where the tax rate was when Billy Clinton left office and you know who took over.  Four percentage points.  Enough to make John Boehner gag and Mitch McConnell predict the beginning of the Rapture.

Next on Warren’s show was Amity Shlaes, a Bloomberg News columnist.  Olney…”Amity, some people have characterized the tax increase on the rich as class warfare.  What are your thoughts?”  Listening to the car radio and focusing on avoiding the horse turds on the road, I could only imagine Amity’s smirk when she said “Warfare on the rich.  Nope.  Warfare on hope and opportunity is what it is.”  Going on…”The best people in the world won’t come here to live any more.  The dream will end.”  I’m sure she must have been thinking of the kids in Slumdog Millionaire.  Nope, if they have to pay an extra $40k in taxes on a million dollar income, they’ll probably head to Zimbabwe where they can shovel millions of Zimbabwean dollars into their 1987 Yugo.

Warren asked Amity if she was comfortable with the elephantine difference in income growth noted by Mr. Williams.  “Very comfortable” she intoned.  She went on.  “If a guy who makes $1.5 million has to pay another $60k in taxes, he’ll work less because of the marginal tax increase.”  It was at that point that I hoped her mother would whack her upside the head at next Sunday’s family dinner.

Olney’s last guest was Daniel Gross of Slate Magazine, surely a raging Commie.  Olney…”Afternoon Dan.  What did you think of Amity’s arguments.”  Dan…”With all due respect, she’s insane.”  Station break.

There is one apparent downside to the tax increases on the wealthy.  Since their tax deduction will be reduced, they’ll almost certainly give less to charity.  Tiny Tim will have no Christmas goose.  But I have a solution.

About $400 billion a year goes to charity.  Mr. Williams says charities will receive $9 billion less because of the 4% tax increase.  So, here’s what we do.  Instead of giving the incompetents at AIG another $50 billion bailout,  we short them by $9 billion and dole it out to your favorite charity.  Since no one seems to know what happened to the first $173 billion we gave AIG, they’ll never notice.  And Tiny Tim will have the best Christmas ever.  Amen.

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I’d rather smoke a cigar

I was about to head down the hill to buy a cigar.  It’s one of those forbidden pleasures I engage in a couple of times a year.  In order to curb my usage, I only buy one at a time.  That gives my guilt complex a chance to work on me before I actually lay out the cash.  It’s an awful habit.  Mouth tastes like the inside of a shoe for two days.

So I said to Sweetie “You know what…I think I’ll shlep down the hill to get a cigar.”  She said with a beautiful smile “Go ahead.  You’ll enjoy it.”    OK, I said, I’ll just check my e-mail.  Bad decision.

My home page is Google.  I love it because it pops up quickly and doesn’t shatter my eyeballs with tons of graphics and come-ons.  Unfortunately, it also has the NY Times headlines.  I’ve lately begun to suspect that the Times has joined the ranks occupied by every other rag.  Sensationalism, depression and woe are the watchwords of its day.

Food safety problems slip by inspectors

Stocks Plunge on worries over financial sector

Driver shot dead after rampage in Jerusalem

Francisco Franco is alive and will do outreach for Obama

Well, maybe not the one about Franco.  But all the rest are true and are designed to heighten your depression (isn’t that an oxymoron), drive you to drink, and draw you to the flame.

The Times is in good company.  For example, in the past, I would mount my rowing machine in the early morning, flip on the TV and check the CNN headlines.  I’d even listen to their inane analysis of why we’re in the mess we’re in.  They used to have this little graphic in the lower right corner of the screen that constantly rolled by with the S&P, the Dow and the NASDAQ.  I am blessed with less than perfect vision so I had to squint to read it.  No squinting, no bad news. Perfect, or so I thought.

Last week CNN figured that I’m not sufficiently depressed by market conditions.  So, in addition to the old squint-requisite graphic, they installed a much larger version that covers a full 20% of the screen.  Only Mr. Magoo can avoid it.  I’m drawn to it as it screams negative numbers, heading more negative, relentlessly negative.  Even if the numbers are positive (as rare as the Dodo), I watch like a deer in the headlights as they descend toward the negative.

It’s impossible to pay attention to anything else on the screen or hear the prompter-reading personality offer his negative prognostications.  I can’t pay close attention when I hear that the president who led the Countrywide Mortgage disaster is now making millions scooping up the bad mortgages he created and then selling them back to us using taxpayer money.  No, I’m gripped by that awful market graphic.  If Angelina Jolie were to parade across the screen with both lips and both breasts fairly exploding in my direction, I would probably miss it.

I can’t watch it.  So, thinking that the local news is somewhat more benign and focused on milder events like double murders, arsonists, three-year droughts, and train wrecks caused by engineers who think it’s cute to let a 16 year old run a zillion ton locomotive through my neighborhood, I click to Channel 5.  Even if Mark Kriski is a doofus, how bad can it be?  Escape is near.

 I am greeted by a less expensive version of the CNN market graphic.  The major difference is that Channel 5 can’t afford the cost of instant market updates like CNN.  Instead, the graphic changes only about every twenty seconds.  Not fast enough for day traders, but adequate for folks like me who are frozen in time and space.  So instead of watching the CNN market ticker descend two or three points at a time, it now drops in huge chunks.   Sort of like the face of a glacier falling into the sea.  I’m mesmerized waiting for the next chunk.  I can’t even relish the occasional trashing of the English language or the butchering of people’s names so ably performed by the morning crew.

Maybe I should get that cigar…and smoke it on the rowing machine.

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