Sunday, December 14, 2008

Money For Nothing - Part 3

I've ranted about "money for nothing" several times before. If, by chance, you missed it, or you just want the sheer joy of experiencing it again, you can read it here, here and here. But last week, it actually was literally true: The U.S. government auctioned $32 billion in four-week T-bills at 0% interest Tuesday, the lowest auction rate ever. In the after-market, the price rose, and people bought T-bills at a negative rate of interest, apparently extraordinarily gleeful to lock in their losses.
This insanity is a result of the fear that investors have of taking any risk at all. For nothing is seen to be safer than T-bills, which will be repaid in their entirety with new, crisp, freshly printed, dollar bills. If the government needs some more dollar bills, it simply prints more of them. No limit. No questions.  Pretty clever, eh? (as our Northern neighbors might say).
Well, all this leaves me completely baffled. Normally when a government runs its currency printing presses overtime, the inflation rate soars and suddenly wheelbarrows are required to haul around all the paper needed to purchase a loaf of bread. But it seems that every country in the world is hyperactively churning out paper money. Nobody's money is worth more than the next. You don't bail out of the dollar for Yen, Euros or Pounds because they're devaluing too. Even the Chinese are printing and spending like mad.
So, what does this all mean? Apparently, that there's no limit to the size of the government stimulus (sounds erotic, doesn't it?) programs that suddenly are now possible. Both namby-pamby Democrats and hard-hearted Republicans can hardly contain their excitement.
The U.S. has made commitments so far of upwards of $8 trillion in an attempt to halt the economic slide. Is there an upper limit? Beats me. Even the Bush Administration is now saying they are ready to pump untold billions into the moribund US Big Three auto companies before the Obama Administration gets their wack at doling out more of the cash.
By the way, Detroit seem to be pretty scared of using the word "bankruptcy". What's all this nonsense about getting the government to negotiate with the "stakeholders to share the pain" so they can avoid bankruptcy? Sharing the pain is just what a bankruptcy judge does in a chapter 11 filing. The difference is that the judge is doing the pain sharing pursuant to the current law, while the government actions being proposed don't pass my smell test for legality at all. They're more akin to simple extortion that's probably unconstitutional anyway (The Fifth Amendment). 

Anyway, back to the topic, in bankruptcy the auto companies continue their day to day operations. They, along with all their employees, don't disappear overnight. It's pure hogwash to say that people won't buy cars if the manufacturer is in bankruptcy. Anyone who has been paying any attention at all to the pleading on bended knee in Washington knows by now that the Big Three are in serious financial doo-doo. 

And, if you'll allow me just one more "by the way," I heard a great line which referred to the $8 billion General Motors paid last year for retirees' and current workers' medical bills. The talking head on CNBC said: "General Motors is a health care company that just happens to make cars."
I also recently read an  economist's apparently serious proposal to revive the housing market (remember, this is what the whole mess is about) that struck me as something Lenin would adore. He proposed that the government just buy everyone's existing mortgage and refinance it at a 1% interest rate. The government would also offer new mortgages to new buyers at the same rate. 

While we're at it, how about if the government solved the auto companies' problems by offering auto loans at 1% interest to anyone who had or could obtain a driver's license? Why stop there? How about 1% loans to buy computers and networking gear so Silicon Valley doesn't implode? You get the idea. Since the money is for nothing, nothing is off limits. Just propose it and it is no object.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Palin's Victory Tour

I was all set to write about the wretched economic situation and Detroit's plea for a bailout. Then, out of the blue (or is it red?), up pops Sarah Palin and suddenly I'm right back in Palinmania.
Did you catch any of her "victory tour" this week? It seems to have started in her kitchen in beautiful Wasilla. There she was, being  televised to the world, orating in her peculiar vernacular, while simultaneously whipping up a batch of moose stew ( do you "whip up" moose stew?). I bet you thought it would be hard for her to walk and chew gum. Not for our hockey mom. She was as smooth as a fresh sheet of ice. 

Her week continued with interviews on CNN, NBC and Fox, among others. The tour culminated with a rousing speech to the gathered Republican governors in Miami, eager to learn from Palin just how the party would be reassembled into anything that might have any chance of winning a national election again in their lifetimes.
Wait a minute! Did I just say that the Republican party didn't win the last election? Oops, yes, that's what happened all right. Obama did win both the popular vote and the electoral college vote. That means McCain and, I assume, Palin, must have lost.
Well, then how do you explain Palin taking a victory tour?
You can't. Unless your logic flows like Sarah's syntax.
Just to remind you, here's an example of "Sarah Speech", as reported by Maureen Dowd last week in the New York Times:
"My concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur and the relevance to me with that issue as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there that were kind of the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent, the relevance was Alaska’s investment in Darfur with some of our permanent fund dollars."
I guess that's clear enough. Even George W. would be proud to have uttered that particular string of words.
Re-reading that little ditty, it's easy to see why she has garnered a 98% name recognition among the great unwashed masses. Yes, of course, they like the fact that she's a hard working super-mom; and her looks, ideas and logic are simply captivating. But, most of all, they can't get enough of her folksy way of speaking. Her fans say that they would feel comfortable with her in the White House because she's just like them.
As Sarah herself would say, "this should result in a loud shout-out to the country's educators that they'd better get on the ball and plow through those glass doors that may be open just a crack". 

So therein lies the lesson for today:  there's a new day dawning, and it's all about teaching our children to speak with a clarity that every "Real American" (not those wussy Northeastern and West Coast elitists) can understand.
Oh, and one more thing. The government would be crazy to throw any money into the coffers of the big three automakers unless it's part of a pre-packaged bankruptcy proceeding in which: the management is replaced; the labor contracts are renegotiated; critical suppliers are paid so they don't go bankrupt; the common shareholders are wiped out; outstanding bonds are converted to common equity; and the government money is injected as preferred stock or senior bonds.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A New Beginning

The presidential election is over. The people have spoken. Obama clearly deserved the win. He had by far the better organized, financed and focused campaign. McCain's, by comparison, was disjointed and reactionary.

Oh, one more thing. Obama got the financial system to freeze up (or is it melt down ?) at exactly the right moment, thereby eradicating McCain's overwhelming strength on national security just weeks before the election.
How he pulled that exquisite piece of timing off is a mystery befitting Obama's ever expanding "walk on water" reputation. 
Obama's main selling point on why he would be better at solving the economic crisis was that he wasn't a Republican. Since it happened on their watch, it must have been the Republicans who got us into this mess. The voters' logical response was to throw the bums out. McCain's post convention bounce rapidly disappeared and Obama never lagged in the polls again.
With his election, the rest of the world appears ready to give America another chance to become good guys again. The fact that he is an African-American certainly demonstrates that Americans are willing to move past the old racial divides. Muslims worldwide, but especially in the Middle East, must have noted that Obama's middle name is Hussein. Africans surely noted that Obama's father came from Kenya. Asians probably noticed that Obama resided for a time with his mother in Indonesia. And Europe undoubtedly has paid attention to Obama's "spread the wealth" taxation and "consult with our friends" proclivities. 
So we wish the new president well. He will have his hands full, what with the economic mess, two wars and an eager Democratic congress straining to be unleashed.

One final comment: I will miss watching SNL and Tina Fey as Sarah Palin. It sure is hard to tell them apart. All things must come to an end, and so too must this. Alas. 

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Are We Becoming Bluer?

The good ship McCain continued to take on water this week. A potential tide-turning event was the third and final presidential debate on Wednesday. McCain heaved up a "Joe the Plumber" bomb in his latest attempt to change the trajectory of the campaign. This follows his previous failed Hail Mary attempts: choosing Palin as his VP and a temporary suspension of his campaign to rush back to D.C. to rescue the economy. But the focus on the scary economic mess rather than on national security continued to help Obama.
According to America's most respected newsman, Jon Stewart, all Obama had to do to win the last debate was refrain from jumping up and saying "Where are all the white women at"? The Chosen One resisted that temptation and thereby maintained his momentum.
More bad news for McCain was that a number of Republican luminaries, reading the growing pile of tea leaves, scampered off the ship. George Will, Peggy Noonan, David Brooks and Colin Powell all bailed out.
The week did have some positive moments for McCain and Palin. McCain won the hilarious battle of the roasts at the Alfred Smith annual dinner. He looked like the straight talking McCain of yore and was seen having fun for the first time in the last two years.
Similarly, Palin finally made her anticipated appearance on Saturday Night Live. The first of the two skits was pretty lame. The second skit, however, was clever. Amy Poehler, who looks like she must be at least 10 months pregnant, rapped out a tune that had Palin swinging in her seat. The Governor came across as a good sport.
All the polls say Obama and Biden (remember him?) are gliding to victory. At this point, their strategy should be to just play it safe, not get drawn into any nasty name calling, avoid any memorable gaffes and pray like heck that the Dow doesn't suddenly rise 3000 points.
Perhaps the best tactic at this point for McCain/Palin is to jettison all pretenses of serious political talk. They should concede the boring wonkish policy stuff to Obama/Biden. The populace can't really evaluate whose plan is better and will just blame the Republicans for the economic mess since it occurred on their watch.
Instead, MCain/Palin should continue to do comedy for the remainder of the campaign. This will pick up the voters who base their decision on whom they want to have a beer with. But even if they lose the election, both McCain and Palin will burnish their resumes and improve their chances for future gigs during the Republican diaspora. They should have lots of juicy material resulting from observing the Democrats' attempts at dealing with the economy.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Money For Nothing - Part 2

Counting the $700 billion the congress and the president just authorized the Treasury department to use, almost $2 trillion has now been committed by the federal government to get the financial system functioning again. Several of our friends are also pitching in. The combined commitments announced by the US, Europe and Japan exceed $4 trillion.

The government politicos say "trillion" like it's an everyday number that just slips right off your lips. I can't really get my mind around such a staggering number. $4,000,000,000,000. I don't know about you, but all those digits look really scary to me.

Where does all this money come from?

I admitted in a previous post that I really don't understand money very well, but here goes. I assume that the Chinese and friendly OPEC nations will continue to lend a bunch of it to us by buying treasury bills and bonds. The rest will be created magically by just printing more of the paper variety we're used to seeing and by making some entries in an exotic "grand ledger in the sky".

This will increase our national debt to over $10 trillion. Some people think that this is really bad because our kids and grandkids will have to pay this back. But that never seems to happen. They may just pass the debt on to their kids and grandkids. In economic theory, I think this strategy is called "kicking it down the road".

Another possibility is that we'll experience a case of serious inflation (kind of like serious indigestion, but on a national scale). Thus, while we pay back the stated amount, it will not be worth very much in real money (whatever that is).

Just where does this leave us? In dire straits, where the money is for nothing (and the chicks for free). Hmm... I seem to remember something similar to that a while ago on MTV .

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Is The Spoof Better Than The Original?

My question of the week: is the spoof better than the original? Let me explain. 

For comic relief, 70 million Americans tuned in for the long anticipated Vice-Presidential debate last Thursday. Just prior to the debate, we were momentarily distracted by the news that the moderator, Gwen Ifill, had a book coming out and she would clearly benefit from an Obama win in November. This little tidbit perhaps neutered Ifill from acting like a moderator who might actually try to get the candidates to answer her questions. With this limitation, rather than the train wreck everyone was anticipating, it turned out that all three protagonists in the show did OK.
Ifill moderated moderately, Biden behaved and Palin projected power. Ifill's questions were clear and covered a reasonable range of topics. Biden controlled his impulses to actually debate Palin, instead focusing his remarks on how much he loved McCain and how wrong McCain was on every topic discussed. He finished off each retort with a broad smile, clearly indicating what a nice guy he is.
But the star of the show clearly hit her marks. Palin uttered every rehearsed line in fine cadence whether or not her response had anything whatsoever to do with the question asked. Ifill's limitations clearly helped Palin in that she faced no follow-up questions. Palin talked directly into the camera, ignoring the other two on stage, smiling broadly, and even winking from time to time. All this while never uttering the "g" sound at the end of her words.
None of this changed anything in the slightest, but it sure was entertaining.
After the original debate was aired, everyone waited for the inevitable Saturday Night Live spoof. First of all, to give them the credit they deserve, the SNLers are amazingly quick. It must be pretty hard to create that good a parody in only 48 hours. The Joe Biden and Gwen Ifill (Queen Latifa) impersonations were great. The Biden smile after denouncing McCain and the looks of disbelief of Ifill after Palin spoke were right on. But, as usual, Tina Fey nails it big time. She is such a tour-de-force that an un-cued observer might have trouble guessing whether it was Tina Fey on stage Thursday night and not some hockey Mom from Alaska.
The question of the week is really a toss up. If I had to decide, though, I'd say the original. As Palin would say, "you betcha", it's my acting that's more real.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Perils of Paulson

I bet that most Americans know that Henry Paulson is the Secretary of the Treasury. I also bet that they had no clue who he was two weeks ago. I also guess that most Americans have no idea what the Treasury's role is in our system of government, but I'm pretty sure that they know that Paulson is the man behind the $700 billion government bailout. This is one heck of an expensive cram course in civics for Mr. Average Taxpayer. Even Stanford wouldn't have the cajones to charge this much.

Something like 90% of the population consider Paulson's plan to be a bailout of Wall Street. But, as discussed in the previous post, the cause of the crisis that is gripping the financial system is not just Wall Street's doing. There's plenty of blame to go around. It's now Paulson's job (along with all the political leaders) to sell the plan that has emerged this weekend as a bailout of the nation's economy, not just a bailout for the fat cats on Wall Street. This will not be easy. It's far simpler to scapegoat the unpopular rich guys. Both Obama and McCain did just that in their first debate two days ago.

Paulson's plan was two and one half pages long when he presented it to the President and Congress. After a week of work, the Washington politicos have renamed it the ‘‘Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008’’. It has grown just a bit (by Washington standards) to over 100 pages of legalese gibberish. And it doesn't even cover the details of how the government will determine the price of the toxic assets it will be buying from the private sector.

Congress is set to vote on this bill this week. It appears that both political parties have come to understand the risk of inaction and are likely to pass the proposed legislation on to the White House. I wonder if they'll have the usual signing ceremony. Will Bush sign it using a bunch of pens which he will then hand to the smiling politicians who will be in the signing photo, or will it be done in the dead of night, with no one wanting any part of the whole mess? It should be fun to see which one happens.

As a free market guy, I'm pretty dismayed that the government is doing this. Sure, I like French food, but I don't sure don't like French economics. However, when I see Bush and both political parties agreeing on something smack in the middle of an election campaign, it must be darn necessary. So you can reluctantly count me in. Although it's not like anyone asked you or me.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Bailouts, Bankruptcies and Bloated Blather

Well, it's been quite a week in the money world. Bailouts, bankruptcies and bloated blather dominated the news. The talking heads on cable went wild on the subject, while each of the presidential candidates were especially inane in their varying pronouncements during the week.

Even though the seeds of today's crisis may have been sown well before they took over the reigns of government, who would have thought that a Republican administration would turn our financial system into one that emulates France? The details are still being worked out, but the rough estimate is that the overall government commitment to staunch the bleeding for awhile is approximately $1 Trillion (yup, that's Trillion with a capital T). And I say for "awhile" because no one really knows the full extent of the cost that will ultimately be incurred. History suggests that the amount the government will commit will probably rise substantially.

The basic cause of the financial meltdown that almost occurred this week was a lack of trust. Namely, trust that if I did a transaction with you, you would be around to honor your part of the bargain. In this environment, sane people (and organizations) simply stop doing business with the untrusted party. If nobody trusts anyone, all transactions cease. In the financial world, that's called Armageddon.

The lack of trust all fundamentally stems from the home mortgage debacle, in which scads of money was loaned to people who, put simply and crudely, just couldn't pay it back. Whether it's the creative capitalists on Wall Street who packaged the mortgages into ever more arcane securities sold around the world to organizations stretching for higher yields; or the unscrupulous mortgage banks and brokers who pushed money on hapless people who suddenly and unquestioning were able to live in homes valued at more than their wildest dreams; or the crazy accountants who demanded that the banks holding the mortgage-backed securities value them at unreasonably low prices; or the credit rating agencies who suddenly woke up to discover that their AAA ratings were just a tad overblown; or the government regulators who had no clue what to regulate; or lobbyists who somehow forced the government to bend over in an unseemly manner; or any other organization I've neglected to mention who had the slightest participation in creating the real estate bubble, the problem is real and darn serious.

So, at this point, it seems to me that Treasury Secretary Paulson and Fed Chairman Bernake, flying blind and having properly scared the pants off of the President and the leaders of Congress, are proposing some sensible actions selected from a steaming pile of rather unsavory options. Where and how it will end, no one knows. In this environment, the conventional wisdom still applies: just stay diversified. It's likely, given the strength of the US economy, that this will work out the best through the various ups and downs that are sure to follow.

By the way, it's really interesting that, even in today's highly sophisticated society, most financial transactions still take place based on just trusting the other person's voice (or mouse click) in the transaction. That's the way business has been done since money was invented (except for the mouse click part).

Sunday, September 14, 2008

My Vote Doesn't Count

I'm pretty ticked off. I've spent countless hours reading, analyzing and debating who we should vote for to lead the nation; it's all for naught. I live in California. Thus, my vote to elect the President simply doesn't matter.

What? Well, just check out the campaigns' actions themselves. Have you heard about any candidates tromping through California delivering electrifying speeches, declaring that they are going to change politics as usual in Washington while their opponent is such a clueless yutz? No, you haven't. That's because each party knows that, no matter what they do or say, the vote will be decisively for Obama. The Democrats could have nominated Atilla the Hun and he would carry the state. The same situation applies in other solidly blue states like New York, Oregon, Washington or Illinois.

Similarly, the Republicans could have nominated Karl Marx. He would prevail in the solidly red states like Texas, Oklahoma and the rest of what is fondly called by their residents the heartland, and by the people residing on the East and West Coasts, the dustbowl.

The only states that matter are the battleground states. The cruel fact is that, in this election, the electoral college voting system gives the power to determine the leader of the free world to the good people who have chosen to reside in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida.

I guess I wouldn't be so annoyed about this system if I felt that these residents had the intelligence and deep insights that many of us other blue and red state voters lack. Unfortunately, the mere fact that they don't live in California, where the weather is infinitely better, lends me to believe that they don't possess these admirable traits.

So, I'll continue to have fun following the most interesting presidential election that I can recall, but I'll pine for the right to participate in its outcome. Maybe some day we'll scrap the electoral college system and turn our country into a true democracy in which everyone's vote counts equally.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Change Beats Experience: Palin is Perfect

With all the hubbub over John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his Vice Presidential nominee, I was wondering how it became the norm for the party nominee to select his running mate. It certainly seems odd that after an incredible amount of time and money is spent to determine the Presidential candidate, the Vice President can be picked on a whim.

I found the answer in an article appropriately entitled: "Process of Selecting Vice President Evolved over Centuries.
America’s earliest running mates often competitors rather than partners." It's a pretty good summary of all the stuff I used to know about this subject before my gray matter starting turning really gray. Do you remember that it wasn't until after Eisenhower in 1952 that the Presidential candidate unilaterally selected his running mate? I didn't.

Well, what about McCain's VP choice? It seems to me that the GOP pollsters must have determined that they were not going to win the election based on "Experience", or, to put it more directly, Obama's lack thereof. That means that "Change" will be the key factor.

This was a real problem for McCain. Obama says he's the Change guy, with his continuous chant that McCain is nothing but four more years of Bush. But McCain has always prided himself on being a maverick who goes against the straight line of his party to do what's right for the country. He's even compromised with the other side from time to time, acts which really ticked off his "Base".

So, the answer is to select another Change person who can also bolster his standing with the GOP Base. To McCain, apparently Palin is Perfect.

She's first and foremost a politician who changed the game in Alaska when she took on her own party's politicians for their egregious lack of ethics (and, in some cases, lack of legality).

Second, she's a she. Perhaps that will get McCain a few Hillary supporters, hoping that the women will overlook her political positions, which are almost exactly the opposite of Ms. Clinton.

Third, she's an Evangelical Christian and long term member of the NRA. What more could the lunatic far right wing of his Base want?

Fourth, just let those pesky Dems bring up her lack of experience. This forces them to explain just exactly how their number one guy has more experience than the GOP's number two gal. Here's how I presume McCain expects that debate to go: "She's run the largest state in the land, one of the smallest cities in the land, and a PTA. OK, now, it's your turn. Are you going to tell us again how Obama was an "Organizer" in Chicago for a few months. By the way, what the heck is an Organizer? And it was in Chicago. Sure sounds like a job Tony Soprano and his pals handled in New Jersey."

Will this strategy work? We'll have to wait to find out. It's a high risk, but possibly high payoff gamble.

I'll close with an old aphorism. If you don't like the question, change the topic. Whatever you think of his choice of VP, I think McCain did that pretty well.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Some Olympic Thoughts

With the 2008 Beijing Olympics ending today, the following thoughts come to mind:

Just how small can you be and continue to be called an Olympic Athlete? If memory serves me right, the Chinese "women" gymnasts averaged 77 pounds, while the much larger Americans topped the scales at about 90 pounds. The mantra seems to be: " if they were only a little bit smaller, they could really do some neat tricks". The top Chinese star, Ms. He (Isn't that some sort of contradiction?), is thought by all the semi-conscious, non-Chinese, people of the world to be 14 instead of the minimum 16 years of age. The IOC seems to think that pointing this fact out would somehow be in bad taste to the hosts. Taking the issue of competitor's size to it's logical extreme, it's really too bad that embryos are not allowed to compete. That might be interesting to watch. I guess the "right-to-life" folks just won't allow it.

How come we pay attention to the sports presented during the two weeks of the Olympics every four years, but totally ignore the same participants in many of the same sports the rest of the time? I don't know about you, but I'm not normally a big (beach or otherwise) volleyball fan. But, I really enjoyed the Olympic volleyball games, especially the women's beach version. Maybe it has something to do with their (lack of) uniforms. I don't recall watching any swimming events since 2004, but I think I watched all 8 of Michael Phelps' races, who, by the way, is built for nothing but swimming. I mean, what else can you do with those size 14 flippers, huge paddles, and extra long oars... oops, I meant to say, feet, hands and arms? And I know it's politically incorrect to say it, but, unfortunately, while I enjoyed the straight races, I never really got into the swing of synchronized swimming.

The performance of the Jamaican runners doesn't pass my smell test. How come they're so much better than everyone else this year? I read somewhere that they didn't have an anti-doping program established until 3 days after the Olympics Opening Ceremony. I wonder if that little tidbit has anything to do with their success. The Jamaican squad kind of brings back fond memories of the East Germans before the Wall came crashing down.

And, finally, did you check out Olympic boxing? It's nothing like the kind you see outside of the Olympics. The fighters wear these overstuffed pillows on their heads, leaving only their eyes, noses and chins exposed to the elements. You're supposed to get a point each time you bop one of the aforementioned opponent's body parts with the white-painted portion of your glove. No other form of contact counts. Something like 3 of 5 judges have to agree within one second that you did this for a point to be scored. The whole setup is ridiculous. 3 of 5 international referees can't agree on what to have for dinner, let alone something as fleeting as one of these scoring punches. You get some pretty weird scores as a result. I prefer the old-fashioned system of simply beating each other into a pulpy and bloody mess until one guy cries "Uncle".

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Blue Airline Moments

The airline industry is in turmoil. I wrote about the general state of affairs a few months ago. Today, I just want to note my personal experiences on a single flight that further brought home to me just how bad things are getting.

I flew from JFK to San Jose on jetBlue this morning. By the way, they use a small" j" and a capital "B", with no space between the words. Why? I don't know. I bet they paid a small fortune for someone to come up with that name.

Back to the subject at hand, I've taken the same flight several times before and had no particular problems. Today, however, the airline gods got the best of me.

The flight was listed as "on time" with boarding scheduled at 8:20 AM. That time passed with no announcements made alerting us to any problem. Then, at the scheduled 8:50 AM departure time, the gate agent announced that they were one flight attendant short. No one could board the plane until another crew member arrived. No further announcements were made for the next 4 hours.

After waiting about two hours, I and a number of fellow travelers asked the gate agent, the operations manager, the senior member of the air crew, and generally anyone in uniform, what was happening. Different responses were given over the next two hours, but they all fell into the category of: we have been told that a flight attendant has been located and will arrive "momentarily".

We all had a lot of fun trying to interpret the meaning of "momentarily".

Well, apparently in the airline industry, "momentarily" means "about four hours", because that's when the missing attendant arrived. We then boarded, and eventually flew to San Jose, tired, but grateful to actually reach our destination.

Of interest, it seems that the entire jetBlue operation rested on finding a sole crew member to agree to come in on a scheduled day off and replace a missing employee who couldn't make the flight. You'd think that a major corporation would manage to have a spare around for instances like this, but, like me, you'd be wrong.

It was especially galling to be delayed this long as the role of a flight attendant these days is pretty minimal, with "service" reduced to handing out drinks and snacks. Oh yes, they also sell headphones, adult beverages, and pillows and blankets. The key selling point for the pillows and blankets was that, unlike the ones you used to get for free, these were "clean".

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Marketing the Presidential Candidates 101

The past week has seen an interesting strategy shift in the Presidential race. McCain's campaign must have concluded that they can't win without going negative. So they've put out some PR and ads that attempt to reposition what everyone thought was Obama's biggest strengths into his biggest weaknesses. Never mind that McCain said he would run a positive campaign. That was before the polls convinced him he's losing.

Here are a few examples which show the strategy in action:

1. All the pundits are calling Obama the greatest orator of the new millennium. Therefore, McCain declares that while Obama gives great speeches, words don't matter. Only deeds matter, and Obama has accomplished no deeds that matter. It's not really his fault. He's just too darn young.

2. Obama is as famous as a rock star. He is the Chosen One. So, McCain says that fame is not what's important. As McCain's ad points out, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears are famous. But, would you vote for either to be President? (Maybe, it depends on who they're running against).

3. Obama visits all the world leaders and they just love him. The Germans go completely ga-ga. They even wave American flags while Obama lectures the world on how we should just all get along with each other. Obama makes no major gaffes (except not visiting wounded soldiers) and looks quite Presidential. This results in McCain suggesting that Obama is celebrating his victory with a world tour even before the poor American voters get a chance to give their opinion on who they want to lead the Free World. How arrogant of Obama, they say.

4. And finally, Obama's greatest strength is that he is Black. Oops, wait, that used to be a real negative. But just how cool would it be if the US elected a Black President (not to mention one whose father is a Muslim)? The rest of the world would simply swoon with new respect for the US of A. McCain's response is to accuse Obama of playing the Race Card when Obama said he doesn't look like the other Presidents on the dollar bills. How tacky of Obama to inject Race into our color-free society.

Well, all this is really quite familiar. It's an old marketing adage: if you can't fix it, feature it. This tactic usually works. The latest polls say that the race is tightening.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sunday Morning Tradition

I like Sunday mornings. There's nothing like eating a leisurely breakfast while reading the newspaper spread out on the table.

The food is the same as ever. Lately, however, the Sunday paper has been falling short of being compelling. With the glut of news available on the web, radio and TV, the paper has become somewhat redundant for getting the hard news. It is still the prime place to go for analysis, local news and quirky stories that don't make it elsewhere.

Without any natural disasters, new political issues, or compelling local sports team action to report, today's paper was pretty humdrum. I got through the whole thing in about 20 minutes. That includes my cursory glance at the advertising.

I know that I am among the rapidly declining population who still read newspapers each day. But this is a habit that I started when I first learned to read the comics, progressed to the sports section, and then finally graduated to consume the whole paper.

For me, reading the paper is tradition. Similar to my family's tradition of passing down interest in baseball, my father read the paper, I read the paper, my son reads the paper, and my oldest grandson has starting reading the sports section and comics.

I'm not at all convinced that this tradition will persist for another generation. It's too bad. Eating while staring at a TV or computer screen just doesn't feel the same.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Kabuki at the Car Dealer

I just bought a new car. It's the first one I've bought in over ten years. The experience hasn't changed very much in all that time.

Perhaps the only difference is that I was a little bit more informed about the pricing and features of the various choices since I was able to get the information on the web. But the actual Kabuki dance at the dealer was pretty much the same.

My wife and I arrived at the lot and the group of salesmen hanging around the entrance checked us out. Somehow they decided whose turn it was to approach us. Then, I asked for the fleet manager. He didn't exist, according to the salesman who had won us.

Then, since we already knew which car we wanted, I looked at the MSRP price sticker and asked him how much the dealer wanted. He responded by asking how much I would offer. I gave him a ridiculously low offer. He asked for a very high price. I said that was too much. He invited us to step into his office where we could wait while he said he would try to convince the manager to lower his price. After a suitable time, the manager entered and announced that since he really wanted us to join their family of extremely happy customers, he would lower the price $500.

I said that was insufficient and that we were too far apart to continue to bargain. I thanked them for their time and we got up and left the dealer showroom. When we got to the sidewalk, the salesman ran after us and pleaded with us to reconsider, saying he really needed the commission. He promised that he would extract a better deal for us if only we would come back inside.

We returned to a good cop/bad cop routine and, after a series of final, final offers from each side, we agreed upon a price. Now, it was off to the finance office to sign paperwork.

By now, the salesman had become our closest friend. The finance guy was just the opposite. Icily detached, he could care less if we ever got the car. He shoved paper after paper in front of us for signatures, briefly explaining what the documents were about when we dared to inquire. His biggest challenge was not falling asleep during the process.

The final steps were actually fun. The car was inspected by a highly qualified technician (so we were told), washed and brought to us. We rode with the salesman to the gas station where he filled the absolutely empty gas tank up to the tune of $85. Then, the salesman explained how to set up all the features and bade us a good day. There's no one on earth who could remember what all the instructions were if they didn't have prior experience with similar electronics.

We drove off, happy but exhausted, in our new car. I wonder what it would be like if all purchases in our lives followed a similar process. The economy would probably grind to a halt.

All in all, it's an interesting ritual.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Money For Nothing

Several weeks ago I wrote about Money. There's a really interesting article in today's' Wall Street Journal describing the situation in Zimbabwe.

They are "enjoying" an inflation rate in excess of one million percent! That's correct. One million percent! Some of the descriptions of hyperinflation make for great reading.

Quoting from the article:

"Robert Mugabe has kept his embattled regime in Zimbabwe afloat on a sea of paper money...

[Robert Mugabe]

Mr. Mugabe's regime relies on a steady supply of the paper -- fortified with watermarks and other antiforgery features -- to print the bank notes that allow it to pay the soldiers and other loyalists who enable him to stay in power. With an annual inflation rate estimated at well over 1 million percent, new notes with ever more zeros need to be printed every few weeks because the older ones lose their worth so quickly...

Zimbabwe's central bank stopped posting inflation figures in January, when it stood at a relatively modest 100,580%. A loaf of bread costs 30 billion Zimbabwean dollars...

Vending machines, which take coins, fell out of service in Zimbabwe years ago. A single soda would require the deposit of billions of coins. Imported from South Africa and in very short supply, a Coke sells on the black market for around 15 billion Zimbabwean dollars."

The lesson is simple. When your government cranks up the money supply, buy wheelbarrows!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Eloquent Confusion

The Second Amendment to the Constitution is a great example of eloquent confusion. The Amendment reads, in its entirety: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

It sure sounds impressive, but what the heck does it mean? The Amendment was written by some pretty smart guys who undoubtedly spent a lot of time hashing out the wording. Even given that it was written a long time ago, and the language has evolved, it still is undecipherable.

People have argued for decades whether they're talking about individual rights or collective rights of a militia to bear arms. The Supreme Court decided today that it means that individuals do indeed have the right to arm themselves. It's a narrowly constructed decision and there are lots of caveats that will encourage a steady stream of lawsuits to further flesh out what was meant.

One simple reminder I've taken away from this case is that the legal profession thrives on resolving the meaning of poorly drafted documents. I wish that I had spent a little bit more effort paying attention in my English composition classes.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Is Golf a Sport?

Following up on my post last week: Is Tiger The Best Athlete?, I ran across a great article today by Michael Lewis which questions whether golf is a sport at all.

Just to give you a flavor of his argument, he talks about how Tiger Woods played the US Open on a broken leg. He says, citing those who defend golf as a sport: "A golfer is proving once and for all that our game is a test of deep character and physical courage.

See: Golfers play hurt!

See: You can even get hurt playing golf!!!

Well, you can get hurt playing darts, too. Or hiking. Bowling can be seriously hazardous, if you don't know what you're doing. Play with enough passion and you can even injure yourself in a spirited game of Monopoly. (I once cut my finger grabbing Park Place.)

It's absurd when you get hurt bowling, just as it is absurd when you get hurt playing golf -- or would be if golf assumed its rightful classification among curious outdoor hobbies, on the same mental shelf as scuba diving and tai chi chuan".

If you like, you can read the entire article by clicking here.

Well, this kind of resonates with me. I also wonder about whether synchronized swimming is a sport. How about a whole bunch of other activities that people who don't speak English as a first language play or root for, like bocce ball?

I don't really know what it takes for an activity to be defined as a sport. So, I looked it up. Sports can be defined as "an active diversion requiring physical exertion and competition". Under this definition, I guess that all the activities cited are sports. I'm just not so sure.

Surely, all True Americans would argue that baseball, football and basketball are sports. And all Canadians and at least 20,000 fans in each NHL city in the U.S. would have no problem declaring that hockey is a true sport. But, in the case of basketball and football, those participating in the sport have to be pretty large. In fact, they're not normal humans at all.

I think we should modify the definition of sport to say that it has to be played by normal sized humans to qualify. Professional football and basketball can then be classified as spectacles to be watched for their performance qualities, much like opera or professional wrestling.

I could go on and on with this. I've clearly drifted off of the question that started this entire screed. I just don't know whether golf is a sport in the same way that I think baseball and hockey are sports. If this is the case, I'm further inclined to believe that, in answer to the question I posed last week, Tiger Woods is not the greatest athlete.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Atheists and Agnostics Believe in God

I'm not making this up. According to a new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported today, one of every five people who identified themselves as atheist and more than half of those who identified as agnostic said they believed in God. You can read about the entire survey by clicking here. Another review of the survey is located on this site.

I'm absolutely stunned. Do 20% of the atheists not know that the definition of atheist is:"
one who believes that there is no deity"? Do more than 50% of the agnostics not know that the definition of "agnostic" is: " a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable"?

Either they're incredibly uninformed about their lack of religion or they are just telling the people who call them what they think is politically correct. If it's the latter, then the whole phone survey business may be in substantial doubt.

Usually when the phone rings at dinnertime, it's one of two callers. One, an "affiliate" of some credit card company from which I neglected to opt out of receiving calls. Or, two, it's a political survey asking for my opinions (and usually a contribution to someone's campaign).

If those receiving the calls are like me, they terminate the "affiliate" calls pretty quickly. However, I wonder if people are just too nice to hang up on the friendly people who conduct the surveys. Perhaps they agree to take the survey, but don't always tell the honest truth about sensitive subjects. Religion is certainly one such subject. Others are gay marriage and whether they will vote for a person of color. Both of these topics are of current interest to pollsters. Could polls on both be in error?

Recent exit polls during the Democratic Party presidential primary voting often showed substantial differences from the actual results. It seems to me that the simple answer is that people don't always tell the truth.

By the way, if you'd like to watch a totally politically incorrect answer to the question of religion, I recommend George Carlin's classic routine. Click here to view it. I caution you about his choice of language.

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin Remembered

As opposed to my feelings last week when Tim Russert passed away, yesterday's demise of George Carlin left me feeling not remorseful, but in a mood to remember his best rants.

One of my earliest memories was the "Hippy Dippy Weatherman". In it, he forecast that tonight it would be "dark". He said that it would become somewhat "lighter" in the morning.

His more recent comments on saving the planet and man's true purpose on earth may have some truth. He said man's' purpose was not procreation, but the invention of plastic. If you've got some time to spare, you can check it out by clicking here.

Beware, however, that you may fall into the trap of saying: "I'll just watch another one" and find that like most internet searches, you've blown half an hour and not learned a heck of a lot. Also, he uses some pretty salty language.

One more comment on George Carlin. He was incredibly bright and articulate. I always marveled at how he could remember long strings of words and long rants. I think he'd been clean for a long time, but I wonder if his earlier drug use finally did him in. He was an interesting character.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Why Do We Age?

I've read that the purpose of life is to reproduce and continue our species. Darwin says that we have evolved to that purpose. So, if that's all true, why do we age?

When we meet an attractive person, all our instincts say: "reproduce". And, especially for men, it says: "do it now, before the opportunity is lost". But, as we get older, we age and our attractiveness to the opposite sex wanes.

The logical reason for this is that the likelihood of having healthy offspring is enhanced if we mate with someone who is physically fit. One major indicator of health is that you look attractive.

But, wouldn't it be better for the continuation of the species if we didn't age at all. The mating would continue for that much longer with all of these attractive people continuing to meet each other. Then, one day, when it was no longer advantageous to the species, we could just expire.

I'm just asking.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Should Cheating Be Legalized?

It seems to me that cheating has been a part of sports since they began. The basic concept is that if you don't get caught, it's not a crime.

I'm sure that everyone drives faster than the posted speed limit now and then. However, do you think of this as a crime? I suspect that most people would say no if it's only slightly above the speed limit and they feel they are not driving unsafely. But legally, they are breaking the law, even if it's just a technical matter.

Well, in sports a similar mindset can (and does) lead to fudging on the rules. As long as you don't get caught, why not try to get a competitive advantage? We just wink or nod, and sometimes actually smile when we learn about the attempts.

For example, baseball is replete with cases where players have tried techniques that clearly are violations. Pitchers used to routinely throw doctored balls. Now, it's rarer, but it still happens. A fielder will frequently throw up his glove and show off a ball, claiming to have made a catch when the ball has already hit the ground. Batters use corked bats or claim to have been hit by a pitch when they haven't. Perhaps the most famous baseball case of cheating is when the 1951 NY Giants rigged up an elaborate system using binoculars along with electronic and hand signals to steal and relay to the batter the catcher's signs to the pitcher. That scheme remained a secret among the perpetrators for over 50 years.

In hockey, players use illegal sticks or routinely clutch and grab when the referee's vision is blocked. Holding and push-off techniques that are hard for officials to spot are employed in football and basketball. The New England Patriots were caught videotaping their opponents' signs. In soccer, players should get Oscars for their performances when faking injuries. I could go on and on. For most sports, there is a continuing quest to gain an edge using various physical ploys that are outside of the rules.

Beyond all this and topping the list of current concerns, the use of chemical "enhancers" is now perceived to be rampant in all sports. This is thought by many to be far more pernicious than the physical schemes since it may leave the user with permanent side effects.

But do we really want to ban all attempts at cheating, or do we actually enjoy this as a separate facet of the game itself? Does it add a little more intrigue?

Well, if that's the case, maybe all this stuff should be legalized. Unfortunately, that would create a drastically different game or even total chaos. That's why the rules are there in the first place. But, just to add a little spice, the officials should be rewarded for catching the tricksters more than they are today. Maybe, at the end of the season, the official who detects the most clever violation gets an all-expense paid trip to visit NBA referee Tim Donaghy in his cozy new home.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Airline Business

I wonder what it is like to run an airline. The industry is only a little less unpopular than George W. Bush, your friendly cable company and the IRS. Whatever you do, people complain.

They have one heck of a business model. They are selling all their seats (been on a flight with fewer than 99% of seats filled recently?) and they are still losing money. They have to do something. Well, here's what they are doing.

1. Sell fewer seats. This must be a good idea, I guess, since they're all doing it. At the logical extreme, they each sell no seats at all. Then, the seats can be priced infinitely high. The only minor snag is that there are no planes flying and no seats available to sell. They're obviously assuming that the public will quickly adjust to this minor inconvenience.

2. Unbundle service. Well, first of all, to call these unbundled items "service" is a slight stretch. The list of "services" they are now charging for includes checking a bag, getting a reservation for a seat, being served food or beverages, and, ...well, you get the idea. I suppose the airlines could charge extra if you want a guarantee that the plane will actually land in a specific city that you choose ahead of time. It would be a heck of a lot less bother for the airlines if they could just fill up their planes as passengers arrived at the airport and fly them to wherever was most convenient.

3. Complain to Congress. It used to be that the airlines were regulated. The most successful airlines employed hoards of lawyers with the proper political skills and made lots of money. The downside was that the government decided who could fly a specified route and what price they could charge. Maybe they should return to those days again. There must be hundreds of unemployed lobbyists available now that Obama and McCain have banned them from their campaigns.

I'm sure that there are many more creative ideas that the airline executives could use. Feel free to post any that I've missed. They may pay you if they adopt your idea (although you'll probably have to sue them first).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Is Tiger the Best Athlete?

On Monday, Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open. His win reaffirmed the fact that he is, far and away, the best golfer on the planet. Maybe the best ever. He's being hailed as some sort of super-human being. But is he the best athlete in the world today?

In basketball, even though his team got trounced last night in the NBA finals, Kobe Bryant is surely the best basketball player. In baseball, it's probably A-Rod who is the best. In hockey, this year, and probably for the next several years, it's Sidney Crosby. In tennis, Roger Federer is the man. I can't think of the best football player since the 49ers have been so bad that my mind just freezes up when I consider the NFL. And I have no clue who the best soccer player is since I'm an American citizen.

I simply do not know how you can declare that any one of the players I named is better than the others, since they each have different skill sets that have been honed since childhood in their chosen sport.

You can then argue that since Tiger is so much better than the guy in second place in his sport that he must be the best athlete overall. But, it seems to me that you have to consider the mental skill and athletic ability of the other players in each sport. Perhaps, for example, there are lots of more skilled and athletic players who participate in baseball than golf. Then, is it fair to say that just because Tiger is so much better than the next guy, he must be the best athlete?

I'm not sure that this is the most important issue of our day. However, since I've temporarily given up on solving world hunger, global warming, or figuring out whether Britney will get her children back, it is the top issue of my day.

Addendum added on Friday 6/20/08-- The Wall Street Journal has a relevant article today.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

School Is Out

School is out this week. Yes, indeed, I remember that feeling well.

I have few memories from my childhood that are more pleasant than the last day of the elementary school year. Not that I was a particularly poor student. I was just not particularly fond of the drudgery associated with school attendance five days a week for what seemed like an eternity.

I remember feeling like I had been released from prison as I walked, or sometimes skipped, home from elementary school. Summer was a time to read and get geared up for the challenges of the next grade, or so I recall being told.

If that was the goal, I don't remember accomplishing it too often. In fact, what usually happened during the summer is that I forgot most of what I learned during the previous school year. I spent the summers at the beach, riding my bicycle, playing ball, or just sitting around.

After about a month of this, I would get bored. And then the unthinkable happened. I began to look forward to the start of the new school year. What a bummer!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Money, Money, Money and Money

I used to think that I understood money. Well, I've decided that I really don't.

If you want to get a headache, try reading the Wikipedia article on money. It's pretty darn confusing. Did you know that there are four different types of money? There's commodity money, representative money, credit money and fiat money. I'm sure that there's an economist somewhere that's defined a few more versions of money.

The type that really confuses me is fiat money. This is the paper stuff that we carry around in our wallets. In the case of the US, it used to be that you could turn it in to the Federal Reserve Bank and get a fixed amount of gold in return. Well, actually, that was true for foreigners only, since the government made it illegal for US residents to own any gold, except in jewelery. They relaxed that restriction when they canceled their promise to redeem dollars for gold, so it's OK for everyone to own gold now.

If you want to turn your paper money into the Feds today, the only thing they promise in return is to give you more of the same paper money.

How is it possible that we accept these (admittedly attractive) pieces of colored paper as having value? If the government wants to create more money, one simple thing they can do is just print more of it. They have other ways as well, but that would just get us more confused. Nevertheless, I can walk into the grocery store and trade some of this paper for a loaf of bread, no questions asked. I can get a car, or convince a girl to marry me, if I have enough of this stuff. Pretty amazing!

To make things even worse, each government around the world has it's own version of money. Conveniently, they trade against each other in the International Money Market. So anytime the mood strikes you, you can trade your U.S. Dollars for European Euros, for example, if you like. By the way, you don't have to swap your US Dollars for Lira, Francs, Marks, Shilling or a bunch of other obsolete European currencies, like in the pre-Euro days. And, of course, in case you ever worry about their intrinsic value, you guessed it, the Euros can always be redeemed for more Euros.

I think this fiat money is pretty cool. I just don't understand why the government won't let me print up some of my own money. They let the casinos in Las Vegas do it. They manufacture chips and put numbers on the chips and you can buy stuff with it. You can even get some very attractive women to spend time with you if you give them enough of the right color chips.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Passing of Tim Russert

The sudden passing of Tim Russert at the age of 58 last Friday hit me almost like losing a family member. During the past several months, as the Presidential Primary season wore on, his seemingly unending presence on TV became a constant part of my life. I always enjoyed his enthusiasm and expertise.

I wonder why the medical staff couldn't save him. He apparently was attended to by paramedics and was rushed to a hospital very shortly after he was stricken . The reports say he died from a plaque that broke loose in a coronary artery and lodged in his heart. Also, with his wealth, I'm sure that he received good preventive medical care before the fatal event. Yet, the condition persisted.

Besides the pain of loss, I was violently reminded of the reality of my own mortality. In the past, as a result of similar tragedies, usually I resolved to make some constructive action to better my life in some way. But, shortly thereafter, life returns to usual. Somehow, whatever resolve I had fades away. It sure is hard to change.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Baseball Tradition

Today, I'm focused on baseball. I watched my 8 year old grandson play in his final game of the Little League season. I was impressed by how skilled the players had become over the past several months. They also matured to the point where they could stand in the field for extended periods of time. Even though it was an All-Star game, the pitchers walked batter after batter. In the beginning of the year, they would be looking at the ground or playing with the dirt. Now they can keep their attention on the game, only occasionally wandering away from the "action".

Two things strike me about this. One: Why have 8 year olds pitching instead of using a pitching machine? Two: Baseball can be incredibly boring if you don't grow up with it. My father grew up with it. I grew up with it. My son grew up with it. My grandson is growing up with it. The tradition lives on.


This is my first post. This blog will contain opinions that are mine alone. I may be incorrect from time to time, but I will never be in doubt. Feel free to comment, criticize or chastise. Hopefully, the result will be a more informed opinion.

The topics will vary. They will include sports, politics, finance and whatever else strikes my fancy.