Friday, February 25, 2011

The Elusive/Obvious

As one grows older the lies that one is told on a daily basis become painfully ever more evident.

The recent election for mayor in Chicago is a good example of such lies. If anyone believes that the election for mayor was ever a contest, then I feel very sorry for them. From the get-go this thing was a done deal engineered by people with connections, power and influence that is beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. Government in most areas, in general, is a closed club of insiders, power brokers and wealthy individuals and corporations that utilizes lies and deceit to obtain and maintain power without regard to lower classes of individuals who have no power and no hope to ever effect what goes on or to garner the truth.

To its credit the press sometimes raises the right red flags and puts the truth in front of us, but even these occasional revelations seem to make little difference as those in power just scoff and go about their business of securing their power and making money for their cronies. Some like the the newly elected Cook County Assessor, Joe Berrios, even flaunt the fact that they consider themselves bullet proof. One suspects it won't take long for the new mayor of Chicago to channel his predecessor and just go about his business regardless of the public interest, the press and the voices of isolated dissidents. What public resource will he find to X out in the middle of the night. What public asset will he "garage sale" off to some rich foreign entity.

The insidious nature of money and power is eternal. It didn't take long for the progressive President Obama to forget most of his campaign promises and focus instead on a path designed to get himself reelected. I'm still waiting for those troop withdrawals and that innovative plan to invest in new, cleaner energy. About all I've seen out of Obama is some arcane new health system that from my point of view does little except to further enrich the insurance industry and some minor changes in the banking system. Otherwise, this guy seems to be more like W-lite without the party hat than some courageous crusader. Who knew that when Oprah cried on the shoulder of that stranger in Grant Park that is was a harbinger of the tears that we should all be crying at being fooled again by Obama the organizer.

There may be some semblance of hope. I have to admit that it is refreshing to see people taking to the street in political protests again. Unfortunately it takes the proverbial neighbor's dog doing it on my lawn scenario before anyone gets angry enough to fashion a sign and march on the capitol.

For decades teachers have had a nifty little thing going for themselves. They have parlayed minimalist educations into cushy guaranteed jobs with great benefits and plenty of vacation time, financed by the over taxed public. It's all about the children, don't you know; quality education, our most precious resource and all that. The problem is that the children are the ones being shortchanged and funneled into a society where even they can't get a job as a teacher any longer because it is impossible to fire bad teachers.

The truth is that those in government are conflicted by money and power and corporations and unions finance the fraud. When the truth is told, those pointing out the naked emperor, like Michelle Rhee, get their feet held to the fire and are ridden out on a rail. I doubt that the governor of Wisconsin has quite the moral compass of a Michelle Rhee, but he is doing the right thing, if maybe for the wrong reasons.

Now that state and local governments are broke, there is no longer the cover there used to be. Any mid level accountant can identify that borrowing money to overpay a huge public labor force is not wise fiscal policy. The time has come to pick up the can that has proverbially been kicked down the road for so long and throw it in the recycle bin and start over. Start by ridding the public of public sector unions and reinvent the public education system to focus on core education. Close the schools that don't perform, fire the teachers that take up space and hire qualified people to run things. The school system needs to be stream-lined to teach basic skills beginning from the bottom up. Kids who can't perform at a desired level need to be held back, not promoted into oblivion. As laudable as extracurricular activities might be they are a luxury. Sports participation can be privatized into club competitions and financed by those who participate and private corporations. How do you justify putting kids in a gym class when they can't read at their grade level or do elementary math? What good is art class for kids with no affinity for art? Music is wonderful, but quite a large percentage will never commit the time and effort needed to play an instrument. Reading, writing, arithmetic and science need to be taught and learned before any of the other subjects mean a thing. I don't know too many people who graduate in life to a career in athletics or music, but I know a lot who can't read a book or do basic math and have no hope of ever making the kind of money we pay teachers because they will never graduate college.

There isn't an accountant on Earth who can tell us what the cost to society is of not educating our children. In a city like Chicago, we see the collateral damage every day, when another innocent individual is gunned down. Weigh the cost per capita of housing someone in the prison system against the cost to educate a child. A twelve year education is worth investing in; a twenty year prison term is not.

The truth is elusive, but it is also obvious. It is time for all of us to pretend that the neighbor's dog has done it's part and get involved. The job/future you save might just be your own. It is also time for the bullshit to walk. Governor Quinn and the Illinois State Legislature need to pick up the poo and go talk to the neighbor. Fix the financial crisis in Illinois, end the debacle that is public pension funding and reinvent the school system now. The protesting in Madison is a good sign. It is a sign of government making the right choices, the hard choices. The right decisions are never popular ones or easy ones. They are not elusive, but they are obvious, if distasteful. They need to be made now.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Samsung Experience

I am no economist, but I do have a few suggestions when it comes to devising ideas about getting our economy going again. Probably the most notable suggestion is my idea to bring back the face-to-face marketplace. Anyone who goes to swap meets or garage sales knows what I am talking about. You actually have human, eye-to-eye contact with the buyer/seller, negotiate, get to ask questions, have the product demonstrated, etc.

The FTF marketplace used to be the primary way of doing business in this country. If you wanted to buy a house you actually met the owners, got to ask them questions and got to know who you were buying from. You then went to the bank in your town where you probably already knew most of the people working there and dealt with the same people who would be taking your payments and dealing with any issues about your loan. What all this accomplished was creating a personal responsibility on the part of all the parties involved in any transaction. Of course nowadays, if you want to buy a house, you rarely meet the owners and the banker you are dealing with is usually an order taker who sends your paperwork to some office somewhere to get evaluated and approved or denied. Once the loan is made, it is probably bundled and sold off to some investing concern who you've never heard of. If you lose your job and need to talk to your mortgage holder, you are pretty much out of luck.

This brings me to my recent experience with Samsung. I finally broke down and bought a Blu-Ray DVD player. The selling point was the ability of the player to connect to my home wireless network and stream unlimited movies from Netflix. From the get-go the thing had issues. Every time I would go to Netflix the player asked me to enter a customer code. Samsung recommended installing a "firmware" update, which I did. The result; the player now didn't even want to connect to my network, much less Netflix.

I literally wasted hours on-line in the customer support chat room and on the phone with various levels of customer support to no avail. I was prompted to send the unit in for repairs. After three further phone calls they finally emailed me a pre-paid shipping label. Two weeks passed and my DVD player was shipped back. I eagerly went through the entire set-up process only to find that it still didn't work. When I contacted Samsung CS again, they informed me that they had effected a repair on something on the unit that wasn't broken in the first place. Once again, they implored me to ship it back for repair.

By this time I had pretty much confirmed through talking to Netflix and consulting various chat rooms that I was not the only one with this machine who had problems with it. Sadly I concluded that this machine was a lemon. I refused to send the machine in for repairs again and demanded a replacement unit. Several phone conversations with various levels of CS at Samsung, and after threatening to start contacting retail buyers of Samsung products, they agreed to send me a new machine. Oh, but first, since they didn't trust me I had to send my old one in first.

Given the lack of FTF contact large companies have no reason to be nice to the people who buy their products. The people I talked to at Samsung had their convenient tag lines like "I know what you are going through" or "I'm so sorry this happened to you." However, in the end it is beyond the scope of their empathic band width to consider just sending out a replacement machine when they know their product is defective. Keep in mind we are talking about a product that probably costs this company less than $30.00 to manufacture somewhere in Korea, that they sold me for just over $200.00.

For a second let's envision a different scenario. Say Samsung was a small local retailer of electronic products and Mr. Samsung lived in your town. Do you think Mr. Samsung would be giving you any shit about fixing or replacing a defective product? This in essence is what has happened to the American marketplace. Economy, quality, customer service and most importantly accountability have vanished. Now we pay too much for too little and we are treated like lepers when we complain.

I wasn't going to blog about this, but when I read today's ChicagoTribune I found an article about a woman who had the same experience I had with Samsung. The link is below.

I did receive a different machine, I checked the serial number when it arrived. It is the same model and probably reconditioned. It has worked for one day, but I am not optimistic.,0,4084983.column

Thursday, January 6, 2011

What If?

Some medical journal in England is now blasting away at this guy who claims to have done research that demonstrates that vaccinations might be related to autism. Now, I will be the first to say that maybe this guy is on a little shaky ground with his research methods and all, but whenever I see established interests go after someone with guns ablazin' who asks a provocative question, then my first response is, what if?

Let's assume for a moment that there is a nexus between the panoply of vaccinations that kids are given and autism. Let assume that it can be proven that these vaccinations have created a sub-class of human beings who are going to live for a very long time, needing constant care and medical attention and the manufacturers know it. Seems to me that the pharmaceutical companies manufacturing those vaccines and the MDs injecting them are, as they say, exposed. We are talking about about three to four decades of malpractice claims that can easily bankrupt a minor European nation. Opps sorry, bad example, most of those minor European nations are already bankrupt. This would be the mother of all malpractice initiatives. You think you are inundated by those mesothelioma lawsuit commercials now, you ain't seen nothing like the ambulance chasing for autism plaintiffs that would go on.

I think back to the Corvair, "Unsafe At Any Speed." It took this whack-job Ralph Nader to expose the utter indifference that a major corporation had toward it's consumers. Death and disability to large corporations is just another cost-accounting entry in the vast ledger know as greed.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Audacity of Common Sense

As the Christmas season ensues the American public is given the present of seeing how buffoonish and inane our elected representatives can be. It would be a nice present, if once, just once, these wacky guys and gals would do what they were sent to Washington to do and act in the best interests of their constituents. Of course this would mean compromise and unselfish behavior aimed at improving the economy, creating jobs, ending DADT, approving a treaty to police nuclear arms, extending unemployment so people can eat....just little stocking stuffers that most people with a third grade education agree are in the best interests of the country.

President Audacity of Change seems to have left his competitive spirit on the basketball court in all this holiday hoopla. Maybe that elbow in the mouth left him with a concussion and he needs to be taken out of the game pending a thorough medical workup. Despite his 2008 mandate and best wishes of most, he has managed to let the Republicans post him up time and time again. Last time I checked nobody is mistaking McConnell for Dwight Howard. A hard foul now and again goes a long way toward keeping those with lofty intentions out of the paint. Time for a Louisville left hook change-man.

If would be nice to garner hope this hopiest of seasons, but it does not look good for anyone, but the Wall Street crowd and those three percent who own the rest of us. Economics being what they are, nobody has much of a clue as to what to do to create jobs on a massive scale, but from deep down in the roots of the grass I have a few ideas.

First, go back to lending money to unqualified buyers to buy houses to stimulate the housing market. The government can provide cover in the way of loan guarantees, but this time make sure that people are actually buying houses they can afford to own. Given the landslide of housing prices, it shouldn't be hard for just about anyone to find an affordable house these days. Next, force the big banking concerns to break up and start creating a system of local community banks that are oriented to their neighbors and responsive to the needs of the communities they do business in. When I was a kid the local bank was owned by those who lived in my town, who had kids who went to the same school my parents kids did, making it a lot easier to talk to them about getting loans or resolving issues. Also, revamp the credit reporting and debt collection industries. Isn't it about time that the average American be given access to the arcane formulas that credit bureaus use to come up with credit scores? Next, make it illegal for potential employers to use credit reports in assessing job applicants. Finally, institute a program to allow those with student loan debt to make offers of compromise, ala tax debts.

Just a few ideas that seem to make sense to this Grinch; try to have a happy holiday season.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Money Grab

I had the misfortune of getting a speeding ticket this weekend. I'm not disputing my guilt Despite the fact that I rarely speed, on this occasion, I was definitely over the limit. What upset me was the absolute determination of the officer to write the ticket without even considering a reprimand and leniency. Even though I don't agree with this mindset, I understand what goes.

Traffic citations are a source of revenue for municipalities and have become, in these troubling economic times, one way in which many cities, towns and villages are seeking to reap income to close their budget gaps. As such the Barney Fifes are out in force, setting up speed traps and scouring their ordinance books to squeeze every dollar they can out of drivers. Since when did traffic laws become a tax and cease to be an instrument of public safety? The proliferation of red light cameras, random "license" checks, and the mother of all money grabs, impound fees, is disturbing. Maybe for some a speeding ticket here and there is no big deal, but to me and most of humanity a dollar still has value. What is also particularly irksome is the fact that if one rolls over and pays the fine via mail it is roughly one third of the minimum fine that is charged if one has the audacity to show up in court. Freedom isn't free, but we can't be clogging up the courts with annoying citizens who wish to actually defend themselves.

There is also the disturbing nature of just who is doing the policing and judging. Show me a cop who has never violated a traffic law and I'll show you a unicorn attending Harvard. Not too long ago a local criminal prosecutor was tragically killed in a one car collision after consuming too many martinis with her cohorts. Just this past year a local judge was cited for reckless driving and leaving the scene of an accident, but somehow the judicial ethics folks had no problem with him remaining in robes behind the bench.

The point here is simple. No one is above the law, but few have not strayed beneath once in a while. As such the punishment should fit the crimes and the laws should serve to insure the public safety and not used to raise revenue. It would also be nice if those entrusted with serving and protecting us from the evil doers, weren't evil doers themselves.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Stench of Voting

I voted on Tuesday; reluctantly. The only solace to having this election over with is that we no longer have to be bombarded by the crap that is thrown our way via election ads, unsolicited cell phone calls (thanks T Mobile for selling my number) and the endless punditry that passes for political commentary.

Sadly, the way the federal and state governments are constituted is woefully ill-suited to deal with the massive problems that affect Americans. The framers of the constitution rightfully sought to infuse restraint and balance into our system of government, but they could not have foreseen the evolution of this nation into one where our media and politicians have been co opted and corrupted to the point where the will of the people and the power of sovereignty means nothing.

Voting is a Pyrrhic endeavor given the choices that are offered. The quality of the candidates is substandard. No one with any real intellect and moral balance would seriously get anywhere close to the swamp that government has become. Those who are the best and brightest know that even those with good intentions soon become corrupted by the process and are forced to compromise their values to the point where they become meaningless. The end goal of every politician, no matter how well intentioned on the campaign trail, soon becomes the pursuit of power at all costs. This mindset translates into a concerted pattern of avoiding tough game-changing policies and pandering to the lowest common denominator. Smoke and mirrors replace imagination and innovation and hidden agendas abound.

The standard of living in this country is in landslide mode. Effective unemployment, those without jobs or teetering on the brink of unemployment, is in the neighborhood of twenty percent. Owning a home used to be one's best, and often, only investment for the future. Now, with housing prices in free fall, it makes little financial sense to own rather than rent. A college degree used to be an investment in success and security. Now, it is often just another way into suffocating debt and despair.

The education system in this nation is broken and failing our children and our future. Manufacturing, once the backbone of our economy is securely situated in the far east. Our government continues to commit to draining the treasury by fighting wars that are unwinable and morally unjustified. Even seemingly simple issues like Gays in the military are confused and compounded into political issues that seem beyond resolve.

I wish I could be optimistic, but without major changes in the structure and operation of government, there is little hope. It is incomprehensible that government cannot provide effective defense, affordable healthcare, legitimate education and employment to citizens. This let them eat cake attitude is taking us all down the road to a time when a significant portion of the population is having to deal with basic survival.

Tuesday's so-called Republican tsunami comes under the heading of "careful what you wish for." I suspect soon-to-be speaker, Boehner's tears on election night were less indicative of his life trajectory and more representative of the reality that his ox is the one that is next go be gored. We can only hope that the anger and despair that propels lunatics like O'Donnell, Paul and Angle into prominence will serve notice on Congress that chaos is an option if real change is not in the offing.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Despicable Choices at Election Time

In Illinois, once again, we are faced with a daunting choice in the upcoming election; which candidates are least despicable. The two major races in Illinois, governor and U.S. Senate, present us with no real choice. In both races we are presented with men who have questionable records and policies, who I would be hard pressed to hire to walk my dog.

Governor Pat Quinn is a mealy-mouthed political hack who has proven in his short time in office that he has no clue how to run a state and has no backbone to stand up to the real governor, Michael Madigan. Quinn's opponent, Bill Brady, presents little in the way of innovation and looks from here like another George Ryan in the making. In other words, he'll come in, present a clean image, but likely will just settle into doing business as usual instead of challenging the Democrat elites who really run things. How long will it be before ole' Bill will be seen rolling the bones at some casino or soliciting campaign contributions for relatives? He most certainly be counted on to carry on the tradition of one-party politics in Illinois, kowtowing to the Democrats in Springfield and Chicago while espousing his conservative values and hating Gays.

In the U.S. Senate seat we have a choice between a serial embellisher and a mob banker. Both candidates appear to be political stooges who have little stomach for bucking the party line and can't wait to join the cushy club in Washington, reap the benefits and hope no one notices that they are asleep at the switch and licking whatever boot is offered to them.

I suspect that the reason elections offer so little hope is because those who are the best and brightest (and the most qualified to lead and govern) are also smart enough to avoid the swamp and all the critters that live there. They know that government and politics is dirty and no place for anyone with any ounce of moral conscience and dignity. If you don't believe me just go back to some of the presidential debates in 2008 and count the number of promises Mr. Clean and bright Obama made that he has conveniently forgotten to follow through on. You can start with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and go on to the promise to get our troops out of the Middle East. How are those two working out for you? It's been two years Barry! A signature on an executive order ends DADT or wasn't that in the instruction manual Bush left for you at 1600?

There are solutions to be had; term limits for Congress, forensic audits of campaign funds, a full time independent prosecutor with subpoena powers to oversee congressional corruption and a standardized code of professional conduct for all national and state congresses, executive and judicial branches. But unfortunately the foxes are never going to agree to deny themselves access to the hen house. The next best thing is to overhaul the election process.

My suggestion is this. Present voters with a third option in voting. (yeah I know there are third party candidates on the ballot, candidates who have as much chance of getting elected as I have of dating Angelina Jolie) Give voters the option of rejecting both of the candidates from the major parties. This would be the no-confidence option. In other words by opting to vote for neither, the voters would be saying, we don't care for the choices offered, give us more choices. Assume for instance that 50% of the voters voted "neither." This would remove the two major party candidates from the ballot and require a new election to be held with new candidates. This option, although expensive, would require candidates to revise their thinking about the dreaded attack ads they run and might just compel them to talk about issues and actually try to appeal to voters instead of trying to scare them about the opponent. This would also give contributors pause about giving money to someone who might be eliminated from consideration come election time since the odds would no longer be 50/50. Just like George "craps" Ryan, contributors might walk away from the table with nothing.

Politics is a dirty business, pretty much always has been. The difference now is that the nature and character of media has changed and the money is so huge that anything goes. No lie is too big, no chance too big to take in order to secure the prize. The nation is going through one of worst economic times I can remember, including the "gas line" days of my youth. One would think people would want to be more proactive, however it is tough to be proactive when your thoughts are consumed with losing a job or worrying about the bank foreclosing. The sad reality is that until things get really, really bad, and the masses get out the pitchforks and torches, we will continue to get despicable choices for public office.

I recently wrote several congresspeople about maybe introducing legislation to require credit reporting and rating agencies to disclose their arcane formulas for coming up with credit scores. Seems to me that if credit scores are going to be used to determine fitness for jobs, we should all be privy to how they are arrived at. Three guesses as to how much interest I got on that one. Politicians simply don't care about anything except getting elected and staying elected. Until we all start writing and phoning to the point of annoyance no one is going to listen. When was the last time you visited your local congressperson's office? Do you know where it is? Might be a good time to find out.