Not Cease from Exploration...a blog by Steve Albert

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Mull of Kintyre

One of my favorite songs...


Road Apples, #57

Taxes...Well I completed by 2009 tax return, and it looks like I owe $91. That's not too bad actually. I don't think that it's a good idea to get a tax refund, as that means you gave the government more than what it was due, and as a result the government held your money...sans interest...all year. My goal is to ideally break even, although I usually end up owing something. I do have to double check the tuition payments I made for my oldest daughter though.

Let It (Stop) Snow...After something like a foot of snow over the past three or more days, I'm officially done with winter and snow. Fortunately it is almost March, which means that the seasonal corner is about to change. The older I get, the less I like these winters.

Earthquake In Chile...Another disaster, and this is a big one. It goes to show that in the end there is not a lot that we can actually control when it comes to our planet and even our very existence. Hopefully the death-toll will not be too high. Just out of sheer curiosity I wonder how many high school students can even find Chile on a map?

Blogs & Blogging...I do have this love/hate relationship with blogs and blogging. The love part is readily apparent, as it is 7:30am and I'm sitting here typing this; the hate part is a bit more subtle, but comes into play whenever I feel compelled to write something in response to something else. While I do enjoy a good discussion, I don't enjoy engaging in "flame-wars", but yet every so often I get sucked into it. As Katrina would say, "Le Sigh". In the enjoyable department, I do think I owe NEPAristan a response to his response to my post on unions (try saying that three fast), which I will get to in due time.

Speaking Of Blogs...I have always enjoyed reading about religion and religious issues, going back to when I was in my early teens. Back then I read every single book the Scranton Public Library had on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Being firmly rooted in all things Mormon, I branched to other belief systems, including the Catholicism that has been a part of my life all my life (even when I don't necessarily go to church). Trying to keep an open mind about things, I've kept a few religious blogs on my reading list, originally with Bridget Mary's blog (from the left) and uber-conservative Bishop Williamson's blog on the right. Talk about extremes. Well the good Bishop decided to end his blog, which is a shame by the way, as I particularly enjoyed his postings on diverse things like poetry, Shakespeare and culture. Needing something of a Yang to the Bridget Mary's Ying, along comes The Rockin Apologist. While the Apologist may seem down-right liberal compared to Bishop Williamson, he ever the less is unabashedly conservative in his views. If you are interested in a conservative Catholic point of view, check out his blog.

Speaking of Religious Conservatives...A few postings by The Rockin Apologist reminded me of another religious conservative, Jack Chick. When I was a teenager (and steeped in learning about various religions) I would always enjoy reading the occasional Jack Chick bible tract I would find in the men's room. If you are not familiar with Jack Chick and his work, you can link to his website HERE. While I don't consider myself smart enough to have a "theological point of view", I will say that I don't subscribe to much of what Mr Chick preaches in his cartoons. I do, however, admire the work: I think they are well drawn, he is remarkably consistent in his message and he is an equal opportunity offender (slamming Mormons, Catholics, Masons and others with equal furor). If you have some time to kill, read some of Chick's tracts...whether your agree or disagree with the message, you may find the delivery method interesting.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Response to Comment, Hannahj

'Hannahj' responded to my post titled "Retard-Gate". Since my response to her was getting rather long and my spelling stinks, I thought I'd post it here.



Hannah...

First, I appreciate your comment.

Second, while I don't have a child with special needs, I have a younger brother who does and I spent weekends & summers during college working at Keystone City Residence (a residence for mentally retarded children and adults in Scranton...see my FaceBook profile...it is listed there). Why mention these things? To make the point that I do in fact know something about mental retardation.

Do I think the word "retard" is offensive? To paraphrase the late George Carlin, "there are no bad words...there are bad thoughts, bad intentions...". In fact, I've heard the word "retard" coupled with bad thoughts & bad intentions directed towards those with mental retardation many, many times. I've also heard it used in juvenile, silly ways as well, which is what I think Rahm Emanual is guilty of (and so is Limbaugh for that matter).

By far and away though, the worst use of the word "retard" is when someone uses it for a self-serving, tawdry purpose, such attempting to score cheap political points. That's where I'd place former Governor Palin's use of the word. How do I know this is true? Simple: Ms Palin has no doubt heard others using the term time and time again; in fact, if she is a regular listener of Limbaugh she has no doubt heard him say it long before she ever heard Rahm Emanual utter it. Where was the offense during those instances? Oh, wait, it was "satire". I guess for me I can forgive the juvenile and the silly, but I have a much tougher time with hypocrisy, especially when practiced by self-serving politicians.

In closing, please do accept my apology if my use of the word "retard" in these postings have offended you. While I used it prominently in these postings to make a point, if you have read much else of what I've written you will find that I have tried to not use the word in other instances.

Thanks again for reading...Steve Albert, Scranton Pennsylvania

Friday, February 26, 2010

Vernon Hunter

The only victim of last week's suicide plane dive into an IRS office was Vernon Hunter. Who was Vernon Hunter? Some information on the man can be found here HERE. As a veteran of the United States Army, Mr Hunter deserved our thanks. As the victim of a senseless crime, his family deserves our condolences.

Joe Stack, the pilot of the plane was not a victim...he was a perpetrator.

5am

I have been on vacation this week, well starting on Tuesday. I did work on Monday, but that was more or less because I had my annual performance appraisal, and since my Director came in from Hartford, I figured that I should actually some in from the 2 miles I live away from the office. Oh, and I was also in the office three times this week, twice just to hit the gym and once (yesterday) participate in a conference call dealing with a project I am managing. Anyway, every day this week I have been up at about 5-5:30am. This morning was the worst, as I was literally wide-eyed and bushy-tailed at 5am. Why?

I didn't need to get up at 5am. School was canceled, so no one had to get up at any certain time, yet come 5am my mind was as alert as it could be, and there was no way I was going to allow me to even consider going back to sleep. For the record I did go to bed a little earlier than usual last night, say around 10:15pm by the time I cleaned up a bit, brushed my teeth and read some of Artie Lange's "Too Fat To Fish"*. Anyway, I apparently got enough sleep last night to allow me to spend the past two hours shoveling snow.

It all just boils down to the worst relationship I have in my life (no, not that one...), namely the one I have with sleeping. I wish sleeping wasn't a requirement for existence. It seems so wasteful, yet I do acknowledge that sometimes I do get tired and actually enjoy a few hours of sleep. How some people can spend never-ending hours in bed is beyond me. About the latest I've ever slept in is about 10am, maybe two or three times in my life. A normal "sleeping in" for me might be 8am.

No sense complaining (although too late, as I think I already have), as there are worse quirks to have I suppose. Onward to seize the day.



(*) "Too Fat To Fish" isn't a bad book, although you might enjoy it more if you...

...are a rabid NY Yankees fan
...were born in New Jersey

It's definitely an easy read. As for it being really funny, I'll have to defer on that for a while. There have been a few cute stories, but so far nothing that made me bust a gut laughing.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

From the Pennsyltucky File

According to some, the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity apparently has chosen to reveal Himself to the world in a plastic tub of pizza sauce.

Read about it HERE.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

The Wisdom of Hunter S. Thompson

Some of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite writers, ever. "The Great Shark Hunt" should be required reading for anyone interested in journalism or political science.


"If I'd written the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people—including me—would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism."

"I feel the same way about disco as I do about herpes."

"In a nation ruled by swine, all pigs are upwardly mobile—and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together: not necessarily to win, but mainly to keep from losing completely. We owe that to ourselves and our crippled self-image as something better than a nation of panicked sheep."

"I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me. "

"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side. "

"There is nothing more helpless and irresponsible than a man in the depths of an ether binge."

"Jesus! How much more of this cheap-jack bullshit can we be expected to take from that stupid little gunsel? Who gives a fuck if he's lonely and depressed down there in San Clemente? If there were any such thing as true justice in this world, his rancid carcass would be somewhere down around Easter Island right now, in the belly of a hammerhead shark. "
(HST on Richard Nixon, post resignation)

"Bill Clinton does not inhale marijuana, right? You bet. Like I chew on LSD but I don't swallow it.'"

"So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here -- not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms."


...and my two personal, all time favorite HST quotes:

"Buy the ticket, take the ride."

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
"

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Retard-Gate

While I was out traveling last week, it seems that the GOP's poster-child for mediocrity, Sarah "When the going gets tough, the tough quit" Palin started a ruckus by complaining about the use of the word "Retard" by the likes of Rahm Emanual (reference HERE). For the record, I think that Emanual is, at best, a bully. Like most bullies, the most effective way to handle him is to ignore him, that is of course unless you are just looking for publicity yourself. Anyway, that little ditty in mind, Alaska's finest then went on to claim during a Fox News interview with Chris Wallace that some CAN use the wold "Retard" and it is okay, as it constitutes "satire".

So let me get this straight: Rahm Emanaul says "Retard" and it is grounds for firing. Rush Limbaugh says "Retard" and it is satire. Seems fishy to me, and I'm not talking about Alaska salmon. Yes, I did read that Gov. Palin later went on to say that Limbaugh's use of the word was inappropriate, but that was on the heels of the "satire" defense.

Watch Stephen Cobert's take on this whole mess HERE.

I think the whole thing is a test case in what's wrong with Sarah Palin and why she doesn't deserve any position in the modern GOP: She doesn't think things through (Shopping sprees anyone?) and she seems intent on always appealing on an emotional level. Funny, but isn't one of Rush Limbaugh's consistent criticisms of Liberals that they tend to always appeal on an emotional level? Maybe that's simply "satire" too.

As for me, I think hypocrisy is far worse than the misuse of slang, especially when practiced by public figures who should know better.

On Unions

NEPArtisan asked me what I have against labor unions, and while I don't necessarily feel compelled to explain myself to anyone (since that's about the only benefit to getting older), it is a reasonable question to ask. So throwing caution to the wind, here goes.


BACKGROUND
I've never been a member of a labor union, although two members of my family are (one is a member of the Scranton Federation of Teachers and another works for the Federal Government & is represented by NFFE), so it is not as if I am totally alien to the concept. Also, I've actually read several Collective Bargaining Agreements before, including the last two SFT/SSD documents. Finally on a professional level, I have some experience with union pension plans. All told, I think I have a pretty good grasp of what unions are and what they do.

The above noted, I am not necessarily anti-union, although I don't consider myself to be a union supporter either, except in a few instances. What's more, I think that some of the benefits of unionization, such as reasonable job protection, come at too high a price...namely institutionalized mediocrity. More on that in a moment. There are, however, some instances where I think unions play a critical role in our society.


WHERE UNIONS ARE VALUABLE
There are certain occupations where workers are subject to real physical risks and in concert with that, there might be a temptation on the part of management to increase profits via reduced worker safety. Mining comes to mind as being this kind of occupation. In that instance I think that unionization is almost essential, as collectively employees can force management not take actions that might endanger lives. Northeastern Pennsylvania, with its history of coal barons and exploited workers, has been something of a Petri Dish for this argument. Clearly, labor unions played the key role in the advancement of worker safety, as well as prohibitions against child labor and other initiatives that have significantly improved our society.

Also, while workers at WalMart are not routinely subject to physical risks, that company stands out as being so arrogant in its treatment of employees that I think a union would actually help matters. For that reason I don't normally shop at WalMart and I do regularly read websites such as WalMart Watch and Wake Up WalMart.


WHERE UNIONS MAKE THINGS WORSE
On the flip side, here is my central argument against most labor unions: conceptually they demand the equal compensation for individuals performing the same job for the same period of time. In my mind that's highly illogical. Why? Because it assumes that all workers perform at the same level of competence, which is simply incorrect. What's more, that mentality has the net impact of rewarding mediocrity. Case in point: if union members Bob and Fred are going to get paid the same amount anyway (assuming they perform the same job and stated at the same date...not uncommon in say a factory or a classroom), why should Bob or Fred work any harder? For the collective good? To quote former mobster Henry Hill, ppplllleeeeaaaassssseeeee!

In my simplistic mind, a basic tenant of work is that if you work harder you should get paid more.

Here's another problem I have with unions: their existence is predicated on two basic assumptions...

1. The Mute Employee
Employees are always unable to speak for themselves & therefore need someone to represent them.
2. The Evil Employer
Management never has the best interests of employees at heart and as a result someone needs to protect employees.

While both points are true sometimes, they are not true all the time. I realize that the classic anti-union tact is to claim that unions create a barrier between labor and management, which is actually true...unions do create a barrier. Sometimes that barrier was created by management in the first place though (for example via sheer arrogance and greed, which is the case at WalMart), in which case the employer deserves a union*. Let's be honest here as well: sometimes that barrier is actually created by the union.


WHO SHOULD BE IN A UNION?

I can only really speak for myself, and as such I will most likely never belong to a union. I never, ever want anyone speaking for me; as anyone who is reading this can tell, I'm pretty good at speaking for myself. This is a trait I learned from my mom. That noted, I want others to have that same basic right: to join or not to join, based on their own desires and preferences.

If a group of employees...such as Catholic School Teachers...want to form a union, then I do believe that is their right. That right should not be discouraged, and no one should be imputed because of that desire. On the flip side, no one should be forced to join a union. That would mean giving up union negotiated benefits, but so be it; that person though should not be forced to pay for the operation of the union that doesn't speak for them.

Speaking of teachers, do I think they should be in a union? Conceptually no, but my personal experience in Scranton has taught me that teacher unions are something of a necessary evil. Yes, good teachers should be paid more than bad teachers (and bad teachers should be fired...unlike a bolt that is caught in quality control, a poorly educated child can't simply be "fixed"), which traditionally hasn't happened in a unionized environment (although that is slowly changing...see opinion piece HERE). The previously noted point has to be balanced though with a sad reality of education...namely that all teachers should be protected from the political nonsense that local-yokel School Board members are known to perpetuate. The "$5,000 for a teaching job in Wilkes-Barre" news is proof that many local school board members are inept at best, possibly crooked at worst. It seems unreasonable to me that an individual teacher would able to protect him/herself from the inept politically motivated actions of a School Board member without a collective force in support. Are there alternatives? Sure, and I'm open to the idea of something like "teachers as civil servants", but I've not heard of anything that didn't eventually de-evolve into something that looked and quacked just like a union anyway.

Now teachers are but one of many occupations I could discuss in this entry, but I think they are an interesting case in point. Do I think that other professionals should be unionized? It depends, but I do have an over-arching thought on the subject: Professionals in any occupation should be able to speak for themselves and they should be able to excel based upon their performance as individuals, not as a group.


IN CONCLUSION
I'm not a "black or white" kind of guy, and by and large I think that people who tend to view the world through such simplistic lenses are retarded (and I don't care if Sarah Palin is offended by that term). I know it would be far more entertaining and engaging to simply say "unions are greedy & they suck" or "business is evil & employees need to be protected", but in my heart I know that neither statement is entirely, factually correct.



(*) "A union is the reward that an employer who doesn't respect its employees gets"; not sure who said this, but it's definitely true.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Life Among The Ideologically Impure

This story speaks for itself...

"We Voted for Who????"

I guess it's official now: Scott Brown doesn't pass the ideology exam.

Now I don't have a specific opinion about the Jobs Bill in question, but I'm quasi-skeptical of any new spending that isn't paid for in some way. According to Senator Brown, the bill was revenue neutral, which I think is Washington DC speak for "we've made the accounting super complicated". The late Lion of the Senate would be proud.

"...and the rock cried out No Hiding Place..."

There is a great older gospel song called "No Hiding Place" that I heard years ago, incorporated oddly enough in a Science Fiction TV show (written by an Atheist) that came to mind when I heard of the pending Diocese of Scranton press conference scheduled for this morning morning.

If what is reported comes true, then Monsignor Joseph Bambera will become the next Bishop of the Diocese of Scranton. Good luck to him. I've never met Monsignor Bambera, but from what I've heard, he is good man, a competent administrator and a dedicated Priest. I'm thinking he will need all of these qualities in his new position, plus a few more.

The easy thing to do here is to blame former Bishop Martino for all the Diocese problem, but that would be patently wrong. While Bishop Martino did not cause the problems facing the Diocese, I do believe that he made many of them worse. The real rub there isn't that it was his decisions that were problematic, it's more so in the way that he acted on those decisions. Two examples:

Unionized Teachers - Believing that the Diocese could not afford the salaries of unionized teachers is one thing, but at first giving assurances to the SDACT about representation THEN simply saying "never mind" and unilaterally dissolving the pre-existing contracts is another. I'm not really a fan of unions in general, but if a majority of teachers wanted union representation, then they should have been allowed to keep that representation. Simply hiding behind legalisms (such as state law exempting the Church from collective bargaining rules) is beneath the office of Bishop. Refusing to meet with the Union leaders to discuss his decision was a sign of arrogance and weakness.

School Closings - I absolutely agree that schools needed to be consolidated, but some of the means by which those changes were implemented were disheartening to many, including me. In a prior blog (that I'm too lazy to link to) I mentioned how I was walking around my old school...Bishop Hannan...and found a dumpster full of old yearbooks and other things, sitting rotting in the summer sun. This came on the heels of the school being closed...no ceremony for the thousands of graduates...no acknowledgment...no Mass of Thanksgiving...just shuttered. It's as if by fiat the Bishop could wipe out something that was a part of my life. Did the school need to be closed? Probably Yes. Did it need to be closed in such a seemingly callous way? Definitely not. I grabbed one of those yearbooks by the way, even though it was from a graduating class long after mine. That was my little act of rebellion, and the book sits in my office as I write this; those memories were saved.


So if the news reports are correct, then the very best of luck and plenty of divine inspiration to Monsignor Bambera. Sometimes the worst of times brings out the best in us, and for the faithful of the Diocese of Scranton I hope that's true.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Trip To Borders...

In a true Yang/Ying display, I made a run to Borders and picked up the following:


"Too Fat To Fish"
by Artie Lange
Being a Howard Stern fan I feel almost obligated to read Artie's book, although I do confess that I'm not much of an Artie Lange fan. For me, the Golden Age of Howard Stern was the early 90's, when it was Howard, Robin, Jackie, Fred and Billy West in studio. The whole "Jackie Puppet" thing still makes me laugh myself silly.


"God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" by Christopher Hitchens
I've read some short articles by Hitchens before, so I figure that there is probably enough material in a book of his to keep me entertained. Note that I don't necessarily subscribe to the whole "God is a figment of your imagination" thing, but I do enjoy a good logical argument.

In the "Why?" Department...

Dunmore councilman Paul Nardozzi is running for State Representative in the PA-112th District. I've seen this reported in a number of blogs and in the February 20th edition of the Scranton Times (link HERE). For the record, this is the District that includes my home, so I suppose I should be paying attention to what is going on.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but if Mr Nardozzi runs on his experience as a member of Dunmore Borough Council, just what does that actually mean?

...he is experienced at not rocking the boat
...he is experienced at looking to an "anonymous business man" for solutions to pressing problems
...he is experienced with entrenched small-town politicians (cough*Nibs*cough)
...he is experienced at ignoring blinding truths, such as the notion that a town like Dunmore can't in fact support a paid fire department
...he is experienced at encouraging a NIMBY mentality
...he is experienced at double-dipping at the public troth (Dunmore Council & Clifford Township police)
...he is experienced at allowing mob-decision making, even if it flies in the face of reality

While I've already noted that I will never vote for Ken Smith again over this compassion-less, NIMBY-encouraging, ignorance-fueled stand on the Methadone Clinic, it seems to me that Mr Nardozzi isn't an awful lot different. If I'm wrong, then maybe someone can show me the errors of my way.

Now I've never met Mr Nardozzi, and I'm going to assume that he is a fine police officer, and for that service to the community he should be commended. But 12 years on Dunmore Borough Council? That's like claiming Klan membership as a qualification for a position on a Diversity Panel. I'd be curious as to what credit or blame Mr Nardozzi takes for his tenure on Dunmore Council, because outside of a senior center that the borough can't afford, I'm not sure that anything of substance has occurred in Dunmore over the past 12 years, well other than ever-increasing taxes.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

On The Inside

I've found that I've had a tendency of late to sit here and write about politics, politicians, policy, people and other things on the outside (not all of which start with "p" by the way). Now I don't mean to imply that those are easy targets, because sometimes that kind of stuff actually requires a fair amount of mental lifting in order to pull off to any great extent. In fact there are many very well exceptionally written political blogs in NEPA (Gort, NEPArtisan, Mark Cour's blog among others)...stuff that is amateur only in the sense that the writers don't get paid to write. This is all the more reason why I find it mildly amusing whenever I see this space listed among "local political blogs". I'm not qualified to be a "local political blogger"; hell I think I barely qualify as being fluent in English.

Truth be told? I don't even like politics. Partisans on either side of the equation both bore and frustrate me. Yes, I think Sarah Palin is a nit-wit and I think Jesse Jackson has been shaking down Fortune 100 businesses for two decades now. On the other hand I love listening to Newt Gingrich talk about conservative solutions and I think Bill Clinton is a role-model bridging gaps (be they be between races, sexual orientations or genders). See, even why I try NOT to write about politics it manages to seep in like water into my basement after a spring downpour.

Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that I wanted to write this to be something of a vehicle to explore ideas on both inside and the outside of me. Of late it's probably been more on an outward looking affair, if only because I feel this subliminal pressure associated with writing what I think others will find interesting (defining "others" as being the small number that actually manage to read this stuff). But you know what? Funk that. It's not that I don't really care what others say or think, it's that I believe that all of us have an obligation to always be true to ourselves. Being something we are not, for whatever reason, is never self-sustaining. Trust me, I am an expert in that regard. Interesting juxtaposing that thought against the notion that I am writing this on a blog that is posted on a very public Internet, is it not? Maybe this is same basic philosophy behind the Catholic notion of confession: for it to mean something, it has to be shared. The blog as a sort of public confessional...I'm sure that idea has already been explored.

So many words, and yet I don't think I've really made much of a point, other than ruminating over what others may think, even though I supposedly don't care what others think. Damn, that reads like a line from the song "I Am The Walrus".

Okay, how about this: it's been a tough few days. I've been over-eating and watching far too much TV, neither of which is good for me, and both of which are signs that I feel somewhat out of control relative to the events around me. This isn't typical, as I've been doing well in the weight department too over the past two months. One of those more inside-looking posts that never made the cut was going to be about how I've lost 20 pounds since the beginning of November. Well after this past week it may be more like 18 pounds, but the post never made the cut. That's the nut about weight loss by the way: it's much more of a mental exercise than it is a physical one. Put another way, sustained physical health can't happen when there isn't some mental health to go along with it, at least not as far as I am concerned. Everything really is connected I guess.

Speaking of connected, "We shall not cease from exploration..." is my favorite quote precisely because it works on so many different levels. I'm not sure what Eliot had in mind when he thought of it, but for me it's as much about mental exploration as it is physical exploration. The above mentioned weight thing is just one example of many, for to work on getting healthy on the outside you have to work on getting healthy on the inside, as the two are inexorably connected.

Well I think I've basically run out 0f ruminations for the moment. Maybe I just needed to get this out of my system, or maybe I'm just trying to avoid getting ready for work tomorrow (I have my annual performance evaluation by the way). Either excuse works for me.

Chris Kelly Nails It

If you live in Scranton or have a passing interest in Scranton politics, you probably should read Chris Kelly's column in today's Sunday Times.

Link Here.

Very well said. I might add one point though: If Janet Evans' future plans include higher office, she will have to explain why her disability prevents her from being a full-time English teacher but yet would not prevent her from being a full-time Chief Executive (or Representative). If anything, I would expect that the mayoral position would be more physically demanding than teaching.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Tiger Woods: Here's Your Long Distance Dedication

I was thinking of a song to dedicate to Tiger Woods, you know the sex addict....I mean pro-golfer...I mean celebrity...I mean Mack-Daddy. Here's what came to mind...



Now I have to admit a few things right off the bat:
  • I've played golf, but lacking any real depth perception the game is somewhat challenging for me. I do, however, think the golf takes a lot of skill to play (well that is).
  • I can't stand watching golf on TV; in fact, watching goldfish in a tank is more exciting.
  • I didn't watch or listen to the Tiger Woods press-statement (or whatever the hell it was). I do find its timing questionable though, and apparently I wasn't the only one, coming at the same time as tournament sponsored by one of his (former) endorsements.
  • I have no problem with someone being a sex-addict. Hell, if you are going to have an addiction, that's probably not the worst you can have.
Okay, now that the disclaimers are out of the way I can make my main point, which is that Tiger Woods seems to want it both ways...just as most celebrities do. The press attention was pretty cool for ole' Tiger when it translated into endorsement contracts. Yes, Tiger wanted people to watch him, well as long as he was hocking stuff. Well hocking stuff and playing golf. Funny though that all of a sudden the attention seems unwanted.

Oh hell, I'm being far too indirect here. Let me re-boot this: Tiger Woods is a hypocritical baby who had no problem being an attention whore as long as he was being paid. Now that he Mack-Daddiness has been exposed, he all of a sudden wants some "privacy". Well excuse me, but if you make your living by figuratively screaming "look at me", then you should be prepared for people to look at you, even when it's inconvenient or down-right irritating. That's the price for being a celebrity. That's the ticket Tiger bought, that's the ride Tiger has to ride. Zero sympathy here.

Finally, if Tiger thinks it's bad now, just wait until THIS happens.

Tiger Woods: This is your long-distance dedication.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Back...

It's been a long week...driving, snow, flying, waiting, more driving, meetings, class, more driving, more flying, more driving. In the midst of this, I was able to get in some interesting reading, some of which I'll be commenting on in future blogs. I know, I know, it's not as if the world is waiting for my spew, but what the hell, it give me something to look forward to.

Speaking of looking forward to things, one thing I definitely have my sights on is Spring. I'm simply done with snow. Enough. Finished. Completed. No more.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

10 Least Favorite Things About Business Travel

  1. Airlines learned everything they know about customer service from the Gestapo.
  2. If you are 5'2" and weigh 110 lbs you will fit nicely into an average jet seat. Everyone else is outta luck.
  3. You never quite know what that chili is going to taste like when your order it for dinner.
  4. You never quite know how your stomach is going to feel the morning after you have that chili for dinner.
  5. TSA travel rules make the Internal Revenue Code look like the instructions for using PlayDoh (which I think basically consists of "Don't eat").
  6. My netbook tells me that I'm going to get computer herpes every time I try to log into most airport wi-fi networks.
  7. Holiday Inn beds feel like used mortuary slabs.
  8. Those people in the room next to you that insist on having a party...at 1:30am.
  9. The great disappearing flight (see previous blog).
  10. Having to explain to people that don't travel on business that it's really not glamorous, fun or in any way desirable. In fact it rather sucks.
The above noted, I am eternally grateful that I have a job...a good one at that...that gives me the opportunity to travel. While I can think of a lot of reasons why business travel isn't what it's cracked up to be, it still beats the alternative of unemployment.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Travel Blues

I am convinced that airlines take particular pleasure if messing with people's heads. Case in point: my flight has been delayed for well over a hour. What would you expect to see on the departure board? Why the word "Delayed" after the flight number/destination/etc. information. But noooooooo....my flight simply disappeared off the board entirely. I feel like I am in CCD again, and I have to accept the explanation of "it's a mystery" to my seemingly important question about flight status.

Rumor has it that the flight will be taking off at 1pm, which is about 35 minutes from now. I'm half tempted to check the departure board, but why raise my blood pressure even more. As I did back in CCD, I'll simply have to take this one on faith.

Only the Good Die Young

Two term Indiana Senator Evan Bayh has decided not to seek a third term in office, despite an almost guaranteed re-election. Story link HERE.

I watched clips from his news conference, where he extolled the virtues of public service, but the coda to that snippet was a blunt "...I do not love Congress". This was followed by a brief script that most Americans who aren't rabid partisans could write, dealing with the lack of bi-partisanship in Congress and Washington DC.

While I don't advocate quitting, it's hard to find fault in not wanting to be swimming in the toxic waste that is Washington DC. Senator Bayh is a very bright guy, so I'm sure he will do well in the future for himself and his family.

The larger issue here continues to be the notion that the fringes in the American political environment, as evidenced by extremes such as radio-comedian Rush Limbaugh (who IS a political leader...just has RNC Chair Steele) on the right and folks such as Nancy Pelosi on the left. Both preach to willing crowds about how bi-partisanship is fine, as long as you don't "sacrifice your values". "Sacrificing your values" is code for "I'll agree with you as long as you a don't say anything I disagree with". The sad reality is that the answers are seldom find at either extreme of the political agenda. Extreme partisans do serve a useful purpose in American politics: I think they create the bumpers by which we as an electorate can see the landscape of choices we enjoy. The fringe though isn't where the best path is usually found.

I doubt that Senator Bayh's departure from the Senate will do anything to change the horribly partisan nature of Washington DC, where people seem to earn their living by demonizing others (while not in Washington, think about Limbaugh's act: if he wasn't demonizing those he disagreed with, he'd have no act). In fact, I think things are going to get far worse before they get better.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010

So This Is Where the Money Went...

Apparently a decent sized portion of the money from those "cash" checks went to Senator Mellow himself. Sunday Times article link HERE.

This presents a very, very interesting situation.
  1. Legitimate - It is entirely possible that the payments were completely legitimate reimbursements to Senator Mellow for expenses he incurred personally while campaigning. For example, he could have used his own car to drive to campaign events, so he would be entitled to reimbursement for mileage.
  2. Illegitimate - It is at least worth considering the possibility that this entire situation, from the payments themselves to the obfuscation associated with providing the back-sides of the checks, was a scheme concocted to funnel illicit compensation to the Senator.
Note that I'm not arguing that either scenario is correct, but there is one troubling aspect to this, namely that if the expenses were legitimate, why then not simply make the checks out to Senator Mellow directly (instead of to "cash") and note on the check the purpose of the payment?

Pay to the order of: Robert Mellow
Memo: Campaign Travel Reimbursement

Of course the Senator and his people are steering people towards the illegitimate side of this coin by refusing to provide documents that would support these payments as being reasonable reimbursements. If the payments were legitimate expenses, then it's incumbent upon the Senator to release ALL OF THE SUPPORTING DOCUMENTS so that this entire issue can be laid to rest.

Interesting stuff. If these payments were an illicit form of compensation, then that raises a whole host of other legal issues, none the least of which involve the Internal Revenue Service.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Furio & Tony Talk Golf

From the greatest television show ever, The Sopranos.

Tony's Associate Mr Williams: "Stupido fvcking game!"


Joseph Corcoran: His Time Has Come (and gone)

Article from the Saturday edition of The Scranton Times linked HERE.

Let me be simple and direct here: the underlying problem with (soon to be former) Senator Mellow is that he is a career politician who dramatically blurs the lines between personal enrichment and constituent service. Simply replacing him with the someone having the same M.O. is not in the public's best interest. Of the candidates who are likely to run for the Mellow seat, former County Commissioner Joe Corcoran SCREAMS career politician.

Why?

To the best of my knowledge Mr Corcoran's his only claim to fame was his tenure as Lackawanna County Commissioner years ago. This is a guy who LOST to Robert Cordaro. The seeds of today's fiscal crisis in county government were planted then. What does that tell you?

To the best of my knowledge he has not held a meaningful private sector job. What does that tell you?

He hand-selected as a County Commissioner running mate an individual, Randy Castellani, who was dramatically unqualified for the Commissioner position. How unqualified? Prior to the Commissioner job the top of his resume listed "Dispatcher" as his professional claim to fame. No disrespect to Mr Castellani intended, but if that qualified him County Commissioner then I think I'm readily qualified to be the next Ambassador to Sweden. Talar du svenska?


The local powers-that-be love Bob Mellow and no doubt love Joe Corcoran ; let's hope though that they don't have the final say here, as I think we deserve better than simply staying the course. It's time to pull this weed before it has a chance to take root.

Gambling

Gort and others had blogs posted about an illegal gambling ring operated out of a Hayna-Gulch sports bar. Now since I don't go to bars and I don't gamble, on the surface the whole thing has little interest to me, but Gort touched on something that I think is very interesting: the fact that gambling is a crime...well only if the State doesn't get a piece of the action.

Think about it:
  • Betting on the horses is WRONG, unless you do it at a State-approved track, with a percentage of the house take will be kicked back to the government in the form of taxes.
  • Running a numbers racket is WRONG, unless you go to the local convenience store and buy a State lottery ticket. Correct me if I'm wrong, but in this case, isn't the State actually acting in the role of a bookie?
  • Playing card games for money is WRONG, unless you want to go to a New Jersey casino, you know those institutions that were supposed to turn Atlantic City into a paradise from the hell hole it had previously been. Ever been to Atlantic City lately? It is a paradise, well at least for the first three or four blocks from the Boardwalk. The rest of the town is still a hell hole. Not to worry though, card games are coming to your local Pennsylvania casino shortly, where of course the State will get a large piece of the action.

Look, I don't gamble, period. That's not to say that I haven't blown $5 on the slot machines twice in my life, because I have. However gambling never had an appeal to me, which I suspect is a product of the fact that I grew up in a single parent household where we just didn't have the money for stuff like that. That's a fancy way of saying that I was raised to be cheap. No bother, as I know people who do gamble and enjoy it, and as long as they are losing their own money none of us should care.

What does bother me about this stuff? To state the obvious, it's the blatant hypocrisy of it all. Once again we have the government telling us that, for example, running a numbers racket is wrong, unless of course it's the State running the racket. Hypocrisy? My Lord, it's so blatant when it comes to gambling that it borders on hilarious. Also hilariously hypocritical are the casino advertisements that have the lightening fast "gambling problem help" disclaimers at the end. Correct me if I'm wrong, but a 60 second radio spot for a casino is DESIGNED to get people to gamble more, not the opposite?

If I didn't know better, I'd say that 'government' spelled backward was 'hypocrisy'.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Moby Dick, Star Trek & Scranton Politics


"He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."

- Moby Dick


I typed the above quote having a very fancy copy of Moby Dick sitting on my bookshelf, but actually I have to confess that it comes to mind whenever I think of the Star Trek movie "First Contact". You can see a clip from the movie where the quote is uttered HERE. I love the quote and the way it's woven into the movie. For those who are not familiar with Star Trek in general or this movie specifically, First Contact basically deals in large part with how Captain Picard reacts when confronts a foe that did him harm in years past. His actions are largely driven by revenge, a motive that he himself isn't aware of until nearly the end of the movie, when someone points it out to him. That's a hallmark of great science fiction in general (and Star Trek in particular): the ships and aliens are simply a vehicle to tell a larger story dealing with an underlying moral theme.

Anyway, so what the hell does any of the above have to do with Scranton politics? Read on.

For years Scranton's unionized public safety employees have been locked in a battle with Mayor Chris Doherty over wages and benefits. The details are mind numbing, but suffice to say he wants less and they want more. Fair enough. One of the outcomes of this epic struggle has been the fact that these employees have not seen a raise in "umpteen" years (where "umpteen" = a lot). You could say that they are upset. What to do? Well they are of course engaged in the requisite legal battles with the Mayor, but they also have another line of attack in the guise of City Council President Janet Evans.

In my estimation, Mrs Evans is in large part a product of the need for these unionized employees to exact some measure of revenge upon the Mayor. He hurt them, so they will hurt him via Mrs Evans. Now I don't solely view Mrs Evans as being a pawn in all of this, as she has far too much ambition to anyone's blunt force instrument; never the less I think that's the net desired impact she will have from the perspective of these unionized employees. "Revenge is a dish best served cold" (another Star Trek quote by the way), and there are few things colder than the relationship between Janet Evans and Chris Doherty. You need only look at Mrs Evans recent forays into eliminating a Library Authority (for financial reasons, even though the Authority didn't really have the ability to incur debt anyway) and cutting select mayoral appointee salaries as evidence of just how cold the relationship really is these days. For the record, the savings from those reduced salaries will in part gp towards hiring more hourly employees...unionized employees. Think of it as a way for Mrs Evans to shore up the base.

Now I have no clue what he end game to all of this will ultimately be, but a few things are pretty clear to me at this stage:

1. There is plenty of bad behavior to be found on both sides. It's simply wrong on the Mayor's part to not provide reasonable cost of living adjustments to unionized public safety employees and it's simply wrong on the part of unionized employees to use things like sleazy anonymous Internet message board postings to attack the family and reputation of the Mayor. "He hurt them, so they will hurt him."

2. Mrs Evans' agenda has far more to do with ambition and exacting a pound of two of flesh from the Mayor (that whole revenge thing) than it has to do with good governance or fiscal responsibility. Note that I have nothing against anyone being ambitious, including Mrs Evans, but let's just be honest about it: Mrs Evans is no more Scranton's savior than Chris Doherty is the cause of all its problems. While the Tax Payers Association may not want to hear this, I think Mrs Evans and Mr Doherty actually have a few things in common, particularly in the ambition department.

3. As long as Mrs Evans and Mr Doherty are busy playing their political arm-wrestling game, the residents of Scranton will not be properly served by their government.


Yes, this will make for interesting reading over the next couple of years, but mark my words: when all is said and done, Scranton's wage tax will still be 3.4% and the city will still be on the brink of a fiscal abyss. Why? Because basal motivations like revenge and unchecked ambition seldom produce anything positive, a fact that Starbuck learns the hard way in Moby Dick.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Road Apples, #56

I Got A Shiver In My Bones Just Thinking About The Weather...I love that song by the way. Anyway, the weather has been the story today, with the Governor closing several highways and just generally crappy road conditions. As for me, I worked this morning and then took the afternoon off, as I have a ton of days that I need to use by March 31st anyway. No sense complaining though, as this winter has been relatively mild. What's more, it's almost March...well, kind of.

Senator Mellow Follies...I gritted my teeth to listen to Sue Henry today, and heard more than a few comments about how Senator Mellow's resignation came on the heels of the check-backside release. Something is a-foot, mark my words.

Senator Mellow Replacements...Lots of great blogs out there dealing with the resignation and potential candidates; personally I like the notion of Chris Phillips running, as he seems to be a "look you in the eye & shoot straight" kind of guy. For example, while I don't completely buy his "non-profits are ripping Scranton off by not paying taxes" rap, I admire his zest at researching the issue. He also seems to be his own man, not being aligned with any of the assorted nut-bag factions that comprise the Scranton political scene. On the other end of the spectrum you have Representative Jim Wansacz, who appears to be channeling Senator Mellow, circa 1970 (in other words, a "lifer in the wings"), which coupled with his apparently close relationship with the $188K man seems to paint a less than desirable picture in my book.

The best comment I read about potential candidates came from NEPArtisan, who wrote the following about a Gary DiBileo candidacy:

Gary DiBileo considers running for pretty much everything, so it only makes sense that he’s considering this.

Great stuff, and no disrespect to Mr DiBileo, who by the way is a great insurance agent.

Speaking of NEPArtisan...I had a great exchange with Tom about sales taxes on Facebook. That's a blog in and of itself, but just by way of brief commentary, I am a fan of consumption based taxation, but that doesn't seem to be what Governor Rendell is proposing. Rather, the Governor seems to be simply moving the shells around, dropping the overall rate but adding other items to be taxed. I'm more in favor of a sweeping overhaul of the tax structure, creating a consumption based tax that would apply to virtually everything (except non-prepared food & medicine). More bloviation (is that a real word????) to come on this topic.

Supertramp
...is the most under-rated band of 1970's, bar none. Just wanted to add that for the record.

Sloth...In the sloth department, I am glad to report that I actually took the opportunity this afternoon to get a few things accomplished, including the continued large-scale cleaning of my home office.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Senator Mellow's "Interesting" Timing

For a while The Scranton Times has been hammering State Senator Robert Mellow over the whopping $188,000 his campaigns have written out to simply "cash" over the years. While I'm not a lawyer, it seems to me that cash payments like this are intended for minor expenses, not those totally nearly two hundred thousand dollars. Senator Mellow's initial response to this controversy was to hand over copies of the checks...the FRONT SIDE of the checks. You know, this would be the side that simply says that the check was made out to cash, not who endorsed the check. Anyway, I believe it was yesterday (or it could have been this morning) that the Senator's advisers handed over the back-sides of the checks. Good for Senator Mellow and great work on the part of Times.

What happened next?

Well Senator Mellow quickly announces that he is retiring. Article link HERE.

Now is it me or is it just a coincidence that the resignation comes on the heels of surrendering the endorsed copies of the above mentioned cash payments? When it comes to politics...particularly in this area...I don't readily believe in coincidences.

So what to make of all this? At this stage I am unsure. As I've written before, it's my opinion that Senator Mellow should have resigned years ago:

  • The issue with the nearly two hundred thousand dollars in cash campaign payments.
  • He has engaged in blatant conflicts of interest by accepting Board positions with institutions (such as BC/BS of NEPA) that he can indirectly have a hand in regulating via proposing/voting on legislation, acting on appointments, etc. If I engaged in similar behavior at work I would be told to resign from the Board(s) or face termination of employment.
  • It has been reported that he crafted a deal whereby the state was paying him to rent property for his own office at a higher-than-market rates.
  • His blatant disregard for constituents who were rightfully enraged to over the last legislative late-night pay raise.
  • His penchant for using OUR MONEY to have things named after him. I wrote something about two years ago about how anything named "Mellow _______" should instead be renamed "Taxpayer __________" as I highly doubt that the Senator has been spreading nearly has much personal cash around as he has been spreading out ours.

Needless to say, I am glad to see the Senator retire. Here's to hoping that his replacement will have an ever so slightly smaller ego and a stronger desire for constituent...rather than personal... enrichment. This, coupled with the indictments in Luzerne County (and at least one possible indictment in Lackawanna County) could mark the end of the "political favors as a cottage industry" that has been the hallmark of NEPA for decades.

The Tea Baggers Come Out of the Closet

Yes, the Tea Baggers made it official last week: they are simply a fringe arm of the Republican Party. How do I know this? But, but, but they are a new, "grass roots" political uprising, right?

No.

According to the Tea Baggers themselves (and as reported in many places...I personally like the story in Militant Libertarian.org), to be accepted by the Tea Bagging Party you must fully support the Republican Party's platform. Maybe I missed something, but if the platforms are one in the same, then how could the Tea Bagging Party be not be indistinguishable from the Republican Party?

Now it all held such promise for me, at least at first. I'm not in favor of bailout money, massive stimulus spending and I absolutely agree that most politicians in Washington DC are more skilled at self preservation than they are at representing constituents. Then came the national bus tour, coordinated by RNC Strategists, complete with blatantly racist signs depicting the President as an African Witch Doctor, at which point I knew that whatever started as a grass-roots organization had morphed into the political equivalent of a ball-peen hammer. The fact that Michael Steele gave all of this "wink, wink, nod, nod" approval provided a sick coda to the whole damn thing. I should have expected as much, after all, Mr Steele probably had to be part of this as part of his Penance for committing the sin of criticizing drug-addict Rush Limbaugh (with apologies to drug addicts everywhere who might be offended at the comparison to Limbaugh).

Those of us looking for a truly grass-roots, non-partisan political organization...one that recognizes that both established political parties have been bought and paid for by special interests...will need to look elsewhere.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Personal Quirks and Oddities

Sometimes I get tired of thinking & writing about "heavy" stuff. Maybe that's why I would never make a good politician, as I simply can't live political stuff 24/7/365. Today is one of those days, and while part of me would love nothing better than to talk about the "Tea Baggers", the rest of my is simply too tired to even consider it.

Tired. I am rather tired at the moment. My legs are killing me, and it was extremely difficult to get in my workout at the gym this afternoon. I guess I should be glad that I got it in anyway, but still I am paying for it at the moment. At least my right arm isn't feeling too bad today. Man, getting old isn't all it's cracked up to be. The fact that I tend to be always on the move during the day and I that I don't sleep enough (either in quantity or quality) probably doesn't help all that much.

Okay, I've now written two paragraphs, and about what? That I'm old and creaky? Cue Christian Bale saying

"Good for yooouuuuu".

So what I am really thinking? Well while not at front of mind, I have been thinking a lot lately about how I have this perception of walking on this very narrow pipe of sanity. Maybe that sounds horribly dramatic, but note that I said "pipe" and not "tightrope". You know, it's like that Stealer's Wheel song, "Stuck in the Middle with You"...

Clowns to the left of me
Jokers to the right

...except it's not clowns or jokers that are on either side of my pipe. Now before I say anything else, I don't want to imply that my existence is in any way worse than that of anyone else, because it's not. In fact I'm a privileged human being, having a relatively healthy (all be it creaky) body, a healthily imaginative mind, and marvelous children. I also live in the greatest country of in the world, a place where anyone can be anything.

Clue "God Bless America" (by Kate Smith).

Anyway, I've always found that I walk this fine line of sanity. I have more than enough parental genetic predisposition (from both sides) to probably file my disability claim now, but I've never been one for taking the easy way out anyway. Besides, rather than giving me an excuse to wallow in the mis-aligned neurons that most likely inhabit my head, the stresses of sanity have instead been this irresistible source of motivation to me. In a way it's my grand, life-long, on-going "F__k You!" statement to the universe. As that great American poet and crack-head Bobby Brown once said...

...that's my prerogative

...and he was right. There is absolutely nothing I can do about, for example, the history of alcohol abuse that seems about as common to my genetic code as blue eyes are in the DNA of most Swedes. But I've chosen to simply not drink. There is nothing I can do about, for example, the cynicism and negativity that resides to this day in my family, but I can chosen to wake up every day as early as I can and attack the day like it's my last. Maybe it will be, but hell, I'm going to go on my feet.

In the end it all comes down to this: the tension that has existed with me for all these years has been the one thing that has not only helped me keep my sanity, but it has helped me grow as a person.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Response to Comment: The Fallacy of Too Big To Fail"

Preface
NEPArtisan was kind enough to comment on my posting on "Too Big To Fail", so I thought I'd add a few thoughts in reply via a separate posting.

Before I write anything else, I want to thank specifically Tom & generally anyone who stops by to read this stuff. I don't write this to entertain, amuse, enlighten or enrage anyone except me; to the extent that anyone reads this stuff and find it interesting, well that's probably more of a compliment than I actually deserve.

So on to the posting. I'm letting Tom's comments stand as-is, with my responses noted in dark red italic text.

************************
The "too big to fail" moniker may be a political buzz term, but it isn't undeserved.

Your argument that irresponsibility is the problem is indeed accurate, but when banks become mega in size and scope, the likelihood of fraud sets in.

I disagree with the premise. There are plenty of smaller businesses in general and banks specifically that engage in fraud all the time. The fact they don't make the news (be in "regular" or business) is simply a function of media/public interest, and I've never read a credible piece of evidence that shows a correlation between size and propensity for graft/fraud/wrong-doing. You could argue that larger organizations are sufficiently complex that it's easier to disguise fraud, but I could then argue that smaller organizations are less scrutinized, so what they lack in complexity is made up in anonymity.


The size of a company is directly relative to the damage it could do if fraud is perpetrated.

Yes, but I could substitute the word "company" for any "organization" and the same would be true. In other words, your point is not unique to for-profit companies in general or the financial services industry specifically. See my reference to Microsoft, below.


In a capitalistic system, greed is an oft-rewarded virtue and taking advantage of either lax regulation or confusing financial products, etc. is further enabled by size. Obfuscation and purchasing power (i.e. lobbying, lawyers, etc.) grow with company size as well.

GREED - Well first, greed is not a virtue, it's technically a vice. It's easy to get caught up in the Bernie Madoff's and AIG's of this world, and for sure every organization has it's share of greed-heads and villains. Note the word "organization". I could argue that greed was the driver of one of the worst judicial scandals in US history, right in our backyard (with judges Chiav & Conn); was that greed perpetuated as a result of organizational size? No, it wasn't the court that was greedy, it was the judges.

FINANCIAL PRODUCT COMPLEXITY - In my opinion three things drive the complexity of financial products in the US:


1 - The sorry state of the US Tax Code.
Want to know why many products are overly complex? Honestly...and I say this as someone who is fairly progressive when it comes to social issues...it's because successive Presidents and Congresses (both Republican and Democratic) have use the Tax Code as a tool for social engineering. If you want to use the power of taxation to create change, then one of the by-products is going to be an incredibly complex tax code. This, in turn, makes financial products much more complex, as they must live within the system. It also creates a cottage industry in the "how to pay less in taxes" business, which both individuals and corporations take advantage of all the time.

2. Litigation.
Right or not, many financial institutions feel compelled to create incredibly complex products & documentation in order to satisfy any and every potential legal challenge. Lawyers in Congress write laws so that only lawyers outside of government can interpret them so that litigation attorneys can take advantage of them when someone might be harmed in some fashion.

3. Society is Complex
Finally, we simply live in a complex society. For example...we all want to be able to download MP3s from the Internet, but yet how many of us actually understand the process by which that music is made available & how the artists, music companies, distributors, etc all make money? That's just one example in a small pocket of our society; multiply it by 1000 if you want to get into the guts of how money flows in this country. Maybe the Amish have it right, but the reality is that we have collectively created in incredibly complex society.


SCALE OBFUSCATION, etc. - Yes, scale can create opportunities for graft, but it doesn't create that graft. It's also not unique to corporations. For example, it's fair to say that there is graft and wrong-doing in the Department of Defense, but yet is Congressman Kanjorski claiming that it should be broken up, lest it fail and throw the country into disarray?


When these companies engage in fraud (only two people have been charged in the crisis, and both were acquitted by the way) the impact is exacerbated by their market share.

Would the same argument be made if Microsoft were found to have perpetuated an act of fraud? Talk about too big to fail! According to Marketshare.com, Microsoft is used as the operating system on something like 92% of the world's computers. The potential failure of Microsoft could be catastrophic (for example, MS produces a virus patch a month for it's operating systems...if it were gone, that would disappear, exposing millions of computers to hackers and viruses), but yet "too big to fail" is being applied as a remedy to companies in the financial services sector. Now why would that be?

{pause}

Here's why: because right now it's SEXY to beat on the financial services industry. They are today's boogie-men, just like some other industry was 5 years ago. What's more, Congressman Kanjorski is guilty of at least being disingenuous, as he has received more than his share of money from this same industry he is demonizing.



Hence, "Too big to fail". Sure, you could say something like "So big that systemic corruption causes financial meltdown" but the former label sounds better.


It's isn't "big" or "corporations" that create greed and graft, it's people.

I've worked in the financial services industry for 21 years, and for most of that time I've had a Pennsylvania Insurance License & Securities Industry registrations. I've seen a lot over these years, from people that were/are some of the brightest human beings on the planet to others who should be selling used cars in Nannicoke for a living. What I haven't seen is a systemic pattern of evil behavior perpetuated because companies happen to be large. That's one of the reasons why "too big to fail" bothers me.

Another reason? I work for a large financial services company that did not receive TARP money, one that has not engaged in systemically fraudulently behavior, one that has managed assets in a conservative manner for more than 125 years. Yet, my employer...simply by virtue of it's size...could end up being negatively impacted by "too big to fail" legislation. Why? Because it is big.

Tom, I agree that there is fraud in the financial services industry, but I don't agree that organizational size is a cause. That kind of logic seems (as I've noted before) designed to be a smoke-screen to hide the real issue: a history of regulatory failure in the industry. Think about it: Is it logical to potentially punish companies like Met Life and Prudential because of the failings of companies like AIG and The Hartford (for example)? That would be like the US government punished every person of Saudi Arabian decent for the actions of the 911 terrorists.

A final example: probably the worst example of industry fraud was perpetuated by Bernie Madoff, a man who founded a firm that was actually fairly small in overall size relative to this industry. Yet Madoff literally "made off" with enormous sums of money. What failed there? In my opinion Madoff symbolized the real issue: namely that many segments of the industry are largely self-regulated.

What really should be done? Congressman Kanjorski and others who advocate for "Too Big To Fail" legislation should, in my opinion, spend their energies to craft a regulatory structure that is more independent and rigorous. Let's stop letting the industry largely police itself. That will most likely not happen for a variety of reasons, including the fact that discussions about SRO's (Self Regulatory Organizations) don't make for very good sound bytes...hell, I don't think that the public at large even knows that this industry largely polices itself.


Friday, February 5, 2010

Gays in the Military

I come into this issue with two basic thoughts:
  1. It's not the federal government's business to know what someone does in the privacy of their own bedroom.
  2. The arguments against gays in the military (morale, unit cohesion, etc.) sound an awful lot like the arguments used against racially integrating the military half a century ago.
As a third point, I offer the following: Gays can serve openly in the Israeli Army...a military widely considered to be the best in the world.

To my first point, I always find it interesting that there are those who are opposed to a "big, intrusive" government but yet have no problem with that same government legislating morality. It's as if we have some people who mouth "small government" but actually want a big government, well as long as that big government extols certain values that they believe. As for me, I want a government that does what it's supposed to and stays the hell out of my personal life. To that end, one of the things the government is supposed to do is defend our borders. If someone want to help defend those borders...and they meet the physical and mental requirements for that kind of thing...then why should we care what their sexual orientation is?

Oh, but what if a male soldier "hits on another man"? Well the military already has rules in place to deal with that kind of thing between heterosexuals, so it seems to me that they could be applied in homosexual instances as well.

It's time to end legalized discrimination against gays in the military. I understand that some will be uncomfortable with this at first, however some were uncomfortable when President Truman racially integrated the military in 1948 and yet hindsight clearly teaches us that was the right thing to do. It seems to me that this the right thing to do as well.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Repeating: The Fallacy of "Too Big To Fail"

I saw another reference to "Too Big To Fail" in a local blog (link here) which of course goaded me into another tirade. Maybe the blog author will post my long-winded comment. In the event that he doesn't, I thought I'd do a small dump here.

The big issue with "Too Big To Fail" is that it is a sound-byte solution to the wrong problem. The issue isn't the size of a company, the issue is a lack of effective risk management and regulation. What many people don't know is that the Securities and Exchange Commission basically outsources financial services industry regulation to the industry itself. The concept is that of the "Self Regulatory Organization", which is a fancy way of saying "fox guarding the chicken coup".

Of course politicians love "Too Big To Fail" because it sounds good. Who isn't against those "big bad insurance companies/banks/etc."? However admitting that there have been decades of ineffective regulation is not exactly a win for Washington DC politicians, especially those who are well entrenched.

Don't buy the fallacy of "Too Big To Fail".

Qualification/Explanation: Lobbying vs Campaign Contributions

In an earlier post I used the term "lobbying" quite a bit in a way that was basically interchangeable with the notion of making campaign contributions. It was brought to my attention that these are distinctly different activities, to which I'd like to respond in the following manner:

Bull$hit!

Now that's a qualified "bull$hit", in that for small campaign contributions, I do believe that there is a distinction between the two activities. For example, I could donate $10 to Paul Kanjorski's campaign*, and that would be a distinctly different activity than visiting him to express my displeasure with the whole ridiculous "too big to fail" nonsense he spews (which would be a form of lobbying...quite ineffective...but lobbying never the less).

Now let's take the case a large corporation that can direct large sums of money towards a particular candidate's PAC, campaign, etc. Anyone out there expect that this money is coming without strings attached?

In a nutshell here's the difference: You and I, as individuals, can financially support a candidate without the expectation that we will actually get anything from that candidate that will personally impact us. Corporations (or unions, or trade groups) contribute specifically because they expect to get something out of that "expression of free speech". As a result, I'd argue that for a large organization, lobbying and campaign contributions are intertwined in a way that makes them inseparable.


(*) For the record, I would just as soon pry my eyeballs out with rusty spoons than donate to Congressman Kanjorski's campaign. However since I can spell "Kanjorski" I decided to use his name for the example.

Something of a Legal Roundup

Torturing Kittens
Yes, mutilating kittens is wrong. It's wrong to use 14 gauge needles to pierce their ears and necks, and it's wrong to tie string around their tails so tightly that it causes them to fall off. Hell, a jury even said so.

Story Link Here.

It's often been said, but I've found this to be true: anyone capable of this kind of animal cruelty is capable of far worse. Let's hope that there is a sufficiently long jail sentence to go along with this madness. Oh, and I'm not shedding a tear that the individual in question can no longer have pets. Too bad. This "person" should have thought of that before torturing the kittens.

One final thought: some of NEPAs enlightened crowd (via postings to the Scranton Times article) have claimed that what was done to those kittens was no worse than having an infant's ears pierced. I was being sarcastic in that last comment, which is apparently something I'm gaining a reputation for these days. Anyway, that kind of thought...comparing the kittens to infants...would be true if stupid parents also tied strings around the fingers of their babies in order to have one or more digits fall off. Case closed.


Relations with a Mentally Retarded Woman is Deemed Consensual
Story Link Here.

Yes, according to a jury, it is possible to have consensual sexual relations with someone having the mental capacity of a 9 year old. Never mind the fact that in Pennsylvania the actual age of consent is 16 years old, as apparently that's subject to a kind of legal "your exact words" test, at least as far as the jury was concerned. Look, I wasn't there so I can't claim any insight other than what I read. However I do have some experience working with mentally handicapped individuals (having spent my holidays and summers working for Keystone Community Resources when I was in college), and it seems pretty clear to me that the prosecutor was right in this case: the lady in question doesn't understand what sex, marriage or pregnancy are, let alone be able to consent to any kind of "relationship".

Maybe I'm way off base here, but this just seem so very, very wrong.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Johnny Depp & Roman Polanski, Follow-Up


It was brought to my attention that perhaps Johnny Depp really meant that Roman Polanski is not one of these...an alien predator from another planet. Admitted child rapist? Yes. Evil alien predator from another planet? No. And who says that consensus is dead?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Johnny Depp & Roman Polanski

I heard about this on Howard Stern this morning...

Johnny Depp: Roman Polanski Not A Predator

I'm sorry, but someone who admits to pumping a 13 year old girl full of Roofies and then repeatedly rapes her IS A PREDATOR. Think about it, if this doesn't constitute being a predator, then what the hell does?

Remember two things here:

...a 13 year old is not capable of consenting to sexual relations
...Polanski admitted to the actions

This whole case makes my blood boil. Why is Johnny Depp defending Roman Polanski? Who the hell knows. My best guess is that it's the whole "cult of celebrity" thing at work. You know, this is the notion that because Polanski is famous the act of raping a 13 year old is somehow diminished is some bizarre way. Note that Johnny Depp (and Roman Polanski) don't deny that a 13 year old was raped.

Polanski belongs in jail for the rest of his miserable life. I don't care how famous he is, who wonderful his marriage is, how beautiful his children are; raping a child makes you a sick, disgusting, predator.

Corporate Rights

Now that the United States Supreme Court has basically affirmed that corporations enjoy free speech rights (see a very good summary of the recent case HERE), it got me thinking: What other "right" should corporations now enjoy?

How about the right the bear arms? Sure, many companies employ armed security (my employer does, although they are not the security guards you see when you enter the building), but why stop there? Perhaps corporations should be allowed to have their own militias. Sounds crazy? I don't know that it's much crazier than the notion that a corporation as free speech rights.

Here's why I am adamantly opposed to this ruling: If speech were like water flowing through a pipe, then money is like the pressure that the water is under. My voice...my speech (and yours as well) is like a drip on the head of your elected representatives. The voice of a corporation, supported by large sums of money, is like a fire hose pointed at your elected representative. Tell me, which will get noticed?

I know, some will claim "but unions and liberal special interest groups...", which is a difficult argument to counter until you think back to my water analogy. One single Fortune 50 company probably earns in a given year an amount equal to several of the treasuries of the largest unions in this country. Now I am not what you would consider a union supporter (that's an understatement), but let's just keep things in perspective. Unions can never compete with for-profit special interests in the lobbying arena, as they simply lack the resources. The real truth here is that un-muzzled corporations can easily out-spend other special interest groups. Sure, shareholders have a say in all of this (which is the argument that the Limbaugh's of the world would probably make), but I highly doubt that most corporate stockholders:

1. Know how much their companies spend on lobbying
2. Care how much their companies spend on lobbying

I speak from experience, as I own many shares of my employer's stock and I have no clue as to where this information could be found. The business of a corporation is to make money for its shareholders, so if a (now) legal activity like lobbying helps in that regard, then you could make the case that there is nothing wrong about it. The "wrong" part is that corporations are legally allowed to do this in the first place; failing to use all legal means to maximize profit actually runs counter to the nature of a for-profit corporation.

Look, some may not want to admit this, but the reality of this situation is that money (in volume) is what influences elections in this country. My voice is a whisper...add it to yours it may be a chorus...but now corporations have a much more powerful megaphone. Let's see who gets heard.