Friday, November 21, 2008


What do the poor deserve?

Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Phillippines, was famous for her vast collection of shoes. When a reporter from the United States asked her about her shoes, and the other luxury items she had collected, Marcos seemed a little puzzled. "You Americans like nice things," she answered. "I watch Dallas, I've seen how you live." I don't think Imelda Marcos ever got over feeling that she was entitled to the things that political corruption bought her, or feeling that Americans, who have it so good, were judging her unfairly.

I think of her when I see parents going without health insurance or reliable cars in order to buy stylish clothing and trips to Disneyland for themselves or their children. Part of what they are doing is being "good Americans." Good Americans aspire to the world portrayed in television shows, popular music and mass marketed movies. Good Americans spend money to make sure that they, and their children, fit in to the majority culture.

A woman I know, a single mother who struggles financially, had her name chosen for a program that donates Christmas gifts for needy families. She was asked to fill out a wish list, and she wrote down the items her children had been asking for. One of the items was rather expensive, an Xbox 360. It was probably unrealistic for her to ask for it, but it was something that she, if she'd had the money to pick out her children's gifts, would have tried to get them.

Someone from the agency that put this family into the program told me, "I didn't leave that on the list. They shouldn't be asking for big ticket things like that, when they need warm coats and food." I thought that was a pretty smug attitude. What she seemed to be saying was: These are poor people, unsuccessful in navigating our society. Poor children have no right to ask for the same ridiculous, extravagant gifts that the rest of us might want.

I think attitudes like that from the "haves" are part of the reason that we get people like Imelda Marcos in this world. A lot of really bad situations, in politics and in personal life, arise from envy. When you decide a disadvantaged family isn't even allowed to want anything frivolous, how do do expect them to feel?

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Monday, November 17, 2008


Electronics and information: apples and oranges?

In yesterday's "Media Equation" column, The New York Times' David Carr shares some recent history:

In March 2007, Circuit City came up with a plan to confront softening sales and competition from online and offline retailers: fire the most talented, experienced employees.

Of course, those workers were the retail chain’s single most important point of difference from the legion of Internet retailers and general merchandisers, but in a single stroke, Philip J. Schoonover, the chief executive of Circuit City, wiped out that future.

As a pal of mine used to say when I described a particularly boneheaded course of action I had pursued, “How’d that work out for you, buddy?”

For Circuit City, not so great. The “wage management initiative” erased morale, both for employees and the folks who shopped there. Sales sank after the one-time gain from the layoffs. And last week, the company sought bankruptcy protection.....

....In the digital age, we’re told, the critical difference between success and failure is human capital — those heartbeats and fast hands that can make a good business great. So are newspapers reacting to their downturn as Circuit City did?

My question for Mr. Carr is, Where have you been for the last thirty years? Many of the grizzled fonts of wisdom who are leaving the business in these current rough times got their start during the seventies and eighties. They were the bright-eyed young interns and low-paid recent graduates who were hired to replace the previous generation of highly-paid experts.

Journalism pioneered the strategy of hiring cheaper help to keep overhead down. Of course, in those days the substitutions were engineered through buyouts and attractive early retirement packages, not straightforward layoffs. As a result there were still a few veterans around to show the newbies how it is done. What newspapers are doing now is partly cyclical. There are fewer jobs in traditional newsrooms for the current crop of young guns, but many nowadays are bypassing the traditional outlets.

Carr is exactly right about Circuit City, and that company's fate is a cautionary tale for any business or agency that thinks workers are interchangeable pegs to be plugged into any opening. But what is really needed in a healthy enterprise is a combination -- of employees who have been around long enough to know what they're doing and those who are open to new ideas.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008


To Sasha, he's still just "Daddy."

I switched this over from Nuanced Faith because I felt I was getting a little too political (over there) and a little too negative (over here.) It is still my favorite Obama photo so far.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008


more sleazy, self-serving behavior from the financial sector

Today's New York Times offers an opinion on executive pay, in an editorial titled "Money Really is Fungible." An excerpt:

Just weeks after the Treasury Department gave nine of the nation’s top banks $125 billion in taxpayer dollars to save them from unprecedented calamity, bank executives are salting money away in billionaire bonus pools to reward themselves for their performance.

Outraged? The bankers (who didn’t anticipate the subprime crisis) were ready for that. So they are assuring everyone that this self-directed largess won’t be paid with the same dollars they got from taxpayers. They’ll use other ones.

What we want to know is will they be marking the bills so they can be sure which is which?

Unfortunately, the legislation that created the $700 billion rescue fund barely touched on the problem of executive compensation — limiting bonuses only when they are found to have been based on inaccurate statements of earnings or when they are deemed to encourage bankers to take “unnecessary and excessive risks.” The new Congress should impose tighter limits on executive pay at banks taking taxpayer money.

So lemme get this straight: It's okay to raid employee pension funds and shareholder dividends to pay off debts and keep the company afloat, but the executive bonus pool is sacrosanct? Get your pitchforks, it's time for an angry mob!

There is a reason that public employees tend to make less than their counterparts in private industry. It is because taxpayers are stingier with a dime than private board members can afford to be. Maybe it hasn't dawned on these people yet that their jobs are currently dependent on public financing.

Merriam-Webster online says that the adjective fungible comes from the New Latin fungibilis, from Latin fungi, to perform. It has the same root as the word function. Their definition: being of such a nature that one part or quantity may be replaced by another equal part or quantity in the satisfaction of an obligation; example "oil, wheat, and lumber are fungible commodities."

Sorry, but I'm not willing for my tax dollar to replace the function of money that was lost in bad business deals.

The whole reason for the ridiculous compensation levels was that the bank officials were willing to personally share the risks that they lead their companies into. If we taxpayers are assuming the risk for their decisions, then the bonus is for...what? Looking good in an expensive suit?

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Friday, November 07, 2008


Did Bella Abzug Predict Sarah Palin?

I like Sarah Palin, although I am relieved that she is not going to be vice president. This isn't because she is overly religious, or not well-read, or speaks with an annoying accent. I think her biggest mistake -- and it is a common one -- is her unwillingness to admit it when she doesn't know the answer to a question.

McCain didn't pick her as a policy expert, but as a charming outsider. Instead of claiming that Alaska's proximity to Russian indicated foreign policy know-how, or hemming and hawing when asked her reading preferences, she should have said, to the first, "I don't know, but I'd find out before I made any rash decisions." To the second, "I have five kids and a full-time job. I only wish I had time to read magazines!" In both cases she could have followed up with a pledge to surround herself with well-informed professionals and take heed of their briefings.

This week MSNBC offered an alternative take on the significance of her run for vice president. Perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that a woman just as underqualified as Dan Quayle or Spiro Agnew can earn serious consideration from voters. An excerpt:

"...the governor may become, in some ways, a landmark figure for future female candidates, said Astrid Henry, a visiting professor of gender and women’s studies at Grinnell College in Iowa.

First, Henry said, Palin may well be an example of feminist Bella Abzug’s observance: 'Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel.'

'This is a good example of that, that someone has been put out there, grilled and found wanting,' Henry said...."

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Thanks for the clarification.

I belong to a lot of different interest groups. I'm Catholic, and I subscribe to a few (mostly but not all liberal) Catholic magazines, newsletters and listserves. Then again, I subscribe to some Jewish news sources, partly for the joy of Torah study. I am registered a Republican, so my party sends me information about the dastardly doings of the Democrats. Then again, I've volunteered for and donated money to Democratic and Green candidates, so I'm on their mailing list as well.

I receive literacy activities from various education sources, and science activities from NOAA. I think it is my New Yorker subscription that gets me the pitches for expensive watches and luxury vacations. Years ago, I had a friend who put a different middle initial on all his subscriptions just to see which ones were associated with what additional mail. And then there are the catalogues....

All this goes part of the way toward explaining two emails I received today and yesterday.

On November 3rd, the day before election day, I received this message from the Republican Jewish Coalition, via the Haaretz mailing list.

"Concerned about Barack Obama? You should be.

Many Americans have questions about Barack Obama and whether his views are good for the United States and Israel. And for good reason.

Most concerning is Sen. Barack Obama's naive grasp of the threats against the United States and Israel.

Obama has surrounded himself with anti-Israel advisors like General Tony McPeak, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Malley and Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Sen. Obama told a Jewish group he supports an undivided Jerusalem, only to flip-flop the very next day. Another time, Obama called his support for an undivided Jerusalem a "poor phrasing" of words.

From his opposition to legislation labeling Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization to his willingness to meet with Iranian President Ahmadinejad without any preconditions, Sen. Barack Obama has raised real questions about his judgment and experience.

Barack Obama has not shown the commitment to stand up to the people who would do us harm."

There were some videos and graphics, and a very small tagline:

Paid for by the Republican Jewish Coalition. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee.

Today, November 4th, is election day. This was in my inbox:

"Dear Haaretz subscribers,

You received an email earlier today from about Barack Obama, on behalf of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

This email was issued by the commercial department and is not Haaretz editorial content.


Haaretz is an Israeli publication that is (like much of Israeli society) loyally critical of their own government -- particularly over the treatment of Palestinians and Arab Israeli citizens. Their coverage of the Obama campaign, and his visit to Israel, was quite positive.

I'd like to think people in the United States do not vote on the basis of what Haaretz recommends, and that anyone who might, could see clearly that the Monday piece was a political ad.
Still, I hope no one ran out and voted in response to the first email before receiving the second one.

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