Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Shirtless in Hawaii

The top item (I am not making this up) on the My Yahoo! news feed today is Shirtless Obama Causes Stir. Evidently some inquisitive cell phone somewhere on the island got a snap of our president-elect in swim trunks, and everybody is flipping out over it.

OK, he's buff. We actually knew that. Will you people now Get A Life??

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Are There No Prisons? Are There No Workhouses?

The California state budget is due, by law, on June 30. However, because of California's absurd requirement of a supermajority 2/3 vote to pass a budget, the minority Republicans in the legislature have successfully blocked the budget for nearly six (count them) months. And in all this time, they've never said what they want to do about the budget; all they've done is object to whatever the Democrats or the governor suggested, especially if it included taxes.

I'm the wrong person to be writing this; the magnitude of this mess deserves the talents of the late, great Molly Ivins. But I'm the one who's here.

Today the Republicans finally revealed a positive plan (in the narrow sense that they would support it; it has no positive features in the usual sense of the word) to balance the state budget.

They want to do it on the backs of California's school children. California K-12 budget this year is $58 billion; they want to reduce that to $48 billion. I can't tell you the exact percentage because the $10 billion cut is over the next 18 months. But it's over 15%, on top of cuts already made so far.

I saw no mention in the Republican plan of reducing any spending on prisons. I guess they'd rather send the kids to jail than educate them. I haven't checked the numbers, but we're close to spending more money on prisons than on schools now, and this could easily put us over the edge.

Mind you, the Republicans don't restrict their attention to the schools; they also want to cut funding for the poor and the mentally ill homeless. Their edifying proposals also include:

...Reduced monthly supplemental security income payments to very poor people. I have a friend receiving SSI - her monthly check would go from $870 to $830. You try living on either of those amounts.

...Reduced funding for mental health services to homeless adults. (Prop. 63, 2004)

...Reduced health care and education programs for very young children (by diverting tobacco taxes back into the general fund). (Prop. 10, 1998)

The numbers and dates in parentheses are the voter-approved propositions which established the funding, and the years they passed. The voters would have to approve the changes, which means a special election, which the state would have trouble paying for without a budget.

They propose one cut I fully approve of: a 5% across the board cut in the Legislature's operating budget, including their salaries. Of course, I don't think they should be paid for what they're doing at all.

Finally, they want to improve the business climate by "relaxing environmental and labor regulations. Those would include extending deadlines to retrofit diesel engines in trucks and changing the rules on overtime pay and meal breaks."

I was wrong. This doesn't need Molly Ivins; this needs Charles Dickens. This is Victorian; and the Republicans are Victorian in their smug self-righteousness. They'd rather see people die of asthma or lung cancer from diesel fumes than force companies to do technically possible retrofits (
there are two sides to the diesel retrofit, and I admit it; but I'm making a point here). They'd rather make people work 14 hour days without overtime pay than force employers to keep track of how many hours their employees work. And they don't care about the poor, the mentally ill, or the homeless.

I wonder how long it'll be before some Republican suggests that we re-institute that great English institution, the workhouse. We certainly have a lot of poor homeless people to put in them.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Ponzi Schemes

After the alleged Madoff affair, are we going to change the name of Ponzi schemes? Will they now be called "Madoff schemes"? He has certainly, if guilty as alleged, taken the practice to hitherto unscaled heights.

It's amazing how great minds think alike. On November 24, I wrote this:
So is the main difference between a bank and a Ponzi scheme the fact that the bank actually intends to give you your money back, on demand, and the Ponzi schemer doesn't? Because in both cases, when you get money back, it isn't "your" money (in the sense that it's the same dollar bills you gave them earlier). It's money that someone else just deposited, which hasn't been loaned out yet. And when that person writes a check, the money that changes hands came from yet someone else.
And today, commenter M W (mrw2day) wrote, on the Planet Money post About that $50 Billion:
I don't understand what all the whinning [sic] is about. Mr. Madoff was conducting business exactly like a bank. Sorta a fractional reserve system of investing. If Mr. Madoff was a bank, the treasury would be bailing him out. Or is it that the banking system is just a giant ponzi scheme?
I really am getting kind of a weird feeling about the banking business from all this.

According to today's Planet Money podcast, what brought Mr. Madoff down was exactly what has brought down several large banks and a couple of brokerage houses: more of his customers wanted their money back at once than he had cash in the house to cover. If he'd been investing in actual assets for them, he could have sold some (although at a loss); since he'd just been spreading it around, so to speak, he couldn't cope.

I will never understand the state of mind that gives large amounts of money to Joe to invest, merely because Joe plays golf at the same club as the mark - sorry, investor. Or because Joe has been managing money for the investor's friend Ed and giving him really reliable returns. I've heard at least one broadcast where a fairly well known financial expert (can't recall who) had reportedly questioned Madoff's returns, because they were "too good to be true" (he effectively never reported a down year) - but nobody listened.

When it comes to money, the human race seems to be lacking a "too good to be true" detector.

In Defense of John Yoo

I've been meaning to post this for several days and was distracted by concerts, inattentive drivers, and other things.

The City Council of Berserkeley is trying to run the world again. Last week they passed a resolution urging the United States to prosecute John Yoo for war crimes. (I presume they expect this prosecution to take place in late January. It won't happen before the inauguration.) The extreme wing actually set out to urge U.C. Berkeley to rearrange its class schedule so no student would ever have to take a course from him, but there were enough semi-rational people on the council that they couldn't get it through.

As everyone knows, John Yoo's "war crimes" consisted of writing the legal memos which the Bush administration used to justify its use of torture on terrorism suspects, when he was a deputy assistant attorney general under the first Bush administration.

Any regular reader of this blog also knows (or should) that I am not in favor of torturing terrorism suspects (or anybody else), that I am generally opposed to almost everything the Bush administration has done (even their anti-AIDS campaign, PEPFAR, is marred by their insistence that no one should use condoms, ever), and that I will be delighted and relieved to see the whole boiling of them oozing out the door in January.

But if John Yoo can be prosecuted for his opinions, who's next?

He didn't act on his opinions; other people did. It's arguable that those people committed war crimes. As far as I know, no one claims that John Yoo has ever done anything except write legal memos and teach law, and have opinions with which a great many people disagree.

Amendment 1 of the U.S. Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..." John Yoo has as much right to state that using torture can be justified in the case of terrorist subjects, or any of the other appalling things he has said, as I have to write this post disagreeing with him. The issue isn't that he wrote the memos. The issue is that the Bush administration acted on his memos. They may even have told him what opinions they'd like to see in the memos.

The Berkeley City Council doesn't understand that freedom of speech is meaningless unless it extends to the most reprehensible opinions you can think of. You have no freedom of speech unless the Nazis, the Communists, and the Ku Klux Klan have freedom of speech. Or unless John Yoo does.

The main restriction on freedom of speech is that one is not allowed to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Is it shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater to opine that torturing terrorists is legal, if you have reason to believe people will act on your opinion?? If there is any parallel there, I think it is overweighted by the importance of maintaining free speech for all opinions, even the wrong ones.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

More Reality Checks

I had a very close call last night. I walked to the mailbox to drop in some letters with checks, which means I have to cross 2 streets. And yes, before you ask, I was wearing a brown jacket and navy slacks. It was around 5 PM on a largely cloudless afternoon, and while it wasn't blazing sunny, it wasn't what I call dark, either. It was bright twilight.

The intersection I have to cross is a T, and I was crossing the base of the T when this happened. As I walked across the street, a car pulled up to the stop sign in front of me, on the arm of the T, and signaled a left turn. I had just about reached the center line, so I stepped out a little to allow the driver to turn behind me. The driver then pulled into the oncoming lane and came straight at me. I jumped backward to get out of the way, lost my balance, and fell in the crosswalk, rolling on my right side. If that judo class I attended briefly decades ago taught me nothing else, it taught me how to fall! The car missed me by maybe two handspans - a little over a foot.

I picked myself up off the pavement as the car pulled to a stop (still in the oncoming lane). The driver (a 60-ish white woman) got out with both hands to her cheeks and said, "My God, I didn't even see you - I was thinking about something else!" My personal take is that when you're driving a car you should be thinking about driving the car, but I realize that's hopeless. I pointed out to her that if she had turned into the correct lane we wouldn't have been having the conversation at all, and stomped off. Except for a sore hand and hip, both of which are largely gone now, I wasn't hurt; but oh brother, was I shaken!

The incredible thing about all this is that I never dropped the letters, which were in my left hand.

I went on to the mailbox, and a woman in a car that had come up (in the lane where the idiot stopped) called to me and asked if I wanted the license plate. On consideration, I decided I did. I tried to report this to the police and they wouldn't take a report since I wasn't injured, and no officer saw the illegal turn. I may yet file a citizen's report.

There's nothing startling here. It's been suggested that I should have been wearing lighter colored clothing, to which I respond that the driver should have been aware of her surroundings. But the most dangerous thing any of us does, ever, is have anything to do with an automobile - including walking across a street in a quiet residential neighborhood.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Value of a Man

I tried to do this subject a couple of years ago and was never satisfied with what I wrote, so I didn't post it. But with the economy falling into a hole, the Big Three automakers tottering on the edge, and the union contract with the UAW intimately involved in all of it, I think it's worth, once again, trying to ask the question:

How do you judge the proper value of a day's work?? What is a fair day's pay, anyhow?

A couple of years ago, a lot of jobs in my former field (computer support) were being outsourced to India, with the (not always unspoken) subtext that it
costs too much to hire Americans . I actually once heard a senior executive from another part of the country tell a room full of California techies, "You people just get paid way too much."

So I began to ask myself, what is a fair day's pay? My father, a blue-collar worker with a high school education, used to work for around $20 a day; he was a Federal civil servant. I have the draft of a letter he wrote in 1963, applying for a job that paid $2.65 an hour, instead of the $2.57 he was making. On that salary he supported a homemaker wife and two children; he owned his home outright (paid $7,000 in 1950, financed $2,000, paid off in 1952) and paid cash for his (used) cars. Minimum wage in 1960 was $1 an hour, the equivalent of $5.26 per hour in 2003 dollars (source: Working Life, published by the Labor Research Association).

Forty-five years later, minimum wage is $8 an hour ($64 a day) in California ($6.55 Federal), and a laborer making that salary can't even afford to pay rent in the inner Bay Area, much less support a wife and two children. In fact, a family with both adults making minimum wage has trouble with rent here. What's the point of calling it "minimum wage" if it isn't enough to live on??

We're told all the manufacturing jobs have gone overseas because it's cheaper there. It's cheaper there because somebody making $20 a day in Vietnam is pretty well paid (I'm making these numbers up to make a point, so don't yell at me), and therefore the widget that he makes can be sold back to Americans for much less money than if we paid Americans $64 a day. Nobody ever seems to ask about the quality of the widgets. Does the Vietnamese factory make widgets of the same quality as an American factory would? We don't ask; all we ask about is the price. And who are the people asking for the cheapest prices, the best deals? Americans. We're not willing to buy goods that have our own salary costs built into them; how dumb is that?

I'm deliberately not getting into the UAW and its union contracts, for a couple of reasons: one, I don't know much about them, two, I have equivocal feelings about the big unions. (That's another post.) But surely, what applies to the minimum wage worker at $8 an hour applies in spades to the UAW assembly worker making over $70 an hour, $33 of which represents health care, pension and related benefits. (Source: Yahoo Answers, from the Indianapolis Star in 2007) I don't know if my hypothetical Vietnamese factory worker has health care or pension benefits, but I doubt it.

Obviously some of the problem is inflation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, $1 in 1960 is worth $7.32 (in buying power) in 2008. But that doesn't explain everything. In 1950, Dad bought his house for $7,000. The dollar in 1994 was worth $6.15 in 1950 buying power; but we sold the house after he died, in 1994, for $144,000, over 20 times what he paid for it. If it had only gone up with general inflation, it would have been worth $43,000. How long has it been since you could buy a house in California for $43,000?
This is why I'm thinking that the economy has a long way to fall yet, as we shake out 50 years worth of real estate hyperinflation.

I'm not being very organized here, and that's because I have more questions than answers. It seems unfair to me that some people should work hard for less than a living wage, while others lose jobs entirely for being paid too generously; but who said it was going to be fair? Is there some way we can get back to a condition where a fair day's work pays a wage you can live on? Or is that too much to hope? We'll surely never reach a balanced solution as long as the men at the top (and it always is men, at the top) are paid hundreds of times the salaries paid to the men and women on the bottom.

Nonprofit Politics

In a nonprofit organization, sometimes the politics get thicker than the actual cause can support. I don't propose to identify the organization. But in the last day or so, one of my volunteer groups has had some manifestations that are just hard to live with:

Somebody finished a job they'd taken on, didn't tell anyone they had done so, and then became personally offended when a second person volunteered to take the job over.

Somebody else didn't attend a meeting, never responded to requests for a draft of wording on a new project, but when yet a third person drafted some wording, came back to say that it was poorly composed and shouldn't be used.

I get tired when people take out their personal issues on the volunteer obligations they've undertaken. And yes, I know it's a hopeless complaint. I'm just having a bad afternoon. Grump.