Thursday, December 30, 2010

We're Going to Sue

Anyone living in California probably knows about the latest flap with the University of California, the 36 highly paid executives who claim they're going to sue the University if they have to retire on a mere $183,750 a year.  For the uninformed, here's the link to the original article.

I'm a U.C. Berkeley alumna, a life member of the alumni association, and I've been donating money to various university related causes most of my working life.  A few years ago, though, I quit donating to the University directly.  This was about the time we started hearing jointly about University executive salaries above $400K, and tuition increases.  (Are you listening, Mr. Yudof?  It was about the time you came on board, and your salary was the trigger.)

I now donate only to the University Library fund (directly) and to the Alumni Association.  A letter writer to the editor in the S.F. Chronicle the other day said she was going to quit donating to the Alumni Association over this flap, but she's got it wrong - the Alumni Association has nothing to do with what University execs get paid.  But this incident has confirmed my conviction that the University (as opposed to the university library) will not get One Dime of my money as long as it has people like these executives running it. 

I understand that there is or may be a contractual issue here, and frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.  These people have completely forgotten - as has the California Legislature - what the University of California was supposed to be about.  It was supposed to be about educating the children of California - NOT educating the children of California who can afford to pay $12,150 per year in tuition and campus fees.  Those kids were supposed to go to Stanford.

The argument for these absurd pension demands - indeed, the argument for the absurd salaries - is that "without higher pensions, U.C. could lose good people."  Baloney.  Horsepucky.  If the Regents chose to fire these prima donnas and advertise their jobs at salaries of $250K with comparable pension, they would be buried under a stampede of intelligent, competent, imaginative and capable people dying to get the jobs.  Especially if they limited the offer to people resident in California for at least 2 years.  University Regent Dick Blum described the litigants as "some of the University's most valuable employees."  More baloney.  These people are department heads - they are meeting attenders and paper pushers whose teaching duties, if any, are secondary.  The university's most valuable employees are the faculty and library staff who teach and support the students.

What really fried my bacon was this insistence that $187,750 a year is not an adequate pension.  Ladies and gentlemen, I retired  3 years ago, taking a lump-sum pension (that is, the entire present value of my pension) which didn't even approach that amount.  My husband is still working, but when he retires he'll get a pension that doesn't even approach that amount, and yet we expect to live very comfortably in retirement.  If you require $300,000 per year to live on in retirement, you need some training in money management, not to mention common sense.

This demand is pure extortion.  Pay us, and let the janitors and department secretaries starve in the gutter when they retire, or we'll sue you.  The University should fire these people and hire competent replacements at half their salaries.  I'm betting that the University would be at least as well managed as it is today.  Of course, that's a very low standard to beat. 

In Matier & Ross' column on Monday, Regent Blum was asked what the Regents would do if the Legislature failed to restore the $450 million it pulled out of U.C.'s budget in 2010.  Mr. Blum's response?  "Try to run the place more efficiently."


Sunday, December 19, 2010

"Yes, Maw"

When I was small, my grandmother lived with us for a while - Dad's mother.  Grandma was a nervous and fussy woman, always telling Dad what he ought to do.  My 40-odd year old father would listen quietly, say, "Yes, Maw," and then do what he was going to do all along.

Which brings me, I'm sorry to say, to P G & E.  Today's S.F. Chronicle had yet another article making it appallingly clear that P G & E has not a single clue on the condition of the gas transmission pipelines they have in the ground.  Furthermore, they deliberately choose to use the least expensive, least disruptive, least effective method of gas pipe "inspection," which failed to identify any problems in the line that blew a big hole in a San Bruno neighborhood last fall.  It looks remarkably like the explosion was caused by a weld failure, to which P G & E's response was, "Oh, there was a weld in that pipe?"

And the PUC lets them do it.  They have never been fined.  The PUC spouts boilerplate about "cooperation" and "safety," but it comes down to this:   P G & E has trained the PUC to accept a "Yes, Maw" response about safety and pipeline inspection.  As long as they say, "Oh, yes, we're working on that," the PUC does nothing. 

How did they do that?  Whom do they know?  Is it fair to ask, whom did they pay off?  Or is this just the general Republican feeling that less regulation is more?  According to the list at the Renewable Energy Accountability Project site, all the existing PUC commissioners were either appointed or reappointed by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  They also all worked either in or for major public utilities.  There isn't a single board member who could be considered consumer oriented.  Maybe Jerry Brown can do something about that.

It doesn't have to be this way.  I can't remember the exact article, but I read at least one in which they said that something like 20-30% of P G & E's pipelines have been upgraded so they can be inspected by "smart pigs," while 87% of Southern California Edison's pipelines can be scanned by "smart pigs."  Since they're both regulated by the PUC, the difference has to be in the company management's attitude.  P G & E would have to pay money to upgrade those pipelines, and the security of their customers clearly isn't worth any money to them.

When the San Bruno disaster happened, I said to a friend, "This could be any of us."  It still could.  And we have no choice, because P G & E is a monopoly.  If it were a regulated monopoly, we might have a chance to have our safety considered; but it isn't regulated, any more than my father was regulated by Grandma.  "Yes, Maw" is not an acceptable answer.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


I'm tired of this word.  I heard it again this morning, on the news - the business leaders President Obama met with this morning claim they can't invest in the United States because they don't have "certainty."  I guess they're afraid they might have to pay a tax or two.

Well, those poor timid little souls.  These people have more money than God, and their corporations are sitting on piles of cash which remind me of Scrooge McDuck "bathing" in his money vault.  And yet, they're uncertain, so they can't invest.

Try being without a job for 2 years and wondering whether Congress will get off its collective ass and extend unemployment benefits again.  Now, that's uncertainty. 

Ideally, I'd like to see Congress tie itself in such a knot that it doesn't act at all (the House Democrats are working on it), and the Bush tax cuts expire.  We never could afford them, we still can't.  Trouble is, if that happens, the unemployment benefit extension won't happen; and on the whole, I think President Obama called it right in his tax deal.

Our brave Captains of Industry, as they were called the last time we had this level of income inequality (1928), are actually afraid they might have to spend money hiring American workers.  American workers have the temerity to want a living wage, job conditions that probably won't kill or maim them, and a decent retirement; much too expensive for our bold business leaders.  They want to hire Chinese workers who think $45 a month is good pay and only occasionally kill themselves because of terrible working conditions.  Henry Ford was an anti-Semitic SOB, but he built his company on the American worker; the whirring sound you hear is him, spinning in his grave.

I used to take some flack because my choice of reading material regularly included comic books, particularly Marvel Comics.  I wish our business leaders had read them.  From the Fantastic Four and Daredevil to the X-Men and Spiderman, the comics I read carried a major moral message:  With great power comes great responsibility.  Our bold business leaders have tremendous power (since we seem to have decided that money equals power) - and as far as I can tell they feel no responsibility at all, except to their own salary, benefits, and perks.  They work really hard to maximize those.  The people who work for them?  Trash, to be swept out of the way.  The shareholders they claim to represent?  They only own a couple of hundred shares each, who cares about them?

I agree with Robert Borosage, on HuffPo today - "American" corporate leaders are part of the problem, and Obama's fooling himself if he tries to include them in the solution.  I put them in quotes because I don't believe they care a whit about this country and its citizens. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond

We saw the second exhibition from the Musée d'Orsay today at the DeYoung Museum. We saw the first one last summer.  I can't recommend it strongly enough, there are some astounding works on display.  The most fascinating part of it was watching the slow change in styles across both shows. 

The first show started with the classic "Academy" style, where the art authorities said, this is what you have to paint and this is how it has to look.  Then it moved on to the Impressionists, who said, we want to paint what we see.

The second show begins as the Pointillist style developed, based on scientific color theory:  science says that if we paint in this way, our paintings will glow!  The weird thing about that was that, with one exception, every Pointillist piece I saw there appeared absolutely static, no sense of motion at all, even in a painting which showed a skirt blowing in the wind.  Only Théo van Rysselberghe's Man at the Tiller gave me an actual sense of motion.  (If you look it up on line, be aware that the colors do not reproduce correctly!)  Still, a woman told me that her husband felt that, when he walked past another Pointillist landscape, the light shifted with him.  Maybe that's what they were about.  But most of them didn't give me much sense of light direction.  There's a very short distance from some of the Pointillists to Roy Lichtenstein.

After the Pointillists they showed four little Toulouse-Lautrecs. I generally like Toulouse-Lautrec, but wasn't terribly impressed with the one they chose to put in the audio tour.  I was blown away by one that wasn't:   Woman in a Black Boa!  Fabulous portrait of an amazing face!

Then we came to Van Gogh, who of course was in a class entirely by himself!  I see him as the extreme extension of the Impressionists rather than a "post" movement, but what do I know?  From Van Gogh they move to Cezanne and then Gauguin, both of whom quit trying to paint what they saw and began interpreting what they saw in terms of shapes, masses, and blocks of increasingly pure color.  A group following Gauguin worked from Pont-Aven and developed a style that looks cartoonish to modern eyes - static, stylized forms, pure unshaded colors.

After the Pont-Aven school the exhibition moves to the Nabis and their Symbolist movement.  The Nabis considered themselves a secret society, and their paintings were moving toward abstraction.  Frankly, I thought they came across as rather full of themselves.  One or two pieces reminded me of William Morris' romantic pseudo-medieval imagery. By now we're a very long way from those Academy portraits, and the artists are just experimenting to see what they can do.

The exhibition ends with two astounding Henri Rousseau pieces I hadn't seen before (War and Snake Charmer), and at least one painting I can't believe was ever hung in public in 1900 - Man and Woman, by Pierre Bonnard - both nude in a bedroom!  The early 20th century accepted nude women, but not nude men with nude women!  Finally, some of the Nabi painters moved into pure decoration, painting big panels and murals for private houses. 

It was a fascinating exhibition, and I just wanted to put down some of my thoughts about it.  If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area and haven't see the show, it's well worth the trip.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Coal in my Stocking

Some days you can't win.  I injured my left knee a year ago and have been trying to get it to heal ever since; every time I thought it was OK, another weird little pain would crop up.  In early October I saw a physical therapist, who gave me some exercises and told me, if you do those for 4-6 weeks and it's not better, see your doctor.  This week I saw my doctor, who referred me to my orthopedic surgeon.

Five years ago, I had my left knee replaced.  The orthopedic surgeon tells me that the left prosthesis has shifted, and we have to do it over.  (Side note:  the guy I'm seeing now did not do the operation 5 years ago.)  One knows these things aren't eternal, but I certainly expected to get more than 5 years out of it - the one in the right knee is coming up on 10 with no problems.  And I really don't look forward to this:  I've done it twice, it isn't fun, and the rehab is very painful.  Not to mention that I've now built up a tolerance for everybody's favorite pain drug, Vicodin:  it takes more than they like to give me to have a real effect.

To make this even more amusing, my husband and I have just booked passage, through Cal Discoveries, on the cruise of a lifetime - a Mediterranean music cruise, with Sir James Galway on board!  Our plane leaves May 1 for Venice; the boat leaves Venice May 4 for various fascinating places.

I'm waiting to hear when my surgery can be scheduled.  Post-surgery rehab takes three months.  If we can get it done before early February, I can be out of rehab in time to walk on that plane. I won't be able to sit with my left knee bent for any length of time (much less 11 hours to Frankfurt), but I have an aisle seat, and I'll be able to get up and walk around.

I don't like to plan things that depend on everything going perfectly, because so often everything doesn't.  But I will go on that cruise if it's humanly possible.  If it isn't, well, we did buy trip insurance; but I so don't want to use it.

Bah.  Humbug.