Sunday, August 28, 2011

More Blowing Wind

It’s back to normal for most of the East Coast this morning, and time for the GOP candidates hunkered down in Des Moines Iowa this week to recapture the flag of attention.  MSRP has obtained exclusive excerpts from the candidates’ Sunday talk show appearances, and it sounds like they used this forum to deny the science behind Hurricane Irene.

 “See?” said Gov. Rick Perry on Meet the Press.  “We prayed for rain and here it comes, by the bucketful.  If anything, this proves the existence of God.  It certainly does not support the theory of global dryness.  We don’t need no stinkin’ scientists.  All you East Coast liberals need to do is stick your head out a window!  Next question.”

Rick Santorum joined the pile on Face the Nation:  “I’ve seen the memos from meteorologists discussing the potential for “raining cats and dogs”.  When the first Jack Russell terrier hits me on the head, then we’ll talk about the science of weather prognosticating.  Until that day, hurricanes in New York are just a theory.  If I may add, New York could use a good hosing off.”

In a video clip aired on Fox News Sunday, Michelle Bachmann explained to a rapt audience how the Founding Fathers did not mention the weather in the Constitution.  “We know that it was cold in Valley Forge and hot in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776, but other than that, we know very little.  Isn’t it interesting that the Democrats and Barack Obama have shifted the lame stream media focus to the storm clouds when the economy is being hijacked by Chinese right here on the ground?  We’re drowning in debt, and Obama would have Americans evacuate instead of swim!!!”    

Not to be outdone, Herman Cain pandered to the base with renewed energy on CNN’s State of the Union.  “Water is a natural resource, and we need water to live.  How can water and rain be harmful?  That’s real science, my friends.  It is our American birthright to enjoy everything in abundance, and we are not fooled by your fancy charts and Dopplers.  By the way, I have just been notified that your hot and delicious Godfather’s pizza might be delayed more than 30 minutes, so please be patient, especially if you live in the coastal areas of the Carolinas, Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.”

The Gingrich campaign had no planned appearances and did not issue any statements.  He is on vacation this week.

Ron Paul held a rally attended by 20,000 rabid Iowan supporters, but no press covered the event, so MSRP has no quotes from Rep. Paul as of press time.

Thaddeus McCotter, who will do anything for attention, tried this line of attack on Newsmakers:  “Isn’t it interesting that Obama named all the hurricanes this year after women, in a shameless attempt to pander to men.  I have no doubt that next year in the run up to the 2012 election, he will name all the hurricanes after men to influence the woman’s vote.  The man has no shame.”

Mitt Romney would not allow himself to be accused of leading from behind on this critical wedge issue, so he issued the following statement:  “Hurricane Irene, the most anti-business hurricane in the last thousand years happened on Obama’s watch.  Let’s see him try to blame this one on Bush.  I saw on TV that onerous regulatory agencies across the federal government are forcibly evacuating entrepreneurs from thriving beach communities, thereby crushing innovation.  The selling of sheet lumber and bottled water at a premium price in line with demand is as American as American Idol.  It’s time to take back America!”

Jon Huntsman used the hysteria to brandish his common sense bona fides on Meet the Press:  “I accept the science of hurricanes, and believe that rain is a direct cause of flooding.  I encourage my fellow candidates for the nomination to lift their heads out of the sand and stop acting like idiots.  How am I not winning this thing?”

I found it odd that every candidate missed the real issue:  Hurricane Irene is a shameless media driven attempt to draw sympathy for NYC and represents a manufactured crisis designed to gain support for Obama’s plan to take our guns.  Duh.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Weather or Not

If I was not on vacation this week, I would have written this (as found in today's Washington Post):

Live on the radar: It’s Armageddon!

By Alexandra Petri, Friday, August 26,4:15 PM

I am deeply disturbed by all the alarmist rhetoric on television. Shouting. Chaos. Fear-mongering.
Fox? MSNBC? Amateurs!

I’m talking about the Weather Channel.

John the Baptist had nothing on these people. Only some of the people who heard him repented.

I repented eight times during a single Weather Channel broadcast this week. I was a mere half-hour into my first Weather Channel marathon when I made a will, covered my house in plastic sheeting and started to hoard canned goods.

Since I tuned into the Weather Channel, my outlook on life has been altered. I no longer shop; I stockpile. When indoors, I cower beneath a desk, just to stay in form. Once I went outdoors, but I thought I saw a haboob and rushed back in again. My blood pressure could probably form a pressure front of its own.

I have been watching the Weather Channel for the past 24 hours straight as Hurricane Irene advances up the coast. It was difficult to write from my bunker under a desk, but it was clear from the Storm Tracker coverage that it would have been foolhardy to do otherwise.

If you want to provoke widespread fear and trembling, forget Glenn Beck and cable TV’s talking heads. Find that man in a drenched raincoat who seems to be screaming into gale-force winds at all times.

But there is science behind him. Over the years, our methodology of predicting the weather has evolved. (Unless you are running for the Republican presidential nomination, in which case it might be better to avoid the e-word.)

Once, we predicted the weather by asking Uncle Mort if his knee was doing that thing again. Now, we have Doppler radar, hi-res imaging, computer models and experts who can tell us with absolute certainty that Uncle Mort’s knee is doing that thing again. It’s all the fun of gadgetry combined with the whimsical delight of a game of darts. Most weather forecasts can be boiled down to “Reckon it’ll rain. If not, it won’t,” give or take dozens of apocalyptic adverbs and statistics about how No One Has Seen Anything Like This Since the 1930s.

“It might drizzle” and “Surely we have come unto the end of days!”are two ways of saying generally the same thing.

This could be the hurricane of our lifetime, the Weather Channel intones. That is also what forecasters said about the last hurricane. They’re bound to be right at some point. And in the meantime, it’s ratings gold.

Weather is my one form of continuous fiction. Soap operas require too much suspension of disbelief. Game shows? Not enough lightning. I’d watch “Jersey Shore,” but only because I heard that area will be affected by the recent weather developments.

It’s like politics, but you have to keep fewer names straight, and there is no fear that at some point you will have to discuss the contents of Anthony Weiner’s underwear. And like politics, not knowing anything about it does not preclude forming strong opinions.

As I understand it, all weather is the result of some small event somewhere obscure that gets magnified out of proportion. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Andes, or somebody coughs in Iowa, and soon a storm begins. In politics, we call this process the primaries. The major difference is that the butterfly will eventually have enough sense to stop flapping.

If a butterfly in Iowa flaps its wings and starts a hurricane, it is possible we will get away with a little light property damage and some cows flying off to parts unknown. After the straw polls, we should be so lucky.
In the meantime, it is imperative that we make a lot of noise and sound all the alarm bells.

They say all this shouting is what we need to get people moving to safety. But it’s hard staying this alarmed all the time. Don’t panic! Stay tuned! I can do only one of those at once.

Is it really Worse Than It’s Ever Been? Surely something like this happened in the 1860s. But it’s impossible to tell through all the shouting. Compared with the weather, cable news is a relief. At least those windbags are limited in their capacity.

Maybe it’s the same in politics. Maybe things aren’t worse than ever. Maybe they’re just louder. After all, this is what it takes to get us off the couch.

But who’s getting off the couch? I have to stay tuned to the Weather Channel.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog at

I'm back next week! - MSRP

Friday, August 19, 2011

Beer There, Done That

During times of great distress, we talk about “drowning our sorrows” in beer.  During times of great celebration, we toast one another with beer.  Beer is the perfect food for all occasions and situations, much like the GOP views tax cuts.  Both can cure anything, as long as supplied in great quantity.  Unfortunately, only the beer drinkers are correct on this point.  America’s love affair with beer can be summed up by quoting Justin Timberlake, the inventor of the wardrobe malfunction: “Beer never got mad at me because I didn’t call beer back.”  That guy is a regular Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In keeping with the Great American Obsession, there is a new iPhone app that directs you to the nearest beer at the best price.  More discriminating tastes will be impressed by its ability to sort selections by beer brand.  Technology meets Sloth.  Ten years ago, cell phones made calls without the benefit of wires, and that was a good thing.  Now, we have arrived at a point where a sober driver can cause an accident by searching on his phone for cheap beer.  That would be an interesting ticket to receive from Officer Krupke: Distracted while driving by the intent to drink - 30 days in the hole.

Finding the cheapest beer is one way to go, however there are more discriminating connoisseurs of the frothy brew these days.  Beer is the new wine.  I grew up during a time when price was the ultimate judge of quality.  Actually, quantity was synonymous with quality.  In my good ol' days, a fine beer was not judged by its hoppy flavor or its hint of lemon spice.  It was judged by its’ temperature.  Cold beer was the equivalent of 12 year old scotch.  Warm beer was…well, not to be.  Warm beer could be converted to the delicacy of cold beer, but that took time and refrigeration.  Usually only refrigeration is an available resource; time is a luxury that a person who downloads a cheap beer phone app cannot afford.

Beer and its upscale relatives are not to be dismissed solely as a scourge on society.  Au contraire.  Happier nations, as measured by divorce and suicide rates, along with incidences of mental illness, drink more.  Nations with a higher level of education drink more.  Countries with white collar, knowledge-based economies have a higher prevalence of drinking.  It could be that it’s the liberal elites with their preference for “science” and “facts” are the ones putting smiles on all those national faces.  I should read a book on that.

Recently the U.S. was ranked the 56th most bibulous nation on earth by the World Health Organization, as measured by per capita alcohol consumption.  Clearly, this study ignored the parking lot at the Meadowlands on a warm Sunday in October.  That aside, this low global ranking would explain our recent malaise, dour outlook on the future and the instability in our stock markets.  We just need a few cold ones.  Sounds like a strong campaign theme for someone looking to shake up the weak GOP field.  "Chris Christie for President: We Just Need a Few Cold Ones.”

It is possible, I suppose, that I have this theory backwards.  As Richard Florida in The Atlantic asked, is “happiness the cause of all that boozing, or the effect?”  We may never know, but in the meantime, I have an idea…

Who’s buying?  Have a great weekend.  Here we go...

Smells Like...Victory

“You can’t expense your way to victory.” – John Barreto, Director of Stores, Britches of Georgetowne, circa 1994

Back in my retail days, we had a few down seasons of sales.  Coming to think of it, we had a couple down years.  OK, in retrospect, the business was hemorrhaging year after year until the company finally vanished into the great out-of-season closet in the sky in January 2002, long after I had jumped ship (translation: blame someone else, I wasn’t there).  In an effort to keep the business afloat, we tried everything – clearance sales, buy-one get-one promotions, location consolidations, personnel cuts.  Nothing seems to right the ship.

The most popular strategy from the executives at the time was to attack the company’s largest expense – payroll.  “Do more with less” was not a unique approach, of course.  Every company in America (except Google, perhaps) has faced this marching order at one time or another.  As technology continues to improve productivity, it could be that the “Do more with less” organizational mantra will never cease to be chanted in boardrooms everywhere.  Productivity gains fueled by technological advances seem to have no limit. 
Truth be told, there was some fat to be trimmed in our fledgling clothier business, and we learned to look at various expense lines on an hourly basis, particularly payroll.  That was smart business, and it helped sustain us in the short term.  In the long term, it killed us.  The smart business approach of controlling expense costs took on a life of its own over time, and it became all-consuming, to our detriment. 
Our Regional Manager at the time, John Barreto, made a statement during a planning meeting that stuck with me: “You can’t expense your way to victory.”  The simple sentiment was that an exclusive focus on the expense side of the ledger was not a strategy to build revenue on the other side of the ledger.  Each expense had to be weighed and evaluated against its contribution to building sales and revenue.  If you ignore tomorrow’s investments, your heroic cost-cutting efforts to save the business today will be wasted. 
The narrative that has captured the day in U.S. political circles is that we can expense our way to victory as a nation.  A singular focus, or obsession, with only the spending side of the ledger will result in short-term gains at the expense of long-term viability.  Let the general populace argue about today.  Our leaders need to debate and plan for tomorrow.  That’s how a republic should work. 
After the budget cutting frenzy, after the victim is picked clean by the TP sharks, what is the plan for building the U.S. infrastructure to sustain future success in a global marketplace?  I know that thinking about tomorrow is not part of the American psyche when just keeping up with today is a challenge.  Today’s crises have become so all-consuming that daily distractions have been given a positive sounding name – multitasking.  Cognitive dissonance at work!

As one example, futurists see a world where 90% of all U.S. jobs could require a college degree, yet less than 30% of adults in 2008 have their $200,000 sheepskin.  Our choices at that point are stark.  We can dumb down the jobs to fit the available workforce; we could outsource the work to countries that are preparing their population for tomorrow’s jobs; or we could invest in educating our workforce to compete and fill those jobs.  Reasonable minds can debate the best way to accomplish the latter, but to survive as a preeminent power in the world, we have to have this debate.  Our laser-focus on expense cutting while demogoguing any investment in the future as ‘wasteful spending’ is drowning out that debate.  This isn’t a theoretical, elitist classroom exercise.  This has real world implications, and soon.

Just as rural electrification changed the calculus for hundreds of communities around the country, rural broadband access has the same power to grow businesses in these areas.  Tomorrow’s economy will depend on that kind of access.  Will we be ready, or will we wait for private industry to decide to expand broadband once it’s profitable?  That could be too late.

As much as I might have disagreed with him over the years on a variety of issues (like the best way to stagger cashier coverage on a busy back-to-school Saturday), Barreto was right on this one.  You cannot expense your way to victory, and neither can this country.  Let’s be smart about what we choose to cut, and where we choose to invest.  Make no mistake, we still need to cut, but make no mistake, we still need to invest.  Let’s plan for America to last a little longer than my former employer.  Let’s at least have the debate.

At the risk of sounding too partisan, that’s a “balanced approach”.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Hold Your Fire

In 1999, while campaigning for the Democratic nomination for President, Al Gore reportedly claimed during a town hall event in Manchester, NH that he had invented the Internet.  This claim took on a life of its own, and became late night comic fodder from that moment forward.  This alleged remark came to define Al Gore, not because it was true, but because it sounded true.  Gore had been repeatedly accused by his political enemies of playing fast and loose with the facts, and this hyperbole seemed believable in that context.  The tale still has life because at its core, it reflects something about the candidate that voters were trained to believe.

I use the word “alleged” regarding the Internet remark because I know it was twisted from his actual words. 
Four years ago, my daughter and I had the pleasure of visiting New Hampshire during the 2008 primary season.  We spent 4 full days visiting campaign offices, attending candidate house parties and town halls, and getting to know the voters in New Hampshire that would shape the contours of that 2008 presidential contest ( While waiting for one of the candidates to speak, we met a gentleman who was at the Al Gore “I invented the Internet” town hall event 8 years prior.  He laughed as he recounted the event.  He remembered the comment, and said that Gore was specifically talking about his role in the legislation that allowed the Internet to be funded.  Gore never said that he ”invented” the Internet, but never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
This past week, during an event in Iowa, Mitt Romney responded to some hecklers in the crowd with the statement, “Corporations are people, my friend.”  The Democratic National Committee jumped on this exchange with voters, and instantly spun it into an attack ad against Romney.  It might work and become the equivalent of the Al Gore “Internet” moment, but I think it’s a mistake.  This comment is being overblown, and it has the potential to backfire. 
It is clear to me from watching the clip that Romney was making a legitimate point.  A more artful statement that would have better made his point might have been “Corporations are made up of people, my friend.”  Perhaps I am giving Mitt the benefit of the doubt, but I believe that he was trying to explain that when corporations make money, the employees and stockholders make money; when corporations are taxed, the stockholders (people) are taxed.  That’s a valid point, and one that the far left likes to paint over, to their peril.  In the wake of Citizens United, the Left thinks it has a powerful ‘us against them’ campaign issue that will be particularly effective against the front runner with a documented history as a corporate job destroyer for profit, Mitt Romney.  I think it glosses over the real issue. 
Like most candidate quotes out of context, this one nevertheless does reveal some truth that bears discussion.  Mitt’s statement reveals his world economic view.  He is selling a top down strategy – help the top of the pyramid, and the benefits will magically trickle down to the benefit of everyone.  Unfortunately, we’ve seen this movie, and we should not be interested in a sequel. 
Corporations, Mitt, should not be equated with people.  They are not interchangeable entities.  Corporations are single-minded in their pursuit of profit, without regard to right and wrong.  Corporations are rewarded for short term gain and punished for long term thinking by the markets.  Is this what motivates people?  Corporations profit at the expense of people, and in Wall Street parlance, people (payroll) represent a company’s largest expense.  Certainly Romney is aware of that formula, and he has most of his wealth to thank for it.  The DNC ads should focus on Romney’s personal wealth strategy of putting people out of jobs.  That’s the legitimate story, not one where the Left is trying to defend that people are not part of corporations.  That’s a loser position in my book.

Unlike the Gore moment, the Romney “corporations are people” imbroglio does have the benefit of being on video, and it is a direct quote.  Like Gore, though, the story is incomplete at best, and deceptive at worst.  I can’t get behind such a cheap attack ad.  Hold Romney accountable for his real actions in corporate America, and forget the phony controversy about “corporations are people”.

On a side note, I would like to point out to my conservative friends where the Dems are focusing their attention.  Romney is the one who scares them.  The Perry and Bachmann attacks ads will write themselves, and rapid response is unnecessary. Future “attack” ads on these two will require a mere recitation of their own printed statements in all their ludicrous and radical glory, and the free press will cover most of these.  The best thing for Obama’s reelection chances is the nomination of Perry or Bachmann.  Radical versus the Rational is a campaign Obama wins. 
When the Tea Party pushes a fringe candidate to the top of a ticket, this movie we have seen before.  Think about the self-destructive track record of the Tea Party activists lately.  Harry Reid was vulnerable, but the Tea Party promoted Sharron Angle in Nevada.  Reid won.  The Delaware Senate seat was there for the pickings, but the Tea Party promoted Christine O’Donnell.  That sure GOP seat dissolved in a witch’s brew, and Chris Coons won.  In the NY 26th race, the same story developed.  Want a Democratic landslide?  Keep nominating candidates who can win the primaries and lose the general.

If the Left can avoid being overanxious and attacking Mitt Romney on a moment’s notice for such a weak and questionable “gaffes” like the one this past week, there will be better and more powerful examples of Mitt Romney defining for America his real self – Tool of the Trickle Downers.

Just wait for it.  Things will get hot when the weather gets cold.   

Monday, August 15, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!

It has been said that you are what you drive, and I believe that.  The story is told that the car you choose to drive is a tangible expression of your inner personality.  Much like pet owners seems to morph into human copies of their beloved dog or cat, our cars reflect us and in some ways, we reflect our cars.  Sporty, rugged, utilitarian – our cars are us, and we are our cars.  They make important statements about who we are and what we value.  We learn about people and make judgments about people based on what they drive.  More often than not, what we learn by observing the cars people choose to drive is the truth.

I did not always subscribe to this line of reasoning.  For years, I drove a Volvo station wagon, which I viewed as more a statement about my finances and wife’s choices than a statement about my values and personality.  I know that to my conservative friends nothing shouts louder and prouder “Tree Hugging Liberal Elitist” than a late model Volvo wagon, but I can assure you, this characterization misrepresents what I consider to be my fair minded political balance.  For the record, my Volvo did not sport a “Co-Exist” bumper sticker, and I rarely got behind the wheel wearing leather driving gloves or a tweed sports coat (suede elbow patches, of course).  In my Volvo, I believe I was framed, not reflected.


In America, the automobile embodies our national ethos of independence and it defines us as free spirited individuals.  The preeminence of the automobile in American culture makes the study of cars and their drivers uniquely relevant during the presidential nominating season.    I believe that to truly know the candidates, you need to know their cars.   You are what you drive after all.  I set out to collect some data on what the current contenders for the Republican nomination drive on a regular basis.  If I could study the available literature on these cars, I might learn some hidden information about the candidates.  Stump speeches are filled with hyperbole and misdirection.  Car research bulletins from noted consumer publications will provide truth.

Here are the results of my research.  I relied heavily on excerpts from the prestigious Consumer Retorts magazine, which has a history of producing valuable, unbiased ratings on automobiles.  You be the judge: 
Micelle Bachmann – Mustang King Cobra (actually, the car is in her husband, Marcus’ name and Mrs. Bachmann is only allowed to drive it with permission)

Nothing screams “Overcompensation!” more than this traditional American muscle car.  What the owner may lack in masculinity, the roar of this baby more than makes up for.  The Mustang is famous for its trademark purr and its ability to get out of the starting blocks quickly, and this model doesn’t disappoint.  To win any race with this fine auto, however, be prepared to pour loads of cash into its engine, which more hype than substance.  Remember, buyer – just because it’s the loudest car doesn’t make it the best car on the lot.  Don’t be fooled by the overblown tales of this legend.  We suspect that the history is mostly created out of thin air to sell more vehicles, and simple fact checking would explode any myths.  We suspect the history is falsified because this model may not be able to deliver the goods.  This car is built for show, and if you aren’t prepared to tinker with it endlessly, it could bankrupt the na├»ve purchaser.  It offers a sparkling grill and nice headlights, but be advised – the model we sampled did not have a left turn indicator, which can be frustrating to 50% of the other drivers on the road.

Rick Perry – Hummer H3 (no longer in production, much like the owner – they broke the mold after this one)

This colossus is oversized and imposing on the outside, and offers vast amounts of empty space on the inside.  From the looks of it, this guiltless beast could and will run over anything in its path that doesn’t yield.  It is advertised as having the ability to go from a standing stop to top speed and performance almost instantly; however, if you know anything about how these babies work, you’ll realize that it takes time to work out the kinks and find the correct driving rhythm.  It is best to anticipate that minor repairs and recalibrations will be required during the first few months of ownership.  The models we tested offered Yosemite Sam “Back Off” mud flaps and a St. Christopher style GPS, both standard.  One of the more troubling features was its lack of a rearview mirror.  It is obvious that this car has no interest in backing up or looking backwards.  We believe that a rearview mirror might provide the driver with perspective when traveling, but this car’s ego will not allow it.  The complimentary gun rack is hard mounted to the frame and cannot be removed.  This Hummer runs exclusively on crude oil, so the exhaust output is dirty.  We found this juggernaut hard to maneuver in tight situations.  The car pulls hard to the right and at high speeds, and that is a recipe for disaster.  We pray for anyone in its path.

Ron Paul – Harley Davidson Fat Boy motorcycle

You may be tempted to give in to your inner isolationist on this one-of-a-kind ride.  Our issue with this motorcycle has not changed over the years.  We realize that everyone fantasizes about owning one, until they become aware that this ride doesn’t prepare you adequately for all conditions.  All it would take would be one patch of sand, one bull or bear running into the road, and the limitations of this ride would become painfully obvious.  Unfortunately, it would be too late at that point.  We recommend this mode of transport remain safely in the showroom and out of your garage, before someone, like you or someone you love, gets hurt.  This dream machine comes in one color: gold - standard.  This ride is a great choice in theory, but not recommended in reality.

Newt Gingrich – Infiniti G Sedan

What can you say about this car?  Its most distinctive feature may be the oversized spare tire and the large seat.  The few buyers we spoke with liked the onboard computer, arguing that it is the smartest car on the road.  Our tests showed a remarkable lack of memory, however, which causes the outputs of the dashboard to be contradictory and condescending at best.  The speedometer, in particular, seems more attuned to the prevailing winds outside than the actual speed of the car.  This leaves the owner wondering where this car is really going.  You may be impressed by the Tiffany encrusted steering wheel, but what the manufacturer won’t tell you is that the steering can be controlled by the passenger!  That may sound fun, until you consider what would happen if your spouse was in the passenger seat and controlled the direction of the car.  What if she wanted to drive you right into a ditch?  We’ve seen it happen.  The poor acceleration and ability to maintain road traction in challenging conditions was a big disappointment.  Comes in all colors, except blacks.

Sarah Palin – GMC Yukon

This baby is hard not to notice when it sneaks up behind you on the road traveling at full speed.  Despite its size, it is quite fast on the highway, although it has surprisingly little towing capacity.  You would think a vehicle that powerful would be able to pull others along with it, but it is designed to run light.  As you would expect, the Yukon has plenty of room for all of your personal baggage.  Safety first with the Yukon – be sure to check out those air bags up front.  These generously sized bags are designed for safety, but also for comfort.  We searched, but could not find any climate controls within the vehicle.  The manufacturer recommends rolling down the windows for a breath of air from the natural world, but we were overcome with the prodigious exhaust fumes when we tried that.  The Yukon has always been a popular model, but if you are honest and drive it once, you will agree that its limitations far outweigh its upside.  This is definitely not something built for the long haul.  The model we test drove did not have passenger or driver’s side mirrors, so we ran over anything that appeared to our left and our right.  The good news was that we didn’t feel a thing as we rolled over these obstacles.  One more benefit - turn on those enormous fog lights on the top of the cab, and you’ll be able to see your house from anywhere!

Herman Cain – Nissan Sentra

Unless you are buying a car for your second career as a pizza delivery driver, we recommend you pass on this model.  The literature on the Sentra says one thing, but the reality is truly another.  It praises its own ability to simplify the car ownership experience (the owner’s manual is only 3 pages long), but three pages doesn’t allow the driver to know how to change a tire, turn on the radio, or even how to accelerate or brake.  Simplicity will sell some cars, but it won’t help you drive.  The engine runs so loud at times that it is hard to hear yourself think when inside the vehicle, and we suspect that is intentional.  The less you think, the better and more attractive this option seems.  Steering is free and easy, except in the direction of Mecca.  If inadvertently pointed in that direction, the car stalls.  Interior seat covers are available in all fabric types, except muslin.  This car doesn’t want any muslin.

Thaddeus McCotter – Horseback (With a name like “Thaddeus McCotter”, what would you expect?  Didn’t he run as Rutherford B. Hayes’ running mate?)

Mitt Romney – Lexus LS

This luxury sedan is trying too hard to be all things to all buyers.  It is business car?  Is it a family car?  Is it casual or formal?  No one knows what this vehicle stands for, which puts off many potential purchasers.  It offers utilitarian styling on the outside, but inside, it is all high society, from the gold plated dashboard to the silver gray highlights on the edges of the interior.  During our test drive, the car pulled left at first, then without warning, it started pulling to the right.  It was as if the car had a mind of its’ own, but of course, that’s impossible.  A car can’t think by itself!  The GPS, in particular, was most annoying.  It would wait until a turn was completely executed before declaring “Turn now”.  If you didn’t know better, you’d think the car was more afraid of steering you wrong than getting you to the programmed destination.  We found the car sluggish and not effective in warm climates, like South Carolina and Georgia.  It performed much better in the cooler climate, like New Hampshire and Utah.  This could change over time, once the engine gets more mileage under its belt.  Its climate controls are confusing and contradictory, leaving all passengers too warm or too cold.  We couldn’t tell.  All in all, we believe that this Lexus is a product of slick marketing, but little substance.

Jon Huntsman – Volvo S60 Sedan

This brand screams “Safety” at every turn.  Unfortunately for the makers, while safety should be a key consideration in such a purchase, the lack of sex appeal tends to push away the would-be buyers.  If you want a vehicle that will stand up to the pressures of the road on a daily basis, we suggest that you reconsider this traditional model.  Its focus on fuel efficiency detracts from its potential for high performance.  The car is built for smooth highway driving, so we must question whether it has the adequate suspension to absorb unexpected potholes and uneven terrain.  Like some of the other models we reviewed, it comes with a standard gun rack, but unlike the other models, this one is more easily removed.  It was refreshing to find that its climate controls were functional and easy to understand.  The manufacturer might consider installing a new horn that actually gets the attention of others on the road.  The existing honk is more of a tap on the shoulder than an urgent warning.  This model is no longer available in the color that made the brand famous, Red China, but it does offer an updated Red State Red shade that is exciting.
 Tim Pawlenty – No longer drives any car.  Willing to ride shotgun with someone else. 
At the end of my research, the conclusion is clear: You are what you drive.  Be sure the next car you buy doesn’t turn out to be a lemon.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dinnertime Downgrade

We were having a family dinner last Wednesday night, a tradition that we struggle to maintain like many families.  Activity schedules and work commitments seem to wreck havoc on our best made plans of eating as a group, but we do manage to accomplish the feat several times each week.  There have been meals when we have regretted the tradition (children can pick on one another), but for the most part, it is nice to gather as a team at least once a day.  On this particular night, Lucy sensed something or someone was missing.

“Where’s Marra?”

“She’s at work tonight”, came the answer.

Lucy took the information in stride.  Marra had started a lifeguarding job at the community pool, her first foray into the world of gainful employment.  We were proud of this accomplishment, and looked forward to her learning that we parents haven’t been so crazy her entire life.  Life outside our home can be unfair and difficult, we warned her, only to be dismissed as cranks.  We couldn’t wait until she had to clean the community bathrooms or scoop an escaped doodie out of the baby pool.  Maybe we are a little cruel to be taking such pleasure at the thought of her doing manual labor, but perhaps there some ‘tiger’ parent in us after all.

Back at the dinner table, the news that Marra was working that night momentarily stole my appetite.  Once we were five.  Now we were four.  While reserving a table at a restaurant would be easier (tables for 5 are harder to come by than tables for 4), our dinner table would be less fun.  It seemed like one of those moments when time tips forward irreversibly away from the past, never to return.  This was the beginning of the New Normal.  The family was spreading its wings as it should, but it felt at this moment more like it was breaking apart, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
Having come from a large family, I had lived through the period of diminishing chairs at the dinner table.  I recall raucous dinners for eight, that scaled back to dinners for 6 once the older kids started going to college, then dinners that spanned hours as kids drifted in and out from after school activities, then 4, then…then I can’t remember how the family dinner ended.  It did end at some point. 
My oldest daughter has a job, and the slow demise of the family dinner has again begun.  This is the dark underbelly, the yang to the ying, of the circle of life.  I will relive the experience of the decline of the family dinner, but this time, from a different chair.  The first time, I was waiting for my turn to up and leave the table.  I wanted to have the job, I wanted to have the after school activities, I wanted to have the friends to hang out with.  Now, I will be the one who stays in the chair at the table.  I’m not going anywhere.  Everyone else is.
That is not really true, of course.  I am traveling through time to somewhere, just like the kids are.  I just feel like I am in a faster mode of transport, and if I blink, it will be a table for two.  As romantic as that sounds, we’ll probably both miss the family dinner hour.

Lucy was OK that Marra had work commitments on this night.  She obviously missed her sister, but this was a mere speed bump for a 6 year old.  She was now focusing on dessert, and the absence of a family member at the table will not distract her from that treat.  Wait until she figures out that someday, it will just be Mommy, Daddy and Lucy for dinner.  Hopefully, she takes that news in equal stride (but I doubt it).

Monday, August 8, 2011

Fault Lines

This is a cut-and-paste job from various sources, updated in parts by me, to best convey my thoughts on recent economic events and what led us to this point.  I borrowed “liberally” from The Washington Monthly, Talking Points Memo and Politico.  The majority of the words are not mine, but the opinion is.

Before the end of this month, I will begin teaching my oldest daughter how to drive a car.  An early lesson will include safely turning the vehicle from a straight course to the left or the right.  I will coach braking, proper speed, hand over hand turning and then acceleration.  I will insist that she use her indicator to warn others around her of the coming directional change.  What I will not teach her is to cut the wheel sharply, without warning, and hope for the best.  I will not teach her to play a game of chicken with a 2,000 pound automobile going at speed.  I will teach her to act as the Republican Party should have acted since regaining control of the House.  They didn’t, they grabbed the wheel and they have crashed the car.

In today’s main stream media, there is a bias, and that bias is to give both sides of any argument equal weight.  Misstatements of fact by either side are reported and allowed to stand as if just because they were spoken aloud by someone with a microphone, they must have a shred of truth.  Both sides have a point of view worth giving full weight, we are told, even when one side has lost its bearings on reality.  Being fair is not always warranted, particularly when the facts are clear that the GOP stands responsible for the downgrade of the U.S. credit rating.

Yes, I blame the GOP for the downgrade and the resulting economic upheaval.  I believe this was the GOP plan all along.  Americans elected lunatics to help run Congress; they launched a reckless scheme; and now they appear to have sabotaged our fiscal credibility and standing.  Mission accomplished. 
S&P's own explanation of their decision to downgrade the U.S credit rating slams the GOP's intransigence over letting the Bush tax cuts expire.  Overall, it paints a bleak picture of the whole political system.

“The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy. Despite this year's wide-ranging debate, in our view, the differences between political parties have proven to be extraordinarily difficult to bridge, and, as we see it, the resulting agreement fell well short of the comprehensive fiscal consolidation program that some proponents had envisaged until quite recently. Republicans and Democrats have only been able to agree to relatively modest savings on discretionary spending while delegating to the Select Committee decisions on more comprehensive measures. It appears that for now, new revenues have dropped down on the menu of policy options. In addition, the plan envisions only minor policy changes on Medicare and little change in other entitlements, the containment of which we and most other independent observers regard as key to long-term fiscal sustainability.

“Compared with previous projections, our revised base case scenario now assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, due to expire by the end of 2012, remain in place. We have changed our assumption on this because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the act.”

S&P was looking for revenue mechanisms, which the GOP would not allow, regardless of their merit.  S&P wanted entitlements addressed, which the Democrats put on the table as a bargaining chip.  The “Grand Bargain”, that included entitlement cost reductions, was rejected by a minority group in the House who could dictate the terms of the debate.  This minority group turned against their House leadership.  It is their fault.

Let’s look at the broader picture of fiscal competence over the years, and judge whether or not the rhetoric from the Right matches their actions:

1980: Ronald Reagan runs for president, promising a balanced budget

1981 - 1989: With support from congressional Republicans, Reagan runs enormous deficits, adds $2 trillion to the debt.

1993: Bill Clinton passes economic plan that lowers deficit, gets zero votes from congressional Republicans.

1998: U.S. deficit disappears for the first time in three decades. Debt clock is unplugged.

2000: George W. Bush runs for president, promising to maintain a balanced budget.

2001: CBO shows the United States is on track to pay off the entirety of its national debt within a decade.

2001 - 2009: With support from congressional Republicans, Bush runs enormous deficits, adds nearly $5 trillion to the debt.

2001:  First of Bush tax cuts passed, advertised by the President as a return of “over-taxation”, money the government could safely return in a period of surplus.  At the same time, the GOP argued that tax cuts would increase revenue, thereby self-sustaining a surplus.   Huh?

2002: Dick Cheney declares, “Deficits don’t matter.” Congressional Republicans agree, approving tax cuts, two wars, and Medicare expansion without even trying to pay for them.

2009: Barack Obama inherits $1.3 trillion deficit from Bush; Republicans immediately condemn Obama’s fiscal irresponsibility.

2009: Congressional Democrats unveil several domestic policy initiatives — including health care reform, cap and trade, DREAM Act — which would lower the deficit according to the CBO. GOP opposes all of them, while continuing to push for deficit reduction.

September 2010: In Obama’s first fiscal year, the deficit shrinks by $122 billion. Republicans again condemn Obama’s fiscal irresponsibility.

October 2010: S&P endorses the nation’s AAA rating with a stable outlook, saying the United States looks to be in solid fiscal shape for the foreseeable future.

November 2010: Republicans win a U.S. House majority, citing the need for fiscal responsibility.

December 2010: Congressional Republicans demand extension of Bush tax cuts, relying entirely on deficit financing. GOP continues to accuse Obama of fiscal irresponsibility.

March 2011: Congressional Republicans declare intention to hold full faith and credit of the United States hostage — a move without precedent in American history — until massive debt-reduction plan is approved.

April 2011:  Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who leads the Senate Democrats’ messaging efforts, expressed anger that Boehner was searching for leeway on the debt limit.

“The speaker seems to be testing out how far he can venture onto a frozen lake before the ice breaks. He should listen to business leaders who are telling him to watch his step. Messing around with the debt ceiling just to satisfy the tea party will lead to higher interest rates and an economic cataclysm.”

July 2011: Obama offers Republicans a $4 trillion debt-reduction deal. GOP refuses, pushes debt-ceiling standoff until the last possible day, rattling international markets.

August 2011: S&P downgrades U.S. debt, citing GOP refusal to consider new revenues. Republicans rejoice and blame Obama for fiscal irresponsibility.

The downgrade, in other words, was the direct result of Republicans playing a hopelessly insane game with the full faith and credit of the United States, and then refusing to consider even a penny of tax increases on anyone at any time. Worse, GOP leaders have spent the week boasting of their intention to do all of this again, for as long into the future as they can.

Yes, that is a fact.  Mitch McConnell plans to do this again.

McConnell said this week, “I think some of our members may have thought the default issue was a hostage you might take a chance at shooting.  Most of us didn’t think that. What we did learn is this — it’s a hostage that’s worth ransoming. And it focuses the Congress on something that must be done.”

The U.S. economy is a hostage worth ransoming, according to GOP leadership.  This man is the Minority Leader of the United States Senate.  What is crystal clear from this strategy is that the GOP has no idea how to govern – they only know how to campaign. 

I blame the GOP; however, for the GOP presidential candidates it's pretty clear where the blame really lies. You guessed it: with President Barack Obama.

What's interesting, though, is that they haven't quite settled on a common line over whether the President is responsible for the downgrade by being too active or too inactive.  This is standard from the Republicans.  Obama is too weak (he “dithers”), or he is too strong, a ruthless dictator surrounded by thugs with plans to take over private business.  He is both extremes, depending on the audience or the situation.  Sadly, some of the nonsense sticks. 
Arguably one of the most dramatic Democratic dilemmas of 2011 and 2012 is overcoming the realization that Republicans are getting their way on economic policy and then denying any responsibility for the results.  Indeed, it’s a rather extraordinary con: GOP officials see much of their agenda implemented, then see it fail, and then blame Obama when their policies don’t work.  Bush tax breaks in effect for a decade? Check. No more stimulus? Check. Massive debt-reduction package approved? Check. States and municipalities forced to cut back and fend for themselves? Check.

The Republican pitch in response to economic anxiety and recession fears is, “See? It’s time to try things our way.”  What goes largely overlooked is the fact that we already are trying things their way.

Earlier this year, for example, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was asked about his spending-cut plans and the fact that the cuts would force thousands of public-sector workers from their jobs. “So be it” the Republican said.

In other words, deliberately making unemployment worse wasn’t seen as a problem. This is a feature of the GOP model, not a bug.

These identical Republicans then complain bitterly when unemployment gets worse, and blames Democrats for the job losses the GOP chose not to prevent. Worse, Republicans then try to persuade the public that “out-of-control spending” is to blame for the weak economy.

It’s quite a feedback loop.

David Frum notes that Obama’s only tax increases — those contained in the Affordable Care Act - do not go into effect until 2014. Personal income tax rates and corporate tax rates are no higher today than they have been for the past decade. The payroll tax has actually been cut by 2 points. Total federal tax collections have dropped by 4 points of GDP since 2007, from 18+% to 14+%, the lowest rate since the Truman administration.  If so minded, you could describe Barack Obama as the biggest tax cutter in American history.

The Affordable Care Act won’t be fully implemented for a few years. Oil production has increased. The right may want to blame Dodd-Frank reforms, but the economy grew, Wall Street went up, and more jobs were created after its passage. Conservatives like to whine about spending, but as Frum noted, the right’s economic theory rests on the notion that excessive spending leads to inflation, and inflation is basically non-existent.

Now, I realize for much of the country, this level of analysis is beside the point. For many Americans, Obama is the president, the president is supposed to be powerful, and conditions are poor. Ergo, blame the guy in the Oval Office, whether it makes sense or not. That kind of thinking may prove persuasive, and may even cost the president re-election.

But for those interested in a credible debate, Frum’s question is a good one. Republicans blame Obama, but can they explain why without baseless bumper sticker slogans?

What the S&P announcement boils down to is this: this was a condemnation of American politics, not American finances. No one seriously doubts whether the United States, the single wealthiest country on the planet by a large margin, will have the financial resources available to pay its bills, but the question under consideration is whether our political system will undermine our ability to be responsible.  One would like to think the ratings agency used some kind of economic/fiscal/monetary measurements, applying a rigorous a test to draw an objective conclusion.  The bad news is that the market panic now demands a calm, adult voice.  Instead, it will be dominated by campaign hysteria as the GOP tries to win back power by shifting blame.

I started with the analogy of teaching my daughter to drive safely.  It is an analogy that works for me, even though I can admit that Obama’s narrative of the GOP “driving the economy into a ditch” and then asking for the keys again has gotten tired for me.  At the risk of using George Bush’s favorite saying, maybe on the economy, the Democrats should have been allowed to “stay the course”, instead of being bullied into jerking the wheel at precisely the wrong time.

I blame the GOP for the downgrade and the resulting economic upheaval.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Tax Free Living

I thought that I shared the same dream with many Americans.  I dreamed of one day having a $1 million annual tax bill.  The theory was that if I owed the Feds $1 million annually in income tax, then my actual take home must be pretty good.  If I had a $1 million tax bill every year, I could be one of the few, the proud, the “job creators”. 
The more I hear my right-leaning friends tell the story, however, this dream of financial success as measured by my net tax burden is misguided.  If I am paying so much in taxes, I am actually poor and need relief.  Conversely, if I pay no Federal income tax, I am actually wealthy at the expense of my fellow citizens and need to be taught a lesson in self-reliance.  Given the choice, I would rather be with the half of the country that didn’t pay federal income tax than with the side that did.  So I have decided to take the expressway to financial success at the expense of the government.  I will reduce my income so I can enjoy the tremendous benefits that accrue to those paying no Federal income tax.

I’ve been busting my hump trying to make a nest egg for myself and my family, and all this time, I did not realize that the threat of $1 million tax bill was a disincentive.  I should have been more focused on the monetary incentive that complete dependency on the Federal government provides.  That’s where the real money is, and according to my conservative friends, there is no other relevant incentive than money and the pursuit of it.  But why limit my dream to the avoidance of Federal income taxes?  What if I could reduce my regular income to a point where positive cash flow from the government kicks in?  The Holy Grail…

First part of my new enlightened strategy – I have to get out of my current job.  The welfare state money won’t start flowing in as long as I have gainful employment.  Qualifying for unemployment can be tricky, though.  I can’t resign or leave my job voluntarily.  I have to force my company to eliminate my job or fire me before they develop strong documentation of gross misconduct on my part.  If I can pull off that Houdini maneuver, I could start collecting my maximum $378 per week benefit (Commonwealth of VA maximum in 2010).  Easy money.  Now you naysayers may do the quick math and recognize that $378 per week equates to only $9.45 per hour, but if I pretend to look for work for up to 99 weeks, I could enjoy my first class ticket on the Dollar Tree Gravy Train.  Besides, $9.45 per hour is just enough incentive to stop me from working a menial service job, as long as I discount any positive feelings of self-worth that may accrue from being productive.  I have to remind myself that I should only have two motivators for my behavior – seek pleasure, avoid pain.  Money is pleasure and work is a pain.  Any other possible motivators in life must be a liberal myth, cooked up in their “universities”.  
The free money from unemployment may sound enticing as an alternative to the grind of gainful employment, but it might not cover all of my expenses, especially since I took the advice of the Far Right about 15 years ago and started a two parent (one man, one woman) family and procreated to the tune of 3 kids who appreciate the finer things, like eating several times each day.  Thankful, I saw a story on Fox News about the nouveau wealthy living the good life off food stamps.  In Virginia, that’s another $128.63 per month (FY 2010) to gorge me, the wife and the kids with all the Ramen noodles we can stomach.  I found from reading a Reagan biography that if we add some of the ketchup to the broth from the little packets we rescued from the Burger King condiments counter, we have met our required vegetable intake on a daily basis, too.  Wellness at a value price!

I can see how comfortable this lifestyle of dependence can become.  Without the burden of doing my fair share to support roads, infrastructure, national defense, clean air and other such boondoggles, I can feel the job creation engine stirring in my soul.  The stirrings could be hunger pangs, but for now, let’s be positive.  Those are job ideas percolating deep inside, and I just might start spitting out gold bars from down there.  The pressure is building…

Apparently, now that I am off the grid, health care in America is free.  I did not know that.  Anyone who shows up at an emergency room is taking care of, eventually, one way or another.  I never much liked going to preventative, well care visits anyway.  I have read that those visits actually reduce overall costs, but that is not my concern right now.  I am driven by the siren song of personal wealth through the reduction of my tax rate to 0.  The kids and I may have to wait until our contagious coughs get really bad before we brave the wait at the local emergency room, but if this is what it takes to stay in the non-tax paying bracket, so be it.  That’s the only incentive I need.

In 15 more years, I can start cashing out my Social Security benefits to the tune of $1,177 per month (average monthly benefit January 2011).  That won’t get me much here in Northern Virginia near my family, but there are some beautiful remote parts of the heartland where $1,177 translates to the biggest studio apartment in town.  Granted, there isn’t much infrastructure in these areas, like paved roads or hospitals, but that just means quiet evenings looking out of the grates onto my front parking space.  Yes, my conservative friends were correct.  Keeping myself in the no Federal income tax paying bracket is a godsend.  And it’s so easy!

Yes sirree, being one of the 50% of Americans that don’t pay Federal income taxes is quite the life.  I am proud to be an American, just like General Electric.  They reportedly didn’t pay any Federal income tax last year either.  I’m in good company.  Of course, GE had paid lobbyists working directly with Congress to design the favorable tax rules, while I had TurboTax helping me sort through my deductions tables.  In terms of scale, it’s pretty much the same thing, right?  We both are just taking full advantage of the tax code as the law allows.  The rule of law triumphs.

Now that I am living the good life of poverty, please send me money.  You can write off the charitable deduction, and start applying yourself towards my tax bracket.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Hawaiian 5-0

President Obama turns the tender age of 50 today (that’s 110 in White House years), and all his friends and competitors have been busying shopping for the perfect gift for the Commander in Chief.  Through my various media and government sources, I have obtained some information on the secret presents that the President will be unwrapping tonight.  For his celebration, he can expect to receive the following gifts:

  • From Vice President Joe Biden – an 8” x 10” signed and framed glossy photograph of Joe Biden
  • From former President Bill ClintonLeaves of Grass, a book of poems by Walt Whitman
  • From Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – thicker skin and sharper elbows
  • From First Lady Michelle Obama – a dinner with absolutely no redeeming nutritional value, along with a pass from doing the dishes for the night
  • From Speaker of the House John Boehner – 10 complimentary visits to the Hollywood Tanning salon
  • From House Majority Leader Eric Cantor – a dead fish, wrapped in a newspaper and wearing a copy of the Affordable Care Act
  • From Congresswoman and Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann – a personalized copy of the Koran
  • From potential Presidential candidate Gov. Rick Perry – the succession of Texas from the Union
  • From former Republican Vice-Presidential nominee, Sarah Palin – a fruitcake (she’s re-gifting it)
  • From former President George W. Bush – 2 wars, 1 economy in free fall, and an aromatherapy relaxation candle
  • From the Tea Party – a case of litmus tests (already opened)
  • From the GOP-controlled House of Representatives – economic uncertainty, dangling from a homemade necklace suitable for wearing at public events
  • From former pastor Reverend Wright – a “Wish You Were Here” postcard from Siberia, wishing him a Happy GD Birthday
  • From Al Sharpton – a list of personal references and a job application (same thing he gives the President every year)
  • From talk show host Glenn Beck – his resignation from Fox
  • From News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch – a new Smart phone, already programmed (how thoughtful!)
  • From Navy Seal Team 6 – (classified)
  • From Afghan President Hamid Karzai – a baker’s dozen of poppy seed muffins
  • From the Nobel Peace Prize Committee – a postage-paid return box for shipping his 2009 prize back to Oslo
  • From part time real estate mogul and full time carnival barker Donald TrumpThe Celebrity Apprentice, home edition board game, and an invitation to appear as a contestant on the program in 2013
  • From former pro athletes Walt Frazier, Keith Hernandez, and Emmitt Smith – a case of Just for Men hair color, and an invitation to appear with them as a spokesperson in their commercials in 2013
  • From the base of the Republican Party – a weak field to run against in 2012
  • From the base of the Democratic Party – Testicles.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Hoping for a Lottery Pick

According to Reuters, 11 states earned more revenue from lotteries than they did from corporate income taxes in 2009.   Americans spend $50 billion on lotteries that year, and studies have shown that on average, households that make less than $12,400 a year spend 5 percent of their income on lotteries.  For those that consider lotteries to be the poor man’s tax, I would think that this might put a dent in the argument that the bottom of the income scale isn’t paying their fair share. 
I am fortunate not to include myself in the lowest of income brackets that benefit from a $0 federal income tax bill annually, but nonetheless, I do play the lottery now and then.  I belong to the class of individuals who only play when the jackpot makes it worthwhile.  I am a fair weather player.  Call me when the estimated jackpot hits 9 digits before the cost-benefit analysis demands that I take action.  A $1 chance at $200 million seems logical to me, although any sober review of the numbers exposes the illogic of participating.  The odds are long indeed, but I don’t play for the intellectual stimulation or in place of a regular 401(k) contribution.  I play for the emotional stimulation.

Admit it, you’ve all had the “If I Win the Powerball” fantasies.  They’re fun, and they can get you through the toughest of days in the cubicle or in rush hour traffic.  I know what I would do.  I’d get my haircut every week, at home, by a real professional.  I’d attend the championship game of every major sport at least once.  I would hire an acoustician to evaluate my home and design the perfect sound system.  I’d have a mud room – a really big one.  I’d eat more fresh vegetables (the hired help would purchase them fresh daily and prepare them – fresh veggies take too much time and effort now).  I’d have a closet filled with expensive composite hockey sticks.  Cherie and I would spend the summer in Hawaii drinking pina coladas while the kids enjoyed a Virginia military camp experience.  Now that’s what I call emotional stimulation.

Oh, yeah, I’d donate some, anonymously, of course.

Playing the lottery is not a losing game for me.  The time between the purchase of the ticket and the drawing of the numbers is a time of hope.  For me, who knows the true odds are against me, who has enough to feed my kids and put a roof over their heads, I carelessly bask in the glimmer of that hope for awhile.  As Andy Dufresne wrote to his friend, Red in The Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best thing, and no good thing ever dies.”  I believe that.

I do recognize that for the regular players, the ones would need to win, the relationship with hope may be somewhat more adversarial.  As Red said about hope in the same movie: “Hope? Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”

In 11 states in 2009, those seeking a few moments of hope put up more money than the government asked of the businesses in those states.  Hope built more roads, repaired more bridges, educated more kids.  Maybe Andy was right.  Hope is a good thing.  But does it have to come from those least able to contribute it?

If we had a national lottery, we might satisfy everyone.  The poor would have the hope of winning.  The liberals would have steady revenue.  The conservatives would have a market driven solution.  Me?  I would have dreams of a much larger mud room for the time between the purchase of the ticket and the drawing of the numbers.  That would be a good thing, maybe the best thing.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Never Trust Any Network Over 30

It may be hard to believe, but there was once a brief time in the history of American television when you could not flip the channel dial and say, “There’s nothing on.”  In the beginning of the 1980s, there was always an option that pleased the most attractive marketing demographic, of which I was once a proud member.  If ABC, NBC, and CBS let you down, there was always something on MTV.

“I want my MTV…”

MTV was never boring.  Granted, there is more varied content available on TV today.  With the explosion of niche television networks on cable that cater to every interest and fetish from classic movies (AMC) to driving in circles (SPEED), there should always be something on worthy of viewership.  Sadly, programming quantity does not equal programming quality, and we spend more time surfing for something interesting on TV than we do watching actual telecasts.  When MTV burst onto the scene 30 years ago, however, all that changed for my generation.  If there was nothing on, we watched MTV.  Sometimes we skipped all the other options just to see what videos were playing.  MTV was our iPod.

We didn’t have a lot of safe, morally neutral time-killing choices beyond hanging out with MTV for a few hours.  We couldn’t play video games.  To do that in 1981, you needed to go to a bar or arcade with a roll of quarters.  HBO was a single station and only the upper middle class homes could afford it.  SNL was only on once a week, and Nick at Nite was not a network yet.  The decade of the 80s was one long pilot for tomorrow’s Nick at Nite content.  The shows and hairstyles  just needed to age and season with time.

“…banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee, oh, that ain’t working…”

Granted, MTV quickly fell into the trap of being as vapid as the other channels, but it wasn’t completely the network’s fault.  The station only became boring once you recognized that there was so little music video content available.  You can only watch Peter Gabriel doing Sledgehammer so many times, or tap your foot to Haircut 100’s Fantastic Day for so long.  Although the Robert Palmer girls never got old with their rhythmic step-thrusts, eventually, we had seen it all…thousands of times.

For me, MTV jumped the shark more than once.  It jumped when they introduced their own awards show, creatively named the MTV Awards.  It jumped every time any of the original 5 VJs left the network.  It jumped the shark, fell in the water and got eaten by the shark when they stopped showing music videos exclusively.  That’s when it became safe to change the channel without fear of missing anything.

“That little fa&&ot’s got his own jet airplane, that little fa&&ot he’s a millionaire.”

There is no denying the cultural touchstone that MTV became.  Everyone knew the theme riff, as well as today’s generation knows the SportsCenter “da da da…da da dah.”  The late 1960s had the classic Ginger or MaryAnn debate.  For my contemporaries, it was Martha or Nina.  People today know Flock of Seagulls for only one reason – MTV.  MTV showed music, and in the process, made music history.  Just ask Michael Jackson. 
I don’t watch the channel anymore.  I work for a living.  The network, I am told, still has cultural relevance, although not to me and my new demographic.  My new demographic learned how to set parental controls on our TVs specifically to block MTV.  Times have changed. 
I know that they have that show Jersey Shore that everyone is talking about.  Having spent some formative years on the Jersey shore back when MTV was new, I don’t feel like I need to see the show to understand NJ.  I lived with those people.  I moved to a new “Situation” here in Virginia many years ago, in more ways than one.
“We got to move these refrigerators.  We got to move these color TVs.”

Life has come full circle for me.  Now I just listen to my music instead of watching it, and I think I like it better that way.  Happy birthday, MTV.  You are only as old as you feel, and MTV at 30 makes me feel old.