Thursday, April 24, 2014

Georgia on my Mind

I am scanning my morning Washington Post and the news is not good. Most days there’s at least a hint of the positive on the Post front page: someone saves someone else from a fiery death; an inner city kid makes good opening a lemonade stand in a dangerous neighborhood; a fisherman catches a largemouth bass that has swallowed a diamond engagement ring and he returns said ring to its delighted owner who had given up any hope of ever seeing it again.  
Today, nada.
The top stories are Navy reassigns ex-Blue Angels leader, because, like too many high-ranking military, he is facing inquiries into alleged hazing and sexual harassment. I never would have suspected!  I once saw the Angels at an air show and was really impressed; nothing in their aerial acrobatics suggested inappropriate behavior.
Then, Hill panel critical of ex-DHS watchdog. That’s two ‘ex-’ above the fold, never a good sign. At any rate, it seems that (take a deep breath, this is the longest paragraph you will read today,)  “The top watchdog for the Department of Homeland Security altered and delayed investigations at the request of senior administration officials, compromising his independent role as an inspector general, according to a new report from a Senate oversight panel.” Well, I never! Such duplicity, right here in Washington, DC!
Moving right along, we find a story about the re-emergence of a troublesome Afghan warlord, and next to that, Students know computers, not the science behind them. Roughly the equivalent of, “Man drives car, does not know how carburetor works.”
Turning to page A-3--there’s rarely anything readable on page A-2--I see a small headline, Law expands right to carry firearm. Uh oh.  According to this brief report, Gov. Nathan Deal (R) of Georgia “signed a broad expansion of gun-carrying rights into law Wednesday, allowing legal gun owners to take weapons into bars, churches and government buildings under certain conditions, The measure permits hunters to use silencers and authorizes schools to allow staff members to carry weapons on campus.”
Now that’s  news! At long last, the oppressed gun owners of the great state of Georgia will be able to mix weapons and alcohol, weapons and religion, weapons and education, and use silencers!  What could go wrong?

I like Georgia. As they say there, there’s a Waffle House within walking distance of every Waffle House. I am wondering if Governor Deal and Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association know each other well. I am thinking this law was probably passed by the same legislators who thought it a good idea to sell beer and wine in gas stations.  I am wondering how long a detour I’ll have to make to avoid Georgia the next time I drive to Florida. I am anticipating the sad headlines soon to follow: “Gunman praises God, assaults church, reloads at Dew Drop Inn tavern.”
Is this a great country or what?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Greed. Part II

So here is a little more on greed because, let’s face it, it is possibly--no, not possibly, let’s be honest. It is without a doubt--the overarching motivation of our times. It permeates the atmosphere, a sort of greyish greasy cloud that has somehow come not only into fashion but into acceptance. Really, I have to say, the greed factor attached to almost everything that affects us, well, it’s disconcerting.
An excellent recent example was the Supreme Court decision to strike down overall political donation caps. Let me quote the New York Times. “The Supreme Court on Wednesday continued its abolition of limits on election spending, striking down a decades-old cap on the total amount any individual can contribute to federal candidates in a two-year election cycle.
“The ruling, issued near the start of a campaign season, will very likely increase the role money plays in American politics.”
In other words, it’s going to become increasingly easy to buy an election and politicians, from aldermen to presidents. You won’t even have to sneak around anymore, or rely on political action committees. No basement pay-offs, like those once given to Vice President Spiro Agnew. It’s now legal to purchase the official of your choice. Openly, I might add.
Reactions to the decision among many Americans have ranged from the frustrated to the outraged, but few people realize this is the natural progression of greed as an ideal. The perfect plutocracy is achieved when leadership goes to the highest bidder.
There’s a slim chance this may not happen. In the last election, Romney spent slightly more on his campaign than did Obama. From January 2011 to November 2012, the Republicans disbursed $992 million versus the Democrats’ $985.7 million and they still lost… But still.
Another good example of truly greedy behavior was General Motor’s decision not to recall more than a two million of its cars despite knowing of a flaw in the ignition system.  Thirteen people died because of an electronic switch that GM knew was faulty, and yet the giant corporation made a conscious decision to commit what the Catholics would call a sin of omission. The company decided not to act. A recall would have cut into the profit margin, and gathered bad publicity that might have affected sales.
My friend Ed, an economist of small renown but valued opinions who analyzes the finances of hospitals, believes we’ve already jumped off the cliff. “The trouble,” he says, “is that greedy entities--people or corporation--believe in instant gratification. They don’t plan ahead. GM is a perfect example of this.  There is absolutely no doubt that GM will lose more money through vanished sales caused by this scandal, than it would have spent repairing all the vehicles that needed attention. But they got greedy, and they got cowardly.  Another aspect of the current culture is that bosses don’t want to hear bad news, so if you want to rise in the ranks and make more money, you don’t handle bad news.  You ignore it. It’s truly short term thinking and long-term stupidity.”
Yeah? Really?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

My Ghetto Gym

I have been going to the gym since last November. I dutifully trudge on the elliptical for about 20 minutes, then I lift weights. I estimated that yesterday I lifted a total of 35,000 pounds in about half-an-hour, which I think is pretty impressive for a guy my age.
I go to what friends have called a ghetto gym.  It’s in a refurbished warehouse and has several dozen machines whose workings I have not yet fathomed. Its cleanliness is impeccable and insured by a small, round Latino man who may have been born with a canister vacuum on his back. I suspect he gets a better daily workout than do most of the gym’s clients.
Seventeen large TVs hang from the ceiling, most of them showing ads for Dutch Master Cleaner, Ultra See-In-The-Dark Sunglasses and car title loan companies. Most gym-goers have earbuds in, but I don’t. I sort of like trying to guess what’s happening on the screen, and most times I think I’m wrong. Sometimes, though, there’s breaking news, and when that happens, a brief video of the story will appear as if on a tape loop.  This morning, someone apparently hit a home run and was mobbed by a crowd of fans.  The same clip was repeated nine times in 12 minutes. I am not sure what this means.
Here is what my gym does not have: a sauna or steam room; tennis courts, a swimming pool, rowing machines, kettlebells, and complimentary anything including towels.  This is a bring-your-stuff gym.  Nor does it have the sort of über attractive people you see in gym ads; although there are a couple of massively built up, short guys with lots of tattoos, I have yet to see one of those model-types that is tanned, buffed, and completely free of body hair. I think the models may use the gyms downtown that cost a couple of hundred bucks a month. Mine’s only $10 a month, which gets me the machines, a drinking fountain, and the friendly face of Larry, a retired Verizon employee who runs the morning shift. My gym is a haven for palish middle-aged men and women with a few too many pounds, and a French pastry chef who, every time I talk with him, obsesses about the weather.
Along with my gym attendance, I have started drinking a lot of water, some 64 ounces a day, not counting coffee or soda, which is OK as I don’t drink the latter. I have also eschewed refined sugar and flour, bagels, most red meats, artificial sweeteners and pastries, while trying to eat more green stuff. I have drawn the line at quinoa and kale, in any form.
In spite of all these efforts and sacrifices, I can’t help but notice that I am not getting younger, nor becoming buffer or wrinkle free. My abs remain more barrel-like than six-packish.  But I feel better. The ghetto gym is working a slow but inexorable miracle. I neither need nor want the far more expensive places, with their implicit promises of age reversal and surgery-free sag removal. Going to my ghetto gym makes me happier and, perhaps, more sociable. The pastry chef is a pleasant person with whom I get to chat in my native language, and he is happy now that spring is in the offing. I have passed some sort of test, and now the vacuum cleaner man no longer runs over my feet with his linoleum-polishing cart. Larry at the front desk logs me in without my even asking. I’m just another older grey-haired guy trying (without much success, I must admit) to lose a few pounds. And damn, I lifted 35,000 pounds yesterday!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Greed and Need

By now we all know the statistics. In the 1950s, the head of a corporation made fifteen to twenty times as much as an average worker in that same company. Now, it’s not unusual for a CEO to make two to three hundred times as much as one of his workers, and be showered with bonuses, stock options, separation pay and other perquisites running into the millions of dollars. Possibly holding the current salary inequality record is Apple’s Tim Cook who in 2011 received six thousand two hundred and fifty-eight times the wage of an average Apple employee.
In a recent issue, The New Yorker magazine cited French economist Thomas Piketty as the co-author of a study on income inequality in the US from 1913 to 1998. The paper “detailed how the share of US national income taken by households at the top of the income distribution had risen sharply during the early decades of the 20th century, then fallen back during and after the Second World War, only to soar again in the nineteen-eighties and nineties.”
With the help of other researchers, Piketty showed how by 2012, the income share of the top one percent of the richest households was 22.5 percent of total income. When dealing with the stratospherically rich, the numbers almost defy description. The richest 85 people in the world--the Buffets, Gates and Waltons, the Kochs and Bloombergs--have “more wealth than the roughly 3.5 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world’s population.” The Waltons--Christy, Jim, Alice and S. Robson--by themselves have an estimated wealth of $135 billion. Yes, many of the über rich give heavily to causes and charity, but the percentage of the wealth they donate is minute compared to that of many far less wealthy Americans who routinely give at church and support a host of organizations in need.
This begs a few questions: How much money does an individual or a family need? Is there a morality issue involved here? Should the wealth of particular families be allowed to dwarf those of entire developing nations? Should we look a bit more closely at how income distribution affects the lives of millions?
The American middle-class is vanishing. Amazon is effectively killing off stores and rendering their employees jobless.  Craig’s list has put the want ads out of business and, indirectly, newspapers. This in turn has left a swath of workers ranging from reporters and editors to sales forces and delivery people, without work.  iTunes has killed the music distribution industry and the corner record store.
Whenever mentions of income inequalities arise, the shout of “Rich tax” soon follows. But further taxation of the rich and superrich will simply cause them to raise the prices of the wares they sell while freezing the wages of their employees. That, in the long run, won’t help. We’re dealing with greed here, as well as economics, and Friedrich Engels said it best, “From the first day to this, sheer greed was the driving spirit of civilization.” Greed works. Greed gave us Microsoft and PCs and Windows and Apple and Facebook and Amazon and Cisco.
But I can’t help thinking… Imagine, for a moment, the progresses that could have been made in medical research had the ingenuity of these innovators been applied to seeking a solution for cancer, or for Alzheimer’s. Now imagine what their money, properly applied today, could do!