Thursday, November 20, 2008

Detroit's driving me crazy

I'm seeing the pros and cons of an automaker bailout. My heart and wallet sees all those jobs held by many of my friends and family in Michigan that are STILL tied to the auto industry; my brain sees years of mismanagement and Bob Lutz blabber-mouthing and political protectionism. (Where are you now John Engler?)

But I asked a friend of mine in Michigan, who for years was in community economic development in the Great Lakes State, and I'll share her thoughts below.

As an aside, for a sample of the frustrations that folks here in California and other places in the country have with the auto industry, see Thomas L. Friedman's "How to Fix a Flat" column in the Nov. 12 New York Times.

Anyway, here are my friend's thoughts:

1. Putting a car company into bankruptcy is NOT like putting an airline there. I'll take a risk that the airline won't be able to honor my $500 ticket. Not so much the warranty on my $25,000 car. I believe Chapter 11 = Chapter 7 and they may as well skip the middle man.

2. Plus, it will put the suppliers who've been struggling for years straight into the tank. The actual job loss dwarfs the financial services sector losses. Of course, automotive engineers and line workers aren't as cool as derivative salemen. Nothing creative about these folks, nope. They just build things. (Yes - I'm bitter.)

3. Best case bankruptcy scenario and GM goes into Chapter 11, reorganizes, blows out their legacy and labor costs and emerges "lean and mean." The U.S. government has just gone directly into national health care without
passing go — and without planning for it. We'll dump all those retirees, and many of the active workers, onto the Medicaid and Medicare systems. I think this would cost significantly more than a bail out. Which is not to say we shouldn't go there, but a little prior planning would seem to be in order.

4. Re: Some of the supposedly boneheaded product moves made by the Big Three: All the foreign automakers followed the Big Three willingly into the light truck/SUV world, because they make money and — oh, yeah — we wanted to buy them. The Japanese automakers came to hybrids, and the Europeans to clean diesel, because their home governments adopted policies that pushed the price of gasoline up and created market demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles. It's no accident that electric/gas hybrids debuted in Japan years before they came to North America.
By contrast, our government adopted two equally short sighted strategies. They put the burden of fuel economy on the backs of the automakers, who logically argued that their customers were voting with their pocket books for low fuel economy. Then, they established policies that kept the pump price lower than it was in the 1980s, providing no market incentive for consumers to go for the more fuel efficient vehicles. You could not have designed a more perfect system to punish true innovation, and encourage growth of non-sustainable markets.

I'm not saying the Big Three hasn't done some really dumb things over the years. But there's more than enough blame to go around, and I don't quite know why it's more important to punish them for bad behavior than it is companies whose business decisions are responsible for the fact that many of us aren't retiring any time soon.

It seems to me that the financial meltdown has had a much more serious impact on Main Street — not to mention making the problems of GM in particular much worse than it would otherwise have been.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Eating crow

A few of my friends have pointed out this line from a mid-August entry: "You heard it here first: Obama has lost the election."

The Obama campaign at that time didn't have a message. It wasn't showing Obama as a leader, at least not the same type of leader he was during the primaries. And I saw the campaign going the wishy-washy way of the Kerry and Gore campaigns.

Thank God for John McCain and Sarah Palin! It was their election to lose.

At the same time, Obama found his message and pounded it consistently. He led. He breeds a level of confidence, that whatever gets thrown at him, he'll consider various points of view then act decisively.

McCain couldn't even lead his party beyond its own schizophrenia. He relied on the people who got George II elected twice and who failed to see that America had changed over the past four years. He pandered to the loudest, crudest voices in the Republican party -- the far right wing, religious conservatives -- instead of leading the party to a New Day.

He didn't put country first; he put party first because of his own (and Cindy McCain's) 20-year-old presidential aspirations.

McCain couldn't even lead through the financial crisis, despite "suspending" his campaign to get back to Washington. He couldn't even control a split in his own party.

And then there's Palin, the campaign's attack dog. McCain didn't control her, despite his well-crafted image as a leader, a moderate, a (dare I say it) maverick. He allowed the campaign shapers who pushed him away from the middle to change the minds of many moderates and independents who otherwise were ready to vote for him.

McCain's campaign can be summed up by the final crusader in the third (and what should have been the final) Indiana Jones movie: "He chose ... poorly."

I'm glad McCain was wrong. I'm glad I was wrong. And I'm glad the Obama campaign found its compass.

Now let's get the hard work done.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Glacial fog

One of the things that makes life here so cool is the weather.

This morning, as I'm sitting at the kitchen table looking out the window, what looks like a glacier of fog is rolling through the Golden Gate. I hear a foghorn, and I see a slight frosting of pink-yellow-orange sunrise over the top of the fog. It's like you can reach out and scoop it up.

A picture wouldn't do it justice.

Yesterday was beautifully clear and as I looked out the kitchen window I could easily see the Golden Gate Bridge towers and houses on hills in Marin County -- probably 10-15 miles away.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Rest easy, George

It's ironic.

The Bush Administration has ignored domestic policy, especially economic policy for eight years. It only steps in when its rich investment banking buddies start to lose money on the regulation-skirting financial instruments that they themselves devised.

Its foreign policy, meanwhile, has been almost entirely rooted in revenge. It has propped up its short-sighted aims by making the masses feel that if the country didn't spend thousands of lives and billions of dollars to invade other countries, our country would be less secure.

Now the irony. (See below.) A Japanese bank is taking a big stake in troubled Morgan Stanley. You can only guess how many other flush foreign institutions (Japanese, Chinese, British, French, Saudi?) eventually will take stakes in these bedrock institutions of American free-market capitalism.

How is America more secure by allowing unfettered, unregulated markets to undermine the economy's foundation, leading to our assets being handed off to foreign institutions?

Count another Republican free-market victory. Their friends will get their money, die comfortably, pass their money along to their children and complain about taxes. The rest of us will be left a) holding the bag for the government bailout of bad business decisions, b) less market security and c) less of our own financial security.

Union Bank of California’s future parent, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, said Monday it will take a stake in troubled investment bank Morgan Stanley for about $8.4 billion.
MUFG’s (NYSE: MTU) stake will range from 10 percent to 20 percent, based on Morgan Stanley’s book value and what the Japanese bank finds in its due diligence.
"This strategic alliance with Mitsubishi UFJ can put Morgan Stanley in an even stronger position as we look to realize the opportunities we see in the rapidly changing financial marketplace,” said John Mack, Morgan Stanley’s chairman and CEO.
MUFG’s buyout of the publicly held stake of San Francisco-based UnionBanCal (NYSE: UB) is pending. MUFG reportedly sees that transaction as the foundation for pursuing its ambition to be a significant player in American banking. Today’s plans to take a stake in Morgan Stanley moves MUFG further along that path.
Both Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS) and Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS) received approval over the weekend to become commercial banks. Monday’s MUFG-Morgan Stanley announcement follows a weekend of intense negotiations between Morgan Stanley and Wachovia, where a lot of closed door meetings at the Charlotte bank’s headquarters appears to have ended with Wachovia not taking on the risk of integrating a big investment bank like Morgan Stanley.
Wachovia’s (NYSE: WB) fate remains uncertain as the bank grapples with billions in troubled loans, many of them picked up in the company’s 2006 purchase of Oakland-based Golden West Financial. The bank acquired the parent of World Savings for about $25 billion. Today, Wachovia’s entire stock market cap is approximately $40 billion.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Can you put brains in a creationist?

This little diddy appeared in the Sept. 11 column of Debra Saunders, one of the right-wing representatives in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Obama just can't help himself. The Democratic nominee brought up the "Swift boat" ads again Wednesday - undeterred by the left's series of scurrilous personal attacks against GOP vice presidential candidate Palin and her family. It started with a Daily Kos story alleging that Palin was actually the grandmother of her infant son Trig.
But it didn't end there. The folks at felt compelled to respond to a flood of falsehoods being spread about Palin. As the organization reported, "She did not demand that books be banned from the Wasilla library."
"She was never a member of the (secessionist) Alaskan Independence Party."
And: "Palin has not pushed for teaching creationism in Alaska's schools."
Straight news stories have probed meetings in which Palin, then a rookie mayor, asked Wasilla librarian Mary Ellen Emmons about removing books from the library. Palin never named any specific books. No books were banned. The librarian kept her job. But none of that matters.
In a 2006 gubernatorial debate, Palin said she believed in a "healthy debate" in public schools between creationism and evolution - and that reasonable view has been contorted into Palin wanting to force her creationist views down others' throats. Actually, it is the side that wants no debate that is intolerant.

Wow -- nice cutting around the words, Debra.

• Palin did not "demand" banning books but she inquired about it. If Hillary inquired about health care reform, the GOP would be crying "socialized medicine."
• Palin was never a member of the Alaskan Independence Party. She didn't ignore the idiots, either.
• Palin did not push for teaching creationism in Alaska's school. She merely wanted a "healthy debate."

This is where Saunders' (and the nut-job creationists') arguments fall apart, because there is NO NEED for a debate in public schools between creationism and evolution. Evolution is fact.

Calling for "healthy debate" legitimizes creationism. Just like inquiring about banning books is an implied threat to the librarian to fly-right or get checked out of her job, and not reminding the Alaskan Independence Party that they should be considered traitors and that they are a couple snowflakes short of a snowball is tacit approval of their mission to secede from the United States.

If you want your kid to learn creationism, 'intelligent design' or whatever name fundamentalists are putting on it today, send him/her to a parochial or private school. Just like if you want school-sponsored prayer.

It's a nice followup strategy by the GOP, though: criticize the tolerant for appearing intolerant and paint the intolerant as tolerant.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Different brand, same company

OK, I didn't mean for this blog to turn political, but it's the season. And we've got seven more weeks of the depressing knowledge that the Republicans are once again finding a way into the White House. From there -- with the collusion of key Democrats in Congress -- they can shove a conservative Supreme Court down our throats that will last two or three generations and implement such meaningful reform as creationism in schools and protections for companies that sell hurtful prescription drugs or toys with excessive levels of lead that were made in China simply to save the company money.

This rant, of course, comes after a rough night of sleep following Sarah Palin's speech at the GOP convention.

The Republicans obviously are distancing themselves from George Bush, the man with the lowest prolonged approval rating in modern American presidential history. Where's Osama bin Laden? Is the world safer? Is gas cheaper? Is our food less expensive? (If Republicans want to focus on gas, Democrats should focus on food -- except then the GOP will spin something about the farm bill ...) Will my son's grandchildren be saddled with this war-driven national debt brought to you by the party of fiscal responsibility?

Republicans are dousing the McCain-Palin ticket in the same bogus aw-shucks optimism that carried George II and Slick Dick Cheney into office almost eight years ago. Except this one they've packaged in the TV news show formula: pair the old male anchor (trust, strength) with the bright-faced, "young" female anchor (compassion, optimism, sexiness).

It may be the McCain-Palin brand -- with its implied message of "new and improved" compassionate conservatism -- but it's from the same company that sold you the Bush-Cheney model.

Don't buy it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Four more years of this?

And this from a Republican Party that says the market should decide. Apparently, only if the market gets the chance.
Court: US can block mad cow testing
Associated Press
Aug. 29
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration can prohibit meat
packers from testing their animals for mad cow disease, a federal
appeals court said Friday. The dispute pits the Agriculture Department,
which tests about 1 percent of cows for the potentially deadly disease,
against a Kansas meat packer that wants to test all its animals.

Larger meat packers opposed such testing. If Creekstone Farms Premium
Beef began advertising that its cows have all been tested, other
companies fear they too will have to conduct the expensive tests.

The Bush administration says the low level of testing reflects the
rareness of the disease. Mad cow disease has been linked to more than
150 human deaths worldwide, mostly in Great Britain. Only three cases
have been reported in the U.S., all involving cows, not humans.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Lead, follow or get out of the way

"Obama reverses two positions in new energy plan" - AP, Aug. 5
"Obama reverses, passing up on public campaign money" - AP, June 20
"Obama reverses (fill in the blank)"

You heard it here first: Obama has lost the election.

Shower me with pooh-bahs if I'm proved wrong in November, but I believe John McCain's growing poll numbers are tied as much to his well-crafted image (Obama ain't the only one with PR people!) as with the Democrats' inability to lead with a message.

Why else would Obama's campaign start looking more at poll numbers on issues like Iraq, gun control, the death penalty, off-shore drilling, public campaign funding and (reportedly) wearing a flag pin rather than sticking to his message of leadership and change?

It's called the middle voter. The swing voter. The undecided voter. But Democrats can't be so stupid to think that playing to the middle while dissing the support that brought Obama the party nomination will win an election, right? Right?

The middle should be led to Obama's positions not pandered to so Obama is led to them. Obama's reversals -- call them "moving to the middle," if you will -- may be few, but they have created a perception of Obama as a waffler instead of a leader.

Are these policy reversals because the Democrats are so inept at running a national campaign or is it because the GOP has infiltrated the upper echelon of the Democratic Party? Yeah, I believe Lee Harvey Oswald didn't act alone, but Republicans are the Kings of Dirty Tricks. Remember the implosion of Ed Muskie's campaign? Or how the hostages in Iran were magically released when Ronald Reagan became president and after Jimmy Carter's presidency had become saddled with hostage images? Or how John Kerry lost to the most unpopular president in American history?

The real reason George II was re-elected in 2004 wasn't because he knew the issues and tried to collect a few more votes by shifting his position. He's no brainiac. The man (by perception) leads -- albeit down the path to destruction! -- but he (with his shadow advisors) leads. And American voters will follow anyone as long as they believe he/she inspires them. That's why Obama's campaign surged, and that's why McCain's is gaining now.

Democrats better find and shoot the pig in the Obama campaign right now, or they've lost - again.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Enough already

San Francisco, my friends, ain't all about guys in frills and clam chowder on the Wharf.

In a good number of parts of The City, people are just trying to get by. And that's getting tougher to do while staying alive. This morning, on the other side of the street from our old apartment, two men were found shot dead in their car.

Out-in-the-open violence is becoming more of the norm here. Our old neighborhood, for example, was pretty quiet (except when University of San Francisco students were partying). Students smoked pot (and crack) outside our apartment and drunk students pee'd on car doors. But they didn't go around capping each other.

It's one of the most striking differences from the San Francisco we left six years ago. The violence now is everywhere -- not confined to downtrodden areas like the Tenderloin or Bayview or Hunter's Point -- and more and more it's hitting the innocent who happen to be in its path. A couple months ago, a father and two of his teenage sons in their car just happened to block a narrow street; as they were backing up, someone fired into the car, killing all three. A longtime gangbanger was arrested.

The two guys found dead this morning may not have been innocents. I suspect a drug deal gone bad, with their assailant(s) driving them to our old off-the-beaten-path street and firing bullets into their heads from the backseat. We'll see.

Yet the city's leaders are asleep, thinking that regulating pharmacies from selling tobacco products or setting recycling standards or banning trans fats from fast foods (all fine causes normally) makes up for shirking basic services like protecting the lives of residents. But that might require tough decisions that take money away from the politically powerful.

Friends, you still can come to San Francisco, and of course bring your money. Rest assured, Union Square, Fisherman's Wharf, the Castro and crooked Lombard Street will continue to be the safest spots in San Francisco.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A good day

Am I on vacation or working from home? My last couple weeks at work left little time to think about how I REALLY was going to spend the first three days of the two weeks 4-year-old Benny's preschool is closed.

So I wasted Tuesday waiting for (nonexistent) return telephone calls. And Wednesday looked like it was toast, with one story needing an update and another story started from scratch two hours before deadline. Meanwhile, Benny's running up to me every five minutes wailing, 'When is somebody going to play with me?'
(For the record, I spent every Tuesday and Wednesday morning moment not dedicated to my paying job to playing with him.)

So when I finished the story, looked outside and saw the curtain of daily fog lifting to expose a beautifully sunny, blue sky, I threw the kid in some clothes, brushed his teeth and headed out the door. 'Let's make something of this day!' I grumbled.

Within minutes we were on a 6 bus headed downtown, through the Haight, the edge of the Tenderloin, down Market and stepping off at the foot of Powell Street, where the tourists wait ... and wait ... and wait for a ride on a cable car.

Benny and I walked up Powell into Union Square, to my favorite all-beef hot dog cart, where for $11 we got two dogs and two canned lemonades. We sat under a tree in Union Square and watched the world go by, while behind us a country-soul-blues-whatever-else-ya-want band played far enough behind us to enjoy.

We then walked into Chinatown, through the Chinatown Gate. This was the best part of all. Benny had never been to Chinatown, so every sight, smell and sound was new to him. It was a little bit of a walk, but not bad -- especially since I easily found our destination: the fortune cookie factory on a tiny alley between Washington and Jackson. Inside a narrow building with a retail floor (I'm being generous) about five-feet-by-five-feet, we saw how fortune cookies are made. One of the women slipping messages inside the cookies and folding them into their familiar design handed a couple of warm, unfolded cookies to Benny and me, and then we slipped out with a large bag of regular and chocolate fortune cookies for $4.50.

We popped out of the alley onto Jackson and walked toward the Financial District, taking in the Transamerica Pyramid, the Redwood grove, a fire station ... anything ... until we settled in at Baskin Robbins, where I told Benny his morning patience would be rewarded. He was in heaven.

We finished and moved on to work -- to see Christine. Benny and I rode the elevator to the ninth floor, where he sneaked into the deadline-day newsroom and handed Christine a fortune cookie. Benny and I then went to a 15th-floor rooftop garden a block away and nibbled on fortune cookies, bought some apple juice and jumped on the California Street (and drastically less crowded) cable car. We rode it to the end of the line, jumped on the 49 bus down Van Ness to Market Street, waited five minutes and caught the 6 bus home.

It's not how you start the day, I told Benny, it's what you make of it.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

A laid-back act of kindness

In his "golden chariot" — a La-Z-Boy recliner set atop a platform with wheels — a San Franciscan lets acts of kindness fuel his trip from the Mission to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

What I like about San Francisco

In no specific order …

1. Neighborhoods teeming with independent shopkeepers — even if chains are moving in.
2. Ten minutes to the ocean, 15 minutes to mountains, a couple hours to desert.
3. Down-to-earth people.
4. Public transportation — much of the time it sucks (late, dirty, overcrowded), but I like not owning a car. (That being said …)
5. City CarShare. A few bucks a month, a few pennies a mile, no direct cost for gas or insurance. Sometimes, I need to get somewhere fast — and City CarShare gets me there. (No, this is not a commercial.)

More to come …

The Hans Reiser Effect

"The defense has suggested that Nina Reiser, who was 31 when she disappeared, could be alive and living in her native Russia." — San Francisco Chronicle, March 19, 2008

Once, while telling my mother in a very coolishly cynical way about some injustice I had stumbled on, she turned to me and said, "I worry about raising my kids to be too cynical."

A healthy dose of skepticism is part of my job; it helps me separate the wheat from the chaff. But, OK, maybe it's a slippery slope down Skepticism Mountain into Cynical Valley.

Which brings me to Hans Reiser. Reiser — for those who don't know it (and until the past few months, I was gladly among you) — was the master of the Linux operating system. A king of computer code, if you will. But then his estranged wife, Nina, went missing after last being seen dropping off their two young children with Reiser. Eventually, he was charged with murder.

Throughout his trial — extensively covered by Bay Area newspapers and the national media, including Wired — Reiser maintained his innocence. That's putting it nicely: He proclaimed his innocence, angrily denouncing anyone who thought otherwise. His defense team introduced the thought that Nina Reiser, whose body hadn't been recovered, actually fled to Russia and was lying low, as a way of getting back at Hans with a murder conviction.

A jury convicted Reiser recently. The police never uncovered a body, but the circumstantial evidence was strangely overwhelming: a missing car seat, a cell phone that was turned off or the batteries taken out (presumably so it couldn't be tracked), drops of Nina Reiser's blood and Reiser's own odd behavior.

Yet Hans Reiser was the only person who really knew what happened to Nina, and he denied that he killed his wife. And he wouldn't lie in court, would he? Despite publicly taking the oath of the Loyal Order of Cynics, something in me wanted to believe Reiser. I've watched enough TV crime dramas — anything's possible, right? Maybe. Just maybe. Legally, they'd call that "reasonable doubt."

It may have been doubt. But it wasn't reasonable. Reiser, in an effort to convert his first-degree murder conviction into a second-degree murder sentence, led police to a shallow grave a couple of days ago that held the remains of Nina Reiser. She had been strangled.

Sometimes I want to believe the best about people, even if all evidence is to the contrary. In the end, I feel manipulated and used. When I read that Reiser had indeed killed his wife and was only trying to get a better deal for himself — not telling the truth to, at least, free his conscience or close what could have been a painfully open-ended story for his children — I, frankly, was pissed off. I wanted to drive over to the jail and beat him senseless.

But I can thank people like Hans Reiser, the Bushes George and Bill Clinton: I've come to realize that despite lies flowing from the courtroom as well as the Oval Office — institutions we're taught since childhood to trust — I'm not a cynic. I trust people too much for that.

At my worst, I'm not even a skeptic, but I need to be more skeptical. That, I think, would strike a balance that would even make my mother happy.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Death, taxes and airline fees

From David Lazarus' Dec. 19 Consumer Confidential column in the Los Angeles Times:

[As Lazarus notes in a followup column, Hawaiian Airlines later made nicey-nice with the passenger.]

We all know that some airlines nickel-and-dime you with fees -- fees for baggage, fees for food, fees for blankets and pillows. But fees for death?

Monrovia resident Jane Wilkens, 48, was looking forward to a getaway to Hawaii's Big Island this coming April with her 77-year-old mom and one of her mom's friends. In August, she booked three first-class tickets to Kona on Hawaiian Airlines for $4,287.
But in September, Wilkens' mom underwent surgery for a back problem. Three days later, she unexpectedly died from a blood clot.

"It was horrible," Wilkens recalled. "She was my best friend. We were very close, and this was devastating to me."

After dealing with all the things that arise under such circumstances, Wilkens finally got around to canceling various travel arrangements. She contacted the Hilton Waikoloa Village resort, where she'd booked a suite for about $600 per night, and explained what had happened.

"Just like that, they canceled the reservation," Wilkens said.

She contacted Delta Air Lines, on which she'd booked a separate first-class trip for a "girls' weekend" in Maine after she and her mom returned from Hawaii. "They fully refunded the tickets, no questions asked," Wilkens said.

She contacted Hawaiian Airlines, which, like Delta, requested a copy of her mom's death certificate. About a month later, Wilkens received a letter from Paul Whitaker, Hawaiian Air's "resolution coordinator."

He said the airline would refund each of the three first-class tickets but would deduct a $75 "service fee" per ticket the airline would refund each of the three first-class tickets but would deduct a $75 "service fee" per ticket, or $225.