Thursday, October 29, 2009

Things must be worst than I thought...

Walmart is getting into the death market.

As in caskets and urns used for cremains.

When planning a funeral, I suppose it's good to know that there are bargains to be had...

Here's a link to the AP story, if you want more details. It's got a great lead:

"The world's largest retailer wants to keep its customers even after they die."

A House Divided...

…Cannot stand.

Thus spoke Abraham Lincoln in an address to Illinois Republicans that he gave in 1858, two years prior to his assumption to the presidency. In his mind, the nation could no longer live half-slave, half-free. Shortly after Lincoln became president, the Civil War began, a terrible and bloody war waged to determine whether we’d live all slave or all free.

We know the outcome of that war. Slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Today, this American house is again extremely divided... between the over-leveraged and the over-compensated.

On the one hand, much of our house exists in chaos. Highest unemployment in decades (a rate that doesn't even include those who've given up the search for a job.) Hundreds of thousands of jobs lost each month. Consumer side of the financial system in a shambles. Still loaded with toxic assets. Still crumbling from the weight of consumer loans that consumers can no longer afford.

Because as we’ve seen this year, with job loss comes the loss of income. For those in the trenches, the impact of the collapsing economy has trickled down to the consumer in ways that have been catastrophic for many.

Contrast that with the golden era today on Wall Street. Record profits. Record bonuses. Record compensation for many of the people who dragged the economy off the cliff.

The feds have clamped down by limiting compensation for the 25 most highly compensated employees at seven firms (Citi, BoA, AIG, GM, GMAC, Chrysler and Chrysler Financial.)

In other words, they placed compensation limits on 175 people who work at firms that employ tens of thousands of employees. For these few top wage earners, their cash salaries (excluding bonuses) are limited to $500,000. This in a year when the average family of four has an income of about $70,000 a year (if they're working).

Since everyone seems to recognize that the badly behaved business leaders cannot exist on half a mil alone, they get the rest of their compensation, which can head back up in the stratosphere, in stock options that cannot be cashed out for a number of years.

For those living day to day, wondering when the economy will get a jump-start on employment, that $500,000 cash “limit” would be a hefty pay day. On Wall Street, the limit is a federally imposed disaster. Apparently those who trash their businesses don’t feel compelled to hold themselves accountable for terrible business decisions that led to a massive federal bailout.

If you watched Frontline earlier this week, you saw middle-aged members of the middle class realizing that they'd been bumped from relevance. Unable to get a job. Discovering that all they'd worked toward, all they'd sacrificed over the years, all the skills they'd acquired meant nothing in today's job market.

They meant nothing in today's job market.

In the history of labor, this is a turning point. The middle class has been traditionally been protected from the punitive actions of capitalism. The middle class has thrived in capitalism. The middle class has grown fat on capitalism.

But not today. Not in this America. The middle class is just catching on to the fact that it has become an endangered species in 21st century America.

In speaking of "the house divided," Lincoln had borrowed from another source – the Bible.

“...Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation... ” Matthew 12:25

There is wisdom in to be found in the experience of history. There is wisdom in that passage from Matthew. Let us not fail to learn the lessons of history.

The terrible divisions that separate Main Street from Wall Street must be healed. But they cannot be healed if those on Wall Street continue to suck billions of dollars out of the system and into their pockets. The parasite is in danger of killing the host.

What we've learned in the years since Paulson unveiled TARP is that investing in bankers is no way to heal a nation. In fact, that kind of investment is rapidly bringing us closer to desolation every day.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

An Olympian Failure...

Richard J. Daley, the father, was known as "the kingmaker." As mayor and as head of Cook County Democratic Central Committee, he controlled the votes of one of the largest block of Democratic votes.

Thus, back in the old days, when powerful Kennedys were plentiful, all Democrats seeking the highest political office in the land came to see Chicago's mayor, Richard J. Daley, the man from Bridgeport, hizzoner, the boss. The men who would be president would come to see to see this man who rose to prominence from very humble beginnings.

Richard M. Daley, the son, is not a kingmaker. There's no one in America who thinks Daley is the reason Obama was elected president last year. The vast blocks of city voters have been chopped up, segmented into smaller chunks, often powered-up by single issues like abortion.

In the third largest city in America, Daley is instead the king, ruling virtually unopposed in all areas.

He came to power after a turbulent decade of non-Daley rulers, including the first female (Jane Byrne) and black mayors (Harold Washington & Eugene Sawyer) for the city.

And today, he rules as an autocrat. When his father was mayor, you could count on the lakefront alderman of the 43rd ward to raise up an alarm over some issues. You had Mike Royko writing columns and his famous book that named the mayor for the world as "Boss."

The son has no voice raised against him. Not the Republicans, who've been emasculated in Chicago for decades. Not the City Council, which rubber-stamps virtually everything the mayor wants - without reading it apparently. There is no Royko in the local media to act as a gadfly.

Daley rules alone. A king over all.

And when one rules in such isolation, there is no one else to blame for failure.

In the weeks leading up to the big IOC vote, it became increasingly clear that Chicagoans were reluctant to assume the cost-burden of such an event. They live in a city with the highest sales tax. Thanks to a terrible 75 year parking deal, Chicagoans also pay some of the highest meter parking rates in the country. Property taxes have skyrocketed in recent years - as has the debt load carried by the city.

Daley's 75 year parking contract brought in $1.2 billion, but apparently short-changed the city. Not only did the terrible deal mean parking rates increased dramatically overnight, Daley actually could have gotten at least a billion more - but didn't. And Daley's using that money now - apparently taking money we've been paid for existing and future assets (parking and Skyway revenues) to today pay for the debt acquired yesterday.

Apparently to pay for everything this year, we'll saddle future generations of Chicagoans with even more debt.

So a great many citizens of my favorite city looked at the Olympics with absolute fear. How could we afford such a spectacle, given the very poor financial situation we face today? As the IOC came closer to its vote, Chicago support for the Olympics waned dramatically. Less than 50 percent of Chicagoans polled wanted the event to come to Chicago.

The king failed in his bid for glory. And the city that works is increasingly becoming the city that's broke. A terrible legacy for any ruler to leave.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Irrelevance, Interrupted...

He came to the swamplands of the Potomac swathed in a cloud of scandal. He's been ignored since the day he arrived at his new job.

And today, my senator, Roland Burris, has me humming a little Janis Joplin right now (lyrics by the talented Kris Kristofferson)...

"Freedom's just another word, for nothing left to lose
And nothing's all that [Roddy] left me, yah."

Yes, Roland Burris rolled into Washington with a a whole lotta nothing in his back pocket. He'd been handed the senate seat by a man charged with trying to sell it, Rod Blagojevich, the Kipling-quoting ex-gov of Illinois – and allegedly a future "Celebrity Apprentice" contestant.

(Can one be The Donald's apprentice from behind bars? Because the ex-gov's someday going to stand trial on corruption charges and sometimes such things end up with a jail term....)

So Roland Burris came to DC as a lame duck senator, with just two years left in the term Obama left when he became president. Because of the scandal surrounding his appointment, because a great many people believed Roland wanted to carve out "Senator" on that big old gravestone he's already purchased for himself, wanted the title of senator badly enough to purchase the rights to it, Roland Burris has been utterly irrelevant in Washington. He was supposed to show up, remain quiet, vote the way the Dems wanted him to vote. And for a good few months, Roland has behaved. He's been quiet.

Until now. The man from Illinois has decided that his lame duck status has given him a certain power. Like that sad, mournful lover of Bobby McGee, Roland's got nothing to lose - and he's taken that bit of nothing Rod gave him and maneuvered his way to the front and center of the health care debate.

In one of the most hotly contested issues of 2009 - in a year filled with bitterly contested issues - Roland Burris has drawn a line in the sand. He will not vote for any "health care reform" unless it includes the public option.

And thus, the most irrelevant man in Washington has made himself utterly relevant once again. In a town devoted to ensuring the interests of health insurers and banks are well-served, Roland Burris wants to make sure the public is not totally forgotten.

So for all those lobbyists working so hard to sway our senators and reps to do their bidding, I close with another Janis Joplin song of "great social and political importance." Here's what the highly paid lobbyists are working so hard for out there in the swamps...

Monday, October 5, 2009

Anne Frank has gone viral...

What a strange world we live in. Rare film footage of the young girl whose diary became one of the most moving pieces of Holocaust literature has gone "viral."

I find myself undeniably moved by the fact that the brief glimpse we have of Anne Frank in motion was shot to memorialize the wedding of a neighbor. Love and life amid the gathering storm clouds. The world depicted in that video seems unbearably normal.

And yet all hell was about to break loose.

Some links:

NY Times story on the clip

The Anne Frank Museum (If you ever have a chance to climb the steep stairs up to the secret annex, it's an experience I highly recommend.)

From Anne's diary: "Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart."