Friday, April 17, 2015

The Depths of Absurdity

If you have spent any time on the internet in the past six years you have probably seen the banner ads that claim "Obama signs mortgage relief bill" or "Obama lowers rates for all borrowers".  You may have been tempted to click on those to see if you "qualify" for that "amazing Government offer".  Well banks in some European countries can now start running their own click-through ads claiming that "We will pay you to borrow our money".  But unlike the Obama scams, this offer is--sadly--real.

In one of the most perverse economic moves in human history, some European banks now have to pay people whom they lent money for mortgages.  The lucky borrowers signed notes tied to a key interest rate charged between banks in the European Union.  That rate is now approaching zero (as Eurozone members try to devalue the massive amounts of debt that they and their citizens all owe--while also trying to convince people to take on even more debt to "stimulate" the economy) and as it does, those that borrowed at "below-Prime" rates are looking at a negative APR.  Because no one is really sure how this is going to work, the assumption is that the banks will be forced to decrease the balance of the loan by the negative interest rate each month.

This also sets up the likelihood that those same banks will have to charge depositors interest to keep their money in a savings account!  This is like Bizzaro world in the Superman comics where everything is backwards, light is dark, good is evil and the sun rises in the West.  As anyone with basic math skills would tell you, if people aren't keen on the idea of having to pay to save money and they just keep their cash at home, the banks have very limited futures ahead of them--since their revenue stream is about to dry up.

But that is where we are in our screwed up, debt-based global economy today.  Those that blow through everything they have--and beyond are finding more and more rewards.  While those of us who try to act responsibly with our money keep getting the shorter and shorter end of the stick.  It's also why we should be alarmed every time we hear someone say that the "Government needs to do something to fix the economy", because artificially low interest rates, increased currency production and continuing to take from those who save to give to those who spend through "re-distribution" are about the only ways Government can "fix" things (short of major wars where Government production becomes the economy). 

Because there is far less bank regulation here in the US, the odds of negative interest rates for mortgages and savings accounts are far less likely--but I'm sure more than a few of those "advocacy" groups for student loan borrowers and those that were given mortgages that they could not afford during the housing bubble will be pushing the Obama Administration to "follow the lead of Europe" and make things "fair" for those got in over their heads "through no fault of their own".

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Chasing the Trends

One of the problems with government today is that it is slow to react and often lags behind societal trends.  I'm reminded of that as I hear more leaders talk about Young Professionals Week and how cities need to "change to attract Millennials". 

Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett are "all in" on the belief that today's twenty and thirty-somethings are all about living downtown.  That the future of American life is renting high-rise apartments, working in high-rise offices, riding streetcars everywhere, going to downtown farmers markets twice a week and having quirky shops lining the downtown streets.  And to achieve this "Millennial Mecca" both are willing to invest millions of taxpayer dollars to dedicate all urban planning efforts toward meeting the whims of these young professionals.

But there is a problem with trying to chase the latest trends among the youth.  They tend to change their minds--often--about a lot of things.  When you are in your twenties or early thirties and you aren't married and you don't have kids, being "in the heart of the action" is rather appealing.  You don't have kids or dogs that need to play outside, the "entertainment district" is where you want to be--looking for an endless good time and a quick "hook up".

But once you have the spouse, and the kid and the dog, being in a high-rise apartment with little space, privacy or freedom isn't so appealing anymore.  You kind of want a lawn, and a garage that leads right into the house, and not having to take an elevator to get the mail, and you would prefer not to hear the sirens of police cars and ambulances all night, or the yells of the people you used to hang out with at the clubs as they wander around drunk after bar time.  And suddenly, the suburbs where Mom and Dad raised you look far more appealing.

And for those that buck that trend, their kids visit Grandma and Grandpa and realize how quiet things are out in the 'burbs.  And how you can ride a bike across the street without having to worry about being run over--and that there are parks and yards to play right outside of your door and they think "Wow, I can't wait to get out of the city and enjoy this kind of life!"  And when that happens, the cities that spent many years and many millions of dollars focused only on "transforming their downtowns" will see the same urban flight that marked the 80's and the 90's--leaving behind the trendy riverfront condos and the "retro-cool" streetcars empty and rotting in their wake.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Willing To Sacrifice

Later today, fast food workers, convenience store clerks and retail employees will be walking off their jobs in Milwaukee and Madison to attend rallies in support of an increase of the minimum wage.  The protests are being organized by a group called Wisconsin Jobs Now--which is pushing for a $15 and hour minimum wage--more than double the current rate.  During that rally, we will likely hear that everyone who works deserves a "living wage"--regardless of their age, skill set, value of the product made or service provided and performance on the job.  We'll also likely hear about the "sacrifices" that should be made on the consumer end to ensure that things are "fair for all".  Well there are a number of sacrifices I am willing to make if the minimum wage was to ever go to $15 an hour.

First, I am willing to give up fast food.  Let's be honest, McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's are all nice for a quick meal--but I could grill up a few extra burgers on the weekend and just as easily bring them with me to work to heat up in the microwave.  If I'm going to pay $10-$12 for a burger, fries and a shake, I'm going someplace better--like Kroll's West, Mihm's or Five Guys.  Perhaps if Mickey D's and the other chains come up with an automated kitchen model (which is in development) and we order and pay at a touch screen, I'd keep going if the prices stay about the same.

I am also willing to get all of my gas at automated pumps.  I can't remember the last time I paid cash for gas.  The only reason I go into the little hut at Fleet Farm is because that is the only way to use the 4-cents off coupon.  If they put a little bar code on the coupon and scanners on the pumps they could probably still give me that discount in the future.  And if I need a soda or a snack while on the road, I can just as easily get them from vending machines next to the pumps as I can from fully-stocked shelves and coolers.

I could also put up with more Self Check Out Lanes at the store.  All I would ask is that they change things so that we don't need "authorization" to use coupons and that they make it easier to bag things up in paper bags--since I'm not a fan of my groceries all rolling around in the back of the Jeep because plastic bags are useless for stacked item.  I also have no problem taking my items off of pallets left on the display floor instead of having everything neatly facing out in the same direction in a display case.

To expand this even more, I'm ok with not having my bedsheets changed every day when I'm staying at a hotel.  I don't change (or make for that matter) the bed at home every day--so why do I need that on the road?  If a sit-down restaurant wants to serve my meal on a heavy plastic plate that we just toss out on the way out the  door--I can live with that.  And if everything can't be open 24-hours a day 365-days a year, I can usually wait until morning to buy whatever I need.

Would all of these "sacrifices" make life a little less convenient?  Sure.  But it's the least that I (and likely hundreds of millions of others) are willing to do to make sure that everyone is paid what they are TRULY "worth".

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Political Gymnastics

Forget the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the greatest gymnastics that you will see next year will be done by Liberals trying to convince themselves to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton.  The contortions have already begun this week with Clinton's on-line video announcement that she is officially continuing the campaign that actually began about ten years ago.  Just check out the comments section below any of the New York Times on-line articles about the former First Lady getting into the race.  They are a long litany of her faults, her vulnerabilities, and her past actions--however, they also almost always end with a big "But......."

Many wonder if Mrs. Clinton really wants to undo many of the measures that her husband put into place.  Would she fight to repeal trade agreements like NAFTA--which the Left blames for the downfall of American manufacturing?  Would she repeal the Federal Defense of Marriage Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act--both endorsed and signed by her husband?  Will she further roll back welfare reforms established during the first Clinton era?

Others decry the Clinton connection to Wall Street and big-money political donors.  The Clinton campaign fund goal is $2.5 BILLION.  A candidate who can even dream of establishing such a fundraising target surely has no interest in eliminating all money from campaigns (well except tax dollars under public financing plans supported by Liberals).

And then there is the Clinton track record in actual public office.  No bills with her name on them during her one term in the Senate.  A vote in favor of the Iraq War. Votes in favor of "too big to fail" Wall Street banks and brokerage bailouts.  Further escalations of Middle East violence during her term as Secretary of State.  And the infamous "I'm going to set up my own email system and then wipe the server clean when people ask to see what's on it" move that popped up earlier this year.

More than a few of the Clinton Complainers wish for another candidate to challenge her in the primary process.  Why can't Elizabeth Warren run, or John Kerry or Corey Booker or even Vice President Joe Biden they ask.  Where is our "new Barack Obama" to be the Anti-Hillary and allow us to not have to hold our nose as we head to the polls early next year.

And then after spending sentence after sentence and paragraph after paragraph tearing down Clinton as a viable candidate (in their eyes), they follow it up with a "But, she'll be better than anyone the Republicans nominate". Or "But, there will likely be at least two Supreme Court appointments coming up in the next four to eight years--and we can't let a Republican choose those justices."  Or "But, she's the only Democrat that can raise the money to win--so we have to give her a chance."

Democrats won't be the only ones finding themselves making excuses to vote for someone next year.  Those of us who are fiscal conservatives and social moderates face the same dilemma on the Republican side as well.  There's nothing like having to make your decision based on the lesser of two evils every four years.

Monday, April 13, 2015

What Makes a Real Winner

Behind the new green jacket owned by new Masters Champion Jordan Spieth, behind the Under Armour clothing head-to-toe, beyond the millions he has won on the course and the millions more he is going to make in the future lies the real reason Spieth is a "major" winner.

It's was mentioned in passing that Jordan has a cognitively-disabled 14-year old sister with whom he is very close.  His parents and those on his "team" have all mentioned how much Ellie keeps Jordan grounded.  How her condition helps to keep what he accomplishes in life in perspective.  As one writer pointed out, she will be as excited about him winning the Masters as she was that he finished second in Houston two weeks ago or when he finished second the week before that in San Antonio.

Saturday was apparently "National Sibling Day" (shout out to my sister, Jenni)--so it was fitting that the child prodigy with the special needs sister that got most of the family's attention was doing so well on such a huge stage.

I wonder how different Tiger Woods would have turned out if he had a sister like Ellie Spieth.  If perhaps Earl Woods would have had to devote time to another child (he does have another son by a different woman--but he was really not much of the Woods family life when Tiger was young) instead of treating Eldrick as God's greatest gift to sport and humanity.

Jordan Spieth is humble to a fault, makes times for fans, doesn't treat media obligations like they are the greatest inconvenience in the world and refers to his elders and some older players on the Tour as "Mister".  Tiger, from the day he turned professional treated opponents, fans and media members as they were beneath him.  Obstacles to block out  or crush on the way to "fulfilling his destiny".  Of course we know what has happened in the past 5 or 6 years that have finally brought some humility to Tiger.  He even signed some autographs at Augusta National last week and it was great to see him interacting with his kids on the driving range and during the Par 3 Contest.

We like to use the term "Born Winner" in sports to describe someone who seems to be great from the first day they step onto the field, the court or the ice.  But as Jordan Spieth has known from the age of seven--and perhaps Tiger Woods is learning know as a middle aged man--you have to learn how to be a real winner.  And sometimes the "teacher" isn't a high-paid coach who yells a lot.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Course Whisperer

Much ado will be made today at The Masters as two-time champion Ben Crenshaw plays his final competitive round in the storied tournament.  Crenshaw is beloved at Augusta National as much for his knowledge of the history of the game as for his emotional win in 1995--which came just days after the death of his long-time instructor Harvey Penick (he of the Little Red Book fame).  But I hope that just as much attention and adulation are paid to the man who has walked beside Crenshaw for nearly every one of his trips around Augusta--his long-time tournament caddie Carl Jackson.

Jackson's story is amazing.  He had to drop out of school at the age of 13 because his mother could no longer afford to buy the school uniforms for him to wear.  He went to work as a caddie at Augusta National and carried his first bag in The Masters at the age of 14.  He first caddied for Crenshaw in 1976 when the club policy was that even the pros had to use the local guys on the bag--instead of their regular caddies during the tournament.  The relationship continued even after the membership started allowing the pros to bring their own caddies--even though they were giving up a huge amount of local knowledge.  And it was Jackson who was there to console the emotional Gentle Ben on the 18th green as he broke down at the end of that '95 win.

Crenshaw is always quick to credit Jackson for his success at Augusta.  He has relied heavily on the caddie to pick out spots on the rolling fairways to hit drives, which small section of the green to aim for on approach shots--even if they aren't close to the hole--and to read the putts on Augusta's lightning-fast and nuanced greens.  Jackson's stature became legendary--he is a sort of "Course Whisperer" with encyclopedic knowledge of every square inch of the property. 

Budding superstar Jordan Spieth has played Masters practice rounds exclusively with Crenshaw and Jackson--and his caddie has spent hours talking with the old looper trying to gain some of that wisdom.  The results so far?  Spieth led midway through the final round of his first Masters last year and ended up finishing second.  And in yesterday's first round of this year's tournament, Spieth finished one off the course record with an 8-under, 64.

Unfortunately, it appears that Carl Jackson will not get to make that final walk around Augusta with Ben Crenshaw today.  Jackson is recovering from prostate cancer surgery--and yesterday was in too much pain to carry the bag.  (His brother, also a life-long caddie at Augusta National handled the duties--and Crenshaw shot a 91.)  But I hope that as the patrons lining all 18-holes give Ben Crenshaw one final standing ovation for all that he has meant to the tournament and to golf as well, they honor the man who walked just a few feet behind for all of those years.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Thy Will Be Done....If a Judge Makes Me

Can you remember the last law that was passed that didn't end up in court?  The Affordable Care Act, Act Ten, Voter ID, voter-approved same sex marriage bans and legalization, immigration reform, Right To Work--all of them taken to court, appealed, appealed again and then re-filed in different jurisdictions.  Meanwhile, citizens can't keep track of what is and isn't in effect.  County judges issuing injunctions that are overturned by appeals courts--but then Federal judges issuing injunctions that other Federal judges lift.  All creating the kind of chaos that I don't think the Founding Fathers envisioned when they created the international model for checks and balances in a system of government.

The latest to join in the litany of litigation is Wisconsin State Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson--who didn't even wait for the official canvass of the results of Tuesday's statewide referendum on a constitutional amendment changing the way her position is selected to file a lawsuit.  Abrahamson claims that the new law can't go into effect until her current term is over because....well she doesn't want to give up the position.  And Abrahamson--who should be considered the ultimate expert on the law being Chief Justice and all--has hired some big guns out of Washington to make her case for her.

Abrahamson's suit also seeks to place an injunction on all other members of the Court from taking any legal action to challenge her legal action and to have her removed as Chief Justice.  She adds that she campaigned for re-election in 2009 as Chief Justice--and that people voted for her to be Chief Justice ONLY (even though that title did not appear next to her name on the ballot and the race was not labeled "Chief Justice").  Abrahamson apparently believes that people are not allowed to change their minds about such things either--even though she made the same arguments in discussions about the VOTER-APPROVED ban on same sex marriages that was also in our state constitution that she wanted to overturn in a previously mentioned lawsuit and appeal and appeal.

But to get back to the root issue here, we have gone beyond the use of the court system to prove legal injury with the passage of new laws and have gone into a realm where judges are asked to assume that there will be legal injury to specific parties.  Are there still public sector unions following Act Ten?  They may be smaller and have less money to spend on political campaigns--but that is because employees exercised their right of association (and corresponding right not to associate).  And when that one person whose original birth certificate burned up in the Courthouse Fire of 1932 can't get one of the free forms of state identification that will be accepted to vote in the February primary of 2016, then they can file their lawsuit and seek legal remedy.

Shirley Abrahamson hasn't been denied due process--because there hasn't been a process yet.  The State Supreme Court didn't meet three minutes after the Associated Press called the election in favor of the "Yes" votes to vote her out as Chief Justice.  And whose to say that they will actually do that when they do hold such a vote?  Will the Federal Judge assigned her lawsuit call up the six other members of the Court to the witness stand and poll them as to whether they will vote for against Shirley?  Of course, if her lawyers do their jobs, they will keep the amendment tied in up the various court systems long enough for her to serve out the last four years of her term as Chief Justice--regardless of whether or not that is what the voters wanted.