Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Really No Big Deal

Congratulations Jason Collins on becoming the first openly-gay player in major team sports history.  Now go and get more rebounds. While the media is going nuts over yesterday's release of the Sports Illustrated cover story of Collins coming out of the closet, the average sports fan's reaction is "meh" at best.

Perhaps it's because Collins is a career journeyman who averaged just over two points a game last year.  Or maybe it's because we've just become accustomed to the presence of homosexuality in all other aspects of society (I believe every tv show and movie is required to have at least one gay character).  But most sports fans will give Collins announcement just passing attention because the only thing we care about is if he can actually perform on the court.

That is one of the beauties of sports--it is a results-oriented medium.  We don't care if you are gay, straight, white, black, Christian or Muslim.  If you can put the ball in the hoop, make tacklers miss while carrying the ball or throw a fastball 98-miles an hour, we will want you on our teams and we will cheer you.

I haven't seen the movie 42 yet--but I hope they don't portray Dodgers President Branch Rickey as some crusader for social justice and equality.  He signed Jackie Robinson to play for Brooklyn because he knew that it would give his team a better chance to win--nothing more, nothing less.  And if other teams wanted to maintain the "gentlemen's agreement" then the Dodgers would gladly take the competitive advantage and run with it.  Jackie Robinson didn't advance the African-American cause by turning the other cheek for two seasons--he did it by hitting over .300 and driving in runs and stealing bases--which kept him in the league and opened the door to others behind him.  A .210 hitter who couldn't catch the ball wouldn't have lasted half a season--regardless of historical importance.

The modern gay athlete actually has an advantage that Robinson and the "trailblazers" of the other sports did not enjoy.  They have actually been allowed to play the game--really since the inception of professional sports.  They have the stats, the championships and the big money contracts to prove they can compete at the highest levels--and general managers and coaches aren't suddenly going to turn that backs on that kind of track record--whether the player comes out or not.

Monday, April 29, 2013

What's Good For the Goose Ain't Good Enough For the Gander

While everybody bemoans the lack of bi-partisanship in Washington nowadays, there is apparently one thing both sides can agree on: That members of Congress and their staffs should not be bound by the requirements of the Affordable Care Act.  Politico.com reported last week that members of both parties in both houses have joined the White House in "super secret" talks to exempt Congress from ObamaCare.

Many Americans would be surprised to find out that Congress is actually exempted from several laws already--some of which are the Freedom Of Information Act and the Social Security deduction.  It likely would have been exempted from the ACA from the outset as well--but Senator Jim Demint slipped in an amendment right before Congress passed it (so they could find out what was in it)--to make sure that those on the The Hill got to "enjoy" all the same benefits at their constituents.

Well now it turns out, our elected officials aren't too keen on the very law they foisted upon us just three short years ago.  It seems that ObamaCare is going to force all of those Congressional staffers (many of whom helped to write the monstrosity of a bill that only Russ Feingold read) to pay more for their health insurance!  And that is not sitting well with the wonks--whom it is feared will run to the private sector in droves (where the rates won't be much cheaper) and lawmakers will have to read their own bills and write their own speeches (the horror!!).  It's hard to believe that the "best and brightest minds" didn't know the Economics 101 principle that increased demand for a limited supply service will result in higher costs for everyone.

Kudos to Oshkosh West graduate Jim Vandehei and his staff at Politico.com for uncovering this nugget and proving yet again the blatant hypocrisy of those who claim the Affordable Care Act was meant to improve care for "all Americans".

Oh, and if your blood wasn't boiling enough this morning, I leave you with the comments of James Reschovsky--a senior fellow at the Center for Studying Health System Change, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington--who addressed a conference on the health care law in Madison last week: "the law seeks to improve quality of care but that doesn't necessarily mean costs will go down."  By that logic, the "Affordable" Care Act is going to go down as the greatest misnomer in American history.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Death of the Album

This week, iTunes marked its 10th anniversary.  Many credit iTunes with "saving the music industry" which had seen a marked drop-off in sales after people realized they could download CD's to their computers and share their music files for free on the internet.  But once musicians won their lawsuits against Napster--and iTunes debuted with its 99-cents per song format, sales eventually went back up.  Now audiophiles are just as likely to download the music they want as they are to buy an actual CD.

While I'm glad that artists are once again getting paid for their work, I still feel that iTunes has done irreparable harm to one of my favorite formats: the album.  As a Beatles fan, I've come to appreciate the work and consideration they put into laying out an album in a certain way--so that songs flow in a logical order.  The greatest examples of that would be their seminal Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road albums.  Other bands like The Who and Rush carried on the tradition in the 70's.  And bands like U2 and REM--along with solo artists like Michael Jackson and Prince created great "albums" in the 80's and the 90's.  A check of the top Album Downloads on iTunes today shows a mix of adult standards, alternative bands and greatest hits packages by 70's rockers--showing its the older generation that still bothers to buy entire albums. 

The a la carte nature of iTunes has destroyed the idea of a total listening experience encompassing 45 minutes to an hour.  Now, artists strive for just those one or two songs that can get five or ten million downloads and if the other ten tracks get a handful of listens--that's just icing on the cake.  I doubt even the most hardcore Pink or Mumford and Sons or Maroon Five fan could tell you the name of those artist's latest album.  Nowadays its just a list of album tracks and checkmarks for the ones you want to download and sync with your iPod.

And the iPod has also destroyed the album listening experience as well.  Features like syncing just specific tracks, playlists and shuffle allow listeners to jump from song to song, artist to artist in search of the ultimate mix of hits without the physical act of changing a disc or fast-forwarding to find specific tracks. 

Maybe some of the artists who want their entire bodies of work consumed, enjoyed and appreciated can fight the trend--by putting an entire album in just one track--and bringing the best listening experience back to it's rightful place in the industry.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

We Just Don't Get It

I'm often accused of having "no sympathy" for people who find themselves in difficult financial positions.  Critics will say that "you don't understand that things happen that people can't control".  And while that may be true, we continue to get reports and studies like the one this week on the complete and total lack of planning for long-term care--and I am completely justified in my feelings once again.

The Associated Press finds that 70-percent of respondents to their poll have done ABSOLUTELY NO PLANNING FOR THEIR LONG-TERM CARE AS THEY AGE!!  None.  No savings, no long-term care insurance, not even writing out advanced care directives--70% of us truly believe that we are never going to get old and need help to live some semblence of a life.

Adding to the frustration are what people do have as a "plan" for old age.  The first option is "my family will just take care of me".  That would be the children who will already be burdened by the excessive costs of the Obamacare system--and other massive debt accumulated by the Government by that time.  Yet they are just going to "magically" find more money to take care of Mom and Dad.

And then there is the second option: "I'll just let the government take care of me."  According to the study, many people think Medicare pays for nursing home and hospice care.  Actually, it does not.  State-run Medicaid programs pay for that--and the only way to be eligible for those programs is to be flat-out broke.  I guess that when you consider most Americans haven't saved nearly enough for retirement to begin with, reaching that point shouldn't be too difficult.

Let me point out a couple of things to everyone in my age group (30's and 40's): the average cost of a nursing home is $6700 a month--or $80,400 a year.  And the average American will spend at least three years in assisted living.  So you can expect to need at least $241,200 saved up for that.  And keep in mind that those are today's prices.  As the Affordable Care Act drives up those costs even more in the next few decades--you can expect those nursing home expenses to increase as well--so maybe you should plan for at least $300,000.  I would suggest getting to work on that right away.

Unless of course you are going to be like the rest of the ostriches out there and just bury your head in the sand and pretend like you aren't ever going to get old or sick.  Just don't expect me to pay for it--or to feel sorry for you.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Bucking the Trend

A new report from the Pew Research Foundation finds that the as the economy "recovers" the rich keep getting richer--while the middle class get a little less "middle class".  For the period from 2009 to 2011, the upper 7% of American households saw their net worth increase by 28-percent--while those in the "lower" 93% saw their net worth decrease by 4%.

(Before we go any farther, can we please come up with a set percentage for the "evil rich"?  When Occupy Wall Street first floated this idea it was the "1%"--meaning that I was in the "99%".  Then Mitt Romney came along and put me in the "53%" of Americans that was actually paying income taxes--meaning my "majority" had declined significantly.  Then it was President Obama who claimed/lied about how only the "Top 2%" were going to pay more in taxes under the fiscal cliff agreement--which put me back {not really} in the 98% category.  And now Pew comes around and tells us that it's actually the top "7%" that are screwing us.  Let's just pick a set percentage of people to blame here, so that my identity politics crisis can be solved)

Anyway, taking a look at our own finances for that period (NERD ALERT!) I find that the Krause household's net value increased by just over 23.5%.  So how did the decidedly "non-7%" couple from Oshkosh, Wisconsin outperform their peers by so much in that two year period?

First off, we both kept working.  That was a big part of it--maintaining two full-time incomes.  However, 2010 was a down year in terms of revenue as I decided to take a pay cut in order to try and "better the public good".  But we were able to make corresponding cuts in expenditures to absorb that lost revenue.

Secondly, we continued to reap the benefits of past good decisions.  This was especially true in the area of home equity--which was apparently the biggest drag on our fellow middle-class members' net worth for the period.  We bought an underpriced, undervalued property with cash down and continued to build equity by paying off our mortgage at a rate faster than the devaluation seen during the housing bubble burst.  We also went into the period with zero consumer debt--making any decline in real wages much easier to handle.

And lastly, we continued to make good decisions during those two years.  Remember Cash For Clunkers?  It was a great little program to help the Detroit automakers out of their sales doldrums--but it also put more Americans into vehicles carrying greater debt than what they were driving before.  And as we all know, unless the car we're talking about is the 1966 Corvette Sting Ray sitting in my Dad's garage, that vehicle starting losing its value the second you drove it off the lot--and continued to lose value every day after that--further reducing the "net value" of the owners.  The Krauses rejected Cash For Clunkers--keeping both our "clunkers" and our cash.  And we followed the same process the "7%" did to boost their status,according to the study--investing 12% of our gross income into investments--which saw steady growth for the period.

It's too bad we're going to have to wait another two years to find out how we did versus the rest of our peers from 2011 to 2013.  I know our percentage of net worth growth was even better than what the "7%" saw last time around.  And I'm guessing that for "some reason" the "bottom 93%" kept making the same financial mistakes that hindered their growth in the last study.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Trouble in (LIberal) Paradise

While the nations of southern Europe are racked by the financial and economic effects of creating a socialist nanny-state, one of their neighbors to the north is dealing with the cultural effect of Government taking care of your every need.  The New York Times has published an article on the growing trend of "welfare queens (and kings)" in Denmark.

Denmark is the liberal utopia of Europe.  Here are some of the government benefits afforded to its citizens:
  • Free health care
  • Free child care
  • Free education through six years of college
  • Four years of unemployment benefits
  • Free maid service for the elderly
  • Lifetime diasbility benefits
  • Government retirement pensions starting in your 50's
  • A minimum wage of $20 an hour--with short work weeks and extended vacations
By the way, these benefits are provided to everyone--regardless of their need for government assistance or their ability to pay on their own.  And of course, all of this is funded by the highest personal and corporate tax rates in all of Europe.

But now all of that is threatened not by the global recession but by the growing attitude among the populace that it no longer "pays to work".  The article describes how a single mother of two makes 47-thousand dollars in government benefits--without having to think about looking for a job.  The poster child of the new Danish attitude has become "Lazy Robert" Oleson--who is quoted in the article as boasting about having lived on welfare programs exclusively since 2001--and is pictured sitting in a curbside lounge chair, with his feet up, along the curb on a bright sunny day.  Lazy Robert says most available jobs are "demeaning".

Add to that, the graying of of the Danish population and you run into the same problem every other nanny state reaches--too many on the dole, and not enough working to foot the bill.

So Denmark is making some changes to "encourage" people to actually get back to work and contribute to their society.  I love this quote from the nation's Minister of Social Affairs who oversees the welfare state:

"They think of these benefits as their rights.  The rights have just expanded and expanded.  But now we have to go back to the rights and the duties.  We all need to contribute."

Doesn't that sound eerily familiar to the arguments that were used for the Affordable Care Act and increased spending for colleges and universtities?  "Every American has a right to cheap health care" and "Everyone has a right to a low-cost college education."  You never seem to hear that "Everyone has an obligation to pay for that" too.

The most ironic thing in how the nanny states are collapsing under their own weight, is that we here in America are being told all the time how we need to be "more like Europe"--when Europe is finding out they needed to be "more like us".

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Wisdom of Uncle Ruslan

Until the live capture of the second alleged Boston Marathon bomber Friday night, it appeared the "best" thing to come out of that day's news cycle was going to be the impromptu press conference held by the suspects' uncle Ruslan Tsarni.  "Uncle Ruslan"--as he came to be known on social media--captured the hearts and minds of millions of Americans with his brutal honesty and refreshing candor in answering questions about his nephews.

When asked what caused the brothers to pull off a terrorist attack his answer was simple: "BEING LOSERS!!"  Not, "Oh, they were bullied as kids" or "They felt persecuted for their Muslim faith" or "They were frustrated by the growing income disparity in the US".  For Uncle Ruslan, his nephews were meatheads who made their own decisions to follow a path of radicalism and violence.

When asked what advice he had for his surviving nephew Uncle Ruslan advised him to "BEG FOR FORGIVENESS FROM THE REAL VICTIMS!!"  This stands in sharp contrast to the responses of the suspects' aunt who lives in Canada--who swore up and down that the "boys" could not have done this and that the FBI had no proof (apparently the use of similar devices during the Friday morning police chase and the cache of weapons and bomb-making materials wasn't enough for the self-described lawyer) and that somehow her nephews were the "victims" of a giant government conspiracy.

And doesn't the use of the word "shame" (on a family and a culture) strike a refreshing tone?  I know we are not an "honor-based" society here in the US (thus the lack of bloody family feuds and honor killings you see in other cultures)--but it's a concept that perhaps people like the Kardashians, the Jacksons, and the cast of Jersey Shore might want to consider.

And finally, Uncle Ruslan was asked what he thought about the US himself--and the answer was exactly like that of so many of our immigrant forefathers: America is still a land of opportunity for those willing to work hard and follow the rules.  And I'm guessing that Uncle Ruslan has a lot to appreciate.  He likely knows abject poverty--not the "I can't afford premium cable channels for my Hi-Def TV AND unlimited text and data for my smartphone" "poverty" that we hear about all the time here in the US.  And he understands real political oppression--not "I now have to pay 12% of my health care insurance premiums at my public sector job" or "Women will now have to drive 50-miles to the nearest abortion clinic" complaints that pass as "oppression" here in the US.

While certainly not as tragic as what happened all of last week in the Boston area, it's still sad that it takes a televised rant by a middle-aged immigrant unwillingly thrust into the national spotlight to remind us that the United States is the greatest country on Earth--even if everybody doesn't have taxpayer funded health care.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Not Our Best Week

If you had to give the national media a grade this week, it would probably have to be a D+.  Things got off to a strong start--with immediate breaking news coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, police response and medical treatment of victims.  And then things started going downhill.

It started with the "rush to judgement" as to who might be responsible.  One talking head on Fox News claimed the bombings "had all the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda attack".  And then the erroneous reports of explosives being found "all over Boston". 

The New York Post took us into the gutter with posting of pictures of two "Arab-looking" men with backpacks and the insinuation that these "might be" the guys that the FBI was looking for.  That forced one of the "suspects"--a 17-year old high school student--to take to social media to deny being the bomber.  Salon.com decided to take the "politics of race" in the other direction, publishing an article entitled Let's Hope the Boston Marathon Bomber Is a White American--insinuating that we wouldn't want to go and bomb his hometown if it happens to be here instead of the Middle East.

The low point was obviously Wednesday when CNN "broke" the news that an arrest had been made.  This nugget was almost immediately "confirmed" by Fox News--while ABC went with "an arrest is imminent".  The NY Post struck again--posting stories that the man in custody was "Arab looking".  CBS insisted the suspect was white.  Only NBC's Pete Williams was saying on the air "These reports are flat out wrong".  The reports took valuable time away from investigating the bombing and forced the Boston PD and the FBI to call a press conference to prove CNN wrong.  That was then followed by several hours of the networks shifting into CYA mode--making the argument that "it's clear that all of the law enforcement agencies aren't on the same page if some of them are 'telling us' that a suspect was arrested."  Fox even got one more kick at the racial aspect--devoting much of an entire segment after yesterday's release of surveillance footage of the suspect to whether these guys are "white or middle eastern".

And then I wake up this morning to find the Boston Bruins fans that I follow on Twitter are giving me more up-to-date information on the shootout and manhunt (by following local police scanners) than any of the networks had on their Twitter feeds or on the air.

I get the feeling that professors and students at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the Poynter Institute will have ample new instructional material to consider when they look back at this week's news coverage.  The theme of those courses should be "First and wrong, is still wrong."

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Missed Opportunity..........To Make No Difference At All

You've got to hand it to President Obama, he sure knows how to scold people.  He really laid into the Senate yesterday for failing to pass the latest round of gun control legislation--or rather "feel good" gun legislation--as in, "we will all feel good about doing something, even though it will make no difference."

I don't know how to put it any other way than to say the Manchin-Toomey Amendment would have made NO DIFFERENCE in the amount of gun violence perpetrated in this country.  The shooters in Columbine and Sandy Hook didn't even buy their guns.  Those weapons were owned by their parents--all of whom legally purchased them at the time--and all of whom STILL would have been able to legally purchase them had all of the restrictions of Manchin-Toomey been in effect at that time.  The Aurora theater shooter purchased his guns at sporting goods stores--which are already required to conduct background checks--and which he also passed.

At first you would think that the Virginia Tech shooter would have been blocked in his effort to purchase his weapons--since he got some of them from an internet dealer in Green Bay, and that was one "loophole" that was going to be closed by Manchin-Toomey.  But it turns out that background checks for those purchases would have been useless as well--since he was also able to buy guns at pawn shops and sporting goods stores before the attack.  And that background check approval came despite documented psychological issues.  That shooter really should have been in an institution--but a Virginia judge ordered him released and to undergo only outpatient treatment a couple of years before the shooting spree.

You know what I would like to see?  I want to see a study or a report on the source of all weapons used in the commission of crimes in the United States.  Comb the police reports and find out how killers, armed robbers, stalkers and drug dealers got their weapons.  Based on just the anecdotal evidence that we see in the reporting of crime the number one way is they purchase them from retailers and pass background checks.  Another common way is they steal them--or buy them from someone who has stolen them--and certainly isn't advertising them for sale on the internet.  And do you really think someone selling a stolen gun is going to do a background check in order to comply with a new law?

So while President Obama puts the parents of Sandy Hook in front of the cameras again and challenges those who voted against the expanded background checks to look them in the eye and tell them why they voted "No"--I would challenge the President to also look them in the eye and tell them how that law would have made a single bit of difference.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Very Casual Sex

Until the bombs exploded at Boston Marathon, the most shocking story on Monday was going to be the report that two students at Beaver Dam High School had been caught having sex in a hallway.  In case you missed it in our newscasts yesterday, a basketball coach at Beaver Dam High walked into the hallway after a game back in February to find the 17-year old boy and the 14-year old girl "fully engaged" in the act.  The boy was charged this month with Public Fornication--a charge that quite honestly, I have never seen filed in my 14-years of covering courts and crime.

Call me a fuddy-duddy, but this incident says a lot about the attitude today's kids have toward sex.  According to the police report, the girl told officers that the sex was consensual and "just kind of happened". Don't you hate that?  You're just going about your business during the day and all of a sudden you "just happen" to start having sex with someone--in public?

For his part, the boy was very proud to tell the cops that he "used protection" during the act.  Good job there, son--nothing is looked down upon more in our society today than "unsafe" public sex.  (By the way, why is having a gun on you considered a form of "pre-meditation" in murder cases--but carrying around a condom isn't considered "pre-meditation" in sexual crime cases?  You probably wouldn't have it on you if you weren't planning to use it, right?).  The report does not say if the boy got the condom at school--or if he bought it somewhere else.

And the setting--A BASKETBALL GAME?  We're not talking about the Prom, or the Homecoming Dance or even after a date featuring dinner and a romantic comedy.  I know teenagers are raging balls of hormones, but would could have possibly been going on in that game that got those two kids that worked up that they had to do it in a hallway?

There are some who would say that we should not be so critical of these kids.  The young girl was "taking control of her sexual being" and "exploring her sexuality".  The boy was "taking responsibility" and "showing respect for his partner by wearing protection".  And besides, "they were going to do it anyway, so we should at least teach them how to do it safely".

 I just thought you might "enjoy" a look into the mindset of today's youth.  It looks like we are doing a fine job raising that next generation.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Comforting Words

One of the items making the rounds on social media yesterday in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings was a quote from the late Fred Rogers--of Mister Rogers Neighborhood.......

That quote really made me see the terrible footage of Monday's aftermath in a totally different way.  Instead of just seeing the pain and the death and the fear, by looking for the helpers you see the good in people and the hope for humanity as a whole.  Watch the police officers, the firefighters, the paramedics, the National Guard members and the the race volunteers running toward the scene of the blasts--while so many are running away.  They are not thinking about their own safety.  They are not worried about another bomb going off near them (a common ploy by terrorist bombers--set off a small device to draw people to the scene, and then detonate a much larger bomb to increase the death toll).  All they were thinking about was helping the people who were injured.

Another image making the rounds was that of former Packers lineman Joe Andruzzi carrying an injured woman away from the scene.........

That shouldn't be all that surprising, Andruzzi had three brothers who responded to the 9/11 attacks as New York City firemen. Helping others is obviously in his blood.

So out of this latest tragedy let us find something positive.  Because this attack was carried out perhaps one or two or a handful of people.  But there were hundreds and perhaps thousands who went to help.  And as long as the ratio is that high, there is still hope for all of us.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Dropping the Ball

Thank goodness we had an exciting playoff finish to the Masters on Sunday that did not involve Tiger Woods.  Up until Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera made incredible birdies on the 18th to force the playoff, the entire tournament was shrouded in the controversy over whether Tiger Woods should have been disqualified or should have just withdrawn after Friday's second round.

I think everyone is familiar with the situation.  Tiger took an improper drop on the 15th hole after going in the water.  A TV viewer called in the infraction, Tiger admitted in his ESPN post-round interview that he took the improper drop (thinking at the time it was allowed) and then we all woke up on Saturday morning thinking the number one player in the game was about to get bounced from the biggest tournament of the year.  And in retrospect, this was a perfect storm of mistakes that served to give the sport a big black eye--until Sunday's dramatics distracted everyone again.

First off, this practice of allowing fans to call in rules violations has got to stop.  I joked on Twitter Saturday morning that if other sports allowed fans to reverse bad calls from their couches, the NCAA would have needed 6.5 million phone lines to deal with all the blown calls in the men's basketball tournament. The game is played on the course, let the people on the course enforce the rules.  Joe the Rules Experts doesn't call in, this never happens.

Secondly, Tiger Woods needs to brush up on his rules.  This is his second improper drop penalty this year alone.  In Abu Dhabi back in February Tiger believed his ball was embedded in some tall grass in a hazard and that he was entitled to a free drop--which turned out to be wrong.  In that case, rules officials saw it live on TV and informed him of his two stroke penalty a few holes later.  He would then miss the cut by a stroke.  This time around, Tiger got confused by the drop rules in a yellow-marked hazard--which does allow you to drop farther back--but behind where the ball went in--not where you just hit from.  Tiger follows the rules, none of this happens. 

And finally, The Masters Committee itself has got to run things more professionally.  This is the only major that does not have rules officials walking with every group on the course.  It's Rule Committee is made up of a club members and former pros--not USGA or PGA officials.  And it doesn't have scorers accompanying groups recording every shot taken--relying instead of self-reporting of scores by the players themselves at the next tee.  So these amateur rules enforcers take the call about Tiger's improper drop, review the ESPN video and decide (incorrectly) it was okay--without ever talking to Tiger about it.  If one rules officials asks Tiger the same question Tom Rinaldi did about the drop before he signs his card--none of this ever happens.

As far as I'm concerned, Tiger should not have been disqualified--because it was the Rules Committee that "dropped the ball" on making a correct call on Friday afternoon.  Of course, if he had gone on to win his fifth green jacket on Sunday, this Two Cents would probably be all about the "Masterisk" that would be attached to that title forevermore.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Problem With Musicals

My wife and I went to see Disney's The Lion King at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center last night.  Allow me to thank the PAC for the media passes--allowing me and the Missus to enjoy a cheap date night.  Now let me tell you about the show: IT STINKS!

Allow me to preface my review by saying that I do not like musicals.  One of the most disappointing entertainment experience I ever had involves a musical.  On a high school trip to Europe, we spent four days in London.  Our tour guide asked us if there was anything we wanted to do in the city and I asked if we could get tickets to see Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap--a long-running mystery play that features an ending so surprising that everyone who attends is sworn to secrecy.  The next day our guide let us know that she had "something even better than that"--she had tickets to the hottest new show on the West End: Miss Saigon.

Whenever I tell this story, people who are really into Broadway shows are always like "Oh my goodness, you saw Miss Saigon with the original London cast?  That must have been awesome!!"  And I always reply, "No, it was terrible."  Imagine having to sit through two hours of anti-American drivel punctuated by sappy love songs.  Most of my group tried to stay out at the theater bar after the intermission, but our chaperone dragged us back in to be told how "evil and greedy" us Americans are.  As you can tell, I've never forgiven that tour guide for not getting us in to see The Mousetrap.

Now I have had positive musical experiences.  Monty Python's Spamalot and The Producers were both hilarious.  Mostly because they mock the self-serving seriousness of standard musicals--and were written by people who don't write Broadway shows.  (If someone actually did produce a full-length version of Springtime For Hitler I'd probably go and see it.)

For me, the biggest problem with all of these song and dance shows is that they aren't very good at telling stories.  The movie version of The Lion King is 100-minutes long.  The musical version is TWO AND A HALF HOURS!  (When you go to Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, they have a stage version of Finding Nemo that features much of the same puppetry action and musical numbers--and it takes 45 minutes.)  And the songs really don't serve to move the action along.  You can tell that the writers had these 15-songs first--and then just tried to patch in the gaps with random snippets of dialog from the movie.

Anyways, that's all in the past now.  Hakuna Matata.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Perfect Timing

After spending more than two hours yesterday hauling broken limbs from my neighbors' trees out of my back yard, off of my fence, off of my cable line, off of my roof and out of my gutters, I got back in the house and checked my email on my smartphone.  Within the 120 or so that I rack up every couple of hours was one from the DNR touting the cost benefits of trees in the Oshkosh area.

Per the DNR, urban trees provide us with more than $335-thousand savings annually in cooling and heating costs, stormwater management, additional property value and improved air quality.  It got me to thinking, how much had trees just cost us IN ONE DAY in storm damage?  How much did WPS spend on manpower, equipment costs and repairs while dealing with power lines that were pulled down or severed by falling tree limbs?  The same goes for Time Warner Cable.  How much will homeowners and insurance companies be shelling out to pay for damages to roofs, eaves, siding, windows and even some vehicles struck by ice-covered branches?  How much is the city spending to clear downed trees from streets?  And how much will be spent on branch pickup and chipping over the next few weeks?

And this was just a single storm.  You know we have at least a couple more of these heading our way in June and August that will make the city look like one of those hillsides in "Ax Men".  Oh, and don't forget about what the city spends to collect leafs along the curb for a couple of months in the fall.

I'm not saying "Cut down all the trees!"  I'm not an anti-tree guy (although I did celebrate silently after learning that a number of big trees were being removed from Reid Golf Course in Appleton as part of the stormwater retention project on the site--fewer punchout shots will be required after wayward drives from now on).  But a cost-benefit press release should probably take into account the expenses incurred by property owners and municipalities as well.

And sending it out on a day when the very trees that you are touting have done so much damage to the very city you are promoting probably isn't the best timing.  There will be plenty of sunny, ice-free days to tell us how great our trees are.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Burning a Hole In Their Pocket

When is it okay to dip into your savings account to pay for something?  That is a basic budgeting question the Oshkosh School Board will revisit for what seems to be the one-thousandth time tonight.  Apparently, Superintendent Stan Mack II is upset that the Board, in putting together its list of approved budge cuts for next year, cut down on the number of administrators and their salaries--rather than some of the other items that were on the list put together by parents and school officials.  So, in a move reminiscent of Oshkosh School Boards past (if anyone complains about one of our decisions we must immediately reconsider it because no one should be unhappy in today's society), the issue is coming back for further consideration.

Here's what every accountant, economist (Friedman--not Keynsian) and household budget-maker would tell you: Using savings to pay for recurring costs is a good way to make sure you don't have any savings in the future.  Just this week, my wife used some of our savings to purchase a late-model used car because the one she was driving sustained a breakdown that will cost more to fix than the vehicle is worth.  We hadn't planned to buy another car at this time--but we did have money earmarked for that purpose--and she spent within the budget we had.  She is not, however, going to use our savings to buy gas for the vehicle.  That has to come out of our monthly budget.  And if she spends more on gas than she did with the old vehicle--then I guess I won't be enjoying lunch from Mickey D's as often--because I won't be dipping into savings for that either.

And that is why using reserve funds to make sure the Deans of Students position at the Oshkosh middle schools are full-time positions and not half-time makes NO sense (at least to people with an understanding of the budgeting process).  While Luther Olsen and a few others in Madison talk about increasing school aids in the next state budget, there is little guarantee that will come to pass.  So where will the money for full time Deans of Students (and recommended raises to make sure we can "retain" the current employees) come from in the budget after this one?  Savings again?  Welcome to the steep slope to a zero balance.

Supporters of the "reserve fund raid" argue this will only be a one-time thing--because Oshkosh voters will surely approve a referendum either this fall or next spring allowing the district to exceed the state-mandated revenue cap to cover such recurring costs.  Of course, things like extra administrative positions and pay raises won't be what referendum supporters actually put out there for voters to consider.  Instead, we will be told that if we fail to approve the question the Oshkosh School District will be "forced" to drop sports, close schools, let the other buildings rot and hire teachers that no other district on the face of the earth would consider hiring because we "don't pay enough".

Right now, it appears a majority of boardmembers have the common sense to stick with their original budget plan.  But should they falter tonight, let's make sure to remember how they will have chosen to spend our money when they coming asking for more down the road.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Golden Lady

Monday's death of Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gives us Conservatives a chance to wax nostalgic about days of greater prosperity and personal freedom. A lot of people like to think that Thatcher just rode the coattails of her beloved "Ronnie" Reagan during the 80's--but the record shows she was just as important as her American counterpart in turning around the economic and geo-political course of the world.

Thatcher tamed double-digit inflation rates and runaway deficits by contracting the monetary supply--and getting millions off the dole.  She also freed the British people from the control of labor unions that constantly threatened the deliver of basic services and good with nationwide strikes.  Thatcher got Government out of the auto industry (they owned Jaguar), running the banks, owning the telecommunications systems and the airplane building business--and AMAZINGLY, those industries all started turning profits when run by actual businessmen and not bureaucrats!

The Prime Minister put the military dictatorship of Argentina in its place by literally blowing the junta's Navy and Air Force out of water and the sky in the Falklands.  She believed that increased military might was the only way to keep Communism in check in Europe--allowing the Soviet Empire to crumble from within its own walls.  And most importantly, Thatcher insisted that in any attempt to create a "common European market" allow Britain to maintain its own currency--knowing that the socialist systems of countries like Greece, France and Spain were going to drag everybody down with them.

Not surprisingly, there were plenty of less-flattering remembrances of Margaret Thatcher yesterday.  They came from Liberals who who claimed the rich got "too rich" during the Reagan-Thatcher years and that deregulation allowed people to make bad financial decisions twenty years later to trigger the current worldwide recession.  I guess those folks want to think back to their own "golden age"--when inflation was 26%, and the Pound had to be floated by the International Monetary Fund, and the garbage sat uncollected in the streets for weeks, and Britons had to worry if coal would be available to heat their houses in the winter, and religious zealots took foreign diplomats hostage, and the people of Western Europe lived under a constant worry of rolling tanks or mushroom clouds.

Or perhaps, Thatcher's critics prefer the current "glory days" of socialism where unemployment is over 25%, where dictators looking for attention hold entire continents hostage with nuclear threats, where governments own carmakers and banks and bankrupt renewable energy companies again and where their countries are too broke to provide all of the benefits they were promised. 

As depressing as it is to think back on how good things were when leaders like Margaret Thatcher were in control, you have to be optimistic that it's just a matter of time before voting majorities turn to people with her vision again--and bring order and fiscal sanity back to the world.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Loss of Hope

The new national unemployment figures came out on Friday and they present the usual mixed message.  On the one hand, the jobless rate declined another one-tenth of one-percent.  But on the other hand, the drop in the percentage came only because more people gave up looking for jobs than actually found one.  It has been the main reason unemployment has declined at all in the last year-plus--fewer people are bothering to try.

The Associated Press had an article over the weekend detailing the stories of a few of the "workforce dropouts"--and it's pretty much the same situation: they really do want to work, they have just grown tired of not finding anything.  But what we don't see in any of these articles is why there aren't jobs for these people.  Where are the quotes from the business leaders on why we are having a jobless recovery?

Is it because we have learned to operate our businesses in more efficient ways?  If 35-people are getting the work done that it used to take 40 or 45 people to do (whether through advances in technology or just plain old doing more work) why add more staff if the demand isn't there?  Or is it because businesses are paralyzed by the upcoming overhaul of health insurance?  Of all the things that we "needed to pass the bill to find out what was in it" the most important to employers was "how much is this going to cost us?"  Unfortunately, those numbers weren't available in 2011--and they still aren't available today--thanks in large part to the Obama Administration's failure to realize how difficult it was going to be create all of these new levels of bureaucracy. 

To put this into personal finance terms, if you had no idea how much money you would be making for the next two or three years, would you take out a car loan or a lease?  Would you open a home-equity line of credit?  Or would you take out a mortgage to buy that cottage on the lake up north?  Of course you wouldn't--and that is why employers are so reluctant to take on extra staff now.  They just have no idea what it is actually going to cost them.

And so we--and the millions of those unemployed and no longer looking for work--will sit and wait for 2014 and probably 2015 before we get any answers to our great "Social Experiment".  That is a really long time to "Hope".

Friday, April 5, 2013

Let Her Play Her Own Game

One of the stupidest things in sports has popped up again.  A dominant female athlete has emerged and all anybody wants to talk about is "How would she do against men?"

In this case, the outstanding female athlete is Baylor basketball star Brittney Griner--whose senior season was cut short by a loss in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament to Louisville.  Griner finishes her college career as the all-time leading shot blocker and the 2nd all-time leading scorer.  She is guaranteed to be the number one overall draft pick in the WNBA Draft and could be a huge draw for a league that has struggled to gain a solid fan base since it was formed.

But that apparently isn't good enough for some people.  Enter Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who this week told reporters he was thinking about drafting Griner with a second round pick in the NBA draft (there are only two rounds) and inviting her to play with the Mavs' summer league team in Las Vegas.  I'm sure Cuban--who is a very smart guy and a savvy marketer--means all of this as a "compliment" to Griner.  "You're so good, why don't you try to play some 'real basketball' with us?"  But why not just let her play her own game?

At six-foot-eight with good athleticism, Brittney Griner was the Lew Alcindor of women's college basketball.  She completely changed the way the game is played--taking it above the rim on a consistent basis--and proving to be (unless she was held and hacked every time down like she was in the loss to Louisville) a dominating force on both ends of the floor.  At six-foot-eight and lacking physical strength, Brittney Griner would be dominated on both ends of the floor in men's basketball.

This belief that female athletes are only "great" if they take on the men has produced failed experiments in the past.  Much was made about Manon Rheaume being signed by the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning back in 1992 and even playing goalie in a pre-season game.  But all that led to was five seasons bouncing around various men's minor leagues and action in just 24 games.  Then you had Michelle Wie--the teenage golf sensation of the last decade, whose money-grubbing father insisted on her playing almost exclusively against professional men--instead of playing junior golf against girls her own age.  She never made a cut--much less challenged the guys.  And today, Wie looks completely lost on the LPGA, struggling to make cuts and appearing to be generally disinterested in life as a professional golfer.

I'm sure those who push for women to compete against men in sports do so with the misguided belief that they are somehow "advancing the game".  But wouldn't the game be "advanced" more by allowing these women to compete--and excell--against their peers playing their own separate--and distinctly different--sports?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

"Let's Take This Path That Leads Toward the Cliff.....Again!"

In the Looney Tunes cartoons, Wile E Coyote (Super Genius) gets a ton of laughs by concocting various schemes he thinks will help him capture the elusive Road Runner--but usually just end up with him falling off a cliff, getting blown up or crushed by a falling boulder.  What's not so funny is watching President Barack Obama (Super Genius) concoct the same schemes he thinks will help him turn the economy around--but will only result in us (the taxPAYERS) falling off a fiscal cliff, blowing up the economy and getting crushed by more debt.

Consider the latest push by the Obama Administration to pressure lenders into giving mortgages to people with poor credit records.  In case you didn't hear, the housing market is "rebounding strongly".  Or at least it is for those who exercised proper fiscal restraint before the market collapse (by not over-borrowing, over-buying and over-extending themselves).  These folks are finding great bargains left behind by those who chose to purchase homes through the "no money down/interest only/jumbo/balloon" mortgages that those with poor credit or not enough income to buy a house used to get into the market back in the early 2000's.

That doesn't sit well with the President, who can't stand to see those who act responsibly get ahead of those don't.  There is "housing inequality" developing in our society, and somebody (the Government) needs to step in and make sure that doesn't happen.  So that is why the President lowered the credit rating required to qualify for Federal Housing Authority loans (going as low as 500).  The only problem is, banks--many of whom are seeing the same people who defaulted on their previous mortgages applying for loans once again--are saying "No Way".

You may recall these bankers being called to testify before Congressional Committees and getting grilled by lawmakers who had pressured them in the past to make loans to higher risk borrowers (that would be you, Former Senator Chris Dodd and Former Congressman Barney Frank) as to why they gave loans to people whom they knew would likely never pay them back--based on their poor credit records and low incomes.  So how excited would you be as a lender to give MORE money to those very same people?

What really kills me is that the Obama Administration is getting the Justice Department to "pinky swear" to these lenders that if they give out the high-risk mortgages--and we get another big round of foreclosures--the bankers won't face legal action THIS TIME AROUND.  Could you imagine if the Administration told General Motors "Don't worry about making sure the engine doesn't catch fire in the Volt--because we need more people driving electric cars.  And if they do catch on fire, we won't hold you responsible"?  Oh, and did I mention that these new high-risk mortgages will be backed by the FHA?  So if these borrowers do decide to just "walk away" from their obligations like so many did at the end of the last decade, it will be "OK" because Mr and Mrs Paying Their Mortgage And Their Taxes will just pick up the tab. 

The beeping sound you hear in the distance isn't the Road Runner.  It's the Acme truck backing up to the White House to deliver another shipment of disaster in a box.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

From the You Can't Make This Up File:

I wanted to wait until today to address President Obama's announcement on Monday that he is declaring April "National Financial Capability Month".  I held off because we all know that Monday was April First--and that it's a great day for practical jokes.  And an administration that has run up the national debt to $16-TRILLION is now going to teach people how to budget their money would certainly qualify as a whopper of a joke.  But since there was no retraction with a wink and a grin yesterday, the declaration is apparently legit.

I immediately assumed the "Financial Capability" recommendations would be "Do everything the exact opposite of what we have been doing the last four years."  Namely, basing your budget on what you actually make--rather than making out a wish list of things you "want" (under the auspices of saying it's something that is a "need")--and then scrambling for ways to pay (or not pay) for them.  The President could also tell Americans not to borrow 60% of what they spend--which is the only way the government is paying its bills right now.  And then there is the recommendation not to take on commitments that promise to add even more debt in the future (say, like trying to pay for everyone's health care for the next few decades.)

Actually, the President's proclamation didn't detail any specific ways it was going to teach everyone how to budget.  There are some links to previously posted websites with very general (and very sketchy) financial advice.  The first bad sign is a link to a Federal Reserve site (again, not the best example of financial responsibility} with advice on how to manage your credit cards.  If you are properly budgeting, you shouldn't need to use your credit cards ever again--BECAUSE YOU WON'T BE SPENDING ANY MONEY YOU DON'T HAVE!!  If they wanted to send people somewhere to really learn how to budget, they might want to try www.daveramsey.com

Regardless of the means or efforts the Obama Administration employs to get Americans to better manage their money, it will still require a sea change in the attitudes of today's younger generations.  These are twenty and thirty-somethings that never heard "NO" growing up--they were special and they "deserved" to have everything!  They still live with Mom and Dad, are still on their parents health insurance and are even still on their parents cell phone plans.  They sincerely believe that anything they want they should get--either with someone else paying for it--or with good old Uncle Sam footing the bill.  To willingly deny themselves material goods and pleasurable experiences just because they don't have the cash at this moment will be uncharted territory for them.

You know, they didn't get the name the "Entitlement Generation" by just sitting around and having stuff handed to them.  Oh wait. I...I guess they did.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Coming Soon to a Bargain Bin Near You

When I read, I always choose non-fiction.  I enjoy historical tomes and biographies of influential figures.  Yet I have no interest in reading Governor Scott Walker's memoir scheduled to be published later this year.  My main problem is how do you have any historical perspective on something that happened pretty much yesterday?

We haven't gone through enough budget cycles to determine the real benefits of Act Ten for Wisconsin taxpayers.  And the law hasn't even gone through all of its legal challenges yet.  Yes, Walker survived a recall, but was that just voters rejecting the process--or endorsing his policies?  I would think another election cycle or two would provide that perspective.  But in our "instant analysis" culture, we don't have time to wait for such things to play out--we need to pass "final judgement" as soon as possible.

Besides, none of the stuff we really want to read about is going to be included in this book.  The Governor will provide only a "sanitized" version of what went on at the Capitol from only his perspective.  Don't you want to know if there really were conversations with the Koch Brothers?  Or what was promised and/or threatened to Republican Legislators from districts with larger public employee populations (some of whom did not seek re-election in 2012)?

And the Governor really isn't telling the most interesting part of the story!  Wouldn't you really rather know what was going on in the Democratic Party offices when they realized that a viable recall candidate wasn't going to get into the race?  Wouldn't you love to hear the private reaction of those same leaders when their endorsed candidate--Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk--lost in the primary?  And what were those folks thinking when the internal polling showed there was no way they were going to win on a platform of "restore Cadillac benefits packages and automatic raises to public employees"--and they had to find some other angle to pursue?  Maybe now that the raving lunatic Mike Tate has been fired as Democratic Party Spokesman, he'll have time to write that book.

I think most people see the Scott Walker Book for what it is: a trial balloon on the national popularity of someone hearing whispers about how he should run for President.  In that case, the Governor is going to have to get busy on his second book almost right away--because that is the new standard set by our current Author-In-Chief before he ran.  (Apparently, being a "Community Organizer" a Harvard Law Professor, A  State Legislator and a freshman US Senator isn't that time-consuming).

Meanwhile, those of us who like a little perspective with our history will wait for the full story about 20 or 30 years from now.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Societal Discretion is Advised

If something gruesome and horrific happens and it is caught on videotape, do you think you have the right to see it?  I ask this in the firestorm of social media controversy following yesterday's decision by CBS Sports (and also by ESPN Television) to stop showing replays of Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware's leg injury.  In a way, this discussion shows the difference between traditional broadcast and print journalism--featuring editorial control--and the "new journalism" of the internet--where "unfiltered" coverage of events is believed to be the only "truth".

In the CBS production truck yesterday were dozens of men and women who decide what does and does not get on the air.  And I can tell you what the process was in determining what was shown on the air yesterday.  The initial injury footage was unavoidable.  Ware jumped in front of a player shooting a three pointer and landed in plain view on the court of play.  The decision to go to the first couple of replays was also justified--because upon first view, you aren't really sure what happened to him.  But after those initial replays aired--and it is clear not only what the nature of the injury was--but also the severity of it--NO FURTHER REVIEW WAS NECESSARY.  And I can guarantee that there were some in that truck who thought we needed to keep seeing that footage over and over again.  But an editor or a producer--with decades of experience in covering not only sports but also general news--made the (correct) call in deciding that we had seen enough.

Compare that with the internet "trolls" who filled my Twitter timeline (and those of the Media types that I follow) with posts about how "irresponsible" it was that footage of the injury was not being shown for those who weren't watching the game--but had flipped over to it after hearing about the injury.  And then you had the clowns with their camera phones videotaping the DVR footage of the limited replays and posting those on their Twitter feeds, Facebook walls and blogs--usually with the all caps tease of "gruesome" or "horrific" in it.  That was followed by some "legitimate" news websites posting those same screen captures.  Perhaps the saddest statement on our society today is that it took all of five minutes for two Twitter parody accounts about Kevin Ware's body parts (complete will still shot avatars) to be created.

So to those who consider themselves "unlucky" to have not seen what so many people are talking about today consider this: those of us who did don't consider ourselves to be "lucky" at all.  In fact, we would actually prefer to "un-see" it--if that was at all possible.