Monday, February 23, 2009

A Colossal Waste

Hard to disagree with this take on the ridiculous stimulus package that was shoved down the throats of the American taxpayer in what has to be one of the most disgraceful moments in Congressional history.  How the largest spending bill in American history was passed without a single member of Congress even having a chance to read it will either be an embarrassing history lesson or the first chapter in a very dark story about the way Obama runs his administration.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Subway Symphonies

A fascinating article in the Times today about the way that certain cars on certain subway lines make a series of pitches as they are leaving the station that happen to match the opening of the melody for "Somewhere" from West Side Story.  I had noticed the pitches before, but had never tied them to the song until I read the article.

This kind of thing seems to happen a lot in New York.  In the basement of my building, near the laundry rooms, there is some kind of pump or burner or other machine that happens to create a sound that is an almost perfect reproduction of the end of "Randy Described Eternity" from the Built to Spill record Perfect From Now On.  There's also an ATM near me that appears to play the first three notes of the "Eroica" symphony when dispensing cash (I even checked and it is not just the right intervals, but the right pitches.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Bessie Is Rolling In Her Grave

Saab, which is owned by General Motors, filed for bankruptcy today.  From what I gather, the brand is unlikely to survive as a stand-alone company and the prospects for a sale are not bright in the midst of the current recession.  It's a shame because GM took a great, slightly kooky brand and essentially ran it into the ground.

My first car was a maroon 1986 Saab 900.  I bought it in 1998 from a friend of a friend.  Having lived in New York my whole life, I had never really needed a car.  In fact, looking back, I'm not exactly sure what it was that spurred me to buy one at that time.

I got a very good deal.  The former owner was the only owner and he had kept good care of the car.  Well, except for one strange quirk.  He used to park the car on the street and wanted to make it less attractive to thieves.  So every few days he poured a bucket of dirty dishwater on the hood.  I'm not making this up.  The result was that the car had a decent finish (for a 12 year old car) everywhere except for the hood, which looked dreadful.  But the car was cheap and ran great.  Most importanly, it had a sweet Blaupunkt stereo system with a 10 CD changer.

When I bought the car, I had never driven a manual transmission before.  I think I got about halfway across East 66th Street before I realized I had the hand brake on.  My heart rate would shoot up every time I had to start from a dead stop, which was about every 15 seconds in New York traffic.  This was par for the course for me, however.  The first time I ever drove a car, it was in New York and I pulled out into traffic on Fifth Avenue and 54th Street.  Talk about being thrown into the deep end.

Over time, I learned the ways of manual transmission.  About five days after I bought the car, I drove two friends from England up to Ithaca to visit our friend Pete.  I may never live down that journey.  On the way up, I had no idea that you had to downshift when going up hills.  I remember thinking, "Crap, this car sucks!  It has no power!"  All the while, my friends were chuckling away.  This was also the genesis of the car's name, Bessie.  As we were going up hills, I would pat the dashboard and say, Come on, Bessie.  You can do it."

That trip also introduced me to hill starts, which are basically every start in Ithaca.  There is a stretch of road just outside Ithaca that, I am sure, still has an enormous black skid mark from my panicked attempt to prevent the car from backsliding.  I don't think my friends stopped laughing for the next five years about that one.

Eventually, I mastered the art of driving a stick shift and put miles and miles on the car.  I learned a lot of lessons.  For one thing, any time you drive into a garage for a repair, it's going to be a couple hundred bucks minimum.  I learned to do the alternate side parking shuffle on Bank Street, a ritual that has to be observed to be believed by non-New Yorkers.  I park in a garage now, but I still crack up when I see all those drivers sitting in their cars at, say, 11:05, waiting for the street cleaner to come by so they can reclaim their coveted parking spot.

So many memories.  Driving people and gear through an ice storm to a gig on Staten Island.  In fact, that drive is where I first got to know Stink Rock well.

As time went on, I got a little more flush and decided to look into buying a new car.  I had loved Saabs because of their kooky styling, which was unlike anything else on the road.  Sadly, GM had bought Saab and changed the styling in, I think, 1993.  I didn't love it, but I went into a dealership to ask the guy about a new 900.  Amazingly, he talked me out of buying!  Apparently, when GM bought the brand, they stopped using the original engines, which are legendary for their longevity, and plugged in a bunch of GM parts.  The salesman told me I probably had a better engine in my 1986 than I would get in a brand new 900.  When a car salesman is trying to talk you out of something that puts money in his pocket, you listen.

Bessie met her end on September 11, 2001.  She was parked on a little alleyway off of Warren Street that I had discovered had no parking regulations at all.  (Gansevoort Street used to be like that too, which is hard to imagine now that the Meatpacking district has become so gentrified and crowded.)  I had just moved from the old apartment, on Warren, two blocks north of the World Trade Center, to a new apartment at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, two blocks south of the World Trade Center.  When the towers came down, they covered everything.  Bessie was not actually damaged, but the City decided that any cars within a certain area were too contaminated with asbestos and other toxic materials to release.  So they moved her to Fresh Kills where she was crushed.  I still have the photo they gave me of her when they brought the bag with the contents of the glove compartment and trunk.

She was a great car.  In fact, she was so well known in the neighborhood, that I would sometimes find little pieces of paper saying things like, "Hi Bessie!" tucked under the windshield wiper.  So the story of Saab's possible demise took me back to a very different time, when I used my little junker car to drive equipment to gigs and to see friends and was exhilarated to have the freedom of my own wheels for the first time in my life.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Poor Scottish Lass.  She just got back from the doctor and it is a hairline fracture of the ankle and a torn ligament.  She won't be able to walk for a month.  What a pain.  I feel terrible for her.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tentative Praise for Obama

Obama appears to be moving towards the "Swedish" model in response to the banking crisis - nationalize the banks, wipe out the shareholders, write down the crappy assets and then relaunch.

If he goes this route, I will be very impressed and will be the first to praise him.  He understands that we need to take the pain on these banks.  Equity holders should be wiped out.  That's the risk of equity and these banks are insolvent.  Debtholders should be crammed down.  That's the risk of debt.  Above all, the government must stop feeding capital into these banks piecemeal.  

Good for him.  He seems to recognize the nightmare that Japan created by propping up banks that were effectively dead.

This makes his approach to the stimulus package even more bizarre.  Japan, which just announced a massive drop in GDP, is the poster child for government "stimulus" spending that achieved nothing.  I just wish he had taken that lesson to heart as well.

The Creepy Foresight of John McCain

John McCain was not my ideal candidate, as I've said many times here.  For one thing, I think he missed his shot in 2000 and was too old and too tired to make an effective play in 2008.  The age concerns around a McCain Presidency were legitimate.  I used to joke here that one of the reasons I liked McCain was that he was slightly crazy, which would be a deterrent against aggression from other countries - they'd never know what would set off his crazy Vietnam flashbacks and launch the nukes.

 And I also found McCain's "maverick" schtick to be a bit tiresome at times.  While I think he had a far more legitimate claim to actual bipartisan achievement than Barack Obama, McCain also had a tendency to overplay the role in a way that seemed more about gratifying his ego than achieving something concrete.

That being said, there were a couple of things that McCain hit on during the campaign that have turned out to be remarkably prescient.

When McCain called for the resignation of SEC chief Chris Cox after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, he was lambasted for what was perceived as a political stunt.  The thing is, McCain was dead on.  As the Madoff scandal has shown, the SEC was horribly inept in doing its job.  The testimony of Harry Markopolos last week was a devastating indictment of an agency that was accomplishing almost nothing under Cox's reign (which started in August 2005).  The SEC was rotting under his watch.  We just didn't know quite how bad it was until Madoff.

The other item that McCain had dead right was the evil of earmarks.  Obama dismissed this in debates as a small component of the budget.  He had to take this position because he had taken home quite a lot for Illinois in earmarks.  The "tiny percentage" argument de-fanged McCain and made him seem like he was focusing on small potatoes.  The problem is, McCain was right.  The direct spending on earmarks themselves was never an enormous number, even though it was certainly substantial enough that voters should have been angry about the waste.  The evil of earmarks is that they are essentially a way for legislators to bribe each other into voting for even bigger bills using taxpayer money.  There is no greater example of this than the extraordinary process that Pelosi and Reid (and, through a default on any leadership, Obama) used to ram through the largest spending bill in American history with no review and only the bare minimum of debate.  The genius of the Pelosi/Reid process was to essentially make the entire bill a gigantic earmark.  Why waste time negotiating with individuals and supporting earmarks to push the thing through?  Just throw every pet project under the sun into the mix and you save time.  After 6 years of overspending under Republicans and 2 years of overspending under Democrats, we cannot afford the boondoggle that Obama signed today.  But the problem of earmarks, derided by Obama in the election, greased the wheels to make it happen.

McCain was dead right about that.

What a Weekend

I had planned a nice ski weekend at Mt. Snow with the Scottish Lass for both Valentine's Day and her birthday.  Neither of us like Valentine's Day much, but her birthday is the day before, so we tend to do a combined celebration.  I made reservations at the main lodge with a ski-in/ski-out room and lift tickets for the three days.  

The drive up was a snap.  We made it in just over four hours and arrived at about 11:30.  The room was very nice, literally right next to the main summit lift.  And it had a gas-powered fireplace that was very warm and lit up at the flick of a switch.  We were exhausted but very pleased and then proceeded to scare the liver out of ourselves by watching part of an episode of "Ghost Hunters."  As we were going to sleep, I turned to Scottish Lass and said, "Don't worry.  Why would you think anything evil or supernatural would happen in a snowbound hotel in the mountains?"

I'm not a skier.  I've probably skied a total of ten times in my life and I don't think I had skied before this weekend since 2002.  So I was actually a little nervous as we reached the summit.  Thankfully, it worked out fine.  I remembered how to cut and turn and after a couple of quick runs on the easy trails, we started on the blue/intermediate runs.  Things were going splendidly.  The sky was crystal clear and it was in the high 20s on the mountain.  There was a little bit of ice, but generally the conditions were good and the slopes were not as crowded as one might expect for a long holiday weekend.

Unfortunately, at about 2:30 that first afternoon, things started to turn for the worse.  We were skiing down a trail called Big Dipper which had some significant ice and some bare spots.  I had gotten ahead of SL and so I stopped at the next big drop to wait.  When I saw her coming, I turned and chatted to a couple that had just stopped near me.  It was then that I heard a panicked yelp.  SL was down and not moving.  I took off my skis and walked back up the mountain to her and she was clearly in pain.  Her left ski had caught an edge and the binding had not released, twisting her left ankle violently.

We called the ski patrol and they put her in the stretcher-sled and took her down the mountain.  I was very relieved when they showed up because she had started to shiver severely.  When we reached the First Aid station at the base and got her boot off, it was clear that she hadn't broken anything.  The best guess is she had hyperextended some ligaments or possibly had a small tear.  She couldn't walk on the foot, so I gave her a piggyback ride back to the hotel room.

And that's pretty much where we stayed for the next two days.  She had been hoping that she would wake up the next day and feel better, but I knew that she was done skiing for the weekend.

Using the hotel wheelchair, I was able to get her out to the car for a very nice drive around the nearby Vermont villages on Sunday, but since we couldn't actually get out and walk around, it was somewhat frustrating.  It's truly remarkable how drastically things change when you have an injury like this.  Just getting from the bed to the bathroom was a chore for her.  I felt awful for her because I am imagine she is feeling very frustrated at her lack of mobility.  Last week I had that horrible stomach virus for two days and I was going crazy because I couldn't get out of bed.

We're back in NYC now and she has crutches, so her mobility is increased.  She is going to the doctor today for a full exam, but I suspect that this injury is going to take a long time to heal.

Now that we are settled and the initial injury has passed, I have to look back at one moment and laugh.  The Scottish Lass is, obviously, British and her reaction to the injury and the pain reminded me of nothing so much as the scene in European Vacation where Eric Idle is mauled on his bike and keeps apologizing and saying that there is nothing wrong at all.  She may not be English, but the general reaction was very similar.   We were sitting on the side of a cold mountain and she couldn't move her leg and yet she kept saying she was fine and that she was sorry that she had fallen.  When I first tried to summon the ski patrol, she tried to stop me and tell me that she would be fine.  It was obviously serious at the time, but, looking back, it was such a hilariously British moment.  I half expected her to say to the ski patrol, "I'm really sorry that I fell on your mountain."

Friday, February 13, 2009

Careful With That Axe Eugene

Although I would guess that the chances are still pretty high that the horrible, misguided "stimulus" bill will still pass, the voting math in the Senate just got more complicated with Gregg's withdrawal.  It would appear from his withdrawal statement that Gregg is not a supporter of the bill, so he is not likely to vote for it.  Ted Kennedy is apparently returning to Florida and will not be present to vote.  That means that Reid only has 60 votes with the three Republicans he has managed to swing over to his side and all three of them have said that they do not want to be casting the deciding vote.  Could one of them waver and drop their support?  Possibly, but I wouldn't bet the ranch on it.

If this were to happen, however, the Republicans could put themselves into a very sticky predicament.  On the one hand, they would have stopped an absolutely awful bill from being pushed through Congress in a very unorthodox and secretive way.  The blow to Obama would be immense (albeit self-inflicted) and certainly politically satisfying, but the politically satisfying is often bad politics.  That's because, on the other hand, Republicans would now be stuck with the label of having obstructed "action."  The President has made a cartoon of the opposition, pretending that Republicans just want a lot of tax cuts and never want to spend a dime and that plays well in many places.  If the Republicans just stop the bill and do nothing, they will have won the battle, but lost the war.

The key would be to offer up a realistic alternative and try to start picking off Blue Dog Democrats.  That would be an enormous coup.  I think the best alternative would be the introduction of a much, much smaller spending bill with all of the cash being deployed in 2009.  Such a bill could also include a short-term tax break, such as the payroll tax holiday, that has broad support. The longer-term spending and infrastructure projects would then go through the normal appropriations process where the Republicans would be well-advised to make some compromises and support a few projects that they might not agree with ideologically, but which will attract some Democratic supporters.

I find the whole scenario very unlikely, but if the Republicans do get into a position to block this train wreck of a bill, they are in serious danger of overplaying what is currently a winning hand.

The Time Has Come

Mick Shrimpton for Commerce Secretary.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Obama and Transparency

Does the fact that Obama pre-selected his questioners before his "press conference" give his supporters any pause at all?  Without wandering too far into the fever swamps, isn't there something a little disconcerting about a President who is essentially staging press conferences with no chance for open questioning by reporters?

The Stimulus and the Damage Done

The handling of the so-called "stimulus" package has been a debacle since day one.  Instead of a thoughtful debate about a spending package that might have positive effects on the economy (I'll play along with the idea that this is possible, for the moment), Pelosi drew up an unholy mishmash of a Democratic wish list with a number of blatant payoffs to Democratic support groups.  I wouldn't expect much more from Pelosi, who is quite possibly the worst Speaker of the House in modern political history.  What was shocking was the passive approach taken by Obama to this disaster of a bill.  At a time when I would have expected candidate Obama to say, "Let's take the time to do something thoughtful and intelligent," he switched gears completely and became Doomsayer-in-Chief to support a bill he took almost no role in crafting.  The man who promised voters in the debates that all of his new spending plans would not increase the deficit, who promised voters that he would scrub each new spending bill "line by line" to make sure it had no waste, is about to run the largest government deficit since World War II and he has been in office less than a month.  On top of that, he scared our largest trading partners by allowing a "Buy American" provision in the early drafts of the bill that sparked serious warnings of a disastrous trade war.  Perhaps Obama should familiarize himself with the Smoot-Hawley Tarriff for some historical context.

Obama was supposed to be the anti-Bush.  He was supposed to be intellectual, dispassionate and reflective.  I would have expected that Obama to have slowed down Pelosi and her crazy bill, perhaps splitting it into a smaller, directed short-term stimulus package that was more defensible as real stimulus and a larger appropriations bill that would be passed through the normal legislative route.  If he had taken control and done that, he would have scored a major political coup.  I think he missed a potential for a defining moment in his Presidency.  What he offered up instead was a feckless performance, some disgraceful scare-mongering worthy of Bush and a lot of silly straw man arguments.

Republicans were not arguing that tax cuts solve everything and it was disappointing to see Obama lie about this in making his case.  What most were arguing was that this spending package is too large and involves too many items that are unlikely to be spent in any time to have an effect on the current recession.  Why not create a smaller emergency spending bill as a stimulus and then move some of the other proposals, such as infrastructure repair, through the normal appropriations process?  There is no question that the Republicans tarnished their ability to argue against spending during the early Bush years, but that doesn't mean that it is now a good idea to spend the government into virtual bankruptcy.

Obama still enjoys high approval ratings that will likely last for a while longer.  He burned a little of his political capital supporting this bill, but he has a lot to spare and he won't be hurt by this misstep until the effects of this insane debt festival start coming due.  And they will come due.  At some point, the only way to get out of this debt mess will be to inflate our way out and that is going to be an incredibly ugly sight.

Congressional Democrats, on the other hand, have hurt themselves badly.  In the Rasmussen generic congressional poll, where Democrats have been beating the Republicans like rented mules for years now, Republicans trail Democrats by only one point.  It's still a long way from the midterm elections, but there are some other signs that the Democrats are setting themselves up for an epic fail at the Congressional level.  Chris Dodd's once-safe Senate seat, for example, is starting to look decidedly shaky over his stonewalling on his sweet mortgage deal with Countrywide.  But above all, Pelosi and Reid have handed the Republicans an enormous stick with which to beat them.

Bush is no longer the President.  The Democrats cannot blame him for everything anymore, especially given that they have controlled Congress since 2006.  And it astounds me to hear defenses of the stimulus on the basis that Bush was so terrible.  I wasn't aware that the answer to an 8 year spree of spending beyond our means and loading ourselves with debt was to spend even more beyond our means and load ourselves with even more debt.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

I Was Driving UGNAUGHT

Spotted today on way home from Smoke & Mirrors

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

By The Way...

...whatever happened to Obama's tax cuts for 95% of Americans?

NOTE: A couple of people have given me the "give Obama a break, he's been in office for two weeks" response to this.  Well, duh.  My comment is not about his lack of speed in offering up a tax break for 95% of Americans.  The comment was meant to point out that with the level of spending in this stimulus bill that Obama is pushing so hard down the throats of the American taxpayer with a bunch of scary speeches, he is going to create a debt hole so huge for this country that there is no way anybody's taxes are going down.  Of course, some of us pointed out during the election that it is simply not possible to eat your cake and have it too.  Obama claimed that his massive spending proposals (which, by the way, would have to be on top of this boondoggle) and his supposed tax cut wouldn't drive up the deficit.  Well, Obama is now pushing a spending bill that the CBO thinks is so ill-advised and so bad that it will negatively affect the growth of the American economy for at least a decade.

So, guess what?  There is no tax cut on the way for 95% of Americans.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Does Anybody Remember Laughter?

Anybody here remember how a few short months ago the fact that Joe the Plumber had some tax issues was sufficient to completely undermine his entire credibility in the eyes of all?

Good times.  Good times.

Seriously, You Have To Be F****G Kidding Me

ANOTHER Obama appointee is withdrawing for failure to pay taxes????

Let's set aside for a moment the fact that it is outrageous that these jerks feel entitled to simply not pay their taxes.  What does this say about Obama?  The man made a big, big deal about his ethics and the way he was going to clean up the mess in Washington, but does he have anybody who can properly vet his appointments?  Richardson?  Geithner?  Daschle? Can Obama even manage to pick somebody who doesn't have severe ethics problems??  And the best part is that Nancy Killefer was supposed to be the "performance czar" who made sure that the government was efficiency.  Of course, it's a joke that a management consultant from McKinsey would actually improve anything, but at least he could find somebody honest enough to pay their taxes.

I figured Obama would run into some problems at some point, but this, combined with a pork-laden "stimulus" bill hated by the majority of the country, is a pretty spectacular flameout after two weeks in office.

Mark This Date

For on this date, I say something I rarely say.

Hooray for the New York Times.  Today they called for Tom Daschle to withdraw his name from consideration as Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Daschle is an absolute train wreck of a nomination.  Does anybody really believe he didn't realize that a car service he used 80% of the time for personal use was a taxable benefit?  Or that he just innocently overstated his charitable contributions and "misplaced" the proof?  Or that he claimed deductions for contributions to groups that did not qualify?

That's just the tip of the iceberg.  More worrying is the fact that Daschle has effectively been an unregistered lobbyist for the past four years.  He's not an attorney, so what was he doing at a law firm that does legal work and lobbying?  Given the number of exceptions to his "no lobbyist" rule, you have to wonder if Obama really does understand that you can't just run a government on symbolic gestures.  It doesn't mean anything if you ban lobbyists and then make a billion exceptions.

Daschle must withdraw or Obama's credibility will be taking a serious hit.