Monday, December 20, 2010

Great Moments in Wintertime Literature

    It was the night before Christmas, and it was snowy—very snowy—but not quite snowy enough to suit the tastes of the sometimes-intransigent Tiny Tim (grandson of Martin Chuzzlewit, who is not to be confused with the always-pleasant lad, Tiny Tim Cratchit, son of Bob (nee Robert) who was formerly employed at Scrooge and Marley), because Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, to the rue of Seth Pecksniff, had already given Tiny Tim Chuzzlewit his Christmas present, a Flexible Flyer sled, and the snow was not deep enough to cushion the Baker Street cobblestones (actually large gravels washed up on the Cornish coast and used as London pavers), so the sled runners scraped on the cobblestones making a terrible, caterwauling racket, though, quite frankly, not all that caterwauling nor all that terrible, because snow, as you know, tends to muffle noise, causing the noise to dissipate rather quickly due to the phenomenon of the Doppler effect, which being something of a scientific law, the Doppler effect works just as well on Baker Street Hill as it does on the plains of Kansas, a flat or “flattish” landscape, where it presumably, and for comparison sake, rains as hard as it does on the plains in Spain (affirmed by the noted meteorologist Prof. Henry Higgins), and while the same can be said of snow in Kansas, Spain and London, at least regarding the application of the physical laws known as the “Doppler effect” at the same precisely-measured elevation above sea level as Baker Street Hill, and meaning that snow, whether wet snow or dry snow or icy, granular snow, compares equally in all three locations, the same outcome—the muffling effect—does not apply to the snows of Vermont, for as you must have been taught in public school, the man that Vermonters called “Robert Frost” (their white-haired apparition of “Jack Frost” as he is known throughout the rest of New England) wrote poetically of snow and its many pleasing qualities, not the least of which is the very noisiness of snow that the snow itself makes when it falls from the heavens and lands in the forest where, ironically indeed, trees do not make a sound at all when they fall in the same forest as does Vermont snow, yet Vermont snow does make noise if Robert Frost is to be believed, and he may be infallible in so far as we can determine, because these forests are populated wholly by maple-syrup trees, which of course, give the Green Mountains their name, at least in summer, but perhaps not in autumn as maple trees turn a blazing orange-red at that time of year, but as Robert Frost seemed to be a snow-creature—the Yeti poet, as Vermont Buddhists call him—he would not know of leaves, an ignorance that manifested itself in his once taking the wrong road in a yellow wood, and he probably knew not much about people, Buddhists or other ilk, as he often stopped by woods on snowy evenings, and further, would stop his horse-drawn sleigh without any farmhouse near, which in turn, caused his horse to give his harness bells a shake to warn (reportedly; albeit a human reaction in most cases) Vermont folk of the Yeti poet’s presence, but regardless of how often or how hard the horse jingled the harness bells, the only reply that the horse would hear was the sweep of easy wind and downy flake.
    Another great moment in wintertime literature brought to you by David Allen.
                    MERRY CHRISTMAS

Friday, December 3, 2010

Where is that assignment with FOX News?

I am going to tell you a story that may well jeopardize my career as a contributor to The State Journal. I have kept this story secret for many years, but now it is time for me to fess up.

Some 20 years ago, I was foggy-brained enough to believe in the mission of public radio. I was even a monetary contributor to West Virginia Public Radio. I enjoyed listening to the Saturday opera and "Prairie Home Companion." I also fell swoon to the mellowing liberalism of "All Things Considered." I wanted to believe I could be tolerant of liberals, which, upon reflection, is what held me back for years from becoming an opinion writer for The State Journal.

Then one evening, while I was tuned to "All Things Considered," I had a revelation. An ATC reporter was broadcasting from the apartment of a San Francisco man who collected Sonia Henie memorabilia. If you don't recall her, Ms. Henie was an Olympic figure skating champion from Norway who appeared in more than a dozen films.

The collector had quite a lot of Ms. Henie's memorabilia, and you could tell that he had decorated his apartment almost completely with her mementos. But he had gone too far (in my opinion). He had Sonia Henie's underwear framed under glass and hanging on the wall.

It did not surprise me that a San Francisco man cherished Sonia Henie's underwear to the point that he had it framed. After all, there are a lot of San Franciscans of Norwegian descent. Garrison Keillor once considered airing a Norwegian-themed show from San Francisco and calling it "Bay Companion" ("Fjord Companion" in Scandinavian distribution).

But the Henie underwear show was too much for me. I figured that if public radio had the money to air a story about a movie star's framed underwear, then it didn't need my help anymore.

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against collecting women's underwear. I used to collect women's underwear myself, but I had the good sense to keep it where it belonged -- in the glove box of my pickup truck.

I tell this story of my public radio resentment so that I will be renounced as a State Journal contributor. I want my Juan Williams moment. I want a shot at the big money at FOX News.

I must say that I owe my decision to come clean about public radio to none other than Sen. Jay Rockefeller. Had he not had the fortitude to recently denounce FOX News and MSNBC at a Senate committee hearing, then I would not be telling you about my falling out with public radio.

I also owe a measure of thanks to former NPR contributor Juan Williams because he had the inner strength to tell people that he felt uncomfortable seeing people in Muslim dress waiting to board his flight. I just hope that my story rises to that level of reprisal from National Public Radio.

I am told that Sen. Rockefeller knows people who know people who run the public broadcasting empire. If Sen. Rockefeller could use his connections to encourage NPR to renounce me and my opinions in The State Journal, then I just might have the credentials to apply for a job at FOX News. And then, like Juan Williams, I could have a big pay day.

There's more than payola to my wanting to be a FOX News contributor, however.

As you may know, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer is a FOX News contributor. Dr. Krauthammer is a quadriplegic. I am also a quadriplegic. You can take it from me that you never want to believe the opinion of just one wheelchair-bound pontificator. (Professor Steven Hawking excepted.)

To be fair and balanced, you should seek the opinions of two wheelchair-bound pontificators. Roger Ailes, I could be that second, wheelchair-bound pontificator at FOX News. I could even be unfair and unbalanced if that's what you need me to be. Put me in coach, I'm ready to roll.

Sen. Rockefeller, I am more like you than you think. I also believe the First Amendment is an anachronism that should be ignored whenever opinions are unflattering. Like you, I also agree that the old-timey, non-combative news format needs brought back. We need to go back to the days when politicians in Washington used the FCC to hold complete control over the airwaves and the broadcasters.

Of course, times were better back then. We didn't know any different.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Our Egg Dilemma Tells America's Economic Story

I am an economist.  The faculty of an American college tested me and gave me a certificate saying so.  At no time during the testing period did I see a man behind the curtain.

The one (and only) thing that I learned from my studies is that economics is all about expectations.  I realized this early on in Principles of Economics when I learned about the marginal utility of goods and services.  The textbook taught us about the marginal utility of buggy whips—a teamster places a high value on one buggy whip, less value on a second, spare buggy whip, and even less value on a third buggy whip. 

This makes perfect sense.  If you have to reach for the third buggy whip, then the horse is either foaming at the nostrils or already dead.

What explanation were you expecting?

Adam Smith introduced the theory of capitalism and its invisible hand to shape the marketplace.  Smith was spot on for his day.  But in retrospect, people believed in and practiced laissez-faire economics every day.  For example: the nation had progressed far enough from farm life to town life so that the butter and egg man drove through the neighborhoods weekly.  No longer did every household need its own milk cow and chickens to enjoy buttered toast and scrambled eggs for breakfast.

As there was no regulation of food commerce to speak of, Adam Smith’s economic theory was more of an observation of common practices put into words.  His theory continued to be relevant through the Nineteenth Century because housewives knew what butter and eggs were supposed to look and taste like.  This was Adam Smith’s free commerce at its greatest—the knowledgeable consumer dealt directly with the competent supplier/seller.

When the Twentieth Century arrived, a new economic model came into practice.  Grocery stores began buying butter and eggs and then, re-selling them.  The store owner now decided the quality of butter and eggs as the consumer was removed from that part of the transaction.  And, with his well-practiced thumb on the scale, the grocer could churn ten pounds of butter into twelve.

This brought on the beginning of top-down regulation of the marketplace.  With it came the need of a new economic theory.  John Maynard Keynes put his observations of common practices into words which eventually became his “General Theory” in1936.  Keynes moved the debate from Adam Smith’s microeconomic practices to the then-maturing macroeconomic practices.

In the days when Adam Smith prevailed, a housewife dealt face-to-face with the egg producer on a weekly basis.  Further, the housewife had either raised chickens herself or knew enough about eggs to know if the egg producer was selling fresh eggs. 

Now we are at the end of Keynesian theory; huge companies inspected by huge government agencies produce most of America’s eggs which are, in turn, sold by huge grocery chains.  This year, one of those producers recalled nearly 400 million tainted eggs with hardly an apology to the public.  This egg recall represents top-down macroeconomic theory nearing its zenith.

American consumers are so ignorant about eggs that the Food and Drug Administration included the following paragraph in its egg recall notice: “What does the product look like?”  That paragraph only tells the consumer the various brand names printed on the recalled egg cartons.

Regarding egg sales, Adam Smith’s theory no longer works because the consumer is unqualified to bargain with the seller.  The egg seller is too small to supply a large customer like McDonalds.

In Keynes’ scenario, eggs are mass-produced to the point that eggs are no longer eggs, at least not in the taste sense.  The next step will be irradiation to solve the annoyance of expensive recalls.

At some point during the past 200 years, we had the system down pat.  Residential and commercial consumers expected fresh, germ-free eggs, and the marketplace delivered them.  But we couldn’t stop there, could we?  No, we allowed thousands of family-owned poultry farms to be priced out of business by a handful of mega-producers.  We foolishly thought that government food inspectors would guarantee the previous high level of quality.  But that never happened.

When Americans expect (read demand) fresh eggs again, then the marketplace will deliver them.  A dozen eggs will cost more, but the improved taste and nutritional value will offset that price increase. 

If Americans can re-learn how to do eggs, then they will have determined the right blend of Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes.  If we cannot do eggs, then forget about solving the big problems.

Economics is all about expectations.  How do you want your eggs?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Nation Faces Massive Debt ... And There Is No Way Out

When President Barack Obama took office, the national debt was around $10 trillion. The president then had the U.S. Treasury print a trillion dollars in new money to spur economic growth. And then another trillion dollars or so in deficit financing was arranged to pay for Mr. Obama's first budget. Now the federal debt is said to be about $13 trillion. Or is it?

These numbers greatly understate the national debt. Unfunded liabilities in Medicare and Social Security retirement add something like $30 trillion to the debt. A myriad of federal loan guarantees could cost trillions more should the economy continue to stagnate.

And there is more debt on top of that. The collective states, counties and cities are big borrowers and will face some level of default in the future. Public employee benefit funds in nearly all states are woefully underfunded. Tiny West Virginia alone is looking at $13 billion in unfunded post-employment benefits debt.

Consumers are in debt up to their eyeballs -- mortgages, car loans, student loans, credit card debt and home equity (or second mortgage) loans. Millions of Americans are unemployed or won't work and live on the dole. Millions of Americans have spent their meager savings. Millions of Americans are flat broke.

The American people, in debt as they are, see only a magnificent nation. They see beautiful cars traveling on beautiful superhighways. They see beautiful houses with beautiful appliances and flat screen TVs. They see beautiful college campuses and public schools. They see beautiful government buildings. They see beautiful sail boats, cabin cruisers, speed boats and Jet Skis. They see beautiful vacation homes at the sea shore, the ski slopes or anywhere else there is natural beauty.

They see an army, a navy, and an air force second to none in the history of mankind. They see outer space as a parking lot for space stations, GPS and communication satellites.

Ask any American, and he or she will tell you that Americans have built and paid for all of our beautiful notions with our tax money. For some reason, though, they cannot see the mountain of debt that has financed the modern American lifestyle.

As this charade continues to play out, I am reminded of Wimpy, the obese moocher in the Popeye comic strip who was forever saying, "I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."

Tuesday's math lesson: How do we pay back the $13 trillion we currently have borrowed? And then, how do we pay $40 trillion in future obligations? Just how does our nation generate budget surpluses of $1 trillion to $2 trillion per year, each year, for the next 20 years?

One school of thought -- borrow more, spend more -- follows Keynesian economists who believe that the president's stimulus plan didn't go far enough. The opposing view -- cut taxes, cut spending -- is held by the Tea Party.

As for borrowing more, just what is our national credit score?

As for raising taxes, repealing the "Bush tax cuts" will likely ignite a class war.

As for cutting spending, who gives up an entitlement? Do we cut the Social Security retirement benefit? The mortgage interest deduction? The earned income credit? The arts? Defense? National parks?

Remember now, we are asking a government that can't run a piddling passenger train at a profit to solve this multi-trillion-dollar problem.

The election of Barack Obama and his message of "Change" were all about the hubris of the left. The Tea Party revolt is all about the hubris of the right. Neither side will compromise its position on taxes and spending; their hubris prevents it.

The lefties are fed up with Washington. And so are the righties. But to solve the debt crisis, both sides need to admit: "Mea culpa!" After all, partisan politics is what got us here.

In 1975, New York City faced bankruptcy. Then-President Gerald R. Ford told the city that the federal government would not bail it out. The next day, there was a newspaper cartoon that showed a housewife, with her hair in curlers, wearing a housecoat and ironing clothes while her husband, unshaven, sat at the kitchen table in his underwear reading the morning paper. The newspaper headline blared, "FORD TELLS CITY -- DROP DEAD!" Caption: The husband tells his wife, "Well, at least we still have our pride."

We've borrowed so much with so little to show for it that it's almost comical.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Many Find They Have The Luxury To Grumble

Does it seem to you that people complain more and more these days?  Does it also seem that people complain more and more about situations beyond anyone’s control?

I am sure you would answer both questions with a resounding “Yes.”

There are reasons for these phenomena.  And surprisingly, some of this complaining is a good sign because different kinds of complaints mean different things.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow is well-known for his theory on the hierarchy of human needs.  He also wrote an interesting journal containing workplace observations which he published in 1965 as “Eupsychian Management.”  The book has since been re-titled “Maslow on Management.”

Maslow observed that there are three kinds of grumbles.  Low grumbles have to do with the meeting of basic needs such as pay and working conditions.  High grumbles kick in after workers have exceeded their basic needs and receive better pay and less rigorous working conditions.  And then he introduces us to metagrumbles—those grumbles which are more philosophical in nature and may not have anything to do with one’s pay or working conditions.

You won’t find many low grumbles in the modern workplace.  With minimum wage laws, government benefits such as food stamps, OSHA workplace safety requirements and unemployment insurance, even the lowest paid workers are relatively secure compared to fifty years ago.

Americans may think that the lowest-paid workers live at the doorstep of desolate poverty, but thousands of people purposely earn $10,000 to $15,000 per year, max out their government entitlements, and still own their own humble residence.  More people than you would imagine shop for near-new clothes at thrift stores.  More people than you would imagine download discount coupons.  More people than you would imagine live well on the cheap.

High grumbles are a different matter.  If you give an employee an office with one window, he’ll want two.  If his company car is a sedan, he’ll want an SUV.  Give him a black stapler and he’ll want the snazzy red one.

The classic high grumble that I hear most often comes from the professional whose year-end bonus makes up a large portion of his annual pay.  The bonus is almost always less than was expected.  And this grumble comes from people who make a comfortable six figures (eight counting the decimal.)

High grumbles are often related to perks.  After one has bettered his lifestyle beyond basic needs, a portion of that extra income will go toward building status or partaking of leisure activities.  Tell John Doe that he can no longer use company-paid frequent flyer miles for personal or vacation travel, and you will hear a high grumble.

Low grumbles are a product of the authoritarian workplace, a workplace of despair and fear.  Low grumbles, according to Maslow, are a sign that workers are not meeting their basic needs.

High grumbles, on the other hand, can be a positive sign in the workplace.  If interpreted properly, high grumbles point to ways in which to motivate workers.  Yes, the high grumble worker may benefit personally from having his complaint satisfied, but there will almost always be a spillover that benefits the organization.  An office with a second window might actually increase a worker’s sense of worth in the hierarchy and be more effective and less costly than the offer of a pay raise.

Metagrumbles are rhetorical, nebulous thoughts.  The worker wants to see more “honesty,” or more “justice,” in the way the company treats its employees.  These words, of course, never get defined.  Who are the metagrumblers according to Maslow?  “[P]eople who have the luxury of complaining at this level are strictly living a very high-level life.” 

Darryl Hannah was the very model of a modern metagrumbler when she flew cross country to West Virginia and sat on her duff to protest coal mining.  Glenn Beck has become a metagrumbler extraordinaire since he gave up drinking (prior to which he was presumably a low grumbler.) 

A metagrumbler need not be a celebrity, though.  The “high-level life” that Maslow refers to means that most high needs have been satisfied, and the person is free to contemplate such unanswerable questions as “Is global warming caused by man?”

Maslow concludes that it is impossible for people not to complain: “There is no Garden of Eden, there is no paradise…”  But he also advises that grumbles lead to solutions, which in turn lead to the betterment of all mankind.  And he envisions this process of grumbling as being eternal.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Clarksburg, Bridgeport Merger? Maybe in 400 years.

Clarksburg is not moving.  The franchise that is Clarksburg is moving, however.

For nearly a century, the law firm of Steptoe and Johnson (S&J) anchored the downtown as the prime tenant in the Union National Bank (now known as Chase) building.  The firm’s 171 employees have moved to Bridgeport and are comfortably housed in a new building bearing the firm’s name.  As big as S&J is, it remained nearly invisible for all of its years in Clarksburg because most people don’t think of ten-story bank buildings as being job centers.

In October, what’s left of the Clarksburg franchise will move to Bridgeport.  United Hospital Center (UHC) has built a new hospital there.  UHC began as the combination of Union Protestant Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital.  Like S&J, the hospital is ending a century-long presence in Clarksburg.  With the hospital’s move, doctors and medically-related businesses will move to Bridgeport, too.

But this new Bridgeport is not really Bridgeport.  Bridgeport was a sleepy little town; its franchise was the stockyard which closed a long time ago.  Bridgeport’s other franchise was Michael Benedum, the famous oil wildcatter.  Unfortunately for Bridgeport, Mr. Benedum banked his considerable fortune in Pittsburgh where it remains.

When I-79 breached the gap between old Clarksburg and old Bridgeport, a new city began to emerge.  Zoning battles have given part of the new city to old Clarksburg and part to old Bridgeport.  This new city—call it the I-79 strip—could have been the impetus to merge Clarksburg and Bridgeport into a single city of some importance.  But that did not happen.

The intransigence of Clarksburgers and Bridgeporters reminds me of the rivalry between the kingdoms of Lilliput and Blefuscu that Gulliver encountered on the first leg of his voyage.

For as long as anyone in Lilliput could remember, the proper way to eat one’s egg was to first crack open the large end.  Then one day, the emperor’s son cut his finger on his egg shell.  The emperor then decreed that Lilliputians shall forever after crack open their eggs from the small end.

This decree was not universally accepted, and from time to time, a minority of Lilliputians would rebel.  These rebels became known as the Big-endians, and to avoid persecution, many of them fled to the land of Blefuscu, Lilliput’s rival across the sea.  The Blefuscudians tolerated the mores of the Big-endians because their high priests had declared “that all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end.”

You are probably thinking that I am using a story from “Gulliver’s Travels” in an article about merging cities to segue to that famous cliché, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”  Well, you’re wrong. 

 Here’s the point of the satire.

The Lilliputians, as well as their rivals, the Blefuscudians, were little people, literally and figuratively.  Gulliver tells us that they were just six inches tall.  The egg shell “schism” tells us how insignificant their differences were.
At one time, I believed that the cities in Harrison County could consolidate.  In the early 1960s, the Catholics and the Protestants put aside their differences and pooled their resources to build the United Hospital Center.  Thus, I thought, if the Catholics and Protestants could bury five centuries of differences, then surely Clarksburg and Bridgeport could be forward thinking.

I still think my prediction of a city merger is correct—perhaps just 400 years too early.

Old Clarksburg has lost almost half of its population since 1960, and twenty per cent of the current population of 16,700 is over age 65.  Clarksburg needs to face this reality.  And come October, Clarksburg also needs to face the reality that the last of the Big-endians has left town.

Old Bridgeport is a city of 7,300 and its population won’t grow dramatically over the next decade.  There are new housing developments in the new city limits.  But many more houses are being built in the rural areas to the north and east.  Bridgeport will soon find itself as a lucrative tax collector with not enough citizens to (prudently) spend the tax money on.

If the two cities merged today—call it Clarksport or Bridgeburg—it would be a little city of 24,000 people.  But the two mayors still should hold a ceremonial egg-breaking, serve quiche pies and bacon to their citizens, and then merge the towns and be done with it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Citizens of Leisure: Pass the Smokes and Jerky

Recently, a television news commentator, whose initials are A(lbert) B(ray) C(ary), called for sharply higher cigarette taxes to keep young people from smoking. If only engineering social behavior with the tax code was as simple as ABC, then we could rid ourselves of our sins for pennies here and dollars there.

To understand why tobacco smoking became popular, one needs to start with Sir Walter Raleigh and the Virginia Colony in the late 1500s. Raleigh learned of tobacco from the native Indians, who smoked the leaves in their religious ceremonies. This distinction, the religious rite, makes tobacco desirable — not its nicotine.

In his classic study of human behavior, “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” Thorstein Veblen demonstrates that in the earliest, primitive human tribes, leisure was accorded to a few distinct class members of the tribe. Leisure — not money, not furs, not gold, not emeralds — was the very first emblem of wealth. What we would call the religious hierarchy of the tribe — the shamans — were afforded leisure because the tribe believed their duties should exempt them from the menial labor of gathering food or building shelter.

What was true one million years ago is still true today.

Veblen coined the term “conspicuous leisure” to mean the epitome of leisure for leisure’s sake. Because tobacco was afforded religious status, it also received leisure status. Tobacco smoking, then, is an act of conspicuous leisure. Had all the Virginia Indians chewed tobacco and spit tobacco juice on the ground, Sir Walter Raleigh never would have introduced tobacco to Queen Elizabeth’s court. Once tobacco arrived in England, it did not take long for tobacco to circle the world.

And it is important to note that certain ritual behaviors accompanied the act of smoking. In Holland, for example, the bars and public houses featured long-stemmed, ceramic pipes. The stem, a foot long or more, would be snapped off after a patron finished smoking, thus leaving a clean mouthpiece for the next smoker. (Pass the peace pipe, please.)

In gentlemen’s clubs, a manservant offered expensive cigars to the members and then trimmed the stogie and lit it. Sherlock Holmes, a man of leisure, puffed on a pipe that he had ritualistically filled with exotic tobacco. A gentleman in the 1950s would take two cigarettes from his sterling silver pocket case, light them both, and gracefully hand one to his lady.

If smokers valued tobacco only for its nicotine, then I would submit that none of this ritual would have ever come about. Leisure time is the only way that people can show off what Veblen coined “conspicuous consumption.” The English fox hunt is a prime example of how the landed gentry blended conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption. The fox hunt, both conspicuous and pointless, was described by Oscar Wilde as “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.”

To be sure, West Virginia’s middle-class workers cannot enjoy their leisure time by foxhunting on horseback with hounds. But they can crisscross the countryside on four-wheelers, blow their bugles at imaginary hobgoblins and finish their hunt by consuming rounds of beer, Vienna sausages served on toothpicks and rashers of deer jerky.

Once again: the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.

Sharply raising the price of cigarettes by government levy presents a problem that abolitionists don’t comprehend. When you add $1 per pack in taxes, you may very well elevate cigarettes from the status of conspicuous leisure to that of conspicuous consumption. High-priced cigarettes, then, become a badge of leisure. And the likelihood of expanding the black market for cigarettes also adds to their mystique, desirability and status in this regard.

Tobacco use has dropped considerably during the past 50 years. But the decline has nothing to do with government policy, education or higher prices. Narcotics and mood-changing drugs have become easily available. It is not that tobacco use has dropped but that tobacco use has been supplanted by newer forms of conspicuous consumption. It is now reported that more than 70 million Americans are “being treated for pain.” I will leave you to translate that euphemism in the privacy of a smoke-free environment.

For the record, I smoke. I am a man of leisure. I write opinion columns.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Beleagured Postal Service Rides a Snail Into the Sunset

The U. S. Postal Service (USPS) expects to lose $7 billon this year.  Postmaster General John Potter has recommended termination of Saturday mail delivery to save $3 billion.  In addition to reduced service, we can expect rate increases. 

Netflix ships DVDs to over twelve million subscribers and is the USPS’ biggest corporate customer.  Saturday delivery is crucial for renting movies by mail.  And higher postage rates won’t help the company’s bottom line either.  Rather than wait for the USPS put it out of business, Netflix is now offering unlimited movie downloads.  Netflix users can now watch movies all day for their regular subscription price.

In trying to save money by eliminating Saturday mail service, General Potter is shooting his mail carriers out of the saddle.  Netflix is moving its deliveries to cyberspace, never to return to snail mail.

As a general rule, businesses bend over backward to accommodate their biggest customers.  In this case, one Netflix equals one million or more small businesses when it comes to earning revenue.  Do the math Gen. Potter.

UPS (Big Brown) and FedEx are remarkably efficient.  Just compare their package tracking services with that of the USPS.  The USPS is twenty years behind the package services, especially so when it comes to capturing signatures.

I don’t ship many parcels.  But I do know that I can go online to Big Brown and print a shipping label much easier than I can at the USPS website.   With the post office, I usually resort to using the one-rate envelopes or boxes even though it costs more.  If I overestimate shipping weight and pay Big Brown too much, the company refunds the difference after weighing the parcel.

The USPS has had a monopoly on first-class mail service since the nation began.  By definition, monopolies cherish archaic work rules and resist innovation as long as possible.  At any given moment in a monopoly’s workday, one-third of its employees are “in meetings.”

A good example of how the USPS monopoly operates is provided by its web-based postage stamp store.  When I order stamps online, the USPS charges a service fee.  And even though my order is an electronic credit card transaction, it takes five business days for my stamps to arrive.

If the USPS cannot provide next-day, or even second-day delivery of postage stamps, then I ask, “What can it do efficiently?”   Nothing much, it seems.

It is particularly galling that the USPS charges a shipping and handling fee on stamp sales.  It’s not as if the mail carrier is making a special trip to my mailbox to deliver the order.

Big Brown employs about 240,000 people.  The post office employs well over 600,000.  FedEx has even fewer employees than Big Brown, but that figure can be misleading because FedEx classifies some delivery people as independent contractors. 

I would guess that the USPS is overstaffed by at least 200,000 employees.  As to whether the real number is higher or lower matters little because the post office is in no hurry to downsize. 

Can you imagine what would happen if Postmaster General Potter recommended firing as few as 50,000 employees?  Congress and the postal unions would go berserk.  By the end of the day, Gen. Potter would be on the street, and Congress would have blocked any downsizing until it was thoroughly studied by a special commission.

The Postal Service has two options going forward.  First, it can limp along as it has for years making fixes to the system like the proposed reduction in service and rate increase.  Such thinking will continue to drive customers away.

The second option requires embracing technology.  The Postal Service could be just as efficient as Big Brown and FedEx.  And if it was, the USPS just might find that it could cut rates and reclaim some of its lost market share.

Regardless of choice, however, the USPS faces a major reduction in its workforce.

In the recent past, the USPS has invested heavily in bricks and mortar—the buildings are called Processing and Distribution Centers.  To my ear, the words “distribution center” connote a warehouse operation—not a delivery service.  As for “processing”, I can only wonder idly: If Spam is processed meat, then what is processed mail?

If I was facing extinction (like the USPS is), then I would want a warehouse full of processed mail, too.  I’d gather as many things as I could that reminded me of the good old days when I had it all. 

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Tribute to Real Tomatoes and Mom's Bloody Mary Mix

When May rolls around, I think of gardening.  Actually, I think about how long I will have to wait for the first ripe tomato.

When I was very young, I asked my mother, a Methodist, what Methodists believed in.  Dad was a Baptist, and he wanted me to be one of them, so it followed naturally that I inquire about Methodists.  She told me that Methodists (at one time) believed that tomatoes were poisonous.

This revelation about poisonous tomatoes bewildered me and put me squarely in the Baptist camp during my formative years.  I will say this much, that in salving my curiosity about tomatoes, and Methodists, I learned later in life that the tomato is a member of the nightshade family, and further, that eating the vines and leaves of the tomato plant will make you nauseous.  So I defend my Methodist ancestors and their fear of tomatoes accordingly.

Our neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Smallwood, raised tomato plants in their backyard garden each summer.  The practice was fairly common in my neighborhood.  When the tomatoes ripened, Mr. Smallwood, a grandfatherly type if there ever was one, would hail and invite me over for a tomato sandwich. 

That’s all it was--a thick tomato slice on white bread with a little salt and pepper.  One tomato sandwich always led to a second; they were heavenly.  And I think it had to do with the anticipation of green tomatoes turning red.  Of course, picking the tomato off the vine and slicing it right then also piqued my taste buds.

I wonder how many Americans have never tasted a vine-ripened tomato from the backyard garden.  And worse, I wonder how many Americans believe that the reddish thing sold by the supermarket as a tomato is a real tomato.

Supermarkets puzzle me. 

I have raised and butchered my own beef.  However, the beef sold in stores looks nothing like fresh, farm-raised beef.  I have to believe that three-out-of-four Americans have never tasted the real product. 

When I shop for chicken, I usually see a red tint to the water in the package.  The only red parts of a chicken are its blood and feathers.  Pardon the pun, but there is something afoul with the corpus delecti.

It’s the age of manufactured food, an age made necessary because Americans are extremely price-sensitive when it comes to buying food.  The soccer mom who routinely drops $100.00 on a pair of Nikes bristles when she sees the price of head lettuce.  She’ll sometimes go without lettuce but never even wince at the Nikes sticker.

The University of California at Davis ushered in the manufactured food age when it developed the modern tomato.  The school crossbred a tomato that was uniform in size and resisted bruising.  The Davis-bred tomatoes could be picked green, handled roughly, and ripened with ethylene gas while in transit from farm to market.

The fact that Davis-bred tomatoes never tasted like tomatoes made no difference.  And why should it?  Everything else in California is make-believe.

The uniform size concept also led to the modern meat packing industry.  Whether it’s beef, pork or poultry production, the animals are bred and fed in a way to make standard-size carcasses that fit the slaughterhouse handling machinery. 

In one respect, the food industry deserves credit for its efficient mass production.  The family food budget, as a per cent of family income, is about half of what it was forty years ago.  But there are trade-offs with mass production, taste and appearance being the most obvious.

“Food, Inc.”, the 2008 agribusiness documentary, provides a good overview of how we have changed agriculture.  The documentary does mimic Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, but its bias is pretty transparent.  Michael Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, “Botany of Desire”) is interviewed, and his commentary, along with others, is level-headed.

If you feel that some of the scenes in the film depict animal cruelty, then I would hope that you don’t.  The only reason these animals ever lived was to become food on someone’s plate.  Or, as farmers have long said: “What’s time to a hog?” 

Going back to the tomatoes of my youth, I am glad that my mother never feared them.  She perfected a Bloody Mary mix that cannot be topped.  She would can a hundred quarts of the beverage each summer, and when football season came, she was the hit of the tailgate parties. 
In the end, Mom won me over to the Methodist camp with her Bloody Mary mix.  The Baptists were never going to top that.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Politicians Have a Poor Record of Managing Toll Road

We had a brutal winter. The potholes prove that. The damage that motorists don’t see yet is the cost of plowing and salting the roads. That cost will show up later this year when paving projects are scrapped for lack of money.

Making matters all the worse is the continuing failure of our leaders to address a shrinking road fund. Prior to 1980, the user taxes that comprise the road fund grew sufficiently from year-to-year to adequately maintain our roads. But since 1980, driving habits have changed drastically, thus making the user tax concept archaic.

In the 1970s, cars got very poor gasoline mileage. Owners also traded cars more often because cars wore out faster. When gasoline hit $1 per gallon in 1979, consumers demanded fuel efficiency and long-term warranties. Ever since, the two main user taxes – the gasoline tax and the privilege tax on motor vehicle sales – have increasingly lagged.

Every year, there is talk amongst the pundits about building toll roads and bridges as a way to solve our road funding woes. Tolls are just another user tax. Given the high cost to build a highway or a bridge, there has to be sufficient traffic to pay the tolls that, in turn, pay off the bonds that funded the project.

Unfortunately for West Virginia, there is not enough traffic to justify toll roads or bridges anywhere in this state. But even if there were, politicians do not have the will to maintain tolls to keep up with inflation.

The original West Virginia Turnpike was funded by revenue bonds in the 1950s. Within four years of its opening, the turnpike found itself unable to pay interest to the bondholders, a situation that remained so until 1979. The turnpike never did accumulate a sinking fund sufficient to retire the bonds.

The turnpike was rebuilt as I-77 under an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration which paid for 90% of the cost. The state’s road fund paid the balance. The agreement allowed for tolls to remain on the highway until the original bonds were retired, and then the road was to become a free interstate.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to becoming a free road – that’s funny peculiar, not funny ha ha. The new four-lane highway became a favorite north-south route. Traffic also increased significantly when I-64 was completed. The bankrupt West Virginia Turnpike quickly became a money maker, and the politicians smelled bacon on the griddle.

If you came into the movie late, that’s okay. You know what happened next. The Turnpike Commission became the WV Parkways, Economic Development and Tourism Authority. This led to Tamarack, one of the biggest money-losing enterprises ever concocted by the statehouse gang. The Authority also removed turnpike tolls everywhere except the three main toll barriers, a perk for locals that cost the turnpike some $2 million in annual revenue at the time.

Today, the Authority’s bastard child toll road is facing over $335 million in deferred maintenance with about one third of the 88-mile highway rated as substandard. And there seems to be faint political will to raise tolls to adequate levels or to cure Tamarack’s annual cash drain.

This is how West Virginia politicians run a toll road. If you think that the state should consider building more toll roads, then you deserve a desk at the state capitol in the Head Examiner’s office.

There are two plausible solutions for the state road fund’s inadequacy. The first is simple. As the state maintains a network of secondary roads that were once, and still should be, the responsibility of the counties, the personal property tax collected on motor vehicles by each county should be transferred to the state road fund. It makes sense to do this because the counties have gotten off scot-free since 1933 when the State Road Commission was formed to rescue Depression-era counties from their road building and road maintenance duties.

The second solution does not involve taxes. If the state eliminated the prevailing wage requirements in road contracts, the annual savings would be huge. West Virginia cannot justify paying road contractors to hire laborers at $34.71 per hour. But it does just that because $34.71 per hour is the "prevailing wage" for the lowest-paid laborer.

That’s funny ha ha.

The impact of these high prevailing wage rates doesn’t end there. Road construction is seasonal work, and construction workers’ wage-based claims are a big drain on the unemployment fund which you, the motorist, also pay for.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Performance of Public Schools Just Doesn't Add Up

Whenever anyone asks me if 180 days per year in school are enough, I answer by relating my high school experience.  I was required to take American History.  The teacher never got us to World War II.

This sums up my opinion of the public school system, both when I was a prisoner of it and now.  The system is a failure.  I can claim that is a failure because there hasn’t been a definition of a proper education since the one-room schools closed down—the three Rs as it were.

Where did the magical 180 days of classroom instruction come from?  Some folks believe that farm families in the olden days demanded that their children go to school for not more than 180 days because they needed the kids to work the farm in summer.  The 180-day rule has been around so long that other people believe it came from divine guidance.  As in: Noah built the ark, and then it rained for 180 days.

You can teach Algebra in 180 days.  You cannot teach American History in 180 days.  You can teach Civics in 180 days.  You cannot teach American Literature or English Literature in 180 days.  You can teach an introductory course in biology, chemistry or physics in 180 days.  You cannot teach Writing in 180 days. 

Schools have become babysitters.  In addition to providing free day-care, schools provide breakfast and lunch.  Who expects lazy parents to get up an hour early and fix breakfast or pack lunch boxes?

Schools have become sports complexes.  Schools have an obligation to teach physical education and offer daily exercise periods to all students.  But the system has gone way beyond its charge.  The system spends millions of dollars per year to field teams in most sports.  Meanwhile, nearly one-fourth of our students are obese come graduation day.

Schools are inept when it comes to preventing dropouts.  The attitude of school administrators towards dropouts is “so what.”  Administrators don’t want students in school who pull the averages down.  So what if dropouts cost society a fortune later on.

Schools have given up trying to prevent cheating.  Cheating is rampant.  But cheating, via the resulting passing grades, makes school administrators look better in those “No Child Left Behind” reports. 

Schools have given in to grade inflation.  There’s no way that so many students should make the honor roll as they now do.  There’s no way that a school should have several 4.0 GPA graduating seniors all selected as class valedictorians.  Unless, of course, you inject grade inflation into the system. 

When it comes to grade inflation, never forget former Governor Bob Wise and his PROMISE scholarship.  The PROMISE scholarship is a financial entitlement, and West Virginia teachers aren’t going to deny a “C” student that entitlement.  Bob Wise did more to increase the number of “B” students than he’ll ever know.

My heart goes out to mentally challenged students.  But the notion that all children can be mainstreamed in the public schools is a costly fantasy. 

The school system has no clear mission.  Schools are trying to be all things to all people and thus, serve no one well.  If our schools were soup kitchens, the broth would be so thin that it would remind you of Moe, Larry and Curly pouring hot water through a rubber chicken.  Until we define what a student should learn in each year of schooling, then we can’t know whether 180 days of schooling is too much, too little, or just right. 

Given our current assembly of legislators, they will probably fine tune the 180-day rule by mandating that history teachers begin with World War II and then teach American History backwards.  Or in the alternative, they might have teachers skip colonial history altogether and begin with Paul Revere’s ride.

In the past decade, Finland’s public schools have consistently ranked as the best in the world.  Why?  Because Finland has defined a “proper education” for the 21st century, and the schools teach to that standard.

Helsinki is Europe’s snowiest capitol city, averaging 101 snow days each winter.  The difference between Finland and West Virginia is not measured in snow days, however.  The Finns believe that getting an education is their most important endeavor.  As such, their kids will ski to school if they have to. 

In case you were wondering, Finnish students attend school 190 days from mid-August to the end of May.  The school term includes holiday breaks as well as a week-long spring break.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Ignorance of Human Nature Is Criminal

The problem of prison overcrowding is not going away anytime soon. If anything, it probably will get worse because government ignores human nature when enacting laws.

Moses began with 10 laws. Since then, governments have written 10 zillion laws. In the beginning, it was easy for all people to comprehend the prohibition against coveting thy neighbor's donkey. But increasingly, laws have become more complex and sometimes almost impossible to obey.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently declared carbon dioxide a pollutant. If you breathe, you pollute the atmosphere; you are a lawbreaker. If past is prologue, the next law will be: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's carbon credits. But you will covet thy neighbor's carbon credits given the alternative.

Most people would never rob a bank. Banks are a safe place to keep money because of this common trait, not because of federal and state laws against bank robbery.

Jaywalking is a misdemeanor in every city, but only because architects and engineers ignore pedestrian habits and design streets and building lots in rectangles. Humans triangulate and will jaywalk as surely as they breathe.

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not declared swine unclean, the agency nevertheless writes dietary laws. Trans fat is now "unclean."

There are so many laws, a citizen cannot help but be a lawbreaker. We have gone beyond unlawfully removing mattress tags. For example, if the EPA monitored the chemicals that you routinely pour down your sink, you'd probably be in jail by year's end.

During the last century, laws controlling alcohol and drug use mushroomed. Not surprisingly, incarcerations for violating those laws also have mushroomed. This was entirely predictable.

In 1899, Thorstein Veblen wrote "The Theory of the Leisure Class" and had this to say about drinking and drug use in the chapter titled "Conspicuous Consumption": "Drunkenness and the other pathological consequences of the free use of [intoxicating beverages and narcotics] therefore tend in their turn to become honorific, as being a mark [...] of the superior status of those who are able to afford the indulgence."

In 1899, the free use of narcotics was considered an indulgence, a pleasure enjoyed by the leisure class as a measure of their status. So what caused drug cases to clog court calendars a century later?

Every law ever written to control the consumption of intoxicating beverages and narcotics has had the opposite effect.

As Veblen explains, restricting stimulants and making them more expensive only increases the common man's desire to consume them.

We will always have to live with crimes of passion. Neither law nor any threat of jail is going to dissuade a jealous husband in a moment of passion from shooting his wife's lover.

There are, of course, criminals who need to be locked up forever. Pathological killers fit this category. They cannot be reformed, at least not with our present understanding of how the mind works. But does it make sense to lock up the jealous husband in a maximum-security prison that should be reserved for pathological criminals?

According to a Pew Center report last year, 1 percent of American adults are behind bars. And 7.3 million adults (one of every 31) are in the penal system (in jail, on parole or on probation.)

In their zeal to enact more and more punitive laws, legislators have guaranteed that prisons will be overfilled. The courts have abetted the lawmakers admirably; our robed judges meekly complain as they hand out mandatory sentences. When you replace "let the punishment fit the crime" with rigid sentencing guidelines, is it any wonder why we can't build prisons fast enough?

Government always thinks it can solve problems by demanding more, not less. In this case, it wants more police, more lawyers, more laws, more courts, more prisons, more guards and more time behind bars.

I am most disturbed by politicians who proudly crow that they have appropriated funds to build a new prison and then tell us that new prisons are economic development projects. Prisons, they gloat, create construction jobs in the short run and correctional jobs for the long term. Hence, prisons are a business model.

This is how far we have fallen. In a nation founded on the principles of individual liberty, democracy and capitalism, we thirst to lock people in cages and have the audacity to call it economic development.

How pathetic is that?

Friday, January 15, 2010

NCAA Misses the Point in Caring for Injured Athletes

For four minutes, it looked like Texas was going to stomp Alabama in the BCS championship game.  Then, Bama’s Marcell Dareus tackled Colt McCoy, the Longhorns’ star quarterback, and the contest was over.

McCoy was sidelined by a pinched nerve causing his right arm to go completely numb.  Dareus told reporters after the game that his neck was still sore from tackling McCoy.  The injuries surprised even the announcers because the tackle looked pretty tame.  Watching the replay, it looked like Colt McCoy’s shoulder pad cushioned the blow to both players.

When horrifying moments like this occur during televised football games, the announcers are instructed to wax philosophic during interludes.  You can tell when this happens because the announcers use real verbs, not the ones they have invented to describe play-by-play action. 

The use of real verbs lends gravitas to tone down their manic cheerleading.  For example, the player whom they just made fun of for getting “de-cleated” is, after his season-ending injury, “a good student who enjoys visiting war veterans in the hospital.”  (And there is nary a whisper about the Candystriper he allegedly knocked up on one of those visits.)

During such an interlude in the Texas-Alabama game, the announcers recalled Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford’s season-ending shoulder injury.  Then they mentioned Florida quarterback Tim Tebow’s season-interrupting concussion.  These two young men are former Heisman Trophy winners. 

Colt McCoy was edged out for the 2009 Heisman by Bama’s Mark Ingram.  But for the moment, Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit elevated Colt McCoy to the pantheon of wounded Heisman winners.

Not too long after this moment of glib gravitas, a shocking graphic flashed before my eyes.  It was a chart detailing the head coaches’ pay.  Texas coach Mack Brown is paid $5 million per year.  Alabama’s Nick Saban is paid $3.9 million per year.  If Texas had won, Mack Brown would have gotten a $450,000 bonus.  Saban got paid $400,000 for the win.

At the end of the game, one thing could be said for certain.  Neither Mack Brown nor Nick Saban risked injury to earn his preposterous salary.  The injuries were borne by their unpaid players.  And many of those lads will face complications for the rest of their lives for “leaving it on the field.”

A century ago, the United States accepted that workers should have a reasonable expectation of an injury-free workplace.  States adopted worker compensation insurance plans, and the concept of no-fault insurance for workplace injuries took hold.

College football is a big business; it is not a playground sport where the true amateur plays.  You know it’s a big business when West Virginia University can afford to pay its head football coach a million dollars per year in salary and expenses.

The NCAA has rigged the college farm team system to perfection.  By pretending that collegiate sports are all about the amateur athlete, then colleges and universities can avoid the niceties of paying athletes or providing them with workers’ compensation and disability coverage.

We are beginning to learn that concussions take their toll later in life.  I hope that Pat White and Jarrett Brown, both quarterbaks at WVU, never suffer from their college football concussions.  But the evidence at hand suggests that their golden years may not be so golden. 

WVU linebacker Reed Williams sacrificed his shoulders for college football.  Who will pay for his arthritis medicine in 2050?  Likewise for the women, who pays for former basketball player Meg Bulger’s future knee replacement?

Honestly, I think the Romans had more respect for the wellbeing of their gladiators than the NCAA does for amateur athletes.  But I am being unfair.  The Coliseum in Rome never had a television contract.

Pat White’s season-interrupting concussion serves to illustrate my point.  When he returned to the field, much was made of the special helmet he was wearing.  His new helmet was designed to protect him from another head injury. 

Why wasn’t Pat White wearing the best helmet in the first place?  How does a coach look Pat White in the eye and say, “After you’ve suffered a doozy of a concussion, then we’ll buy you a really good helmet!”

Someday, an injured player will sue his or her university, and the judge will rule (correctly, I believe) that the school is the player’s de facto employer.  When coaches make seven figures, and Wyoming wins a bowl game ($750,000 payout), it’s hard to pretend that we still live in the days of Knute Rockne winning one for the Gipper.

Last season, a thousand college athletes left something on the field, and all they got were numbered T-shirts.