The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘CNBC’

MY WAKE UP CALL

Tuesday Morning

Probably as a result of playing tympani with my grammar school orchestra, I have developed a sort of “internal clock.”  You do a lot of counting when you play most percussion instruments.  So normally, without needing to resort to a watch or other timepiece I can generally tell what time it is within a few minutes.

I normally set the television in my bedroom to turn on at 4:30 a.m.  It’s one of the few advanced features on this eight year old set that I know how to use.  Well, that and the remote (at least some of its features).  But when I was awakened, it wasn’t because of the television.  That was still dark.  It was because I had three hundred pounds of dogs in bed with me, all jostling to find a comfortable position somewhat oblivious to the fact that I needed to take up some space as well.

If you have an oversized spouse with whom you share a bed, let me assure you that four dogs of the same total weight as him or her require a lot more room than one human.  So as I arranged them on the bed so that all five of us had room I looked forward to catching a little more rest.  My internal clock told me it was only a little past three.

At 4:30 the television sprang into action.  Typically, that wakes me to the point where I will prop up my pillows and see what CNBC has to say is going on in the world.  But I think because the dogs awakened me early I was reluctant to let the Sandman go that morning.  I lay back down and vaguely remember listening to the conversation between the three anchors.  This went on for some time and as two of my canine companions had made for the cooler bathroom floor, I luxuriated in my new found room.  I dozed back off.

As I was lying there in that twilight between wakefulness and sleep, a new person had apparently been introduced to the television set.  I didn’t know who he was – and I didn’t recognize his voice.  (That’s another benefit of musical training.  If I hear a person speak once I know who he is.  I may not always remember his name – but that’s another story).

I started to come to, partly because Kali, the Golden Retriever daughter and youngest of the group, had decided that she wanted to awaken me with a kiss, or more correctly a lick, or in all honesty a shower-full of licks.  It’s hard to sleep when a wonderful companion animal is doing that.

So I propped myself up realizing that it was a little after 5 o’clock and I should be starting my day.  I try to get the puppies to the dog park just after six as it is still relatively cool.  But I was delayed by the guest who was on the show.  It was Senator Marco Rubio, the junior senator from Florida.  Of course I knew his name and some of his background, but I had never heard him speak.

Now if you’ve read any number of my posts, you know that I lay most of the problems in the United States squarely at the feet of those in Congress.  And the primary reason is that our politicians do not offer common sense solutions to the important issues facing us but are more concerned about their political futures than our future as a country and people.  At least, so I believe.

Of course, we voters also bear a share of the responsibility as we keep returning the same under-performers to office.

I cannot tell you how refreshing it was to hear Sen. Rubio.  The man spoke from his heart, elegantly and eloquently without the need for a teleprompter.   He spoke with humility, discussing his family’s poor financial background and of the hopes his Cuban parents had for him and his siblings when they came to America.

He spoke from a background of values – those same values which the Founding Fathers incorporated into our Constitution.  He spoke intelligently and he spoke honestly.  He made sense.  He is obviously one of the bright stars in government.

It gives me some measure of hope that there are at least a few people of his caliber who are involved in governing this land.  I have no doubt that one day, Sen. Rubio will be called upon to accept the position of President.

For now, I hope that he gets elected as Vice-President this November.  America desperately needs leaders of his stature.

AN OPEN LETTER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA ON FATHER’S DAY

Dear President Obama:

I doubt that this will ever reach your desk.  In truth, I doubt that it will be read by many.  But I write this because as an American it is something I need to say, however great or small the audience.

You and I were fortunate to have the presence of our fathers as a significant influence in our lives.  While our mothers provided us with love and sensitivity our fathers provided us with guidance.  At least I know that my dad gave that to me.

Allow me to take a moment to introduce the man who helped shape my life.

He was a first generation American.  He came from a family of seven siblings.  He never made a fortune, nor did he ever do anything to embarrass either himself or his family.  He was an ordinary person.

My father taught me the things that he had learned from his parents.  Those were simple things.  He taught me honesty.  He taught me charity.  He taught me common sense.  These are valuable things – worth more than all the gold on earth.

I hope that these are things you learned from your father and will pass on to your children.  You could leave no greater legacy.

My father never gave a speech in his life.  He had no need for that.  He taught me that “actions speak louder than words.”  In any event, he was not an orator.  He was a doer.  His actions did indeed speak louder than any words he might have spoken.  That was always a guiding light for me.

My father had a true concern for his fellow human beings.  He never turned down a request for a hand-out from an indigent person.  He had a humility and realized that, if circumstances had been different, he might be in that poor soul’s place.  He was generous because he was humble.

My father grew up poor, eventually raised himself up through hard work and approached life in a very logical way.  We call this “common sense” – but as we both know, “common sense” is the rarest commodity on the planet.

One of the things my father taught me – and he taught this lesson over and over – was to respect other people.  It mattered not to him whether they were rich or poor, black or white, important or unimportant.  All people were equally important to him.

One of the earliest lessons he taught me was about being punctual.  My father used to say that if you were late to an appointment, you were being disrespectful of the other person.  I mention this because of your recent episode with a reporter, Neil Munro.

I heard a great deal of commentary about whether this inappropriate outburst was out of frustration at your being late for the press conference.  In my opinion, that is not an excuse for rudeness.

But, Mr. President you are consistently late for your many press conferences or for the announced time of your numerous speeches.  And I can’t help but think about what my father said about punctuality.  I was surprised that anchor Brian Sullivan on CNBC made that exact point.

I respect the office you currently occupy.  More importantly, I want to respect the person who is its occupant.  After all, it is not only the most important position in the country but in the entire world.

Please show some consideration for those who put you in that position by respecting the ordinary people who elevated you to your present status.  Please work to keeping your appointments in a timely manner.

President Obama, as an American I wish you well on this Father’s Day.  I hope you teach your children as well as my father taught me.

Sincerely,

juwannadoright

OH, FOR A CUP OF COFFEE

This morning I happened to catch a segment on CNBC which Michelle Caruso-Carbrera reported from Athens, Greece.  It was the story of a woman who had decided to open a coffee shop – and the impediments which were placed in her way by government.

I had many Greek friends in Chicago.  Many were restaurateurs who had long-established businesses in “Greek Town” on Halsted Street.  They were good businessmen but at the same time were charming hosts.  Once they had gotten to know you it was impossible to leave their restaurant without receiving a complimentary ouzo or two or a few glasses of retsina.  I enjoyed so many meals in Greek Town that I even acquired a rudimentary knowledge of modern Greek – at least enough to be able to order my dinner in that language.

I also learned that Greeks who came to this country thought of the “coffee shops” in their native country as a sort of cultural and social center.  It was a place where you would meet your friends, drink coffee and smoke some cigarettes, discuss the affairs of the day and play a few games of tavli (backgammon).  Given that cultural view, it would seem that a person who wanted to open an inviting coffee shop would have the potential for having a thriving business.

As Ms. Caruso-Cabrera pointed out in her interview with this Greek female entrepreneur it is difficult to attempt to earn a living in the land that was the home for democracy.  I’m sorry that I didn’t hear this woman’s name – but the point that she made was that she had rented a space for her coffee shop and had been paying rent on it for four months.

She has fully equipped it with all that is necessary, doing the re-modeling and purchasing new fixtures and equipment and all the glassware and cups and saucers she needs.  But she has been unable to open this coffee shop because she has, for over three months, been dealing with eighteen different government agencies – each of which has a say in whether or when her store can open.  And she has no idea when she will finally receive approval from all of them.

Today Greek debt-holders agreed to a new arrangement for the payment of the sovereign debt they are holding.  Everyone in the EU breathed a sigh of relief – which blew across the Atlantic and inspired a modest rally on Wall Street.  Those of us who have followed this issue realize that while the Greeks avoided the bullet today, it is only a matter of time before the day of judgment is upon them.

The laws of math simply will not allow a country with a stagnant economy where over fifty percent of the population work for government to “grow” it’s way out of its financial difficulties.   Greece is a slightly more advanced case of a country which took the same path that we are going down in America.

Of course, inefficiency in government is nothing new.  Allow me to share an example that I observed personally nearly forty years ago.

In the two years that I worked for the State of Illinois I got to know people in various departments in the state’s main office building in Chicago on LaSalle Street.   Many of us had worked to re-elect Governor Richard B. Ogilvie – who lost his re-election bid by a mere two votes a precinct – losing to a populist Democrat by the name of Dan Walker.  (Later ex-governor Walker was sentenced to prison, joining the four other Illinois chief executives who were awarded that distinction in the past fifty years).

One of the benefits of being elected was having the right to appoint supporters to head the various departments in the state which fell under the governor’s purview.  One of those was a department called Registration and Education.  Among its many responsibilities, this department licensed morticians, barbers and beauticians among others.

When the Walker administration took over, the governor appointed a new head to the department of R & E.  Rather than use the old stock of licenses which had the name of then former Governor Ogilvie and the then head of the Director of the department printed on them, the new director decided that he wanted to send out licenses bearing Governor Walker’s and his name.  Of course, there was a delay in sending out new licenses until the new forms were printed and arrived at the department.

During this interim, the department sent out its inspectors to insure that their registrants’ licenses were current.  Over 400 beauty shops, 120 barber shops and nine funeral homes were closed down because, despite the fact that they had paid for their license renewal, they had not received their new license from the State of Illinois.

Well, the licenses finally did arrive – and with the backlog of mailing out renewal licenses the clerks who were in charge of this seemingly simple operation didn’t realize that when you mail out something in a window envelope – it’s best to make sure you insert the piece you’re mailing with the name and address visible through the window.   So Illinois mailed out hundreds of licenses which were dutifully returned to the department by the Post Office because the licenses had been inserted in them backwards.

As I mentioned, this was at a time when there wasn’t a Starbucks on every other corner – so I’m sure that the owners of these establishments wouldn’t have taken solace in a good strong cup of coffee to help them cope with this administrative nightmare.  But I do remember hearing from my Greek friends on Halsted Street that during the time of this fiasco, their sales of ouzo increased dramatically.  They said a lot of the new customers mentioned that they were hair stylists.

HOW DID YOU GET TO WORK TODAY?

As the price of gasoline continues its upward movement I was listening to a CNBC segment this early morning describing the increase in the number of commuters taking public transportation in California.  Jane Wells, one of the station’s reporters whom I love for her dead-pan delivery and versatility in covering a wide variety of subjects very professionally described her own commute to work.

To get to Universal City from her home she could spend an hour in her car and burn about $13.00 in gasoline or  take public transportation which would take two hours and spend $20.50 for the first part of the trip and then have to transfer to another public conveyance at an additional charge (how much this would cost was not brought out in the clip).

Given these two choices, a four hour round-trip commute at a 60% higher cost or a two hour commute, how do you think most rational people would choose to get to their jobs?  If you said, “fasten your seat belts” I think you’re on to something.

If you remember back to the time when the car companies were coming before Congress hat in hand and asking for funding from the American treasury (and ultimately the American people) so they could stay in business.  There were hearings held both in the House and the Senate.

I remember something that Representative after Representative and Senator after Senator asked the CEO’s of the car companies.  This was the question:  “Did you fly or drive here for this hearing?”  As they pronounced the words of this inquiry they turned to make sure that there was a full face-shot of their newly whitened teeth so that they could go home and tell their constituents how they had “socked it to the car companies.”

This was a stupid question asked by petty people.  It was intended to embarrass and demean and at the same time to be self-aggrandizing.  It was a question that is unworthy of people in whom we show our trust by electing them to govern the land.  It was a question that was asked by people who either can’t do or the math or simply don’t understand it.

Based on their salaries, it would have cost the shareholders of each of the car companies more money if their chief executive had driven and spent an extra two days on the road than by paying for a first class round trip ticket.  That’s the math.  As things turned out, the bailout happened to “work out”.  The Treasury should make a profit when all the dust settles.

Yesterday I saw this interesting article on how Presidents get to work.  I thought I would share it with you and allow you to reach your own conclusions.

http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/power-players-abc-news/pays-presidents-raise-money-election-campaigns-222810152.html

ON FUZZY MATH

There’s an old story about how to interview and select a public accounting firm for your business.

You speak with the Managing Partner of the first firm and ask, “How much is two plus two.” He looks at you and confidently says, “Four.” You thank him and let him know that you will get back to him to advise whether you are going to hire his firm.

You speak with the Managing Partner of the second firm and ask, “How much is two plus two.” He looks at you and after giving it a moment’s thought, asks hesitantly, “Three?” You thank him as well and tell him you will get back to him if you decide to select his firm to represent you.

You speak with the Managing Partner of the third firm and ask, “How much is two plus two.” He immediately and confidently responds, “How much do you want it to be?” You shake his hand and tell him that you have decided that his is the perfect firm to represent you.

This morning I listened to a debate on the unfunded liabilities of our social entitlement programs (Medicare and Social Security). Interspersed with the debate, pictures were broadcast of the violence which occurred this last weekend in Athens.

Two members of Congress, Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio were interviewed by the CNBC anchors. Their “guest host” for the morning was David Walker, formerly the head of the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Mr. Walker had also served as Comptroller General of the United States.

Mr. Walker has been a consistent voice (one of a few) who has spoken on behalf of fiscal prudence. He bases his statements not on opinion or emotions but on numbers. It was startling to hear him make the comment that Medicare is underfunded by $37 Trillion and Social Security by over $9 Trillion. (Our “official” deficit is put at $15 Trillion).

Congressman Hensarling was one of the major players in the “Super Committee” which was empowered to come up with a plan to help get our economy back in shape and our burgeoning deficits under control. You may recall that last fall the Committee failed to reach an accord because of partisan differences.

The Congressman bemoaned the Committee’s failure to reach a consensus and “hoped we would get serious” about really tackling the deepening fiscal crisis this country faces. Well – every thinking American hopes that – but that hope can only be realized by those in the Congress and the White House.

When asked by the anchors whether Congresswoman Kaptur had ideas on how to fix our fiscal woes she discussed the fact that she had “seen great improvement” in the Ohio economy because of the revival of the automobile industry. Her solution was that by getting unemployed people back to work we would “grow” our way out of the problem. When she was asked about incorporating spending cuts into a possible solution she avoided that question and returned to her statement that by creating jobs, the economy would recover on its own.

Mr. Walker pointed out that for her scenario to work the economy would have to create full employment and experience double digit growth for decades on end (something which has never happened in the history of this or any other country). The good Congresswoman didn’t seem to be impressed with these plain mathematical facts.

Frankly, I was disappointed in the responses from both these Members of Congress. The only person who made sense in the conversation was Mr. Walker – and he holds no vote on these crucial matters.

So I was thinking about how we could get our Representatives to move from the mind-set of being politicians to the higher state of being statesmen. A simple thought occurred to me. It’s the principle of “having skin in the game.”

In years where the economy runs at a deficit, all 535 members of the House and the Senate forgo their salaries and benefits. (Since a high proportion of these elected officials are multi-millionaires this shouldn’t cause them to require a tag day to support themselves and their families).

Those who have spoken out about “excessive corporate compensation” should feel comfortable with this idea. Whether we agree on the definition of “excess” or whether that should even be a matter for our concern, it is hard to deny that at least these corporate bigwigs are doing the job for which they were hired – to earn a profit.

The same can hardly be said of those we elect to represent us in Washington, D. C. They are running the business of the country at a loss – and it isn’t a one time event. They have been doing so for decades on end and doing it with impunity as we continue to reward them term after term and paying them handsomely for the privilege of doing a bad job.

There isn’t a Board of Directors of any corporation in the country that would tolerate this malfeasance. So it’s time that we, as Board members of the corporation of the United States of America exercise our responsibility and remove the incompetents from the Washington aristocracy. If we do not take the initiative and responsibility – who will? And if not now – when?

By the way, while the government may be happy to have the services of the third of our accounting firms to perpetuate the illusion generated by flim-flam accounting, I would have rejected the second firm for giving an inaccurate answer and have chosen the first firm for providing the correct solution to my question.

Math is, after all, an exact discipline.

 

 

“DE MINIMIS” THINKING

I woke up a bit earlier than usual this morning (about 3:30 a.m.) and, as is my usual habit, turned on CNBC to see how the world was surviving the current European financial crisis. (I was pleased that we had held it together for yet another day).

Joe Kernen (senior co-host of the “Squawk Box” team), turned the conversation to President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone Pipeline Project which would have provided a few thousand jobs during the period of its construction. There are varied estimates as to the exact number but the most modest is that at least one thousand jobs would have been created.

There are legitimate concerns over the environmental consequences of embarking on this project. While I support the proper utilization of the earth’s resources, I do so only if there are not adverse environmental impacts. If I had ever questioned that position, it was laid to rest when I heard a song, written by an Australian singer/songwriter, Judy Small.

Ms. Small, in her song, “The Futures Exchange” describes the ravages inflicted on the land which was home to the aborigines (“the people of the dreaming”), in order to allow silver-mining operations to extract their ore. This is the chorus:

For the silver that the men have paid
Who think they own the land,
It is the silver of Iscariot
The silver of the damned.

It is part of the accounting
In which we all must pay,
Trading in our children’s futures
For false promises today.”

From the album, “Word of Mouth: The Best of Judy Small”

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this lady’s work I would encourage you to investigate her recordings. She has composed many songs that rival the poignancy of Bob Dylan in terms of their social commentary.

Having gone on record as an “Eco-friendly” person, I return to the title of this post.

Several months ago, CNBC’s “Squawk Box” team got a new addition, New York Times columnist, Andrew Ross Sorkin. Mr. Sorkin is the author of the best selling book, “Too Big To Fail” which expertly covered the banking crisis of 2008 and was subsequently made into a movie. I think it would be fair to say that of the co-anchors on the show, Mr. Sorkin is the most “liberal” – as one would expect from a New York Times columnist. He provides an alternate view to Joe Kernen’s bedrock strong capitalistic view of the world.

However, as the conversation on Keysone wound down, Mr. Sorkin made the comment that the impact on unemployment would be “de minimis” with probably only a thousand jobs or so created – and those for only a short while. I was struck by the superficiality of that comment – coming as it did from someone who is an esteemed journalist.

The people who might have been employed in Keystone most likely have families who look to them for support. So even if there were only one thousand jobs created, the number of people whose lives would have been improved is most likely closer to five thousand.

Still – consider the staggering rate of unemployment – that isn’t a lot of people. Unless you happen to be one of those who might have been hired for this project and is trying to figure out how to pay your rent or mortgage and buy clothes or food for your kids.

I forget who it was that said, “Only a rich man can afford to be a philosopher,” but it is a quotation that Mr. Sorkin would do well to remember. While I recognize that Mr. Sorkin intended to serve as an apologist for President Obama and his decision to put this project on hold, I wonder who will apologize to those five thousand people whose lives might have been positively affected had the program gone forward.

Perhaps Mr. Sorkin will think about that during his next luncheon at The Four Seasons.

 

 

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