Friday, January 30, 2009

Greed: Not So Good





A question that many of us would love to have answered is, whatever happened to those original billions in Wall Street bailout money? Would we be wrong to say that some of that went down the toilet?

It's hard to remember since there have been so many plans, but wasn't the money from Bailout #1 supposed to help the banking and mortgage crisis? Well, have you or any of your neighbors felt that your mortgage problems have gotten better since the banks got this money? Or maybe they decided to help us another way: has your savings account interest gone up since they increased the amount of cash in their vaults? I don't think so.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, "The rich are different from you and me." Ernest Hemingway replied, "Yes, they have more money." But now it's obvious that some of them also have more gall, chutzpah, ego, selfishness, and imported area rugs.

Like the rest of us, the wizards of Wall Street saw how foolish the Not So Big Three automaker heads were when they flaunted their luxurious ways by flying to Washington the first time in their private jets. Yet Citigroup didn't cancel the order for its new $50 million jet until it was pressured by the Obama administration. Now that it cancelled it, Citigroup might not get its deposit back. Do you feel as sorry for them as I do?

As billions flew into banking coffers courtesy of, well, us, millions flew right out of those coffers in the form of bonuses. That's right. Some bailed-out banks gave big bonuses to their bosses. I didn't watch every minute of the news during those early bailout days, but I don't think that's what the money was intended for.

Oh, there's something else that some of these greedy executives are -- clueless. What's missing in their brains that tells them it's okay for them to accept huge bonuses while others would consider it a bonus to just still have jobs?

Their rationalizations are succinct, but absurd. In the case of the GEO's (Greedy Executive Officers), they claim that their company needs to attract the best people to do the best job, and those people sometimes like to be pampered.

John Thain is an executive who liked to be pampered. The recently fired GEO of Merrill Lynch & Co., spent $1.2 million last year to renovate his office. His office. While he was at his very beautiful desk, his company gave out an undisclosed amount of bonuses. These bonuses were paid after, you may recall, Merrill Lynch was rescued by Bank Of America which was helped by – you guessed it, us.

But back to Thain's office. Among the things he had his company pay for were $87,000 area rugs, a $25,000 pedestal table, a $68,000 19th-century credenza, an $18,000 chair, a $16,000 custom coffee table, and a $35,000 antique commode. It wasn't even a new toilet, but the guy spent thirty-five grand for it.

Once Thain was caught with his pants down, he said that he would pay the money back to the company. He added that considering the times, this expensive redecorating was a mistake in judgment.

Hiring Thain was the real mistake in judgment. He wasn't just fired because of his extravagant office tastes. He was let go because while he was in charge, Merrill Lynch lost more than $15 billion in one quarter. That's $5 billion a month or about $166 million a day. If he put in an eight-hour workday, he lost about $21 million an hour, $346,000 a minute, or $5,787.04 a second. This business expert lost money probably faster than anyone can print it.

That's what's so aggravating about all this. These people who have been buying islands and giving their kids platinum pacifiers aren't necessarily geniuses. They are the same jerks that got us into the big financial mess in the first place.

Whoever came up with the idea of giving bonuses to people who do a bad job probably never filled up his car with gas by himself, never took out the garbage, and never uttered the words, "Is this going on sale soon?" If these people had done a great job, their desire for money and luxurious things wouldn't seem so absurd. Let's put it this way: if any of them had made a profit instead of a loss of $15 billion in the fourth quarter of last year, they'd deserve to have any kind of toilet they want in their office. But I still think that 19th-century credenza is a bit much.




Thursday, January 22, 2009

How Do You Think Obama's Doing So Far?





In the midst of all the euphoria and hope coming from the inauguration of Barack Obama, I feel it's my duty to remind you that not everyone feels the "Obama high." There are those who believe that Obama has already demonstrated that he is not a good President. Some of these people are just Democrat-haters. They are among those who, using some kind of new logic, blamed Bill Clinton for the 9/11 tragedy and felt that George W. Bush, who had been President for almost a year and ignored all the warnings, bore none of the responsibility for it. Then there are those who just feel Obama is an example of "too good to be true." And finally, there are those who enjoy puncturing balloons of hope. So, there were people who felt that Obama has been doing a poor job "from Day One."

You might have viewed the inauguration as an inspiring event. But this is how "they" probably viewed it:

At the swearing-in ceremony, Chief Justice Roberts made a mistake and made Obama stumble a bit. Roberts was obviously too busy to have rehearsed this oath, but shouldn't Obama have been smoother? If Obama can't even handle an oath, how is he going to handle the problems of a nation in trouble? And speaking of trouble, Obama had promised to tackle our economic problems immediately. Yet on the day of the inauguration, the stock market went down 332 points. Nice work, Mr. President.


Over and over again over the past few months, he promised millions of new jobs. But while he was wearing his fancy tux, many people were still out of work. And what about Iraq? Did the war come to an end right when he said the words, "So help me, God?" It did not. And now it is "Obama's war." How he ends it will determine how he will be remembered by historians. If we play our cards right, nobody will remember who started this war or why.


The fawning press is sickening. Why did nobody in the media have the courage to say, "That's an ugly dress?"


How bad was that inaugural poem? It didn't even rhyme.


And Aretha Franklin's hat looked like something Dick Cheney tried to shoot.


We've been told over and over again that Barack Obama and his wife Michelle care deeply about family and family values. Oh, really? Exactly how late did they allow their daughters to stay up after the inauguration? And it was a school night.


And then we come to broken promises. For months, Obama went out of his way to tell the public that there was one issue of the utmost importance that he would deal with. He committed himself to this issue above all others. This was, of course, the promise of acquiring a new puppy for his daughters. Where was the puppy on "Day One?" I didn't see a puppy up there with Obama and friends, did you?


Our new President told us that the selection of the alleged puppy is not easy because it is necessary for the Obama family to choose a dog which is as hypoallergenic as possible. At last report, the appointment of First Dog was said to be narrowed down to a Portuguese Water Dog and a Labradoodle. While either would be precedent breaking, neither seems like an appropriate choice for the White House.


The Portuguese Water Dog is, obviously, Portuguese. Wouldn't that be a slap in the snout to all of the perfectly good American breeds? The Labradoodle isn't even a recognized breed of dog. It's a combination of a Labrador Retriever and a Poodle (and we know what country Poodles are from). The Labradoodle supposedly has the best characteristics of each – in other words, it is a genetically engineered dog. Have the American people really finished their debate on mad scientists fooling around with genes?


So, is there a President who has ever had a worse Day One than Barack Obama? You tell me.

That's how they may view him. Personally, I say give the guy a chance. Then you can blame him for 9/11, bad gas mileage, and that cold you have that doesn't seem to be going away.




Friday, January 16, 2009

How Do You Want To Be Remembered?





A while back, somebody quite wise – I think it was my rabbi – suggested that people should write their own obituaries. Now. Regardless of age or medical condition. That way, you'll think about how you want to be remembered and what you want to accomplish in the rest of your life. More recently, a friend suggested that we all write our own obituaries to make sure that we like them. The idea was, why shouldn't we decide what aspects of our lives should be in the obit instead of some writer who never met us? Nobody wants to be remembered as a person who fell asleep in meetings, was a bad parallel parker, or used the phrase, "between you and I."

So with both approaches in mind, my obituary follows:


Lloyd Garver died last night after having sex. He was 133. He didn't look a day over 120. Mr. Garver was best known for being the only person to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, the Nobel Peace Prize, and the California lottery all in the same year.

Before turning his attention to other literary pursuits, Mr. Garver wrote television comedies for over 30 years. He was responsible for such famous lines as, "And those were just the girls," "You never told me that before we were married," and "Who could be at the door at this time of night?"

Thanks to Mr. Garver's mediation efforts, there has been peace in the Mideast for many, many years. Now, Muslims, Jews, and Christians live happily side-by-side and share many a fine meal. When asked how he brought about peace, he replied, "I just kept telling the same story over and over again until the warring factions would agree to anything to get me to stop talking."

Although a private citizen, Garver helped draft some of the most important legislation in this country's history. He was behind the Higher Taxes For Rich People Act, he helped institute life without parole for people who talk behind you in the movie theater, and limited to three the number of "Law & Order" versions that can be on TV at the same time.

Despite the magnitude of these accomplishments, Garver was proudest of his family. He and his wife recently celebrated 110 years of marital bliss - – the Uranium Anniversary. She said that he was "a giver. He always displayed, flexibility, tolerance, and patience -- even when I told long, rambling stories."

He was both loved and respected by his children. They were very patient with him whenever he had a computer problem. They always laughed at his jokes, came to him with their problems, and he was never a source of embarrassment to them – even when he whistled or sang in public.

He was quite wealthy, but saw his many friends as the source of his true wealth, not all that cash that was in the shoebox in his closet.

When he won the California Lottery in 2060, he received 300 billion dollars. At that time, the lottery took in about 16 trillion a year, with $600 of that going to the public schools. Mr. Garver did not spend his huge winnings on himself – except for buying two new cotton sweaters. He gave the money away to those who needed it the most. In 2062, he was named, "Most Philanthropic Person In The World." He even gave that trophy away.

But he always insisted that he wasn't a saint (at least not yet). He was far from perfect. Perhaps his greatest fault – if you don't count that he was a picky eater – was that he was too modest, too humble. I guess he was just never comfortable talking about himself.





Thursday, January 8, 2009

Blagojevich 2.0





Believe it or not, I think there's more to be said about the shenanigans of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. First of all, let's talk about the reaction of other political officials to Blagojevich's alleged desire to "sell" the Senate seat. They reminded me of Claude Raines in "Casablanca." As his Captain Renault was shutting down Rick's café, he cried out, "I'm shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on here." And then a croupier handed Renault the winnings that he made from gambling earlier. Of course, he wasn't really shocked. And I wonder just how shocked all of those Democrats and Republicans really were about Blagojevich when they expressed their outrage.


We regular citizens should have been shocked just as we are every time corruption rears its ugly head. But I think politicians are so used to being surrounded by it that they take it all in stride. Oh sure, maybe they were shocked by the boldness of Blagojevich. They are used to things being more subtle. People don't usually just come out and say they want a bribe. And I think it was this lack of subtlety rather than the idea of trading a Senate seat for favors that threw them for a loop.


But is the way Senate seats are usually given to people by governors really any more moral?


When a governor chooses someone to replace a Senator, nobody really expects him or her to pick the most qualified person for the job. If governors always did this, then very often Democrats would choose Republicans and vice versa. And how often does that happen? So, this system of governors choosing someone has always been flawed.


"Not as flawed as actually selling it for money," you say? Hold on a second. From the moment that Caroline Kennedy's name was mentioned as a possible replacement for Hillary Clinton, what one quality did all of the experts mention? Her experience at riding a pony? Her, uh, great oratory skill? No, it was her fund-raising ability. They all talked about how she would be able to raise millions and millions of dollars. That would include millions of dollars for the 2010 re-election campaign of Governor Paterson – the same man who has the ability to appoint her.


Yet I didn't hear one of the news experts or fellow politicians say that there was anything wrong with that. Nobody said they were "shocked." It was shocking that Blagojevich wanted six-figure jobs for him and his wife in exchange for a Senate seat, but it would be okay with everyone if Paterson appointed someone who would, in effect, give him millions of dollars.


Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against Caroline Kennedy. I'm from the generation that, because of who she is and what she has gone through, would love to see her in the Senate. If she wants to be President, that would probably be okay with me, too. I just think it's weird that there is this double standard. What Blagojevich did is so shocking that Prosecutor Fitzgerald said it could make "Abraham Lincoln turn over in his grave." But the idea of Governor Paterson giving Caroline the Seat because of her zillion-dollar fund raising ability wouldn't even make Honest Abe blink?


There's yet another wrinkle in the Blagojevich thing. Immediately after Governor Blagojevich picked Roland Burris to be the new Senator, the self-righteous Senate said they couldn't seat him because he was "tainted" by Blago. However, soon after he was picked, the media reported that a possible compromise was being discussed. The Senators would let Burris be Senator for the rest of this term if he promised he wouldn't run for re-election in 2010. So he wasn't tainted enough to keep him from being Senator if it suited their political purposes. Some of the most respected members of the Senate were willing to make a deal involving a Senate seat. And nobody seemed outraged.


I'm shocked, shocked that such hypocrisy goes on in the Senate.


So what can be done to stop this kind of thing? Every state should stop allowing governors to appoint Senators and use a special election instead. That way, we would never have to worry if a governor were choosing a Senator for the wrong reasons. The right to make bad decisions like that should be left to us voters.



Saturday, January 3, 2009

Bargains For Everyone?





With the economy being what it is and with retail sales being what they are, more and more people are bargaining – for everything. Consumers aren't just haggling over the price of a car; they are haggling over everything from cell phones to underwear. According to Stephen Hoch, a retailing expert at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, when it comes to any kind of shopping," You'd have to be a moron not to ask for a discount." Going with Hoch's definition, I'm a moron.


As I have indicated in previous columns, I hate to bargain, I can't stand coupons, and I avoid sales. For years, I preferred paying a couple of dollars more to standing in line for a bargain.


Bargaining has become huge lately. There are bound to be more and more books on the subject. I think we can expect everything from "Bargaining At The Grocery Store" to "How To Negotiate For Gum." There's already a website called howtohaggle.com. On the site, the potential bargainer is reminded that "it's all a game." That's been my problem with bargaining: it's a game that I don't enjoy playing. I'd rather buy something and then go play something that I like.


Those who love to haggle say, "You've got nothing to lose. All you have to do is ask." For those of us who feel weird about bargaining, asking is a big deal. We feel that somehow we'll perceived as gauche, as boors, as people who aren't even worthy to be in the store. But why should we care what a salesperson thinks of us? After all, salespeople will ask us if we want an extra pair of socks or a belt when we buy a shirt. Why shouldn't we ask them to knock a few bucks off that shirt? Or to throw in the socks and belt for free? But I've just never been able to do that.


However, the word "moron" kept echoing in my head. So armed with some basic instructions from articles and websites, I decided to do some shopping – with a new attitude.


I needed some cheap sunglasses since, for some reason, my old ones apparently were too flimsy for me to accidentally sit on. So I went to my local drugstore. I picked out a pair, and I tried to have them reduce the price – by twenty-five cents. They refused. I bought the sunglasses and left a bit humiliated.


Then I headed to "Best Buy." I suggested a proposal that I thought was sure-fire. I wanted a $40 gift card, but I was too wily of a shopper to tell them that. Instead, I told them that I wanted a $20 gift card, but I would be willing to buy two $20 gift cards for a total of $30. I thought it was the perfect deal: I'd save ten dollars, and the store would take in ten dollars more. They looked at me like I was crazy. Again, I made my purchase and slinked out of the store.


I was even less successful at a department store. There, I decided to make a low-ball proposal to get the negotiations going. I offered them $50 for an Armani suit. They didn't even bother to counter-offer. I don't understand why. It's not like I was talking about a suit with a vest.


That ended my bargaining career. It just wasn't me. Others will point out that nobody thinks they should pay sticker price for a car or asking price for a house. So, why shouldn't we expect to pay less for other things? Well, it just seems different to me. I can't ever imagine myself going to a restaurant for dinner, the waiter says the special costs $14.95, and then what am I supposed to say: "I'll give you $14.00 and you can keep the broccoli?" That's just not me. I'm not a bargainer, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I'm fine with that. Why should I care if some guy at a business school thinks I'm a moron? Does he care what I think of him for spending his time studying something called, "decision support systems and the psychology of forecasting?"


Obviously, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who enjoy bargaining and are good at it, and those who don't and aren't. I'm a "don't and aren't" guy. The "do and are" people love getting a good deal and are willing to go home with nothing if they can't get it. My main goal when I shop is to buy what I want and get out of the store as quickly as possible. And that's non-negotiable.




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