Monday, February 16, 2009

Dump Burris

Far be it from me to jump on a Republican bandwagon, but Roland Burris should never have been allowed to take a seat in the US Senate to begin with. I can't imagine anyone accepting Blagojevich's nomination in the first place. But then again, I've never been desperate for public office. Burris, on the other hand, has tried & failed in runs for governor (twice) and Chicago mayor since 1994. Between Burris' unquenchable thirst for office and Blagojevich's ability to just about anything for money, a bad result was inevitable. Did Burris do anything unethical or illegal to get this seat? I don't know. Did he set himself up for every Tom, Dick & Harry with a magnifying glass to investigate him? Sure did. I'm also betting that Burris' ego is big enough that if he does have some recent dirty linen he thinks it won't be found, or it won't bring him down. We'll see.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

When You Absolutely,

Positively, Must read through the stimulus package.

Part I

Part II

Sunday, February 08, 2009

What They Make

The AFL-CIO has a wonderful Executive Pay Watch Database here. You can check out a company and see what their boss makes. For instance, clicking on AT&T brings you the following information:

In 2007, Randall L. Stephenson raked in $21,981,984 in total compensation according to the SEC. According to the AFL-CIO's calculation method*, this CEO raked in $25,031,279 in total 2007 compensation.

But making the site even more fun is the "show me how I compare" button that allows you to compare your salary. Don't forget to include your perks, such as your company car or chauffeur service, your no interest loans, use of company homes and vacation suites, and free tax and financial services. For instance, a teacher making $28,590/year would see that Stephenson's compensation would support 768 teachers. And no worries, it will take only 875 years for that teacher to make what Stephenson made in 2007. Have fun checking out the salaries of CEOs whose companies are being sold, asking for buyouts or going bankrupt. Failure never payed so well.

What Are You Worth?

What we make is one of the great touchy subjects. Think about yourselves (if retired, yourself while working). I'll bet more people in your circle of family & friends know details of your health than details of your paycheck. Given that, I suppose it shouldn't surprise me that it has taken this long for Americans to get good and riled up about executive pay. For the past few decades we've been told that executive pay was skyrocketing in comparison to the average worker's take home. But only after public bailout of private companies has it become acceptable for us to be annoyed at that in large numbers. Can you imagine anyone in the White House (from Clinton to Bush) calling Wall Street bonuses "shameful" before the buyouts?

So here we are, decades into what Rakesh Khurana & Andy Zelleke call "the grasping hand of the American executive" in today's WaPo.
It wasn't always this way. In 1960, the ratio of CEO pay at large companies to that of the president of the United States was about 2 to 1. In 2007, it was more than 20 to 1. In 1980, executives at large companies made about 40 times what the average worker made. Last year, CEOs made about 360 times more than the average worker. During the golden age of U.S. economic power, business schools taught future executives to see themselves as trustees of their companies and stewards of our economic resources.

But today, to the people who run them and the investors who own their stock (mostly very temporarily), public companies have become largely personal ATMs, machines from which to extract as much personal wealth as quickly as possible, within the boundaries of the law (usually). The distinction between creating something of enduring value and merely extracting as much value as possible has dissolved. Senior executives don't simply want to be paid well. Especially in the past 15 years or so, they have aspired to personal fortunes that were previously attainable -- or even imaginable -- only by the entrepreneur who risks everything in launching the (rare) new venture that proves wildly successful.

President Obama has proffered a ceiling of $500,000 for execs of companies receiving buy outs. But as the LA Times notes, such a law wouldn't necessarily end the run of greedy hands snatching all they can out of a company before fleeing.

"You're pitting a group of government bureaucrats against compensation consultants and lawyers who are paid lots of money, and they're pretty damn smart," said Graef Crystal, a former executive compensation consultant who has written six books on the subject. "It's a lot easier to find ways around things like this than it is to invent them in the first place."

Bonuses and options and goodness only knows what else has contemporary CEOs making 344 times the pay of an average US worker. And that is based on the average pay. And we all know a whole lot of people who aren't making anything close to average pay.

When I joined the job world in my 20s I remember someone talking about a concept called "make your age." As a 23 year old making $10,000 a year, that seemed as unreachable goal as could be imagined. I was lucky. I didn't have a family to support on that income.

In 2006 the median hour (including tips) for waiters & waitresses in the U.S. is $7.14 (the lowest 10% earn less than $5.78). Security guards' pay levels frange from $15,030-$35,840. Medical assistants earned between $18,860 to $36,840. Child care workers between $12,910-$27,050. Office cleaning crews come in between $14,010-$33,060. And teachers (K-12) came in from $28,590-$76,100.

These are just some of the people who take care of us and our families. People who were fighting to survive in our "good" economy are being tossed about and challenged to care for themselves and their families like never before. And while these millions of people who work to make our lives easier or better in so many ways struggle to keep roofs over their heads and food in their refrigerators we continue to be treated to the spectors of executives run wild. And even more depressing, arguments that executive bonuses should not be cut because companies won't be able to retain the good people. Good people?!!! It is these good people who ran the economy into the ground in their frenzy of greed and self-interest.

Forget Obama and his $500,000/year ceiling for executives. Let's give them a few years making what the lowest paid worker in their organization makes. Have fun guys.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

A Not So Stimulating Senate

Here are some of the cuts made in the Senate compromise hammered out by Republicans & Democrats over the past day from CNN. It still has to be matched up with the House bill, so who knows what the final piece will look like. In the meantime, this is what is being cut to make the bill more appealing to the Republicans.

Partially cut:
• $3.5 billion for energy-efficient federal buildings (original bill $7 billion)
• $75 million from Smithsonian (original bill $150 million)
• $200 million from Superfund (original bill $800 million)
• $100 million from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (original bill $427 million)
• $100 million from law enforcement wireless (original bill $200 million)
• $300 million from federal fleet of hybrid vehicles (original bill $600 million)
• $100 million from FBI construction (original bill $400 million)

Fully eliminated:
• $55 million for historic preservation
• $122 million for Coast Guard polar icebreaker/cutters
• $100 million for Farm Service Agency modernization
• $50 million for Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service
• $65 million for watershed rehabilitation
• $100 million for distance learning
• $98 million for school nutrition
• $50 million for aquaculture
• $2 billion for broadband
• $100 million for National Institute of Standards and Technology
• $50 million for detention trustee
• $25 million for Marshalls Construction
• $300 million for federal prisons
• $300 million for BYRNE Formula grant program
• $140 million for BYRNE Competitive grant program
• $10 million state and local law enforcement
• $50 million for NASA
• $50 million for aeronautics
• $50 million for exploration
• $50 million for Cross Agency Support
• $200 million for National Science Foundation
• $100 million for science
• $1 billion for Energy Loan Guarantees
• $4.5 billion for General Services Administration
• $89 million General Services Administration operations
• $50 million from Department of Homeland Security
• $200 million Transportation Security Administration
• $122 million for Coast Guard Cutters, modifies use
• $25 million for Fish and Wildlife
• $55 million for historic preservation
• $20 million for working capital fund
• $165 million for Forest Service capital improvement
• $90 million for State and Private Wildlife Fire Management
• $1 billion for Head Start/Early Start
• $5.8 billion for Health Prevention Activity
• $2 billion for Health Information Technology Grants
• $600 million for Title I (No Child Left Behind)
• $16 billion for school construction
• $3.5 billion for higher education construction
• $1.25 billion for project based rental
• $2.25 billion for Neighborhood Stabilization
• $1.2 billion for retrofitting Project 8 housing
• $40 billion for state fiscal stabilization (includes $7.5 billion of state incentive grants)

Monday, February 02, 2009

Top slogan from Saturday

As I mentioned previously, there was a wave of "unsanctioned protests" in Moscow and other cities in Russia on Saturday, giving the lie to the official line that everyone speaks with one voice there. Sadly, the marchers were outraged mostly about economic difficulties, possible job losses, higher duties on imported cars--there were two journalists murdered on the Russian equivalent of 5th avenue last week, at midday, under normal conditions, and no one felt obliged to protest that outrage. Priorities are pretty questionable there. In any case, though, demonstrations are demonstrations, and they are creating a lot of interest. The newspaper whose journalists were murdered--Anna Politkovskaia's old newspaper, Novaia Gazeta, or New Times--published this photo, entitled "Top Slogans from Saturday." The sign reads, "Rulers! Deny yourself something!"

I was thinking we could transfer that one here, change the wording slightly and hit Wall Street, chanting, "Masters of the Universe! Deny yourself something!"

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Putin without prosperity?

Long-time Russia watchers like myself have watched in dismay as Vladimir Putin put an end to the relatively liberal climate that had existed in the new independent Russian state since its creation in l991. Boris Yeltsin's Russia was a fairly shoddy, disorganized, shambolic entity, but the press was free, foreigners were welcomed and you didn't have the impression someone was watching you all the time--on a scale of one to ten, the creepy/oppressiveness factor was down in the 3-4 range.

All that changed when Vladimir Putin took power. Suddenly, we were back to one man, one voice, one truth...Putin gradually put an end to independent voices in the media, either strongarming or sicking the tax police on them, physically did away with those who challenged his leadership(see Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the Bill Gates of Russia, now doing 20 years at hard labor)and ratcheted up the creepiness factor in all kinds of indisious ways, e.g. ensnaring unsuspecting foreigners in catch-22 airport customs traps. I once found myself threatened with a huge fine or worse because i lacked a stamp that no one would give me on the way into the country. I kept asking, "can I give myself a customs stamp," and the malevolent agent kept replying, "you should've gotten this stamp, it was your responsibility." I got out of trouble by backing away from him and opportunistically slinking over to another line, presided over by someone obviously too drunk even to raise his head. His hand waved me through without examination...but i got the point. You are being watched.

What bugged me was that no one seemed to mind any of the above outrages, or the saber-rattling, chip-on-shoulder rhetoric about NATO and the US that has become so typical of that regime. It seemed that Vladimir Putin could do no wrong, but it was always pointed out that he was riding on sky-high oil prices, and Russia had a lot of oil. Russians had some of the trickle-down, were feeling prosperous, so why bother? Why gum up the works with a personal protest when I can now take a holiday at the beach in Bulgaria, or even GREECE?!

Well, we are about to find out how popular Putin and his Kremlin-knows-best, top-down, I-give-orders management style will be with oil prices at $50/less per barrel rather then $150. Tantalizingly, we already are getting some idea based on today's round of street protests, still relatively limited in scope but nationwide. Read about them here and wonder whether this all could be happening to a more deserving individual(!).

A little perspective, please

Walter Reich, a former director of the US Holocaust Museum, has a thought-provoking piece in today's Washington Post. He points to something that has outraged me, namely the increasing tendency to liken Israel to Nazi Germany, in other words using the Holocaust as a cudgel against Israelis for their actions in Gaza, e.g. Gaza as a "big concentration camp," Israel as the "fourth Reich," etc.

I'd like to see a permanent moratorium on the use of the word "holocaust" to describe anything but the attempted murder of an entire people between l939 and l945. What happened in Gaza can certainly be described as a tragedy, an outrage, a human catastrophe, whatever, but a cursory examination of the facts of the Holocaust vs. Gaza brings up NO similarities between the two. The Third Reich purposefully and consciously set out to murder the Jews of Europe, and presumably any others they encountered. They established speecial camps for this purpose and carefully honed the necessary technology to kill as many as possible. When the war was clearly lost, they diverted supplies and personnel from the front to the killing grounds. This was deliberate and very well planned mass murder--of an entire people.

It is fair to say that the Israelis overreacted to the rocket attacks from Hamas in Gaza and are engaging in serious overreaction on a number of fronts vis-a-vis the Palestinians. The layers of recriminations in this conflict would take days to peel away. But Israelis are NOT in the business of trying to mass murder the Palestinian people, and it is dishonest in the extreme to imply there is some comparison with modern Israelis and their Nazi murderers.

I also register my strong objection to the use of the word "holocaust" to describe abortion, slavery, or any other regrettable institution. You have to ask yourself: is there a discernible plot hatched in the US, or ANYWHERE, against unborn children? Was there a master plan to obliterate everyone taken or sold into slavery? In both cases, the answer is a resounding NO. So stop using the world "holocaust" already!

Words really do need to retain some meaning. So let's use the word "Holocaust" to refer to the terrible, singular event it captures so well.

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