Friday, October 29, 2010

Election day countdown

That well-known blogger Glenn Locke recently posted a link to a column by Tom Friedman saying that he couldn't figure out why most people would want to vote Republican on Tuesday. I'm not sure that I want to go that far, but do wish to make a quick point on similar lines.

What are the two biggest non-political news stories of the past two and one-half years? I think we could argue that they were the economic meltdown and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the first, there are also sorts of reasons why that collapse happened. Certainly one of them, though, was that financial institutions took huge chances that had little hope of succeeding over the long term. And these institutions had gotten so big that further bankruptcies might have led to the collapse of much of the economic system. It took massive government action just to avoid a depression.

In the second, a large multinational corporation cut some corners and did not receive adequate check-ups from monitoring agencies. When something went bad, it really went bad. It's tough to say how much damage has been done to the Gulf, and whether it will ever be the same down there.

What lessons did the Tea Party and their kind take from those developments? If I'm reading the news correctly, it's that government is the problem, and that we have to leave big business alone in order to create more jobs and get out of this recession.

Wouldn't you think the reverse would be the case? Wouldn't you think, as a sideline observer, that there would be an outcry for more government regulation to prevent such activities from happening again?

I can understand people being scared because of the country's economic stress, what with unemployment and smaller nest eggs in the form of drops in housing values and retirement funds. But it's fascinating that some have jumped to conclusions that clash with what might be called conventional wisdom.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

More leisure viewing

Television ads for political candidates are easy pickings for criticism. It's a bizarro world where fiction is presented as fact, candidates vote for thousands of tax increases a year or else they cut off funding for school lunches, etc., etc., etc.

This was a pretty good one. Did you know Andrew Cuomo was responsible for the entire housing crisis of a few years ago:

Keep in mind that forests have fallen to create the paper for books that have tried to sort out the financial mess we were in a couple of years ago. Why bother? This explains it all in 30 seconds.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Paid Political Announcement

I don't know anything about this race in Illinois, and I've never seen "Glee," but I like the style of this campaign ad:

Thanks to Katie Fritz for pointing this out.

Monday, October 25, 2010

No Swami

With the midterm elections coming up in a little more than a week, there's plenty of news worth a comment. I'm up to the task. If I jump around a bit, keep reading -- you'll get the idea.

The story of this election was written before Barack Obama took office in January 2009. It didn't take much predicting skill to do so. The 2010 elections were going to be tough for Democrats, better for Republicans.

Obama was told before Inauguration Day that the country was in the midst of a recession that was greater than the last three recessions combined. In other words, hard times were ahead, no matter what the government did.

At that instant, Obama and his staff could have figured that the midterm elections would be trouble. Any student of economics believes in business cycles, so such a deep drop in activity was not going to snap back easily. It figured to take a while for a recovery to take place, and it has. Job growth is always the last factor to turn around, and we're seeing the unemployment numbers stay stubbornly high this year.

A good argument could be made that unemployment numbers would be even worse without the bailout of the American auto industry, the lifeline to several financial institutions (many of which have paid back those loans), and the passage of a large stimulus package that put some people to work. It's impossible to know where unemployment would be without those measures, and many voters are just going to look at the current job numbers and vote for a different party next week. That's understandable.

Meanwhile, faced with memories of Obama's substantial win in 2008 and the possibility of a changing calculus of winning elections, the Republicans certainly had a vested interest in doing whatever they could to make Obama look bad -- particularly on issues without great public support. Health care reform qualifies, even if neither side is too sure how that reform package will turn out and how much it will cost.

Meanwhile, the so-called Tea Partiers have created some energy from the right that will help Republican turnout. I'm a little surprised that protests of deficit spending have been popular, when both parties haven't been worried about that issue for decades. If they can give politicians to do the unpopular but proper task of actually spending only what they have except in economic emergencies (the fall of 2008 probably qualified), more power to them.

But the rhetoric has been severe. Some independents certainly were scared by Tea Party signs of Obama with the caption, "Hitler gave good speeches too." And to argue that health care coverage for all is illegal because it's not in the Constitution makes me wonder if those same people should protest Medicare, social security and the Louisiana Purchase. Nothing in the Constitution mentions those actions, either.

Mix all of this together, and then add it to the fact that the opposing party usually bounces back in offyear elections. Republican gains were inevitable.

Those gains probably could have been tempered a bit. The Obama Administration didn't do a particularly good job of selling its programs to voters, and didn't do much more at times than say "we were dealt a bad hand." In addition, taking on such a major package as health care in 2009 seemed to suck a lot of the air out of the room when people were still pretty scared every time they looked at the Dow Jones Industrial Average or their 401k statements. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid weren't exactly dynamic faces for a new Washington either, even though I can't say Mitch McConnell and John Boehner would be any better. (Just who is picking the leadership in Washington, anyway?)

Still, the private sector is slowly showing signs of an economic rebound. Employment has been crawling upward the last several months, and some companies have shown good profits. My guess is that the numbers will get better, and by the time 2012 rolls around the economic engine will have picked up steam. That's in spite of anything done by government, which has a far smaller role in what happens to the economy than people realize.

Therefore, Obama -- who if nothing else showed that he's a great campaigner -- should have a relatively easy time putting back together that base for the 2012 Presidential election if we all stay on this path. That's especially true if the Republicans nominate an old face, such as someone who ran in 2008 or is associated with the past (read Newt Gingrich).

Some Republicans are already figuring the White House will be theirs in two years. My advice would be: underrate Barack Obama at your peril.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hail to the Chief

I had the opportunity the other day to hear Chief Justice John Roberts speak at Canisius College. Justice Roberts was born in the Buffalo area, moving to Indiana at the age of seven. (Sadly, I didn't have the chance to ask him if he packed any affection for the Buffalo Bills with him.) He attended three classes at the school and then essentially answered questions for about 90 minutes.

It's always good to hear someone like this in person. He's one of the most important persons in government, but a majority of the population couldn't pick him out of a lineup. Here are a few quick impressions that I carried home:

* As you might expect, Justice Roberts -- I'd feel funny writing "John" -- is an impressive person. He seemed to have a good sense of humor, and didn't talk down to the audience although we all know he could have done so quite easily. I could see have an adult beverage with him and chatting for a while, which is always a good test for someone.

* While the first hour featured a host and filtered questions, Roberts took questions from the audience for about 30 minutes. I always like the people who use such occasions to push an agenda, even though they know, or should know, that the response will be along the lines of "I can't talk about that because it might come up in court" or "My written opinion is all I want to say about that one." There were a couple of people who did that in this case; they would not pass the "adult beverage" test.

* But I really liked one question that absolutely came out of left field. Someone noticed that these long legal warnings come up when you are on line -- think updating iTunes -- that you must hit the "I agree" button in order to proceed. The questioner asked if Justice Roberts, as the top legal authority in the land, understood those warnings.

It got a laugh, and another laugh came when Justice Roberts said, "I must admit I don't read those things either." But he went on to make a good point, that there are all sorts of warnings and agreements that are too long and complicated to understood by anyone. As an example, he mentioned the form that comes with a prescription that has possible side-effects to medicine. The problem is that the form looks like a road map, and the important parts are on page 14.

I can't say I agree with Justice Roberts' judical philosophy all the time, which is fine. But it's easy to feel a little better when getting to see someone like that in person. Thanks, Canisius, for the free evening of entertainment and enlightenment.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sorry, wrong number

An interesting if brief interlude in the day's events.

The phone rang about 10 a.m. this morning at my house.

"This is Buffalo Pharmacy. I have information on a prescription," said the voice at the other end.

"O.K.," I replied, not sure what he was talking about.

"I have an order ready for Ann Barnaby."

"I think you have the wrong number."

"Then why did you say yes to the prescription?!?"

And then the man hung up.

Is that the rudest business call ever? Remind me not to visit that outlet.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Magazine story

Here are a couple of more signs, as if we needed them, about the plight of magazines these days:

* It's getting more and more difficult to subscribe to a magazine for just six months or a year. These days, your first move is practically a lifetime subscription.

Many publishers are sending out notices asking readers to send in their credit cards to pay for the product. (This is more common, and easier, in renewals, but you get the idea.) The fine print says that the subscription will automatically be renewed when expiration time arrives, unless the company hears from you. They obviously are counting on the reader to do nothing. This way, not only does the company get your money, but it's probably more money than you'd pay if you searched the Internet for bargains.

Recently my subscription to ESPN the magazine was getting ready to expire. I noticed that my credit card that was on their file had expired a few months before, and I was interested in renewing and getting the package of goodies they send to new subscribers (long-sleeve t-shirt, cooler bag, mug). So I went by the expiration date and renewed by check.

The goodies indeed came, but here's the catch: they still figured out a way to automatically renew my subscription through the expired credit card. For three years. I noticed the charge on a bill. I called up the company and got it straightened out (after getting passed along to another number). Still, it's a lot of work to avoid paying the full rate.

* I've been a reader of Newsweek forever. My parents started getting it when I was a small boy, and I've been reading it ever since. However, the magazine changed formats some months ago, and I can't say I read too much of it any more. Therefore, I decided to let it expire.

The expiration date was sometime in July. It is now October. I am still getting my weekly copy of the magazine. I even received a letter from Newsweek's circulation department this week, boldly announcing "Your subscription expired seven weeks ago!" Well, I'd never know it based on what's been coming into my mailbox.

We all have problems in publishing these days, but it seems like either making it more difficult to subscribe or sending free issues out won't solve any of them for magazines.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Why a 16-year-old could do it...

Think Keith Emerson is great on the keyboards? Well, yes, me too. But there's the teen-ager who can do a darn good version of his work. It's worth a listen:

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Double ending

It's always a sad day when the major-league baseball season ends. Summer is officially gone. It's time to put the screen windows up and replace them with storms, and start up the furnace. It's even sadder in our house when the Red Sox and Mets both miss the playoffs, and the Yankees make it.

Here in Buffalo, though, Sunday marked a double whammy. Not only did the baseball season end, but football season is about over as well.

That's not what the schedule says, but that's what my head says after watching the Bills get positively crushed by the Jets. As the cliche goes, if it had been a prizefight, the referee would have stopped it after three rounds, er, quarters.

What was pretty obvious two weeks ago has become painfully plain now. The Bills are going nowhere, again. Even if the new coaching staff and front office knows what it is doing, there is a big job ahead. The run of non-playoff teams is going to extend another year, minimum. And probably more.

It's easy to see the culprit here -- bad decisions litter the team's past. They traded up for J.P. Losman, traded up for John McCargo, drafted James Hardy (who pulled a gun on his father on Father's Day shortly after the draft) ... heck, drafted Mike Williams a while ago. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. That doesn't even mention some of the free-agent acquisitions.

But here's the worst part, that doesn't get mentioned much. People are starting to wonder if we'll ever see the Bills get good. I emphasize ever.

Let's review. Putting the Bills back together is obviously going to be a bigger job than we thought. It's tough to picture them getting more than a handful of wins this season.

Then comes 2011. You have to wonder if there's going to be a 2011 season. Both sides seem poised to dig in and have one of those huge labor disputes that happens to pro sports every so often. Football has had some labor peace in the past 23 years, so it will take some work to avoid one next year.

No matter what, 2012 will be here before we know it. That's also known as the last season of the Bills' 15-year lease. There hasn't been a peep out of anyone about that. It's tough to know what everyone is thinking, since it's still two years away. But with a shrinking market and a 92-year-old owner who apparently has no plan of succession about the team's future, it's easy to wonder what will happen to the Bills. That's particularly true since the franchise is probably worth $250 million more in Los Angeles than it is in Buffalo.

I have out-of-town friends who say they would love to be in Buffalo the day the Bills win a Super Bowl. You wonder if they'll ever have the chance.