Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Secret Sin

Via Echidne there's an update on religion and crimes at Bobo's World.

It seems that murder, being a secret sin, is preferable to being discovered a less-than-perfect Christian. (Murder is a secret sin because it can expunge evidence of your other sins — dead women tell no tales of adultery.)

Back in my old hometown, I've had a couple of semi-brushes with these types. Grand Junction, Colorado, is remarkable for being a community that is not dominated by any particular religious group. I remember sitting in a college religion course and viewing a map of the U.S. that color-coded areas by sectarian predominance. Only a few areas were white — indicating there was no denomination with more than 10 percent of the population — and one traced the outlines of Mesa County.

The map was accurate, I suppose, as long as you counted the Church of the Nazarene, Church of the Brethren, Mormons, Assembly of God, Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses as distinct groups, like Catholics and the traditional Protestant denominations. But if you lumped all the pentecostal groups together, I imagine the county would change color, because even back in the late '60s, the fringe was ascendant there.

For example, Assembly of God, John Ashcroft's chuch, was big there. They put on frequent religious pageants and always featured good music of its kind. Life revolved around the church. Two years running, I started the football season behind an Assembly of Godder I'd played ahead of the year before, and sophomore AGs who went to the coach's church routinely played ahead of less godly seniors. My best friend went to another church where they spoke in tongues.

Ken Botham belonged to one of these many pentecostal groups. Ken would have been a total geek — with his black Buddy Holly specs, tall, gangly frame, too-long flat top, go-to-meetin' white shirts and utter lack of cool — except that he had a tremendous bass singing voice. (Music was one of the few legitimate ways to stand out in these churches.) I sang with him in several high school groups, and his high school girlfriend was best friends with my girlfriend. Fortunately for her, Botham married another, whom he murdered, along with a neighbor and her kids. It's not beyond the pale to suppose there were other victims, though his son Thayer seems to hold out hope some else killed his mother.

If you had to pick a murderer from our class, you would never name Botham. But once his name came up, you would say, yeah, I can see that.

Michael Blagg is a more recent killer. One of my good friends, and the only Jew in my school, served as Blagg's public defender. Blagg killed his wife and daughter because his obsessions with online porn and trailer park hookers were incompatible with his self-image as an upstanding Christian.

Of course, they have their defenders. Killers often do.

Money Walks

Richard Scrushy officially joins OJ and Michael Jackson instead of Bernie Ebbers and and Dennis Kozlowski.

Apparently unable to parse the complexities of the case, the hometown Birmingham jury sympathized with the rich white local boy who has done so much for the community. The simple fact that five (count 'em, 5) former CFO's pled guilty to fraud and testified against their boss, wasn't considered enough of a pattern to implicate the guy who hired and supervised them.

How could they sort through the mounds of evidence of Sarbanes-Oxley violations, when the jury can't even keep the fundamentals straight? As one juror is reported to have said after the verdict, "The smoking gun wasn't pointing toward Mr. Scrushy."

Of course not. The perpetrator was too smart to shoot himself.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Addicted to Helping

I want it on record right now, should my computer fall into the wrong hands, I was only trying to help. All those links on my laptop to sites regarding serial killers and child sex abuse and conservative or liberal political affiliation were in service to informing readers of this blog.

Be it also noted that I am sorry I ever considered a connection between serial killing and any particular political persuasion that encourages sublimation of sexual desires. Rather than elaborate on this subject, let me leave you with one of the stories that seemed sadly typical, about a community leader whose massive subsidy of young women with drug problems helped dampen the county-wide rate of methamphetamine-related crime:

When [Richard A.] Dasen talked to police shortly after his arrest, he characterized his for-pay sexual activities with young women as "helping" them, according to a detective's affidavit that summarizes Dasen's conversation with police.

When a detective asked him to explain how he was helping the women, the affidavit said that Dasen replied that when he thought about it, he realized he was not helping them after all.

Dasen said, too, that he believes he has a problem, perhaps an addiction. But he added, according to the affidavit, that he believes he is more addicted to "helping" than to sex.

Liberals and Serial Killers

Just a thought provoked by the confession of the BTK killer and the prosecutor's statement that "Mr. Rader wants to be in control."

How many serial killers have been liberals? Is the mindset and personality of the serial killer or mass murderer even compatible with liberalism? Can someone who is tolerant and nuanced in their views see other human beings as objects and their killing as "projects"?

Now, I'm not saying compassionate conservatives are budding mass murderers, or that liberals can't be control freaks.

A question today. Maybe more tomorrow.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Who Wants to be a Traitor?

Bill O'Reilly thinks "all those clowns at the liberal radio network" are traitors. And so is "any American that undermines that war, with our soldiers in the field, or undermines the war on terror, with 3,000 dead on 9-11."

Karl Rove implies liberals are traitors: "Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers. Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war. Conservatives saw what happened to us on 9/11 and said we will defeat our enemies. Liberals saw what happened to us and said we must understand our enemies."

Ann Coulter has made a career out of accusing liberals of treason.

According to Iceman Bloggeth, John Kerry is a traitor because, I guess, he fought for our country in Vietnam and didn't like war as much as, say, the guys in Washington who didn't fight in any wars.

For sponsoring an illegal alien path to citizenship bill, Sen. Ted Kennedy is a traitor, and so, by inference, is the bill's co-sponsor, Sen. John McCain.

The five Supreme Court Justices are Traitors!

Thursday, June 23, 2005, was the worst day in American history. Thursday, every citizen in the United States lost their right to own property. This is worse than Pearl Harbor; this is worse that September 11. Only 2,500 died on Dec. 7, 1941; only 3,000 died on Sept. 11, 2001. This week, we were all made serfs instead of citizens!

Can we not impeach and remove The Five Traitors?

(In subsequent letters to WorldNetDaily, they are also Nazis and anti-American socialists pushing us toward a "Soviet-style police state.")

Yes, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin apologized for for suggesting how to interpret an FBI account of prisoner treatment at Guantanamo, but that doesn't make him any less of a traitor. In fact, the Land of Lincoln is really the land of traitors, with Sen. Barack Obama a traitor to his race.

Bill Clinton was Traitor in Chief for his support of Irael, according to the "Christian Party."

Clearly, there's a large audience for traitor baiting. Combine that with all those celebrity traitors out there, and you begin to see the potential for a new reality show called "Who Wants to be a Traitor?"

Here's the concept: Traitors like Danny Glover, George Soros and the Dixies Chicks face off before a studio audience and are critiqued by a panel composed of a leftie traitor, say Noam Chomsky, a moderate like Dr. Phil, and to make it fair and balanced, all three dudes from Power Line. (See their audition tape.)

Home viewers would get to vote for the biggest traitor of the week, with the winner returning for a new face-off. Win three weeks in a row, and the traitor gets a chance to unseat Michael Moore! During ratings weeks, there could be special theme shows — for example, Traitor Jews with Howard Stern, Daniel Ellsberg and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or Traitor Nostalgia with Tom Hayden, Angela Davis and Martin Luther King III, standing in for this father.

But what would the traitor baiters make of this guest? This person created the opportunity for terrorists to develop "a broad range of urban warfare skills, from car bombings and assassinations to coordinated conventional attacks on police and military targets." Foreign extremists are flocking to the new training ground — which makes Osama's look like church camp — and are expected to be take their new skills elsewhere around the world.

Yep, George Bush getting us into Iraq versus Dick Durbin misquoted on Al Jazeera. Who would you vote for?

Can we stop with this traitor garbage now?

Friday, June 24, 2005

The Real Reason for a Tea Party

Periodically, citizens invoke the Boston Tea Party in their outrage against taxes. Half the time they miss the point about taxation without representation. Uh, guys, we have representation and a majority of them are in your party.

And almost no one remembers the real situation that led to the Boston Tea Party. It wasn't so much about taxes, representation or not. It was about the crown's government propping up favored big businesses against local merchants.

The latest reason to call upon the Tea Party metaphor is a property rights case recently decided by the Supreme Court. The ruling may actually bring together some folks who haven't necessarily been on the same side — property-rights activists, along with advocates for elderly and low-income urban residents.

The Court held local governments had the right to use eminent domain — forcing landowners to give up their land for public use in exchange for fair compensation — for private economic development. The Fifth Amendment prohibits taking of private property except for "public use." In the past, "public use" was construed to mean roads and bridges or clearing blighted areas. But the project under review in New London, Connecticut, was revitalization of a different sort, turning waterfront into office buildings, upscale housing and a marina near a research center being built by Pfizer. The chief beneficiaries, it would seem, were private parties.

New London was hurt by the loss of jobs when the Naval Undersea Warfare Center closed, and city officials were understandably interested in preventing a slide into further economic distress. That's what the project seemed to promise.

Here's where the parallels with Boston Harbor come in.

The protest wasn't simply about King George extracting money from the colonists with a tax imposed on tea. The British government was actually trying to prop up private enterprise. Britain's East India Company was stuck with a large tea inventory it couldn't sell in Britain, so the government exempted it from the tax imposed on colonial merchants. The idea was that, by selling its untaxed tea and bypassing the middlemen, the Company could unload its surplus on the colonials, who would — shades of Wal-Mart — flock to the lower prices.

Naturally, the merchants weren't keen on being put under by the British monopoly, and the locals didn't appreciate the high-handed move, either. They boycotted the British tea. The Tea Party was an escalation of this struggle, and the rest is history.

So the next time you hear someone advocate a return to Tea Party rebellion, be sure to ask what they're protesting — taxes that make it tough for the little guy, or the exercise of tax policy and government power on behalf of favored businesses.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

A Pre-emptive Strike, Domestic Version reports the latest pre-emptive strike by the Administration (technically, a pro-Bush group). This time it's not against Iraqis who haven't attacked America. It's against Democrats who haven't attacked Bush's Supreme Court nominee, who hasn't been named for a vacancy that doesn't exist.

A pro-Bush group fired the opening salvo - they call it "a warning shot" - in what threatens to become a multi-million dollar advertising and public relations campaign over a possible Bush appointment to the Supreme Court. The ad predicts "Democrats will attack anyone the President nominates," saying that " a Supreme Court nominee deserves real consideration, instead of instant attacks."

But this ad itself is an attack that goes beyond "instant" - it was launched without waiting for Bush to name a replacement for the ailing Justice William Rehnquist, or even for Rehnquist to say publicly whether or not he will retire as he is reported to be considering. And whether or not Democrats will criticize "anyone" Bush names can't be known for sure at this point - it may or may not turn out to be true.

To support its case, the ad cites editorial blurbs from Republican newspapers criticizing Democrats over their treatment of Supreme Court nominees in the past. But the ad fails to note that the blurbs were about the Robert Bork nomination fight that happened nearly 18 years ago.

Nothing like a couple heavy bombing runs to soften up the opposition.

Was Durbin Tortured?

Why would a good man apologize for courageously speaking out against cruelty — despite widespread support for his position?

Sen. Dick Durbin choked up as he backed away from his earlier statements about treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo. Not because he was wrong, but because he had offended the powerful.

Like an internee at Abu Ghraib, he was left at the bottom of sweaty dog pile consisting of Republican Senators, veterans groups and Dick Cheney. He was subjected to incessant noises and villification, broadcast at high volume. He was hung out to dry by many of his colleagues, and then summoned to apologize publicly.

As Sen. John McCain himself has acknowledged, torture can make brave men do things they regret.

No Child Soldier Left Behind

And while we're on the topic of cloaking surreptitious acts in legality...

J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO, Nixon's Plumbers, and Reagan's Iran/Contra dodge were all extralegal. Unlike, dare I say it, Hitler's push to guarantee "one people, one government, one dictator."

The Washington Post reports the Pentagon is using a private firm to create a national database of youth aged 16 to 18:

"The purpose of the system . . . is to provide a single central facility within the Department of Defense to compile, process and distribute files of individuals who meet age and minimum school requirements for military service," according to the official notice of the program.

Privacy advocates said the plan appeared to be an effort to circumvent laws that restrict the government's right to collect or hold citizen information by turning to private firms to do the work.

Some information on high school students already is given to military recruiters in a separate program under provisions of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. Recruiters have been using the information to contact students at home, angering some parents and school districts around the country.

Kind of gives new meaning to No Child Left Behind and school uniforms, doesn't it?

We already have another system, run by the Selective Service Commission, which requires males between the ages of 18 and 25 to register. Not to mention this initiative, and this one, aimed at funneling our youth into uniform.

So what are those privacy advocates whining about? It's all perfectly legal.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Learning from the Other N-Word

Mark Leibovich of the Washington Post recounts the perils of using the other N-word in political comparisons — as Sen. Dick Durbin seemed to do after reading an FBI report on interrogation practices at Guantanamo. Equating anything to Hitler and the Nazis is verboten.

Discourse gets more heated and rhetorically inflated as people become frustrated with the other side's refusal to listen. It becomes tempting to use inflammatory language in the attempt to command attention. Unfortunately, certain images just give ammunition to the other side. Using the N-word enables them to change the subject, from the real substance of the matter to how shocking and reprehensible the metaphor was.

Durbin's comment was actually quite indirect, rhetorically speaking, placing the comparison in the mind of the beholder: "If I read this to you and did not tell you it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime — Pol Pot or others — that had no concern for human beings."

Actually, wouldn't we hope Americans would think what Durbin suggests, rather than imagining, "that's got to be the work of New York cops, the US Marines, or the local Scoutmasters"?

No matter. Nazism has been elevated to such a mytho-horrific level, that it must never be invoked for anything less than the death of 7 million innocent people. The Soviet Gulags set the bar of prison abuse too high to merit legitimate comparison. Pol Pot's Killing Fields? It can't happen here. We don't actually execute our intellectuals.

Yet atrocities don't simply spring forth fully armored. Hitler didn't start out with death camps. He started by passing a law to serve his ends, as Sen. Robert Byrd explained in the speech that also earned him knee-jerk opprobrium.

Reserving the Hitler comparison for certified mass murderers may be better than bankrupting it through over-use. But doing so reduces Nazism to the Holocaust, and that is a terrible simplification of evil and social dysfunction. Anyone can recognize a tyrant once he's in power and the bodies are piling up. It's much more important for societies to distinguish the seemingly benign varieties of 1934 Hitlerism in their midst, when there is still time.

We learn nothing about how to avoid repeating the past once we have turned an enemy into a monster caricature.

Political Calculations

In Political Calculations, I might've found a worthy across-the-divide site, that, judging from his links, starts from the other side. Ironman offers up interactive tables and calculators dealing with such matters as differences in wireless communication state tax rates and reviews of competing Social Security benefit calculators.

If that seems too esoteric for you, look at The Next CEO, his analysis of how Boeing's Board might have handled embarassing news in a politically calculating way.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Since when did procreation require government endorsement?

After the death of his wife, to whom he'd been married for more than 50 years, my wonderful father-in-law remarried. Two friends, who'd been more or less together for 17 years, up and married in their middle years. My sister married a man who'd already had one family and wasn't interested in starting another. One friend never found the right man — until well into her 40s. My wife and I, married 30 years and counting, stopped after one child.

Marriage is not just about procreation or raising children. It's not. And you know it.

But Rick Scarborough sees it differently in his "Action Alert."

Its [sic] encouraging that there are still some judges who adhere to the law, instead of using it as an excuse to impose their views on society. Last week, there we [sic] two heartening rulings on marriage, from opposite ends of the country.

In California, U.S. District Court Judge Gary Taylor upheld Section 3 of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Taylor said Section 3 is constitutional, in that it passes the "rational basis test".

Specifically, the court noted, "because procreation is necessary to perpetuate humankind, encouraging the optimal union for procreation is a legitimate government interest. By excluding same-sex couples from the federal rights and responsibilities of marriage, and by providing those rights and responsibilities only to people in opposite-sex marriages, the government is communicating to citizens that opposite-sex relationships have special significance". This is a most welcome affirmation of marriage.

Gaw-lee Andy, how do you s'pose humankind made it this far, without gummint communicatin' that opposite-sex relationships have special significance? I thought it was just the devil that was givin' me them ideas. Now that I know the gummint endorses ficky-fick visa vis a man and a woman, I'ma throwin' out that embryo adoption brochure and doin' it like god intended!

Or as reported in the Free Republic: "To say it would encourage procreation for heterosexual couples by denying same-sex couples the right to marry is illogical," said Jennifer Pizer, senior counsel for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. "It's a mistake to think that denying marriage to same-sex couples has any effect on whether heterosexual couples have children and raise those children well."

At the same time, [Dr. Rick continues] the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court affirmed a trial court ruling that limiting marriage to members of the opposite sex does not violate the state's constitution. The court observed that if restricting marriage to a man and a woman is discriminatory (as plaintiffs maintained), the same could be said of laws prohibiting polygamy.

The majority went further, taking a swipe at their activist colleagues, writing: "The personal views of the members of the court concerning the wisdom of a statute should play no part in determining its constitutionality. A constitution is not simply an empty receptacle into which judges may pour their own conceptions of evolving social mores". (emphasis added)

We can be grateful that some judges still understand the proper role of the judiciary.

Now, the way I read that one, if restricting colleges to white people is discriminatory, why, the same could be said about laws prohibiting dragging black people behind your pickup. Well, I think that's what it means, but I may just be pouring my own conception into it.

Lyndon Baines Bush?

As an appreciator of altered photos, I couldn't pass this by. From Whiskey Bar.


Monday, June 20, 2005

Testosterone-Based Morality

But for the anti-gay-marriage activists, homosexuality is something to be fought, not tolerated or respected. I found no one among the people on the ground who are leading the anti-gay-marriage cause who said in essence: ''I have nothing against homosexuality. I just don't believe gays should be allowed to marry.'' Rather, their passion comes from their conviction that homosexuality is a sin, is immoral, harms children and spreads disease. Not only that, but they see homosexuality itself as a kind of disease, one that afflicts not only individuals but also society at large and that shares one of the prominent features of a disease: it seeks to spread itself.

I'd squirreled away some quotes from Russell Shorto's "What's Their Real Problem With Gay Marriage? (It's the Gay Part) for a later post," but Sideshow has done the commentary work for me. So here are the quotes.

''Lifestyle'' is a buzzword in conservative Christian circles. It's a signal of the belief, and the policy position, that homosexuality is not an innate condition but a hedonistic way of living, one devoted to partying, drugs and wanton sex that ends, often, in illness and early death. In 2004 the Family Research Council put out a book called ''Getting It Straight: What the Research Shows About Homosexuality,'' which purports to explode the myth that homosexuality is natural or genetic and puts forth an alternative theory that it springs from childhood abuse or other developmental factors. Chapter 4, ''Is Homosexuality a Health Risk?'' lines up studies and statistics to link homosexuality with cancer, alcoholism, mental illness, suicide and reduced life span, in addition to H.I.V./AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Finally, we've got a clear explanation about what marriage is all about and why it's threatened by testosterone-to-testosterone or estrogen-exclusive relationships.

''The homosexual community would have us believe that marriage is simply about loving one another,'' said Rick Bowers of Defend Maryland Marriage. ''I say it's about two human beings who are wired completely differently, one with estrogen and one with testosterone, living together in love but with the purpose of procreation. It's a lot deeper than love. So I can't see how someone could look on a same-sex marriage as marriage at all.''

These folks also have trouble distinguishing between getting a disease and being a disease.

Homosexuality [as imagined by the defenders of marriage] is not an innate, biological condition but a disease in society. Marriage is the healthy root of society. To put the two together is thus willfully to introduce disease to that root. It is society willing self-destruction, which is itself a symptom of a wider societal disease, that of secularism.

There's No Pill For This

Regular readers will know that I am neither a friend to big pharmas nor unsympathetic to people in pain. But sheesh...

The StarTribune's "A battle for Woody" takes the side of a widow against the drug company she claims failed to warn her against potential side effects of Zoloft.

Kimberly Witczak is in federal court suing Pfizer, maker of Zoloft, for not sufficiently warning "doctors and patients about the drug's potential to cause suicidial tendencies, a claim that Pfizer denies."

"Witczak disputes assertions that her husband, Tim — Woody to his friends — must have been depressed to commit such an ultimate act." In fact, two suicide support groups she attended told her so, but her first clues might've come earlier:

Anxiety over the new job and the new business caused Woody to have trouble sleeping, Witczak said, and his family doctor prescribed Zoloft. For the next two weeks Kimberly Witczak [an advertising account manager] was on assignment in New Zealand. Back home, Woody experienced night sweats, diarrhea and physical agitation.

One evening shortly after Witczak returned from New Zealand, she was in the kitchen when Woody entered after aimlessly driving around town.

"He was drenched. He'd been driving all day. He sat on the kitchen floor in a fetal position and said, 'Kim, you gotta help me. My head's outside my body,' " she recalled.

Kim calmed Woody down, and things seemed to go smoother, although he complained about gruesome nightmares that he refused to describe.

On Monday, Aug. 4, Witczak left for an assignment in Detroit. She talked to Woody on Tuesday morning and described him as excited from a successful sales call. They booked a flight to St. Louis for a friend's wedding in October and Woody booked a separate flight to Las Vegas for a bachelor party the following weekend. When Witczak called late Tuesday, there was a different Woody on the phone, she said. He seemed "completely distracted. He was in a different state of mind."

Clearly, Pfizer should have done something.

I respectfully ask, what kind of warning from the drug company would be more compelling than seeing one's husband writhing on the floor in despair and begging for help? See, my father committed suicide, though our family did all we could. And I experienced a depressive episode where, thanks to my dad's experience, I was able to ask for help. And I got it.

Kimberly, I'm sorry, but there's no class action law firm in the country that can assuage guilt.

Who's Counting?

Via Huffington Press via Echidne,

TBRNews reports that the U.S. Military has been managing the American death count in Iraq by reporting only those who die in Iraq as part of the official tally. Those who die enroute to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, or back in the States, are not included in the 1600-plus Iraqi war casualties.

This might explain why the administration adamantly resisted showing photos of military coffins returning stateside. It could also simply be paranoia.

If true, this would make the inflated Viet Cong body counts a comparative act of Pentagon probity.

I'm with Stupid


Long before the Sardinian toga party, Dennis Kozlowski was not regarded as a paragon of business ethics. In fact, I heard one senior executive in a Fortune 100 company describe him as the opposite, someone whose piratical business practices cast a shadow over all his peers.

Now a jury of other "peers" has convicted the former Tyco chairman after a previous trial failed to deliver verdict. As Kurt Eichenwald of the New York Times writes:

"The defense of claiming ignorance or foolishness has been widely derided as difficult to believe. But legal analysts said that, given the circumstances of the cases, the defendants were hard pressed to argue anything else. There was no denying, for example, that Mr. Kozlowski received huge sums that he did not report on his taxes or in corporate filings.

"Similarly, in the WorldCom case, with the former chief financial officer, Scott D. Sullivan, testifying about his role in that company's accounting fraud, it was impossible for Mr. Ebbers to argue that wrongdoing did not occur. Ignorance and sloppiness were the only defenses left."

The "I wasn't paying attention" defense doesn't wash in most jobs, especially when a train wreck results. When the inattentive engineer is pulling down seven figures in salary and eight figures in stock options, the wage slaves in the jury box are even more likely to be unsympathetic.

Despite the humiliation for these CEegoes to testify they were not on top of what their businesses were doing, it was likely the best legal strategy for someone who cannot prove themselves innocent — since they're not. They can only cast doubt and confusion and hope to hang another jury, as Kozlowski did once and Richard Scrushy has managed to do so far. (The Kozlowski case seems more preposterous, since his claim of ignorance extends to his personal financial dealings.)

As unsympathetic as I am to these guys, I have to acknowledge the grain of truth in their arguments. I would bet that Kozlowski, in his alleged disinterest in the details of tax filings, is fairly typical of those who will never have to worry about putting food on the table for the next three generations. He pays people to worry about the details, just like he hires gardeners, interior decorators and living Roman statues. The effect of selective stupidity magnifies exponentially when it moves beyond personal affairs. Well before an organization reaches the size and complexity of Tyco or HealthSouth or WorldCom or the United States Military, its totality is truly beyond the full grasp of even the most exceptional leader.

Most CEOs I've met fall into two general categories. Their attention is focused in one area, such as finance, marketing or operations, to the near-exclusion of the rest. Or they are more rounded and global, but not immersed in the details. Either type of leader must encourage a culture that deals with reality, recognizes what's important and speaks the truth about it to the boss. The person at the top can't possibly know what's going in the Venezuelan subsidiary or the Abu Ghraib prison unless others have the clear belief that the boss expects people to do what's right, wants to know what's wrong and won't shoot them for bringing it forward.

This, of course, is where some organizations — not just their leaders — fall down.

Do they remain willfully ignorant? Do they wink? Or are they totally out front with the greed is good mantra?

Until they have to defend it in court, compartmentalized ignorance probably seems like a smart strategy.
CB.KOZ4 copy

Friday, June 17, 2005

Never, Never, Neverland

Now that the autopsy results from Terri Schiavo are in, Herr Senator Doctor Frist states emphatically that he never said what he said about Schiavo's condition. Never. And given a second chance by Matt Lauer to possibly clarify his previous statements that Shiavo responded to stimuli, he gets his back entirely up and throws out a veil of angry words. Never. Never made a diagnosis. Never even made a statement.

Yet on March 17, 2005, he said:

"To be able to make a diagnosis of persistent vegetative state - which is not brain dead; it is not coma; it is a specific diagnosis and typically takes multiple examinations over a period of time because you are looking for responsiveness - I have looked at the video footage. Based on the footage provided to me, which was part of the facts of the case, she does respond."

Sounds like presidential timber to me.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Scrushy 2: Murder in the Cathedral

There's another way to take the Scrushy HealthSouth fraud, although it wasn't a version presented in the courtroom. And since the jury of peers in any corporate fraud case is unlikely to contain anyone who has ever been remotely close to the executive suite, it's not a version that will occur to them during deliberations.

If you have spent any time in contact with the upper reaches of corporate decision making, it will be extremely familiar. I call it the Murder in the Cathedral Syndrome.

Murder in the Cathedral Syndrome takes its name from T.S. Eliot's play dramatizing the power struggle between King Henry II of England and Thomas Beckett.

King Henry had a personnel problem. He had appointed his close friend and chancellor, Thomas Beckett, as Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry had hoped that Beckett would bring the ecclesiastical courts under the crown. Instead, Beckett became a staunch defender of the Church and repeatedly foiled Henry’s attempts to consolidate power.

Finally, Henry cried out, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four knights who overheard the king decided to oblige, and ultimately, a resisting Beckett died a martyr.

Were Henry's words simply an expression of frustration that led to a terrible misinterpretation? Or a calculated indirect order that insulated the king from any consequences of black deeds gone wrong — exercising what became known as the doctrine of "plausible deniability". Later, Henry made a great show of regret, with regular pilgrimmages to Beckett's tomb. But it didn't work for Henry any more than it worked for Nixon and the Watergate conspirators. All became objects of international contempt.

The same behavior happens in modern corporations. The boss makes an ambiguous or offhand comment, and underlings scurry to carry out what they perceive to be the king’s wishes. If they are successful, everyone benefits. If there's a disaster, the king can say, in court if necessary, "That's not what I meant at all."

Sometimes the failure to question authority's ambiguity can be fatal for all. Years ago, a Wall Street Journal article on corporate jet accidents told of a crew who may have overridden their own judgment of flying conditions because they were leery of displeasing their powerful passengers. As a result, they all died.

From my reading of the Scrushy case, the detail man only selectively didn't want to know the details. He wanted someone to rid him of troublesome earnings shortfalls, so he could continue making his pronouncements to the street.

It works like this: "I know what I'm saying is not true, but if I don't actually have concrete evidence, if I don't know how they fixed the numbers, then I can rely on them for my statements in good conscience. I told them to fix the problem, and not trouble me with the details. So how do I know they didn't fix it for real?"

Meanwhile, the staff is quavering: "Did he really mean for us to cook the books? Because that's the only way to fix this. But if we ask him, he'll go ballistic, because it'll mean we are questioning his integrity. Or that we're stupid. Or incompetent."

And so the problem gets fixed, and the boss has his plausible deniability.

In its most frequent manifestations, Murder in the Cathedral Syndrome kills ideas, squelches constructive questioning and causes a tremendous amount of waste as staff members try to read between the boss’s lines.

Some staffers learn to identify the difference between an order and a passing thought. President Nixon’s staff, to their credit, apparently ignored some of their boss’s more egregious musings. Oliver North, on the other hand, would’ve fit in well with Henry’s knights.

But when the stakes are higher — should we invade? will we meet analyst expectations? — leaders become willfully blind and yeomen fall silent. Ambiguous statements gain murderous momentum.

Leaders may have legitimate reasons for creating ambiguous situations. The circumstances themselves may be ambiguous. A lack of clarity tests the ingenuity of subordinates. It gives them flexibility to determine the correct course of action, and that can be very motivating. It also leaves wiggle room for the leader when actions cross the legal line.

You do not build a multi-billion-dollar business without understanding the uses of power and ambiguity.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Studies in Black and White

I was in a downtown working class bar when the Michael Jackson verdict was announced on Monday, facing a TV monitor that featured sports. The audio came from other sets carrying the Jackson trial, and it seemed as if these jocks were lip-synching the commentary.

The reaction of the patrons was mixed. "I guess now it's okay to molest little boys." "He was probably guilty of some stuff, but it seemed the family was trying to scam him." "You are freaks!" (To the cheering fans.)

So a rich black man pretending to be white gets off. Now, across the country, a rich white man pretending to be black may be next to walk. His jury has remained hung for two weeks, and that's just the way the big boys like it.

I have been following the trial of HealthSouth founder and CEO Richard Scrushy because it seems so emblematic of justice in Bushworld, where money, faith and spin are core values, and flagrant compassion is second only to flag-waving patriotism.

Scrushy is being prosecuted for inflating the earnings of HealthSouth by nearly $2.7 billion, increasing the value of his stock while deceiving investors. It's the first case against a CEO charged under Sarbanes-Oxley laws designed to penalize executives who knowingly sign false financial statements.

This seems to be one of those garden variety instances where a megalomaniacal CEO browbeats subordinates into "fixing" earnings problems with fancy accounting, while insulating himself from the fraud, and believing that he will be able to make up the difference down the road before anyone finds out. (I've read the final arguments, but will spare you. If you want the gory details, there's a blog called Report from Birmingham that has been following the case closely and intelligently.)

What makes Scrushy's case interesting is his strategy for getting off. Not simply blaming the many CFOs who worked for him, left the company and are now copping a plea. That's pretty standard. Not for claiming to be in the dark about the financials, despite being an astute control freak and insisting on optimistic forecasts that the numbers didn't support. That's also par for the course. No, it's how he's played the faith and race cards and so transparently pimped to get a predominantly black jury that might view him sympathetically.

Based in Birmingham, HealthSouth is a growing health conglomerate that provides rehabilitation services. Scrushy may have actually started and run a good company for a while, but sometimes that isn't enough. By the time of the alleged fraud, he was on his third wife, a stylish minister's daughter who seems to have God and her husband confused, and who founded a company that created comfy loungewear incorporating that all-important perky bra. I do believe that's the founder herself modeling the product in pre-indictment days.

They lived in Palm Beach, belonged to a white church and had all the toys down there, except for the Birmingham show horse stables where the judge in the case bonded with one of his daughters from an earlier marriage.

The man is the Donald Trump, maybe Saddam Hussein, of Birmingham. As 60 Minutes reported:

In Birmingham, you can drive on the Richard Scrushy Parkway, and to the Richard Scrushy Campus at Jefferson State Community College. There's the Richard Scrushy Building, the Richard Scrushy Library and the Richard Scrushy Ball Field.

There used to be a Richard Scrushy Statue, but after someone spray-painted the word "thief" on it, and a radio DJ urged people to pull it down like Saddam's statue in Baghdad, it was removed.

Suddenly, he's back in Birmingham, visibily affiliated with (and heavily contributing to) an African-American congregation, and hosting a religious TV show with his wife. He mounts a strenuous PR campaign, with a self-laudatory web site, complete with a bio emphasizing his birthplace of Selma, Alabama, the cradle of the civil rights movement. He surrounds himself with a black defense team, led by Donald Watkins, a big man in Birmingham, whose main claim to wider fame was his failure to buy the Minnesota Vikings. The Watkins summation was a bald appeal to associate a vote for acquittal with the courageous acts of past juries who rendered verdicts that helped strike down American apartheid. (Scrushy's management team at HealthSouth, in contrast, was distictly non-minority.)

Folks, this is an arrogant rich man who is hiding behind Christianity, his trophy wife, and a subsidized legion to bamboozle you. His posse outside court appearances resembles the King of Pop's, heavy with black preachers in good suits. The only figure missing is the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and I'm sure this week, after wringing out his pitiful share of visibility from the Michael Jackson case, he's looking for a new gig.

I won't try to encapsulate all the twists and turns here. I'd saved pertinent quotes and salient facts, but I can't locate them right now, and I realize they don't matter. The facts don't matter. The rotten moral core and cynical behavior don't matter. Even the inept defense arguments don't matter.

If you have enough money in America, you can murder your wife, sleep with children, bang a hotel worker, invade Iraq or lie about your earnings, and you will get off. Where are those activist judges when we really need them?

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Made Men

The voice was familiar, but the things he was saying didn't square up. Was Joe Pesci really addressing the Commonwealth Club? Naaww. That high, raspy, Joisey voice belonged to Jack Welch.

A Letter from the Front

My Darling,
The war is not going well for us. I don't know what you are reading in the papers, but out here, we begin to doubt we can win this thing. Casualties are mounting on our side, and the enemy shows no sign of giving in. We are fighting for a free and democratic society, but for them, it is a holy war.

We started with such high hopes, with a strong belief that we were in the right, but that is nothing compared to the fanaticism we face on the other side. As an American, I believe in freedom, in a pluralistic society, where everyone has the right to pursue their own beliefs, but our foe is not troubled or compromised by such thoughts. They believe they are carrying out God's will, and that we are Satan, or at least we are advancing the cause of Satan with our decadent culture.

We think we want to preserve freedoms for all people. They think we want to extinguish their civilization, their culture, and its laws as passed down from the prophets. How can we win against such uncompromising resolution? It seems they want to preserve their medieval world — despite its ignorance, fear and intolerance — more than we want a modern, progressive society.

Let me tell you how it was today on the front lines.

There is not that much carnage in the streets. I would say it is more intimidation, the relentless threat of attack, that keeps us on edge.

For example, we had mustered a line of troops to secure the perimeter of our area, and we could see the other side gathering their forces. We had been warned that they would act like they were on their way to worship, but would turn suddenly and attack. Believe me, you do not want to kill someone heading to church. But neither do you want to be killed. Terrorist or religious fanatic, it makes little difference when they are bent on eradicating you from the face of the earth!

So we stood at the ready, knowing we had defenses, but not sure they would be enough. We had several federal judge nominations we were prepared to bottle up in committee, and the line of same sex couples waiting for marriage licenses was formidable, winding all the way to the Ten Commandments tablet where we had set up a pro-choice information booth. It was rumored we held frozen embryos in reserve, but I hoped we would not have to resort to biological weapons...

This display only provoked our foe. We were soon attacked by a phalanx of SUVs covered with magnetic ribbons and "W stands for Women" bumperstickers. Scores of schoolchildren marched in front of a giant flag, reciting phonics drills. Our communications were overwhelmed by bursts of email and phone calls from tightly organized Republican cells, and Limbaugh, Hannity and O'Reilly were broadcast toward our lines day and night at excruciating volume. Meanwhile, they continue to home school more recruits, filling them with fear and hate. I see their fresh faces and despair.

I was worried about biological weapons. Yet they introduced the nuclear option. Referenda on countless miniscule issues rain down on us like fragmentation bombs. Our basic services begin to be cut off — libraries, early childhood programs, and school arts programs. More and more of our troops' families are without health care, and others can barely stay awake on guard duty after working two jobs.

Then they accused us of protecting child rapists. Of targeting people of faith. Of murdering innocents. Of favoring criminals over victims. Of supporting cheats and bums on the backs of working people.

I have devoted my life to tolerance and nonviolence. I don't think I can go against that now. But we have already unleashed the out-of-control judiciary, advocated higher taxes and endorsed sodomy. I don't know what more we can do to win this war, my darling, but if I do not come home, you will know I have done my best.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Finding More Middle Ground

In the earlier post in response to shedding light on issues, I neglected to include discussion groups. That's because I don't participate in any formal groups or online discussions myself, so can't recommend them.

But I can recommend starting one yourself. There's a movement called study circles that encourages citizens to self-organize around an area of common interest.

According to the Study Circles Resource Center: "A study circle is a group of 8-12 people from different backgrounds and viewpoints who meet several times to talk about an issue. In a study circle, everyone has an equal voice, and people try to understand each other's views. They do not have to agree with each other. The idea is to share concerns and look for ways to make things better. A facilitator helps the group focus on different views and makes sure the discussion goes well."

Think of it as a book club, only where each member brings diferent reading and experience to the group.

The Resource Center has lots of examples and ideas for getting one started.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

How Does it Feel to Give Up?

Twenty years ago I wrote a song called "Are you Saved?" that began:

This time of night, it could go either way.
Go looking for God, or try to get laid.

The chorus:

Are you saved? Are you saved?
How does it feel to give up?
Are you saved? Are you saved?
Could you recommend
Someone to your friend?

Thanks to majikthise for the insight, I could have been writing about Love in Action.

"The mission of Love in Action is to communicate a message of hope and to impart courage to a world facing homosexuality and its subsequent issues. We believe that finding freedom in Jesus Christ is God's love in action."

It turns out one of the "subsequent issues" is shame about having gay loved ones, and one of them is a kid named Zack who has been sent by his parents to an LIA re-education camp called Refuge. He could be living there for two years, until he straightens out.

Before he went under, Zack posted the rules of the Refuge.

After reading through the regulations, I am starting to gain a deeper understading of the gay life style and how it comes about:

• The clients may not wear Abercrombie and Fitch or Calvin Klein brand clothing, undergarments, or accessories.

• Absolutely no journaling or keeping a diary ... unless directed or approved by staff.

• Refuge clients may only read materials approved by staff.

• No television viewing, going to movies, or reading/watching/listening to secular media of any kind... This includes listening to classical or instrumental music that is not expressly Christian (Beethoven, Bach, etc. are not considered Christian).

• Refuge clients may not enter any restuarants with bars, even when accompanied by a parent or guardian.

• Refuge clients must be accompanied by a parent during any trip to a public restroom.

• No access to malls of any kind.

• Clients are not allowed to visit any video, music or media stores that are not expressly Christian, even if accompanied by a parent or guardian.

• Refuge clients are allowed a one-time 15-minute maximum closed bathroom door time for shower/grooming purposes. The only other closed-door alone time allowed is for using the restroom.

• Refuge clients must keep their bedroom doors open at all times, day or night.

• Proper bedclothes must be worn during nighttime sleeping hours. Appropriate bedclothes include full pajamas (tops and bottoms) or a pair of non-underwear-type shorts and a T-shirt. Nightgowns are not allowed.

• Be honest, authentic, and real.

I'm sure it's for their own good.

The regs are interspersed with scriptural authority, including this, um, excerpt:

Psalm 133:1-3: 1 See how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to live together in unity! 2 It is like the precious oil on the head, That ran down on the beard, Even Aaron's beard; That came down on the edge of his robes; 3 Like the dew of Hermon, That comes down on the hills of Zion: For there Yahweh gives the blessing, Even life forevermore.

Friday, June 10, 2005

A Nation With No Middle Ground

I received this email from a reader. The subject line: A Nation with No Middle Ground.

I'm a 57-year-old male who is both conservative, liberal, everything in between. Biggest complaints are (1) how difficult it is to find the truth about anything controversial and (2) frustration with politicians of all parties that can't find common ground for the good of the country.

I would be interested in any web sites, discussion groups, books or whatever that are willing to shed light on the truth and discuss solutions based on reality.

What follows is an expansion of the response I sent him, including additional suggested sources...

Perhaps you have had the experience of reading a news story you know something about, and have been disappointed by what you see as distortions, over-simplifications, omissions and mistakes. I believe newspapers try to be responsible and objective in their reporting, but I also know that the process of writing and editing news is fraught with peril. Reporters rarely can know all they should, especially on a breaking story or when they do not have an assigned beat that encourages them to develop some expertise. Their stories have to fill the allotted news hole, and stuff gets left out. Editors try to clarify and may unintentionally distort something instead. Sources deceive or refuse to comment. It's imperfect, but better than...

Television news? TV has a bias for the visual and the dramatic, less so the relevant or important. An entire news broadcast contains about as much actual content as a few newspaper pages — mostly the back pages, where sports, weather and crime are covered. I don’t believe TV reporters are as well-trained, well-managed or, with rare exceptions, as smart as a print journalists. Putting the reporters on camera does not seem to make them more accountable.

Radio news, with the exception of public radio, is largely MIA. Talk radio is blogging without a modem, or the possibility of self-editing.

Blogs? Bloggers can be lazy, obsessed, unprincipled and inept — and they generally lack any oversight or standards of performance other than what their readers exercise — so caveat emptor. Even the best are unlikely to be both trained and supervised, and they're unlikely to do any research or field work that can't be done with a mouse.

Books and magazines are more likely than news operations to have an agenda. Otherwise, how would theyl they sell any copies? (Newspapers get accused of running certain stories or viewpoints to sell papers. But papers survive on ads and subscribers, not newstand sales.)

So how can we get closer to the truth in matters we care about?

In general, I don’t worry about finding an absolute truth, because “truth” tends to shift as my perspective changes and I acquire more information. Plus, things change.

A view of the world that satisfies me one day may prove unsatisfactory later. I may feel myself in the right on an issue only to discover later that I have been merely righteous, and righteousness has closed my eyes to something important. There are no perfect sources — or unerring observers — and the best I can do is keep my eyes open and take responsibility for developing my own world view by:

• Understanding who is providing information and what influences or motives may affect how they provide it

• Learning more about ways “the facts” can be distorted, intentionally or unintentionally

• Gaining insight into how my own perceptions affect the interpretation of information

• Actively seeking alternative points of view — not just centrists or opposing views from experts and fanatics, but shades of opinion from those with different perspectives, such as artists, other cultures or people I don’t deal with regularly. And from conversation, not just reading.

Here are some of the books and sources I use to keep me thinking straight. My apologies, but my wireless connection kept crashing, so I gave up trying to find linkes to all the books.

Understanding who is providing information issues reports about misuse of facts in political stories, and you can subscribe to their bulletins:

Center for Media and Public Affairs

See FAIR for how various forces influence the news.

Poynter Institute is for journalists, but it’s helpful for the readers of journalism, too.

How to Watch TV News, by Neil Postman. You may enjoy other cultural commentary, including Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly.

The Republican Noise Machine, by David Brock, exposes how the right employs think tanks and other underwriting of right wing ideas. After reading this, you will never accept a quote from an expert without looking up his affiliations.

Dirty Politics, by Katherine Hall Jamieson. She was the first to point out how elections are covered as horse races, rather than on the issues. Two presidential elections later, you can see how much influence she had.

How “the facts” can be distorted

I used to teach information design, and so my list has a bit of spin, but none of these books is very technical. There's a good deal of distortion that takes place when people draw from research or statistical data without understanding how to present it accurately.

Gerd Gigerenzer explains how physicians, cops and others get in wrong when trying to explain probabilities, in Calculated Risks

In How to Lie with Maps, Mark S. Monmonier shows how spatial presentation of information can be used for good or e-vil.

Edward R. Tufte is the guru of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, and his books are elegant, informative and too expensive unless your interest lies in the graphical display of information. See also Envisioning Information and Visual and Statistical Thinking: Displays of Evidence for Decision Making.

Here are a couple more related titlesin my library, but not entirely committed to memory: The Chicago Guide to Writing About Numbers, by Jane E. Miller, and Damned Lies and Statistics, Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicans and Activists, by Joel Best.

In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen reviews how American myths got made — useful template for viewing today's myths in the making.

How Perception Affects Interpretation

Another fave topic, with a few suggested readings:

The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things, Barry Glassner.
The Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan.
The works of anthropologist Edward T. Hall.
Religious tracts, which used to be easier to come by on city streets.

Alternative Points of View

The Radical Middle is designed as if by an 1880’s pamphleteer, but it is a great source of books, magazines and blogs.

The Common Sense Desk compiles and comments on posts from more centrist blogs like this one and provides links to other middle-leaning (?) sources.

Centerfield is centrist and has links to lots of other centrist sites.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Who's Gonna Pay for the Pensions?

Suppose you're one of those shareholders who has stock in General Motors, one of the domestic airlines or other old economy employers with underfunded pension plans and escalating health care costs for employees as well as retirees. Or maybe you just care about your miles on United, Delta or Northwest. Either way, you don't want to see a bankruptcy.

Suppose you're a free market capitalist. Companies that can't compete deserve to go under. Don't bail them out. Let the people who lose their jobs go to work for a company that knows how to make a profit.

Suppose you've entered the workforce in the 401(k) era. Defined benefit pensions are a relic, an artifact of the old unionist days, nothing to do with you.

Suppose you're a worker in one of those companies. You've already made salary concessions and seen the value of your company stock decline, but you're still qualified for a pension, and staying where you are seemed to be a better retirement plan than moving to another company and having to vest all over again. Especially given what you were hearing about Social Security.

Suppose you're a taxpayer and you hear that companies have underfunded their pension plans by $353.7 billion, a record shortfall, according to filings with the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). That's an increase in underfunding — or a decrease in funding — of 27 percent in just a year. Since 2000, the number of underfunding corporations has grown from 221 to 1108, and the total then was only $19.1 billion. The PBGC is already the trustee for 3520 pension plans, including Bethlehem Steel, Polaroid, and TWA.

That means you'll eventually be on the hook, too, because the PBGC is facing a record deficit. The PBGC is not funded by general tax revenues, depending on "collecting insurance premiums from employers that sponsor insured pension plans, earns money from investments and receives funds from pension plans it takes over."

But the rates it charges were set in 1991, and Congress has shown no interest in raising them despite cautions from government analysts going back several years. Do some companies see a favorable tradeoff in paying the low premiums while continuing to contribute to their pension funds at less than realistic levels, given today's investment climate? Do they think if there's a problem they can walk away with a clear conscience, after handing the obligations over to the agency?

It's clear something is going on.

In the 2004 reports filed with the PBGC, the underfunded plans had $786.8 billion in assets to cover more than $1.14 trillion in liabilities, for an average funded ratio of 69 percent. Companies with less than $50 million in unfunded pension liabilities don't have to file reports, so the total shortfall in all insured pension plans, estimated by the PBGC, is more likely above $450 billion. You can see all this for yourself at the PBGC, which also presents an analysis of the pension plans of United Airlines:

"Although the plans have an aggregate funding shortfall of almost $10 billion and an average funded ratio of 41 percent, the company was able to go for years without making any cash contributions to the plans, without paying additional premiums to the PBGC, and without sending underfunding notices to plan participants."

Defaulting on pension obligations can look like a cynical ploy to collect corporate welfare in the form of a bail-out, but it's usually more complicated. As an article in Chief Executive explains:

"The problem of pension underfunding stems from a confluence of forces: the nation’s rising number of retirees, a drop in stock prices and historically low interest rates. Corporate America long relied on stock-market gains to offset soaring pension liabilities, but, given the current stock and bond markets, that is no longer an option. Interest rates are used in pension calculations as a proxy for the rate at which a pension fund must grow to pay future benefits. Low rates make pension obligations look much bigger today."

In other words, corporations don't ever set aside enough money to fully pay their pensioners. Like insurance companies, they rely on investing funds for growth, while counting on appreciation of their own stock value, plus some actuarial shrinkage (i.e., death) to reduce the amount they'll ultimately have to pay. And with market returns lower, more people ready to retire, and longer life expectancies, they're facing making up the difference at the very time their shareholders are likely to be getting testy about financial performance.

I think most corporations get in trouble because their executives are smart, but ego driven, not because they're crooked. They think they can work the angles of the law, beat the markets, fix earnings before the Street finds out there's a problem, etc. See Ken Lay, Bernie Ebbers and all the rest.


The Smartest Guys in the Room.

Though they may be disgraced, the execs responsible for their pension fund solvency don't face financial problems themselves. It's the working folks who end up collecting only a portion of what they were promised as part of their employment agreement.

As shareholders, we have to ask ourselves, do we care how these companies behave? Or are we simply worried about our own nest eggs?

Someone is going to have to pay for those past obligations. Will it be the corporate insurance premiums, the tax payers, the shareholders or the people who trusted the company they worked for?

Monday, June 06, 2005

An Inch is as Good as 0.284 of a Mile

As the jet taxied to the terminal, I could see the four black cars in 45-degree formation on the tarmac, all freshly washed, lights on and engines running. We were home, and there would be no trudging up the concourse, waiting at a baggage carousel, hauling luggage to level Green 4F or swiping the card at the exit booth.

This is how the other half lives, give or take 49.9 percent. The professional athletes. The corporate executives. The Congressmen on a tight schedule.

Eight of us had chartered a plane for a long weekend in Galena, Illinois, dedicated to golf. We played 90 holes in 60 hours, takeoff to touchdown, and in the interim, no cigars were lit, no waitresses were disrespected, no hangovers were created, and no casinos or strip bars were visited.

There wasn't time. And precious time is always a rationale for the exercise of privilege, isn't it?

At the beginning of the trip, I had lounged in an air charter waiting room, accepting the espresso, declining the fresh-baked cookies, and thumbing a glossy bible of consumption masquerading as an executive aviation magazine. I reached page 36 before I encountered the second flying-related ad, across the photo of Pamela Anderson. But everything else at both ends of the charter flight lacked the Vanity Fair flavor, each encounter so understated and attentive it had to be extremely well-rehearsed.

You could get used to this. And you could see why those who are used to such luxuries as private aviation do not plan to give any of it up in their lifetimes.

On the Sunday return, there was an article in the New York Times about the growing gap between the rich and the hyper rich. That is, between the top one percent of income earners and the top one-tenth. It also described how the difference is accelerating between those at the very top, and everyone else:

"From 1950 to 1970, for example, for every additional dollar earned by the bottom 90 percent, those in the top 0.01 percent earned an additional $162, according to the Times analysis. From 1990 to 2002, for every extra dollar earned by those in the bottom 90 percent, each taxpayer at the top brought in an extra $18,000.

I've written about this gap before, perhaps at too great a length. Many of us, I suspect, don't realize where our income ranks compared to the rest of Americans. At first glance, the "bottom 90 percent" seems like a absurd construct. Yet the majority is at bottom when you consider everytime most people gain an inch, the very rich gain more than a quarter mile.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Do we Hafta CAFTA?

Having labored in and around the vineyards of multinationals for going on 30 years — but not as an actual laborer, mind — I don't automatically go into a frenzy at the words "free trade" or "global markets." Near the end of my working career, with portable skills and money put away, I don't feel personally threatened by the possibility that my job will decamp for Honduras or Bangladesh.

Trading goods beats trading blows, and isolationism is no defense against economies that have decided to invest in education and innovation to raise the living standard for their millions.

CAFTA, the Central America Free Trade Agreement, may raise the hackles of trade union types, but it seems like a ho-hummer for comfortable suburbanites. And for backscratching Florida citrus growers. (Thanks to the right-wing Club for Growth for the tip.)

That is, until you actually start to read about it from people like Jim Hightower.

This isn't going to be a deep think piece. It's just a warning not to let your eyes glaze over when CAFTA comes up, and to get past the usual populist alarms about corporatism run amok. For example, note how some states have rescinded their "voluntary commitment" to CAFTA provisions after governors (often Republicans) discovered they'd been hoodwinked by the White House into accepting untenable state procurement regulations.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Trouble with Being a Rock Star

After a long work day checking for "West Wing" reruns, I stumbled across an Eagles Farewell Tour concert on channel 11 and a commercial-free high school baseball game on channel 12 — an irresistible combo for an inveterate flipper. The game was close and the Eagles were soaring from one hit to the next, and so I camped, going from home plate collision to Joe Walsh solo to perfect sacrifice bunt to big harmonies.

Takin' it easy. Noticing that Don Henley was starting to look an awful lot like Red Buttons.

And then, a sudden realization. It was because of the Eagles and baseball that I was saved from becoming a rock star.

Music turned out to be one of those forks in the road not taken after various stints as a student glee club director, occasional wedding singer, and performer in rock bands, folk and show tune groups, musical comedies, and all-state choirs. It was this largely wholesome background that landed me a gig as the entertainment for the Colorado State Fraternal Order of Eagles convention back in 1968. Whoever did the booking must've last seen me singing and hoofing through medleys from "Guys and Dolls" and "The Pajama Game."

He probably had no idea I had morphed into a protest singer and my current repertoire leaned left toward "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "Blowin' in the Wind," and my own "America, You Should be More Careful With Your Things" sung for appreciative coffeehouse audiences. So it was a shock to us all, as I stood on the pitcher's mound at the baseball park singing to the stands full of Eagles, that what we had there was a failure to communicate.

It became clear then — there'd been an inkling earlier in a Meeker, Colorado bar where I couldn't play any of the country and western requests thrown my way — that I was engaged in an entertainment business, not a music or art or political consciousness business. And, unlike with art or consciousness-raising, success was going to be measured by the numbers — bar tabs run up, cover charges collected, gate receipts, record sales.

I flinched. I couldn't imagine, I said, playing the same songs night after night, trapped into doing covers, or if you were lucky, forever reprising your hits. Becoming an old rocker was horrifying, and it didn't help if you took the Keith Richard route and looked 70 before you hit 40. There were no grandpa rockers, and Pete Seeger was an icon, not a role model.

But deep down, I knew how hard it was to find an audience and connect with them — and the pain when you didn't. It was hard work bringing joy to strangers.

Even at age 35, the Eagles couldn't have imagined themselves coloring their hair, playing "Desperado" for the 6000th time to women who could be their daughters, feeling grateful. But there it is. Here we are. And the music turned out to be what mattered after all.

Real Cowboys Don't Smirk

I'll give the President a pass on an occasional "disassemble" for "dissemble," if he will just stand up and answer questions from the non-planted media members at an occasional press conference. He avoided them like HIV in his first term, but now that his "mandate" seems to be fraying in the middle — it is more resolute than ever at the extremes — Bush seems willing to face reporters without a script, at least one he can read off the teleprompter.

On the radio, the President sounds like the good old boys I encountered in the oil patch during college summers. Men from Texas and Oklahoma who grew up in times when men stood in a hiring line at the rig, waiting for one of the crew to screw up so they could step forward and take the job. They did not surrender their drawl as they moved north to Colorado and Wyoming. It was a badge, a Purple Heart, and it made their stories better, their jokes funnier, their criticism more palatable.

So when I hear the Bush voice, I don't reflexively recoil, though I know he's a New England-born patrician lately come to Texas. My grandfather the rancher was born in Connecticut and moved to Kansas about the same age as when Bush went to Midland. By the time I knew him in Arizona, he made Gary Cooper look like a greenhorn off the stagecoach from St. Louis.

Besides, if Bush believes in adopting frozen embryos, what's wrong with implanting someone else's speech inflections?

On radio, you don't see the smirk, the grey suit, the Presidential seal. It's just you and a familiar plainspeaking voice, a bit squeaky around the edges. I understand why a lot of people might find that comforting in a leader, and it ain't all about Social S'curity and war in Eye-rack.

After Reagan, and now Bush 43, I wonder if we will ever see a well-spoken, erudite president again. Just as test pilot Chuck Yeager's dry and laconic reports informed the cabin patter for generations of airline pilots, will we forever listen to fireside chats that sound like they came from the leader of Rig No. 19's morning tower crew or the foreman of the Bar Heart Ranch?

The President responded to a question about the pace of diplomacy with North Korea over nuclear weapons, ""It's either diplomacy or military. And I am for the diplomacy approach."

Maybe if you talk like you have common sense, eventually you get some.

Or maybe if you skipped the diplomatic route and now have an intractable mess on your hands, you see the virtues of getting other nations involved in negotiations.

Or maybe you simply treat the countries that actually have nuclear weapons differently than those possibly and unverifiably developing weapons of mass destruction.

Either way, these common-sense words might sound comforting until you think about countries like Iran. "If we have the bomb, Satan will negotiate. If we are merely suspected of wanting the bomb, we will be attacked. Full, surreptitious, speed ahead."

Real cowboys don't travel with security details and they can't call in the F-16s, so when they're in a strange bar, they don't brag, they don't smirk, they don't pay for drinks with someone else's money, and they don't tangle with an ass they aren't absolutely ready to kick.

The accent filtered into the enclave of Midland, Texas, but not the lessons that should've gone with it, which is too bad for us all.