Wednesday, January 27, 2010

America needs a greed tax

I hear that President Obama is expected tonight to ask for a special tax on banks. It's to help insure us against the kinds of disasters bankers create when we protect them against failure while they're permitted to screw their customers, their stockholders and the American taxpayers

No no no, a bank tax is the wrong way to go.

Progressive income taxes are the right way to go. With progressive income taxes, America could easily control the greed. There's no point in pissing off your stockholders by taking a $20 million bonus on top of an outrageously high salary if $19.5 million of it will be taxed away anyway.

This thing needs to be positioned as a "greed tax" — which in a substantial majority of cases it would be. (Income averaging, a device that used to be in the tax code years ago, would protect the occasional athlete, inventor or entrepeneur who makes a big hit only once or twice in his or her life.)

The greed tax would be graduated. Tax brackets stay the same as now for up to $250,000 a year. So if your income is under a quarter of a million bucks a year, there's be no impact at all on you. Everything above that gets taxed at a 38 percent tax rate—not a huge boost. Everything above $2 million would get taxed at a 50% tax rate. And so on, up to 90% for the multi-million dollar bonuses ripped from the accounts of bank customers and the earnings that ought to go to bank stockholders.

A significant fringe benefit: The greed tax would go a long, long way toward reducing the national budget deficit, without snipping here and there at little pieces of important Federal programs.

So why are we screwing around just with bank taxes? Or would President Obama even think about a graduated income greed tax? Probably not.

Obama's real problem from a progressive prospective is that he won't really go for the throats of people who are going for his.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Your lips are sealed? Your tongue is tied? Your quote is not for attribution? What’s YOUR excuse, buddy?

My friend Underbelly-Buce has some fun with the excuses we read in newspapers of record, or of near-record, for people avoiding attribution of things they’ve said.

For example, Buce offers us this:

...who did not want to be named because
he enjoys sticking the shiv in between his goodbuddy's shoulderblades.

This could be the beginning of a wonderful game. How many reasons can you think of for refusing attribution of a quote?

…a librarian who did not want to be named because
she was in bed getting schtupped by the reporter at the time and she didn’t want her husband to know

…a CIA analyst and double agent who did not want to be named because
his acts of espionage could be viewed as a capital crime, even in the United States

…a drug detail saleswoman who did not want to be named because
her boss thought she was out with her suitcase full of samples making sales calls to doctors, not boozing it up in an Eighth Avenue bar just down the block from the New York Times

…another serial killer who did not want to be named because
he was afraid that his neighbors might find him offensive if they knew his hobby his skinning human beings alive

…a "vig" collector who did not want to be named because
several mafia capos might decide to have him whacked

Why would somebody that you know might not want to be named?

Most of my readers are brain dead, but if you’re actually alive and awake out there while you’re reading this (one way or another, 67,500 of you have stumbled into this blog and sniffed around so far) feel free to make contributions of your own. Provided of course that they're printable. Or at least borderline printable.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Elaine Stritch: believing the words

Ordinarily, The New York Crank doesn’t review nightclub acts, but I’m making an exception for Elaine Stritch. If you don’t like this change of pace from the political, you can buzz off. So far as I’m concerned, the lady’s a piece of work and I’m taking notice.

But a bit of background first.

Years ago, I made my entire living telling fibs. Not outright lies. Just essentially harmless fibs, the kind that got people to buy dishwashing liquid in a white bottle instead of a green bottle, or to charge things with a green credit card instead of a blue credit card. In other words, I was in the advertising business.

And then one day, the business actually taught me something valuable—the kind of thing that offers a fresh insight into how stuff works.

I was talking to the director of a TV spot, who was casting for a voice. I don’t remember what the line was that the voice would say. Probably some tame version of this incongruous thought, “Makes love to your hands while it beats the crap out of grease.”

“There are so many announcers with great voices out there,” I said to him. “So how come you’re auditioning only people from Broadway?”

“It’s simple,” the director replied. And then he said, with dramatic emphasis and pregnant pauses between each word, “Actors…believe…the…words.

Which brings me back to Elaine Stritch.

Stritch is currently appearing at the Café Carlyle, a nightclub in a chichi New York hotel. It's the kind of hotel where movie stars, politicians, investment bank bigshots and diplomats routinely share the elevator.

Ostensibly she’s singing Stephen Sondheim’s songs. I say ostensibly because the lady’s been around the block a few times (her stage debut was in 1944), she’s had a few episodes with booze, and her voice bears the scars. While she miraculously brings off Sondheim's often murder-to-sing ballads, she generally seems to be croaking in tune rather than singing in tune.

But no matter. Stritch may or may not be a singer but she is one hell of an actress and anyone who believes Sondheim’s words can put on a powerful performance just by speaking them. That is essentially what she did. In fact, she spoke one number, entirely without music.

Stritch's delivery toyed with her audience’s emotions. She played it for humor when she sang “I feel pretty/oh so pretty” as if she was letting the audience in on her own ironic joke. She brought some to tears, when she delivered the lyrics to, Every Day a Little Death. And the thought, “damn right about that,” went through my head when she sang Ladies Who Lunch.

There’s another reason to go to the Café Carlyle and hear Stritch (she’s only there until January 30th, so hurry) assuming you’re willing to part with a horrendously thick wad of cash. It’s one of those rare performance venues where the entertainers must be sorely tempted to entertain themselves by watching the audience. And where the audience might be tempted to keep a close eye on one another.

I was sitting with my beautiful girlfriend next to a couple of evidently connected guys (Bonanno family I warrant, judging from some names dropped during their overheard conversation). One of them was accompanied by a much younger woman whose face was a figment of some plastic surgeon’s wildest flight of, umm, creativity—augmented by an equally fanciful makeup job. I won’t even try to describe it. You had to be there.

We had a celebrity in the audience too, the actress Kathleen Turner, who of course was raptly listening to the words. Plus the usual assortment of stock characters from central casting playing out their personal vignettes: The two older gay guys holding hands. The two younger gay guys holding hands. Two middle-aged lesbians who stood up to applaud, whoop and cheer after each number and who nearly swallowed Stritch alive during the performance. The clueless out-of-towner staying at the hotel who came down in his sneakers, jeans and sweatshirt and had to be brought a jacket by the maitre d’.
An incongruous priest in full clerical uniform. By now you probably get the scene.

The bill for the performance and a modest dinner for two—two salads, two plates of salmon, one martini, one glass of wine, one cup of coffee—cost more than my first term of private college tuition, back when Stritch was starring in the Goodyear Television Playhouse. Or to put it another way, I could have flown to Europe and back—this year. Well, money is toilet paper these days.

But Stritch is hard to beat, most especially if you’re one of those people who understands what it means to believe the words.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Florida Power & Light company plays dirty and ends up getting a financial shock

Good for you, Public Service Commission of Florida!

In an era when people expect the lobbyists to win at the expense of the public, the Public Service Commission has withstood an onslaught of pressures, temptations, misleading claims and other low moves by Florida Power & Light.

I commend the full story to you in the Miami Herald. But the short version is, the public actually wins! Or at least they win so far.

Their bill s will be smaller on average for their electricity, contrary to FPL’s demands for a rate increase that would have soaked Florida residents and businesses for an extra $1.3 billion.

To the power company, that extra billion-and-a-third bucks bulging out of their pockets was worth a $6 million full court press lobbying campaign. In the end, they’ll end up essentially soaking their own stockholders for the $6 million. Maybe the stockholders ought to think about dumping their execs.

FPL’s executives’ may feel a certain emptiness in their personal pockets as well. Bonuses and raises were denied for the power company execs, who assailed the Public Service Commission with high powered Washington lobbying, sleazy attempts to win favor by inviting commission employees home for parties, and a small slew of specious and whiny claims.

After the commission's ruling, the power company’s chief exec, Armando Olivera, whined that the decision creates a “chilling effect on anyone who wants to invest in this state.” He evidently didn’t explain how regulation of a government-regulated utility (and power costs that are under control) could have a chilling effect on a manufacturer, hotel builder, or cake baker who might want to start up a business or relocate to Florida. That’s probably because yet another of his outlandish statements is unexplainable.

Chalk one up for the good guys!

Friday, January 08, 2010

Shame on you, Rupert Murdoch! Your New York Post seems to be offering advice to terrorists. How many dead Americans is it worth to sell papers?

There’s a fine line between exposing a weakness in airline security and helping terrorists to exploit that same weakness.

The New York Post, one of the mass circulation junk newspapers in Rupert Murdoch’s harem of journalistic harlotry, seems to have slithered across that line, without giving a tinker’s damn for the lives of the millions of Americans who fly.

The article appeared in print on Thursday, January 2nd. You can see it here.

The article tells the exploits of Lorena Mongelli, a Post reporter who managed to get through a metal detector at JFK with a titanium necklace in her jeans pocket. A serious threat to airline security? Possibly. Or possibly not.

But unlike the web article, the full-page “exposé” in the print edition of the Post also contained a sidebar, listing three different weapons that an actual terrorist can use to get past security.

That’s it, above. Just take it to your friendly neighborhood weapons store and proceeed after that directly to the airport with your weapon. (I’ve retouched out the names and model numbers of those weapons to discourage terrorist wannabes.)

The article also provided a suggestion about a “homemade” weapon—useful help for terrorists who’ve shown that they’ll follow up on any recommendation, from shoe bombs to jockstrap bombs.

No doubt, the Post thinks this kind of stuff will help them sell extra papers. The evidence is pretty clear. Editor Col Allen was quoted as saying, "I'll get fired not because Rupert doesn't like the stories I put in the paper. I'll get fired because we don't sell newspapers."

Well, I have no doubt this how-to-smuggle-a-weapon-onto-a-plane story will help them sell extra papers to terrorists, and that it will rate reproduction in The Terrorist Cookbook.

Shame on you Lorena Mongelli, who shares a byline for this subversive horror of a story with Tom Namako. I’m guessing Tom’s a rewrite man. Since this was not breaking news that had to be phoned in on the quick, I have to assume Namako got assigned to the story too because Lorena can’t write her way out of a paper bag.

Shame also on you, Col Allen. And please, the fact that you may have yet another booze-induced hangover is no excuse.

And of course, shame on Rupert Murdoch.

Rupe and Col are foreigners and ought to be deported and banned forever from entering the country for giving material aid and comfort to the enemy.

Lorena and Tom just ought to have their faces slapped, and then get deported to Podunk, where they might be able to cover meetings of the local school board and sewer district without endangering the lives of their fellow citizens.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Here’s my evidence for believing Delta Airlines thinks your money is toilet paper—and that their passengers are toilet paper, too

I used to love to fly. I took my first commercial airline flight alone when I was 16. I may recently have taken my last. Or at least my last on Delta.

Plenty of bad things have already been said about Delta by irate people who’ve dealt with them. For samples go here, where you’ll find, among other things, a passenger saying that Delta hacked her e-mail for advocating on behalf of Delta passengers.

Or go here for a story about people whose heads were about to explode over the “screw you” treatment they got when Delta lost their luggage.

Or here, for a tale of their inconsistency in matters related to security rules and regs.

45,601 enraged Delta haters can't all be wrong

Or just google “Delta Sucks” and you’ll get (at least as of this writing) 45,600 posts relating to irate former Delta passengers. Well, make that 45,601. I’ve got my own blood-boiling story.

On Sunday, December 27th, I boarded Delta Flight 481, with a listed flight time of 5 hours and 49 minutes from JFK in New York to Mexico City International Airport. As soon as I was in the air, I learned that Delta doesn’t serve meals on this flight. At least not in Tourist.

Well, okay, I understand. Times are tough. Delta’s trying to survive. And anyway, they were selling food for the flight. I didn’t mind buying it. What did they have?

Care for some junk food with your junk airline?

Umm, cookies. Cookies is a meal? Well, uh, potato chips? I repeat the question. Trail mix, then. Sorry, so far as I’m concerned that’s still junk food.

Well, they did have one “meal” for sale aboard the flight. A cheese plate. Oh goody! I love good cheese. I ordered it.

“That’ll be seven dollars,” said the flight attendant.

The little plastic box seemed mighty small for a “cheese plate” worth $7. I can get a whole wheel of imported French Camembert for that price. When I opened the itsy-teensy plastic box, I found one small slice of Swiss-like cheese, one equally small slice of what I think was supposed to be cheddar cheese, and one slice of mystery cheese. There were also four—four!—grapes and four crackers.

But what the hell. I reached for my wallet to pay the flight attendant. I yanked out a $5 bill and a couple of singles.

“Sorry, this is a cashless airline,” said the flight attendant.

Well, I had suspected for some time that Delta is going broke, but totally cashless?

“You’ll have to pay by credit card,” explained the flight attendant. “We don’t accept cash.”'

Now wait one effing second!

Who is Delta to flout U.S. law?

It says right on all the dollar bills in my wallet—and all the five, ten, twenty and fifty dollar bills, too—that “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.” In other words, United States law says you can use cash to pay for anything.

So I guess Delta thinks the laws of the United States don’t apply to Delta. And if the laws about money don’t apply to Delta, maybe they think the laws and regs about airline security, flight safety, the treatment of passengers and human resources don’t apply to them, either.

I might have considered that statement an exaggeration.

Until the flight back.

We had been vacationing in Oaxaca, Mexico. It’s a one-hour flight from Mexico City. On the return trip we flew Aeromexico back to Mexico City where we caught Delta Flight 484 to New York City. Well, that makes it all sound rather streamlined. It wasn't.

Chaos at the Delta gate

I don't know who's to blame for what here—whether it was Mexican security inefficiency, TSA inefficiency, or Delta inefficiency. I don't even know who all the people who stood between us (The New York Crank was traveling with his beautiful girlfriend) and the boarding gate were. But here's what happened.

1. When we got off the plane from Oaxaca, our hand luggage got x-rayed, we got magnetically scanned, and I got patted down. What's up with that? They don't want terrorists getting off airplanes and blowing up their own underpants in the souvenir shop?

2. When we entered the Delta departure area, our hand luggage got x-rayed again, we got magnetically scanned again, and I got patted down. Moreover, my solid crystal deodorant (not a liquid, not a gel) got confiscated. That same crystal deodorant has flown in my hand baggage with me—twice to Paris, once to San Francisco, all the way to Oaxaca and then part of the way home before somebody decided it was contraband. Or are the Delta people just making it up as they go along? I can tell you this: nowhere before boarding any flight in Mexico did anyone ask us to take off our shoes. I guess shoe bombers only blow up their shoes when they board in U.S. territory. Meanwhile, the guy behind me took a one-liter bottle of water that had just purchased in the terminal aboard with him. Or at least he said he bought it in the terminal. I mean, is that security, or what?

3. Our baggage got x-rayed, and we got scanned and patted down again just before boarding the plane. Furthermore, the Delta employees (I assume they're Delta employees) at the gate took our airline tickets with our luggage receipts attached and told us to move on. We had to stand there and insist they give us the tickets back. They resisted a bit before they gave in.

Good thing, too.

Our luggage stays in Mexico

There was no luggage waiting for us at the baggage carousel at JFK in New York. We waited. And waited. And waited—along with other passengers who had boarded Delta in Mexico City via connecting flights from other cities. We all had the same problem. No luggage.

Finally, we went to Delta's lost luggage office. The Crank's beautiful girlfriend handed our two luggage tags to the clerk there and explained the problem. He glared up at her suspiciously.

"Why are these two luggage tags stapled together?" he asked. What did he think he had just discovered? A terrorist plot to staple receipts?

The Crank's beautiful girlfriend explained that this was what the security people at the Mexico City airport did to the tags before they handed them back to us.

"Oh," was all the clerk replied. He filled out a big red ticket and handed it to us. "You'll have your bags within 24 hours he said.

24 hours on an extremely slow clock

We let 24 hours go by. No bags, and we were ready for bed, so we let it go until the next day. Next morning, still no bags. Finally, 48 hours later, the Crank's beautiful girlfriend started calling Delta.

I won't bore you with the details of trying to get a live person at Delta to give you a straight answer about the luggage that never got off the plane. Suffice it to say that some hours after she began calling, the beautiful girlfriend finally reached a woman who said rather casually, "Oh yes, your baggage got to the airport yesterday afternoon. We'll send it tomorrow."

It arrived in the wee hours of the next morning. But wait, there's more!

Opened, searched, scuffed and stolen

I opened my bag, to find all the zippered closures that I had closed were opened. Somebody had been rummaging through my stuff. There was only dirty laundry in there, and somebody had decided it wasn't worth stealing. But just to show that you can't keep a good thief down, that somebody had unstrapped the Tumi luggage tag from the outside handle of my bag and kept it.

And then, just for good measure, he or they took some kind of sharp or rough object and gouged a huge scratch across the bottom of my bag.

The beautiful girlfriend had bigger problems. Someone had taken about $500 worth of her jewelry, plus her camera.

Is this Delta's fault? It could have happened while the bags were in the possession of AeroMexico. But JFK and other US airports are notorious for theft of baggage contents, too. And the baggage sat around at JFK for at least 12 hours before Delta brought it home to us.

A bureaucratic form from hell

At any rate, Delta's legally responsible for processing a claim about all this. The beautiful girlfriend called Delta (more waiting on the phone) and was told to go download a lost baggage claim form from Delta and fill it out.

Trust me, it was the form from hell. Actually, don't trust me. You can see it for yourself here. There are over 70 boxes to fill in information Delta demands, including completely irrelevant stuff such as what you do for a living, whether you've ever filed a claim for lost baggage before, and the weight of your bag. Do you know what your own bag weighs?

Plus they want your receipt for your lost luggage (it's not enough that you've already presented it at the lost baggage counter when you got off the airplane) the number of your ticket (did you remember to save your ticket after you got off the plane?) and the original receipt for each item valued over $250. Do you have a receipt for that camera Aunt Martha gave you for Christmas?

Why this story matters to every potential Delta passenger

Obviously, Delta's management doesn't give a damn. Lose luggage? They'll do anything but promptly answer your call, find your luggage and get it to you.

Put in a claim? They'll stonewall you with bureaucratic forms and ridiculous demands.

Get hungry on the airplane? They'll charge you—which I suppose they have a right to do—but then they still ought to sell real meals on flights longer than three hours, and give fair value for the money they're charging.

But Delta doesn't seem to give a damn for their passengers. Which leads me to suspect they also don't give more than a minimal damn for the people who pilot and maintain their planes, or for air safety. Searching passengers three times and then losing their luggage is not a sign of vigilance. Or of meticulousness. Or of anything save chaotic management, greed and desperation.

Delta's acting like an airline that's going down the chute. I don't know what that says for their airplanes, but I don't ever want to be aboard one again if I can help it.

Update: On January 12, Delta announced that the airline was upping its baggage charge. From now on, they'll charge you $23 for your first bag, and $32 for the second. Continental Airlines followed suit. There was no word on whether passengers could charge Delta for lost luggage, but don't count on any.