Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Al Quaeda agent?

When Al Quaeda hijacked four airplanes on 9/11, bringing down the World Trade Center with two of them, Americans experienced a sense of righteous rage that won't go away in the lifetime of anybody who witnessed it.

To this day even the most liberal of us – including this cranky writer who is a usual opponent of the death penalty – wouldn’t shed a tear if Osama Bin Laden were shot or blown to bits in his cave, executed by lethal injection after a trial in the United States, or decapitated by a man swinging a sword in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. In fact, my sense of justice and a lingering fury has me longing for the last alternative.

9/11 was intended
economic sabotage

It’s important to remember that Bin Laden’s intent was more than just to murder Americans. Those 3,000 lives were "collateral damage." The 9/11 operation was an act of economic sabotage aimed and wrecking havoc on New York, disrupting the nation’s financial markets, and shaking the world’s faith in the invulnerability of the United States.

So what is an American citizen who deliberately sets out to tear apart a strong American financial system—thus disrupting the financial markets, shaking the world’s faith in America, and possibly driving the entire United States to the verge of another Great Depression?

I’m talking about former U.S. Senator Phil Gramm, a man with more unsavory behavior in his background than a stray dog has fleas.

The man who created
a financial avalanche

Gramm is the Texan responsible for the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. This law repealed Glass-Steagall Act, which once protected the financial integrity of America's banks.

Even more horrifically, Gramm was behind the stealthily-enacted, so-called “Commodity Futures Modernization Act,” which prohibits the government from regulating or even looking into the kinds of complex financial transactions that brought down Bear Sterns, threatens many banks including those where you may have deposits, and which may, as you read this, be snowballing into a financial avalanche that will bring down the United States economy.

I’ve previously railed against the repeal of Glass-Steagall here. And you’ll find a good – if simplified – summary of the havoc Phill Gramm has brought down on the United States economy here.

It seems fairly clear that Gramm did what he did for personal gain in the form of generous campaign contributions from doomsday business entities ranging from Enron (remember them?) to UBS, a now-shaky (thanks in part to Gramm-sponsored legislation) Swiss Bank on whose board Gramm sits.

“Dear Phil, Thanks for the great work.
—Your Pal, Osama Bin Laden”

If Gramm were on the payroll of Osama Bin Laden and did nothing more than what he has already done, an alert U.S. Attorney General would have a field day looking into charges of sabotage and treason relating to Gramm.

Of course, Gramm sabotaged the American economy in the U.S. Senate, which is to say he sabotaged our nation fair and square. So it’s doubtful that he will ever spend so much as a millisecond locked in the slammer. So much the worse for the future of America.

However, it is worth noting that Gramm is the chief financial adviser to Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain. If McCain becomes President, we’ll have the functional equivalent of an Al Quaeda agent of economic sabotage sitting in the Oval Office.

And that’s not just unjust. That’s economic terrorism.

Friday, April 18, 2008

New York's too much of a hassle right now. So I'm going here:

Hey, the Pope blew into New York this morning. You wouldn't believe the amount of constabulary they have hanging around in my Upper East Side neighborhood as a consequence.

On Park and 76th there were enough officers in blue to replace the entire police department of – oh, I dunno, let's guess and say Zanesville, Ohio. And the Pope isn't even on that block. He's five blocks away, at 72nd off Madison.

I walked another block. I found another humongous crowd of cops. I shudder to think what it's like in front of the Vatican ambassador's residence where the Pope is staying, but there's no way you can get within a block of it unless you can present identification proving you live on the block.

Hazmat Harry gets free
parking in the park

There had to be 20 police vehicles crammed into the East 72nd entrance to Central Park – everything from cop vans to a hazmat truck. Hazmat?

I don't know why either. How is anybody going to get into the neighborhood and past all those cops while schlepping a dirty nuclear device or a giant cylinder of poison gas? Maybe it's just that the Police Commissioner is afraid somebody near the Pope will fart.

Immediately inside the Park, on the North side of the 72nd Street transverse, a giant crowd of cops who looked like they might be an enormous SWAT team were lolling on benches. Yeah, lolling. Probably because the Pope hadn't arrived yet. Not that I can figure out exactly what the NYPD plans to do with half a battalion of SWAT cops. Maybe they're planning a shootout with the Swiss Guard.

I hiked across the park to the West Side and hopped the C-train down to my office. There was a cop on the platform. There was also a cop in my subway car.

On the one hand, all this made me feel very safe. On the other hand, you'd hate like hell to try getting around town this week.

And listen up, all local crooks:

With all that police manpower concentrated in Manhattan, it's a wide open opportunity for bank robbers in Brooklyn and Queens. Just make sure your escape route doesn't include Manhattan.

As for me, I don't do big occasions and police vehicle traffic jams. So I'm heading for Paris, assuming I can find a limo or taxi that can get me through the chaos to the airport.

High finance for lowly schnooks

I'm bringing along a fat wad of cash – which ought to be enough to buy me a cup of coffee and maybe a couple of square meals given that the price of a Euro, before bank commissions, is $1.57. Use plastic? Nah! The S.O.B.s behind the Citibank Mastercard are now soaking their customers for a three percent fee for using plastic in a foreign country, on top of the fee the greedy bank already charges merchants.

And oh, with interest rates falling, Citibank sent me a notice that they're raising their own rates. When I was a kid in Brooklyn, Iron Bar Willie got ten years in Sing Sing for trying to collect some vig at exactly the same rate Citibank is now ripping out of its customers wallets. What do you think the odds are that the chairman of Citicorp will do time in the jug?

Nah, me neither.

See you middle-ish of the week after next, probably as cranky as ever.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

“Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, turned in shoddy, despicable performances.”

Thank you, Tom Shales of the Washington Post for telling it like it is when you slammed the despicable moderation of the last Obama-Clinton primary debate.

The economy is crumbling before our eyes. Americans are dying every day in Iraq. The nation’s infrastructure is crumbling. Our healthcare system is a shambles. Our international prestige is nosediving.

And those two morons had nothing better to focus on than an old sermon from Barak’s former minister and similarly meaningless inanities?

Shame! Shame! Gibson and Stephanopoulos are a disgrace.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Hide-And-Go-Tax mayor socks New Yorkers with a killer water bill.

Water bill?

No, not for bottled water. I’m talking about the “free” stuff that pours out of the faucets in New York.

In a town fed by one of the planet’s best reservoir systems, with rainfall in excess of plentiful for the past few months, with no forseeable likelihood that New York is going to run out of the stuff in the next 100 years, New Yorkers are about to get socked with what is likely to be yet another staggering increase in their water bills.

The price of drinking tap water, brushing your teeth, taking a shower or flushing a toilet is going up by double digits once again. Said a blog called DMI Blog last year:

Compounded annually, the 54% increase in water and sewer rates in New York City that the Water Board is projecting over the next four years will mean more maxed-out homeowners going into foreclosure, more affordable housing managers struggling to keep their buildings afloat, and (since all costs trickle down) higher rents for the millions of rent stabilized tenants, many who already pay half of their income on rent.
And that was a year ago!

What’s behind the increase?
Follow Mayor Bloomberg's failings.

It turns out that behind two years of average double-digit increases is Mayor Bloomberg, picking his citizens’ pockets as they bend over the water cooler. And at the same time he's failing to do a proper job of collecting on water bills the city is already owed.

Hey, I don’t begrudge the mayor money to run the city. But how about a straightforward fairly graduated income tax hike and some city hall management efficiency, rather than a sneak attack on citizens who, regardless of income, suddenly have to pay through the nose to pee – least if they want to flush?

Another expose of the Mayor’s attempt to quietly pick his fellow citizens’ pockets appeared last Friday in the New York Post.

New York City Comptroller, William C. Thompson, who no doubt now finds himself inhabiting the Mayor’s Snit List revealed:
The Water Board leases the water and sewer infrastructure from the city. The board's rent payments to the city are based on a formula that until recently simply reimbursed the city for water-related debt service on bonds issued before the Water Authority was created.

But, since 2005, rental payments under that formula have exceeded the amount needed to pay down this old debt. This "excess rent" will total $77 million in fiscal year 2008 and grow to over $175 million by fiscal year 2011. This cash flows into the city's general fund, to be used as any other general revenue.
In other words, the Mayor is jacking up the city’s water bill and siphoning the excess into his general revenues. It’s a hidden tax, and its purpose is plain:

Pickpocket Mike wants to fund his city without having to raise income or real estate taxes.

An honest tax hike only looks bad
if you’re running for something.

An equitable income tax hike will make you look bad – despite its probable legitimacy – if you decide to run for office. Say, for Vice-President. Or for Governor of New York State next year. Or for senator to fill Hillary Clinton’s seat if she gets elected to the presidency. (Given the Mayor’s penchant for switching and abandoning parties, it’s a bit difficult to say which party’s principles he stands for or what ticket he would run on.)

Oh, and then there’s the matter of getting the mayor do his job. Part of that job is collecting monies already owed the city so he doesn’t have to raise the ante for honest people who do pay on time. The DMI Blog article pointed out that there’s a…
…plethora of billing errors that prevent the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) from enforcing collections resulting in more than $600 million in unpaid water bills…
This is a mayor who has traveled to Beijing in search of “new ideas” and around America last year in search of – well, who knows what, but at the time it looked like electoral votes.

Meanwhile, nobody in City Hall was minding the store. Which may account for everything from that uncollected $600 million to death-dealing crane collapses that resulted because Mayor’s building inspectors weren’t really inspecting.

The price of mayoral negligence is death

That crane collapse – a killer of seven people – was just the tip of the iceberg, Scott Stringer, the Manhattan Borough President revealed.
"We've had partial building collapses; we've had fires in buildings," said Stringer, "we've had cranes pummeling down shafts in buildings; we've had loss of life injuries. This incident is just the latest example of needless people dieing because we do not have proper safety protocols in this city."
Hey, it’s worth your money and your life to trying to survive in New York City when you have a mayor sniffing around everybody’s job in everybody’s city but his own. As for you folks who think you can save costs by conserving water, fuhgheddaboudid.

Said the DMI blog: "…they still need to collect a certain amount, so the more water we conserve, the more they'll charge us for it!"

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Carrots, sticks, homicide, love, politics, assault weapons, Michael Bloomberg, Jack Kennedy and Barak Obama

Ignored, overlooked, or feeling unloved, once or twice a year in this country a student grabs a firearm and blows away some of his schoolmates.

Why do I think it isn’t such a huge leap from berserk students to the kind of people who grow up to be politicians?

Love, yearning, bullets and ballot boxes

Think about it. Running for office is a way of trying to make people love you. Or at least of trying to make them support you. Political candidacy often satisfies just the kind of yearning for attention and power you’d feel if you finally got so hungry for it that you grabbed an assault weapon and shot up the school.

What about people who don’t support you for election, or who try to siphon away to other candidates the love you feel you’re owed? You can get even with them if you’re a successful politician.

You can slime them. You can smear them. You can lie about them. Or you can employ a political “operative” (a fancy term for thug) like Karl Rove to do it for you. You can run for prosecutor in New York and then after you’re elected indict people and make them do the perp walk like Rudi Giuliani and Elliott Spitzer did. Just make sure, as former New York Attorney General and then New York Governor Elliott Spitzer didn’t, that if you’re stirring the public pot you don’t also have a little something cooking on the side.

In other words, running for office in the United States is, as often as not, a symbolic way of whacking people over the head with a stick, or blowing their heads off.

Ya gotta be nuts!

There’s an increasingly popular notion that you have to be slightly twisted to want to be President of the United States. My own theory, to state it in another way, is that most politicians – there are exceptions, as you’ll see – are a heartbeat away from being serial killers and that elective office is mass murder by other means.

For all I know some politicians like George Bush who so far has gotten over 4,000 Americans plus who-knows-how-many Iraqis killed during his Presidency may be even further along than that.

Which brings me to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. No, I don’t think he’s as ham-handed a gunslinger or stick swinger as George Bush. But for a while the people around Mayor Bloomberg seemed to be mumbling something about a Bloomberg third party candidacy for President. More lately he seems to be flirting with a McCain endorsement, which – who knows? – might lead to the vice-presidential nomination on the Republican ticket.

However, right now, the Bloomberg approach to problem solving – a kind of business executive top-down management style – seems to have hit a concrete wall at racetrack speed.

Congestion pricing gets all jammed up

The legacy item of Bloomberg’s administration was supposed to be congestion pricing – a rule that would have charged motorists $8 each time then drove in and out of mid-to-lower Manhattan on weekdays.

Bloomberg promised a bunch of carrots to New York Citizens in return. New York would get some money from the Federal government. Traffic would move more smoothly.

The problem is, the representatives of most New Yorkers didn’t buy it. First of all, precious few of us drive to work in this town. You’d have to be crazy. Forget the stick of $8 congestion pricing. A garage for the day can easily set you back over $30. Park your car on the street and it’s likely to get hauled away, while you get stuck not only with a fine, but also commercial towing and garaging charges until you rescue your vehicle.

The secret tax

Congestion pricing was really a hidden tax that probably would have raised the cost of everything from a plumbing repair bill to real carrots, since plumbers have to bring their trucks to the job, and carrots don’t make the trek from rural America to midtown Manhattan on roller skates.

So Manhattan residents would have been doubly screwed. They’d pay to use their own cars (if they have them) to get out of town on weekends and home on Sunday nights. And they’d pay even if they don’t drive every time the sink leaked or they got a yearning for carrot soup (or anything else edible.)

Meanwhile, city employees get thousands of free parking permits and the mayor, who says he uses the subway, admits taking a chauffeured limousine to get to the subway from his Upper East Side townhouse. So why support anti-congestion measures that he doesn’t support himself?

What real leadership means

Mayor Bloomberg, like Elliott Spitzer, like most politicians, forgot what real leadership is all about. You don’t get people to follow by dangling a carrot in front of them and threatening a stick if they don’t follow you.

In fact, here in New York, a good many of us feel most of the time as if we’re chewing on a stick while the Mayor beats us over the head with a bunch of carrots.

What is real leadership?

You lead as a few exceptional people have. In my lifetime there have been two of those. One was the late President Jack Kennedy, whom I’ve missed since some frustrated politician named Lee Harvey Osald blew him away from a perch in a Dallas schoolbook warehouse.

The other is Barack Obama.

Watch (in early 1960s film clips or the evening television reports today) how they do it. They do not dangle carrots and tell us about shining cities on hills. They do not brandish sticks and tell us Al Quaida is coming, so we’d better be good, we’d better not pout. Instead, they inspire us to join them in great and urgent work.

John McCain waves a stick at me, warning that I’d better agree with him or Osama Bin Laden will magically emerge from under my bed and destroy me. Hillary Clinton keeps warning me with her waving stick that if the phone rings at 3 AM in the White House (for what? A man at the door with a late night pizza delivery?) she’ll know what to do. Or maybe she’ll just have a $2 tip handy for the delivery man.

Leading by inspiration

It’s time for our politicians to act like the leaders they’re supposed to be. No carrots. No sticks. Just inspiration – inspiring all of us to pull together for the common good, and then giving us programs we can pull for.

So far as I can see, the only political candidate for anything in the United States who leads by inspiration is Barack Obama.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Perfidy at Antioch: tales of university trustees and senior staff lying, double-dealing, and committing institutional sabotage continue emerging.

If you’ll forgive an old (but apt) cliché, studying the reasons why Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio has in effect ceased to exist is like peeling an onion.

Antioch, as you may recall from an earlier post here, is a 157 years old college controlled by a “university” of the same name – although the university facilities consist of a bunch of second rate college continuation and adult education schools, some offering a few graduate courses.

These satellite “colleges” have no tenured faculty, no residential campuses, and sometimes offer courses of quality one well might question. (See the item on the Seattle campus’ science lab, way down below.)

An ongoing horror story

Each time I receive an e-mail from enraged college alumni – about the university trustees’ rejection of an attempt to save the college by an alumni group called the Antioch College Continuation Corporation (ACCC) – I go digging a bit more. And each time, I find myself peeling off more layers from the onion. It’s an ongoing horror story and at the center of it, if anyone ever gets to the center, you may find a plot as tangled and crooked as the Watergate scandal.

Needed, an ambitious
Ohio attorney general

It’s the kind of case that an ambitious state attorney general – if Ohio has one ambitious enough – might fruitfully explore to see if members of the Trustees and the parent Antioch University chancellor’s staff have been up to shenanigans that might violate state laws involving charitable trusts.

At any rate, here are some shockers I’ve stumbled across this week:

From the Yellow Springs News, the local weekly that finally seems to have its dander up:

Had the negotiating team, led by Chancellor Toni Murdock, wanted an agreement with the ACCC, it would not have started out asking the outrageous price of $54 million for the college, then stalling almost a month before lowering that price while every passing day was critical to the college’s ability to stay open. Had the university negotiators wanted the college to live, they would not have included the demand that the college pay the university $22 million for the college’s own $22 million endowment.

What’s clear is that the university negotiators showed no interest in reaching an agreement that would benefit both the college and the university. Bottom line, they wanted cash. And now it’s reasonable to assume that should the college close, the university leaders will sell off its assets to the highest bidder.
Trustee asset raids worthy
of Wall Street barbarians

Turns out the University wanted to make a grab for assets created at and by the college. The $22 million endowment was only part of it. The University also demanded that it keep WYSO, the college radio station whose license could be sold for a small fortune, and Antioch Education Abroad, another potential money maker. Both WYSO and the education abroad program were begun before there ever was a university.

From Inside Higher Education:
And in an additional complication, university officials said over the weekend that if another buyer for the college emerged — willing to pay for the college with cash immediately and willing to let the university keep Antioch’s NPR stations — a sale was still possible. This prompted a mock ad on Craigslist that said: “Antioch College no longer holds any substantial meaning or value to its Board of Trustees, beyond what it can be sold for on the open market. Offers by alumni groups promising to operate the college in a continuous manner, beholden to its traditional values of openness and academic freedom are particularly loathsome. Real Estate developers with proven military-industrial success are preferred. Contact the Board of Trustees at their Corporate Headquarters in Yellow Springs for more info.”
Also from the same article:
A statement from the university said that negotiations fell apart because the alumni group, which offered to buy the college for $12.2 million, was able to provide only $6 million in cash immediately, and wanted to pay off the remaining sum over the next few years. The lack of security made the deal impossible for the board to accept because the university’s creditors wouldn’t have liked it, said the statement. (At least one trustee, however, reported that there was never a formal vote on the matter and that some trustees might well have accepted the condition.) The statement went on to pledge support for the revival of the college at some point in the future.

Leaders of the Antioch College Continuation Corporation disputed the board’s statement. Eric Bates, co-chair of the group, called the board’s statement “mostly incorrect” and said that he was “shocked” by it. Specifically, he said that his group had offered to use the physical campus of the college to back up its financial pledges, so that in fact the alumni had offered something of far more value than the funds it would have still owed the university.

Borgersen [One of the people trying to keep the college open] said [of the trustees] …“They are trying to build a University of Phoenix clone out of the ashes of Antioch College and we will not let that happen.
From another source comes the news that Tulisse (“Toni”) Murdoch, the Chancellor of Antioch University, received a campus-wide vote of no confidence from the college community last year.
The referendums stated Murdock has “violated long-standing Antioch College values, community standards, and the Civil Liberties Code.” This community-wide vote of no confidence in Chancellor Murdock unifies the two pre-existing votes of no confidence in the Chancellor by Antioch College faculty and union staff. The College’s advisory body to the President, Adcil, was concerned and frustrated with the lack of consultation leading to the departure of President Steve Lawry. The community also endorsed a second referendum that advocates independence from the Antioch University system, including a separate Board of Trustees. This referendum posits that Antioch College can maintain operations beyond the 2007-2008 academic year by attaining autonomy and with the support of the College Alumni Board
And if you think Tulisse Murdoch’s reign is better on other “University” campuses, find the full text of this post to an article about Antioch from an anonymous faculty wife on the University’s Seattle campus. (You'll have to scroll down once you reach the linked article to find it.)
The science laboratory on the Seattle campus is a 3’by 5’ former clothes closet. A shelf has been installed, upon this shelf sets two (2) very, very cheap (toy store) microscopes. Yes, folks that is a science lab in Antioch terms. Any curriculum to accompany this facility? What do you think?
And so I’m waiting, Mr. Ohio Attorney General. Please bring in your charitable trust experts, your forensic accountants, a couple of hard-nosed assistant DAs and lots and lots of subpoena forms. With any luck, we may see some trustees and university administrators performing a classic dance:

The Perp Walk.