Sunday, April 29, 2012

Billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to keep the citizens of his city in poverty. He says it's good for business.

When he was running for his second term as Mayor (or was it his third after he overturned a term limits law to keep his job?) New York’s Michael Bloomberg ran advertising on television showing him  on the streets of new york without necktie, wearing a windbreaker, and getting referred to as “Mayor Mike.” Since then, I can’t remember seeing him in public wearing anything less than a perfectly tailored suit and tie. And these days it's "Mayor Bloomberg," thank you very much. But never mind that.

Lately, “man of the people” Bloomberg is willing to spend a significant part of the city’s dwindling treasury to make sure a bunch of working stiffs don’t earn a penny more than $7.25 an hour.

This is in a city so expensive to live in that, regardless of national figures, an income for a family of three below $16,841 means you're poor. At $7.25 an hour, your annual income would come to $15,080. That’s more than a thousand bucks below the poverty line, where currently 21 percent of the financially drowning population is gasping to survive. (See chart.) 

Billionaire Bloomberg’s anti-living-wage stance stems from a fracas he’s having with his own City Council and its speaker, Bloomberg’s usual political ally, Christine Quinn. This time, even Quinn isn't going along with him.

The Council wants to pass a law requiring owners of buildings subsidized by the city’s taxpayers to pay a minimum wage of $10 an hour plus benefits.

Seeing a man earning ten bucks an hour really rankles Bloomberg’s precious sensitivities, even as he counts his billions. (I’ve seen estimates that he has as little as $17 billion. And as much as $21 billion.) 

Now the extra $2.75 an hour probably wouldn’t pay the heating bill on Bloomberg’s personal mansion on East 79th Street, not to mention the cost of traipsing off to Bermuda regularly with his girlfriend. (And no, he doesn’t get there flying tourist class. Why go through all that when you can just take a fistful of high denomination bills out of your pocket and rent a plane that leaves when you’re ready, skipping all those inconvenient schedules and security screenings.)

But if a working stiff threatens to earn an extra $2.75 for cleaning out ten floors of urinals and mopping up the pee puddles under them, what does the mayor do?

Bloomberg throws a hissy fit

Pay the workers? As Bloomberg sees it – and said it on the radio – that’s akin to bloody communism

Declared the mayor: “It’s interesting if you think about it. The last time we had a big managed economy was the USSR, and that didn’t work out so well.”

And then he waxed poetically impressionistic: “We cannot stop the tides from coming in. We need jobs in the city. It’d be great if all jobs in the city paid a lot of money and had great benefits for the workers...But if you force that, you will jut drive business out of the city.”

Whoa! Wait! Just wait an effin’ second! We’re talking only about employees working for the landlords of buildings that the city is subsidizing with taxpayers’ money. Most employers in the city would be completely unaffected. Most building owners would face the choice of paying a handful of employees an extra $2.75 an hour or giving up hundreds of thousands, and in many cases millions of dollars in subsidies. Who does the mayor think he’s kidding?

The mayor also argued that requiring a minimum wage would interfere with the free market. Speaker Quinn replied that this is exactly what the Bloomberg subsidies to his corporate real estate pals do in the first place, adding that if a business isn’t looking for taxpayer dollars, they’re under no obligation [ to pay the proposed $10 minimum hourly wage.] 

Somewhere in there, the 12th, (Or is he the 15th? Or is he the 17th?) richest man in the world let his deep inner resentments of paying a few of those nasty poor a piddling $2.75 boiled to the surface. Wage bills like the one under discussion, he complained, are “a throwback to the era when government viewed the private sector as a cash cow to be milked rather than a garden to be cultivated. In those days, government took the private sector for granted. We cannot afford to go back to those days…..” and on and on.

Oh that poor under-cultivated billionaire flower! How he must smart at getting “milked” and getting “taken for granted.”

He vetoed the bill. The City Council overrode him. So what’s the mayor going to do?

In a city whose treasury is squeezed for cash, with a budget gap of $4.63 billion that had to be closed by cutting city services and, umm, "increasing revenues, "he’s planning to take his own city to court. 

He’ says, in other words, that he’s willing to spend big bucks to have city lawyers sue their own city  – to take $2.75 an hour out of the pockets of janitors and building superintendants, rather than out of the pockets of landlords to whom the city gives hundreds of millions.

I mean, is Emperor Mike a great American, or what? 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Five things you can do to give overpaid corporate CEOs a poke in the pocketbook

Once upon a time, most (not all) CEOs of public companies were pretty fairly paid. Yes, they made about 24 times what their workers made. But hey, they were the CEOs.

But weird stuff started happening. By 2011 the average CEO was making 243 times what the average worker was making. And today it’s even worse – if the worker is working at all.

And remember, we’re only talking “average” CEOs. just ran an exposé of what some of the CEOs in communications get paid, which, if nothing else, might help explain why you’re paying through the nose for cable TV.

CEOs and their paid apologists

So-called executive compensation consultants claim that outrageous incomes are necessary to “incentivize” the CEOs to make more money for their companies. Of course, at many if not most publicly traded companies, the CEO is the Chairman of the Board of Directors. And that board is the one that hires the compensation consultant — who then decides that the boss who helped hire him needs a raise.

So in other words, the CEO is hiring his own paid apologist at the expense of stockholders and consumers.

More and more of the resulting scandals are beginning to poke their ugly heads up from under rocks. The nature of these scandals? Executive pay and the value executives create (or don’t create) for their stockholders are completely out of whack.

Consider these figures from that recent Forbes article:

• Last year, Disney’s Robert Iger (total annual compensation $34,000,000) got a 12 percent increase in pay while the value of his stockholders’ shares went down one percent.

• Janet Robinson of the New York Times got paid $24,000,000 (including termination pay) an increase of 433 percent, her “reward” for shriveling the value of her company’s stock by 22 percent.

• Similarly, Tom Glocer of  Thomson Reuters got a 109% pay increase for work that helped to screw shareholders out of 30 percent of the value of their stock. And on and on.

Executive pay soars out of control

The truth of the matter is, the compensation consultants don’t get called back if they don’t keep on recommending to boards of directors that the company up the ante on executive pay. It’s a never-ending upward spiral. The more outrageous it gets, the even more outrageous it will get next year.

Listen, I have no complaint with executives getting well-paid. But I draw the line at “too well paid” and so should you.

For you capitalists: The more top execs get paid, the less there is to distribute to you and your fellow stockholders.

For you non-executive corporate employees: The more top execs get paid, the less money there is to see that your salary even keeps up with the cost of living. And the more incentive there is to outsource your job to Mumbai or someplace else where some third world wage slave can do it cheaper.

For you consumers: Prices go up to drive up profits to the maximum, so that the CEO and his top management buddies can reap the maximum bonus their puppet boards of directors have offered them this year, and so that the ante can be raised next year.

For anyone who votes: The reason so many corporations have lobbyists who thwart the overwhelming sentiments of the American people is because the same lobbyists have been seeing to it that senior executives get taxed at a relatively low rate compared to your own (see the Buffet Rule). Obviously, if we had tax rates that ran, say, to 70 percent, as they once did, the money senior executives steal from a corporation’s other constituencies would go right back into the public till, instead of into their fourth and fifth homes, yachts, and securities investments.

So here’s what you can do:

1. Take the trouble to read and vote the proxies you get if you’re an individual stock owner. Once a year, corporations are required to ask stockholders to vote on a variety of matters.

2. When voting on a proposal from dissident shareholders that the Chairman of the Board should not be an executive of the company, vote yes on this one.

3.  When voting on a guidelines proposal for executive salaries, vote no,  even if the company claims the executive salary guidelines suposedly align management’s interests with those of the stockholders. They may “align” but the sheer amount of bucks executives get for increasing profits comes at least morally close to grand theft of company assets. Just keep voting no, no, no on all compensation proposals generated by the company and the board until the boards realize they’re paying too much for executive help. Period.

4.  From time to time a dissident stockholder will demand that the company disclose to its stockholders any expenditures for lobbying or political influence, and any corporate campaign contributions. Vote yes on proposals like this. (Note that inevitably the board will recommend against voting yes. Of course. They want to keep the corruptocracy safe from prying eyes.)

5. If you belong to any organization that invests large sums of money in the stock market such as a union that has a big pension fund, or a state pension fund,  make it clear you want the fund managers to vote the same ways that are recommended above.

Will any of these actions change things? Not in the short run. But as the pressure builds over the years, and with fewer and fewer shareholders are willing to go along with corporate boards, the boards and the execs they supposedly control will get the idea.

And then maybe — just maybe — we can begin to sweep out and disinfect the corporate corruption that is poisoning America.

P.S. Here’s a sixth thing you can do. Start sending your friends links to this post and to blog posts like it. Help spread the word. And write your Congressman and Senators, letting them know where you stand on these matters.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Memo to a not-very-bright hooker: Next time, girl, ask for the money up front.

I mean, look what you've gone and done, sweetheart. You've got the whole world focused on your  profession's operations in Cartagena, Columbia, embarrassing not only the United States Secret Service (whose agents, as a group, seem even dumber than you, judging from the news I'm reading) but also embarrassing your own country's government. And you've caused a shift in focus – away from the real problems of Latin America and onto how much Columbian hookers get paid. (Or how little they get paid, depending on your point of view.)

Listen, I have nothing against the "oldest profession." In fact, back when I was a college student, eons ago, I discovered an establishment in Newport, Kentucky, called The Fourth Street Grill. It was a clapboard one-family house that appeared to have a lunch counter in front. In fact, you actually could get a hamburger there until 8 pm. 

Eight o'clock was the witching hour when Marge The Madam posted herself at the screen door. (It was summer.) As taxis brought men to the establishment she'd say, "The grill's closed honey. Want a woman?"

If the answer was no, she'd shoo the man away, with no more respect than someone chasing off a rat with a broom. If the answer was yes, the customer was led into the restaurant, and through a back door into an adjoining parlor, where about seven pretty young thangs from the backwoods of Kentucky sat around in their J.C. Penny party dresses, waiting for a man to take upstairs.

But here's the point, sweetheart. They always asked for the money upfront. No ifs. No buts. No maybes. My college roommate, now a well-known mystery writer, and I were allowed sit at the counter up front and watch the action after we'd spent our allowances upstairs . I suppose that's because Marge the Madame thought we were a couple of cute college boys. Or something. (She once asked, "What do you boys  think you're doing? Writing a term paper on pot and prostitution at my expense?")

At any rate, I saw more than one furious customer come crashing out the door and go muttering into the street, followed, moments later, by one of the girls in off-the-shoulder blue chiffon, who'd inform Marge, "He had no money." Importantly, none of those girls had ever so much as unzipped for these guys. Money first. No money, no action. 

With that in mind, sweetheart, I am shocked, shocked that you'd spend an $800 night with a man without pocketing the moolah first. They sure do grown 'em naive down in Cartagena. 

As for the Secret Service guy who Facebooked about checking out Sarah Palin while assigned to guard her,  that was such a stupid move that I think you're giving dumb cops a bad name.

Ditto whichever cheapskate Secret Service agent it is who sleeps with an $800 hooker and offers her $30 bucks after the fact. 

"I was drunk," was no excuse. Especially not when you're supposed to be working on protecting the President of the United States.

Anyway, honey, looks like you opened up the sluice down which a whole passel of career Secret Service agents will now come crashing like an avalanche – out of government employment and into McJobs.  I don't really hold that against you, sweetheart. They did it to themselves. But the first rule of your profession is, you're a hooker, not a banker. So don't give any of these guys credit. I'm just saying, ya know what I mean?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

If Ozzie Guillen gets kicked out of the Marlins, somebody had better get on Tim Tebow’s case

I know, I know, I’m mixing apples and oranges here. Or baseball and football. Not to mention, as you'll see shortly,  God and Fidel Castro. But bear with me for a few paragraphs. This is important stuff.
In Florida, it appears as if the entire state is having a meltdown because Ozzie Guillin, the Miami Marlins manager, made a statement favorable to Fidel Castro.
Guillin has been suspended for five days. He was forced to apologize for having had a political opinion. (Whether he’s right or wrong is immaterial to this discussion.)  A member of the Miami Dade Board of County Commissioners says Guillin’s suspension is not punishment enough, because is “doesn’t really address the magnitude of his statements.”
Huh? What magnitude? Guillin said he loved and admired Fidel Castro for hanging on all these years. That seems to be about it. His statement contained no obscenity, no profanity, no attack on any individual, no attack on, or criticism of, the United States. It was simply an opinion, although admittedly one with implicit political overtones. You can buy into it or reject it, but the last time I heard, we still had freedom of speech in this country.
Yeah yeah, I know a Marine sergeant named Gary Stein is facing dismissal and loss of his pension for criticizing President Obama on Stein’s Facebook page by implying the president is a jackass. I strongly disagree with Stein. However, I think he has a right to express his opinion, too. Or even if he doesn’t because it’s “prejudicial to military discipline” whatever that means, he’s in the armed forces, subject to military discipline, and his case may be a somewhat different kettle of fish than civilian self-expression.
But in civilian life, if anybody can be fired for having a political opinion, nobody’s safe. Not you. Not I. And while we’re at it, not Tim Tebow.
Where the hell – if Giullin can’t praise Fidel Castro – where the hell does Tebow come off making overt displays of fervor that favor one religion on the football field? Reports the Washington Post, “When asked what needed to change in America, he [Tebow] said ‘first and foremost … what this country was based on: one nation under God. The more that we can get back to that,’ he continued, to applause.”
For Mr. Tebow’s information, that “one nation under God” line came along in 1955, under the Eisenhower administration. I know 1955 was a long time ago before you were born, Tim, but you might be interested in learning that Eisenhower was not a founding father. The American Revolution dates to 1776, a century and then some before the Pledge  was written. 
As a matter of fact, Tim, God is not mentioned in the United States Constitution, for good reason. Jefferson and the signers were skirting establishment of religion. The closest you can come to a mention of God in the story of America’s founding is the line in the Declaration of Independence that talks about all men being “endowed by their creator.” The term “creator” had to be used because lots of the founding fathers were pretty darn skeptical as to whether that creator was God in the traditional sense. They did all agree that there was an original “source” of all life. They never declared it to be God because so many of them were deists, not Christians. So they called that force a “creator.”
You can take that or leave that. All I’m saying is, if Tim Tebow can start making speeches and put on public displays of religion, as well as ignorant political  statements to the effect that what this country needs to “get back” to is a national belief in God, then Guillin is entitled to state his opinions about Fidel Castro.
I don’t care which of the athletes is right, or wrong, or whether both of them are right, or wrong. All I’m saying is, people should be allowed to peacefully say what they think without the state of Florida and a bunch of Cuban immigrants coming down on them like a lynch mob.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Is New York City falling down on its 911 emergency service? “None of your damn business!” Bloomberg tells New Yorkers.

Well, he didn’t use precisely that language, any more than President Gerald Ford actually told New York to “Drop Dead.” But the gist of what Michael Bloomberg is saying is just about the same thing. 

Government operating in the shadows – and the public be damned

According to CBS New York, the mayor has been refusing to release a consultant’s report on New York’s 911 emergency response system. Instead, his administration “has been fighting to keep private” what the consultant had to say. Even though the information was commissioned by a city government with taxpayer funds.

The entire topic is no laughing matter. The study, too-blandly called a “review,” was commissioned after ambulances were stranded in snowdrifts and the emergency call system backed up in 2010, the consequence of a December blizzard.

But the city tried to keep the report secret, insisting that it’s only “a draft.”

A New York Supreme Court judge, Arthur F. Engoren, ordered the city to release the report, and wiped up the floor with the mayor, comparing the city government's behavior to that of Richard Nixon claim of executive privilege during the Watergate scandal.

"A coverup plain and simple"

"The city [government] is not the only interest group here. And the city’s not infallible,” the judge thundered.

Added an attorney for union employees of the fire department, which was demanding to see the report, “They could label this a draft in perpetuity. It’s a cover up, plain and simple.”

The judge ordered the documents released to the firefighters, which may decide to introduce them into evidence during an arbitration hearing.

Emperor Bloomberg’s was reported “irritated” and said, “We are studying our options.”

Right. Maybe options like stonewalling the judge.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Antioch College rises from its own ashes — maybe

Back in 2008, the fate of my alma mater, Antioch College, received some formidably cranky attention in this corner of cyberspace. Little wonder. Over the decades, the college had found scores of ways to screw itself – and ultimately to screw its faculty and students.

Its small endowment got squandered. It followed over-ambitious plans to expand into a nationwide university – a university with an oedipal instinct to destroy and devour the little Ohio college in Yellow Springs that fathered it.

Meanwhile, on the Yellow Springs campus, more than a century of academic and cultural rigor had been flushed down the toilet in favor of backstabbing and doctrinaire insanity. The college became a “radical boot camp” where people got “called out” for having political opinions contrary to those that were popular on campus, militant feminists put out almost the equivalent of a manual of how and under what circumstances people could engage in sex, and at least one professor discouraged reading of authors who had points-of-view that did not comport with her own.

Little wonder the transfer rate was high, while precious few good students continued to apply. At the same time, the college and its finances began to rot. As the budget sank, buildings literally decayed, the campus landscaping began to look ratty. Members of my graduating class, back for a reunion, shook our heads sadly and told each other, “I won’t let my kid go here.”

A passion, a Roosevelt, and a revival

The university finally decided to shutter the college. That’s when the original college’s alums and some faculty, passionate about the great college Antioch had been, revolted in outrage. I won’t take you through all the twists and turns, but this academic year, after a two-year closure, the college was again open for business, independent from Antioch University – at least for now – and undergoing what appears to be a renaissance.

It’s led by a new college president, Mark Roosevelt, a descendant of rough-riding Teddy. The first new class is reaching the end of its freshman year. Roosevelt, who has little choice but to play guts poker with precious dollars, has decided to let the first four classes since the revival attend college tuition-free. The result has been spectacularly positive.

Thousands of eager high school students have applied for a few limited places, giving Antioch a pick of students that some first rate colleges would envy. But it’s a gamble both for the students and for the college’s trustees, alumni and staff.

Guts poker for students, too

The students know from the outset that the college does not yet have accreditation. The process of regaining its credentials is long and onerous. If the college succeeds, the accreditation may be granted some time after the first new freshman class graduates. If the college fails to gain accreditation, an Antioch College degree will become almost as worthless as that of some of those on-line, for-profit institutions' degrees.

But the risk extends further. If the college fails to get accreditation, the students, faculty and stream of money is likely to vanish. And the University, under a contract that set the college free, will recapture the college’s assets – campus, buildings, bank account, logotype and all.

For the moment, the college is financed in part by generous alums and in part by the sale of one of the college’s assets, the Yellow Springs Instrument Company, which was founded over 70 years ago by the then-president of the college, Arthur Morgan, as an income generator.

That sale gave the college $35 million to work with, according to the college’s President Roosevelt, who spoke at a New York alumni meeting that I attended last week.

There’s an opportunity here for foundations, wealthy individuals and alumni to keep building the college’s wealth so it can survive.

Perhaps you ought to be one of them.  Yes, it’s guts poker. But I’m betting Roosevelt is holding at least a couple of aces.