BITCHING RIGHTS

Posted in Quick Hits on November 22nd, 2008 by Ed

It's going to be interesting to see how long our friends in the financial industry and (most likely) the auto industry can restrain themselves from pissing and moaning about meddling government regulation after being on the receiving end of unprecedented public generosity. If the rescue of Chrysler in the late 1970s is good precedent, I'd say a few years. Max.

MEMORY LANE

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 21st, 2008 by Ed

All this bailout talk has me nostalgic as hell about the American car. No, this isn't going to be a handjob essay about the glorious 1960s muscle cars or the Model T. Instead let's discuss amazing moments in the same way that Battlefield: Earth is amazing. I strongly encourage you to share your own American car experiences, as mine are dominated by GM. I grew up in a GM family so I have little direct experience with how shitty Ford and Chrysler products are. My favorite from personal experience is the $32,000 Bonneville that needed a new tranny at 8,000 miles and then another at about 30,000…..no, the Grand Prix that needed a new starter motor every 90 days was better.

GM vehicles had a great way of making you feel right at home the moment you got into a new one. This is largely because their interiors were updated once in 1960, once more in 1981, and then never again. Rest assured the same upholstery, Delco electronics, etc that adorned our 1987 Buick Skylark were found in the 1992 Grand Prix, the 1995 Grand Am, and so on. The corporate "parts bin" philosophy made sure that whether you bought a $10,000 econo-box or an "upscale" $55,000 Cadillac you were essentially getting the same product between the Roger Smith years and ~2002. Then, as is still largely true now, GM's only market is among people who have never tried driving a non-GM car. As one reviewer put it, the Cadillac STS is undoubtedly the finest luxury car you will ever drive so long as you have only driven Cadillacs and never been in a Lexus, Mercedes, Audi, or BMW. True, GM products have been getting a little better of (too little, too) late. But it's hard to escape the feeling at any price point that you are in a rental car, a path-of-least-resistance on four wheels and substandard Firestones.

Here are my personal favorite moments:

1. The Carter-era Oldsmobile diesel passenger car experiment. GM pitched this as a brilliant response to the Arab Oil Embargo. Unfortunately they were too goddamn cheap to design an actual diesel engine so they just (poorly, improperly) modified a 350 V8. These vehicles have the distinction of being so fucking bad that American consumers recoiled in horror at the mere mention of diesel powertrains in anything but trucks for 30 years. That would be like Subway releasing a menu item so bad that Americans stopped eating sandwiches for decades.

2. The Cimarron. Roger Smith glues some fake wood veneer on a Chevy Cavalier and doubles the price. Almost single-handedly killed Cadillac. OK, it had a lot of help from the contemporaneous V8-6-4, the overwhelming majority of which literally melted before hitting 60,000 miles.

3. The Dustbuster Minivans. Here is a 1990-1996 Pontiac Trans Sport. Here is a Dustbuster. In its typically brilliant manner, GM sold three versions of this exact same vehicle (the Trans Sport, the Olds Silhouette, and the Chevy Lumina MPV). But we can do better than three, right?

4. The six-headed SUV monster. Having allegedly renounced its earlier sinful ways, just a few years ago GM was simultaneously selling six versions of the same vehicle: Chevy Trailblazer / GMC Envoy / Buick Rainier / Oldsmobile Bravada / Isuzu Ascender / Saab 9-7x. All identical except for badges and a few clip-on plastic exterior panels. Just think of the redundant marketing costs. Apparently they live in fear of buyers who would look at the Trailblazer and think "Gee, I'd buy that if only it had a Buick badge on it…"

Good times. Good times. Yours? I have to imagine that I missed a wealth of American automotive crapulence on account of my age – I have no direct experience with pre-Carter cars. Surely some of you do.

Oh. And in fairness, one of the GM cars that went through my family – the Oldsmobile Aurora – was pretty damn solid. So GM did the logical thing and immediately stopped producing it.

SURREALISM

Posted in Quick Hits on November 20th, 2008 by Ed

Cable news is starting to take on a distinctly art-house feel. I can think of no explanation aside from irony or theatre of the absurd for CNN to have D.L. Hughley debating Bay Buchanan live on TV.

Not Pat. Bay.

GANGLAND BAILOUTS

Posted in Rants on November 20th, 2008 by Ed

The impending meltdown, many years in the making, of the Big Three American automakers is all over the news these days. No doubt the automakers and their employees considered an Obama victory combined with a Democratic Senate the best of all possible opportunities to get the aid they will need to survive. As usual, all of the "not with my tax dollars!" bitching has dominated the professional and corn-pone opinion on the subject. What escapes these deep thinkers is that, one way or another, we're all going to be picking up the tab for the Big Three. It is a question of which of two distinct alternatives we prefer. On one hand we can provide obscene sums of money to keep them afloat. On the other hand we can let them file Chapter 7 and pay for their sins through the bankruptcy courts and via the explosion in social spending that would inevitably result from tossing a million blue-collar workers out on the street.

The story is pretty cut-and-dried on the talk radio level. Greedy executives / greedy UAW members made their own beds and now must sleep therein, and we'd have an easier time working up sympathy (and cash) if they didn't make such shitty cars. Here is the problem. Actually, here are several problems.

1. The sheer size of the two automakers who remain publicly traded (Ford, GM) is staggering. Probably beyond the comprehension of 99% of the people passing off-cuff judgment on letting them go bankrupt. Bankruptcy requires some manner of keeping oneself operating while under protection of the court. While this often comes from something called debtor-in-possession loans, with the banking industry tenuously gripping their last thread of sanity (and solvency), who's going to pony up the tens of billions that are required? That is the point that everyone seems to be missing. They need cash right now. They haven't enough money to keep the lights on and the water running much longer. They have no cash, no credit, and no one willing to lend them a handshake. That's why…..

2. If they file BK, it's not going to be the re-organization (Ch. 11) that people think of when they hear a business has gone bankrupt. GM in particular is staring straight down the barrel of Chapter 7 – liquidating everything down to the copper wire in the walls. With no automaker (even the vaunted Toyota) in a financial position to pick up the pieces, within 30 minutes of a Ch. 7 filing by GM there would be 7000 dealers, a half-million employees, 479,000 retirees, and an entire industry of contractors/suppliers who would be out on the street. There is not a goddamn thing else for any of those people to do right now. GM might be a lousy investment for the government or anyone else, but the auto industry is providing too many meal tickets right now to disappear overnight.

3. Government will inevitably end up doling out billions in assistance after a liquidation or even a milder bankruptcy. Note this cute quote:

Instead, G.M. should submit a prepackaged bankruptcy, laying out steps it plans to enact once in Chapter 11 protection, said Mr. Ackman, who is not a major holder of G.M. shares.

"I'd rather the government's money be used to train people for other jobs," Mr. Ackman said.

We can thank Bill Clinton for making this platitude part of BusinessLogic. We'll just "re-train" or "educate" people in some vague and unspecified way for some vague and unspecified jobs that don't exist. There is some industry right now with a million high-paying jobs, the kind on which people can actually support a family, waiting to be filled. If only Americans would get some "training" to make themselves qualified! We've heard this horseshit for 20 years and we know exactly where it leads – failure. Specifically, it leads to some combination of menial service industry work (think Arby's or Wal-Mart) and massive dependence on welfare, unemployment, Medicaid, and every other manner of social spending. Government and "the taxpayers" are going to foot quite a bill either way. It may end up costing significantly more when we consider how the implosion of such a large industry would decrease tax revenues.

4. People will still fly on a bankrupt airline because all they are buying is 90 minutes in coach before they walk away. People will not buy a car from a bankrupt automaker. A car is a major purchase and a long-term committment. Warranties, the ability to get parts and service in the future, and the re-sale value of the cars (check eBay Motors for an Oldsmobile if you're skeptical) are all important concerns for buyers. So in filing bankruptcy, GM/Ford/Chrysler would essentially be committing suicide. The only way out of bankruptcy would be to sell a shit-ton of cars. And a bankrupt automaker can't sell cars. Repeat circular argument as necessary.

This is not a burden for the new government, it is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to take an important but broken industry out behind the woodshed and give them a thorough ass-beating. In my ideal world, a bailout would resemble the finest moment of a TV show I generally find severely overrated: Christopher's intervention for heroin addiction on The Sopranos. To make a long story short, it begins as the classic "Let me tell you how your addiction has hurt me" intervention led by a social worker and quickly degenerates into a mob beatdown. A perfect bailout would look pretty similar.

Sure, guys, we'll bail you out. Now here's our list of conditions. No more bloated payrolls, no more skimping on parts so your cars fall apart at 12,000 miles, no more 5800-pound V8 behemoth Expeditions and Tahoes that nobody fucking needs, no more excuses about how they don't have the technology to increase efficiency (every single advance in engine technology for the past 100 years has been purposefully directed toward increasing horsepower, which compensates for Americans' little dicks), no more redundant marketing and "badge engineering" (GM currently sells about 5 different versions of every vehicle it makes), no more 7000-dealer networks (Toyota makes do with about 1200), no more executives who give us things like the Cimarron and the SSR while taking home $20 million annually (hi Rick Wagoner!), and no more pissing and moaning about the free market and the "burden" of regulation every time the government dares to impose any "Draconian" legislation like CAFE on the industry.

Congress will end up spending the money one way or another. Might as well keep a lot of people productively employed while blowing it. Give them what they need. But there's no reason outside of cowardice to hand them a check with no strings attached.

SOWING SHIT, REAPING REWARDS

Posted in Rants on November 19th, 2008 by Ed

The Senate Democrats allowed Joe Lieberman to keep his powerful chairmanship because Barack Obama personally appealed for mercy toward the conniving little bastard, an act that I comprehend but cannot condone. The disconnect has a simple explanation: the President-elect is a bigger person than I am. He decided to use Holy Joe as an example of how post-partisan, inclusive, and forgiving of slings and arrows he can be. Obama is mature; bloggers who wanted to see the Senator from AIPAC publicly flogged, humiliated, and evicted are petty.

Call it petty if you must, but to dole out no punishment – not even the milquetoasty wrist-slap of re-assigning him to a different committee – is inexcusable for a man who used the past nine months to make patently clear that, if neoconservatism had an erect penis, he would promptly renounce heterosexuality and choke on it.

Joe Lieberman does not deserve punishment for supporting John McCain or failing to tow his party line. Joe Lieberman deserves punishment for being among the most aggressive, amoral, and purposefully deceptive sources of vile rhetoric against Obama, never forfeiting an opportunity to get his patronizing mug on camera to lend legitimacy to every piece of right-wing talk radio nonsense by having it come from the lips of a 'Democrat'. There is a difference between supporting the other guy and becoming his hit man. There is a difference between being a person in a crowd throwing stones and being the person leading the mob, handing out stones, and pointing out victims of opportunity. Supporting McCain would be a venial political sin among Democrats; what Lieberman did is a mortal one.

This is a man who happily carried water for not only McCain but every paranoid Bircherite fantasy of the wacky right. He noted that it's a "good question" to ask if Obama is "a Marxist." He confidently asserted that the discredited, irrelevant Obama-Ayers "issue" was "fair game." He spent months running around West Palm Beach and Broward Counties telling elderly Jewish voters that Obama was the anti-Israel boogeyman (and black!). He went on TV again and again channeling George W. Bush about Iraq. The "most progressive man ever to come out of Connecticut" decided that McCain is plenty progressive on social issues for his liking. He went from "we can't drill our way out of problems" (2005) to "Drill, Baby, Drill!" (2008). He thinks waterboarding is swell because it puts people "in no real danger." He "feared" that America "would not survive" if the Democrats (the people he claims to caucus with) hit 60 seats in the Senate. He earnestly declared that Sarah Palin is "ready to be President" and "will win with God's help." He served on the board of "Vets for Freedom", a tax-exempt, pro-war front for Obama-will-surrender-to-terrorism idiocy in bulk. He went on a speaking tour warming up crowds for Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin. His support for old pal McCain apparently not craven enough, Lieberman worked his ass off to endanger Americans and the entire goddamn world by putting a vacuous hillbilly with a Jenny Jones makeover near the White House.

The Democrats, at the urging of the mainstream media, believe that centrist, stand-for-nothing "New Democrat" horseshit is the key to unlocking electoral success. "We can't expel Lieberman just to please Glenn Greenwald – we'll lose touch with Joe Six Pack!" Remember back in 2006 when Ned Lamont's primary victory over Lieberman was the harbinger of general election doom for the Democrats? It signaled a party over the edge, terrifying to mainstream America, and given over entirely to the rantings of socialist bloggers. We couldn't be too anti-War; Americans would never go for that! We have to take it easy; President Bush is still very popular and there is a Permanent Republican Majority, after all! The only way to win is to tone it down. Being Republican Lite is the best the other party can do. Such good advice. I would print it out and wipe my ass with it if doing so were not such a grievous insult to my ass and what passes through it.

The Democratic Party needs Joe Lieberman like I need a ballsack on my forehead; both are approximately as useful to their principals. What the Democratic Party needs is not 59 instead of 58. They need to take a goddamn stand on something, to have at least one principle for which they are willing to kick someone out of the tent. Joe Lieberman crossed every line he could find and Harry Reid and Obama have rewarded him with a political lifeline. Had they expelled him, he would have had to caucus with the GOP and essentially run as a Republican in 2012, at which point the Democratic candidate in CT would effortlessly dispatch him (if the recent loss by Christopher Shays is any indication).

The Democrats can never become like conservatives, constantly holding their own up to a battery of increasingly hysterical litmus tests. But in running from that paradigm they have risked becoming the Arizona State of political parties, resigned to churning out stupendous mediocrity by throwing open the doors and admitting every sentient mouthbreather who ambles through.

Fuck you, Joe. May you pay for your self-serving duplicity in the next life if not this one.

AWESOME

Posted in Quick Hits on November 18th, 2008 by Ed

Lieberman is not only staying in the Democratic caucus but also retaining his Homeland Security chair in accordance with the President-elect's wishes. I have a few things to say about this.

YOUR CALL

Posted in Rants on November 18th, 2008 by Ed

With a nod to Thomas Frank's methodology in What's the Matter with Kansas?:

County in which Obama did best in 2008: Prince George County, Maryland. Population 846,000. 62% African-American with the highest median income of any majority-black county. Suburban DC, with easy access to all of the DC area amenities and attractions. Primary employers: National Archives, NASA Goddard Space Center, and University of Maryland.

County in which McCain did best in 2008: King County, Texas. Population 400. Three hours from Lubbock. Median income 30% below national average. Primary economic activity: raising cattle. Entertainment and cultural activities: tending meth labs, committing suicide.

It's your call – where would you rather live, the reddest of the red or the bluest of the blue? Would you prefer San Francisco values (*winkwink* GET IT? That's where the homogays live and they're out to recruit your kids!) or Wasilla Main Street values? A vacation in Boston or in Topeka? Job-hunting in Milwaukee or in Mobile? Would you rather live under what Newt Gingrich calls "gay and secular fascism" or the fascism of the Colorado Springs all-stars?

Garrison Keillor said it very well a few years ago when noting that:

The iPod was not developed by Baptists in Waco, Texas. There may be a reason for this. Creative people thrive in a climate of openness and tolerance, since some great ideas start out sounding ridiculous. Creativity is a key to economic progress.

All of the five counties in which McCain earned his largest victories are in rural Texas. His largest wins at the state level were in Wyoming, Utah, Oklahoma, Idaho, and Alabama. These are shitty places. They may be pretty (except for Oklahoma and Alabama) or nice to visit/transit on vacation. They may have the odd nice city here or there – Birmingham and Boise spring to mind. But what they do not have in the larger sense is the kind of climate that encourages any kind of openness or progress. They have the kind of ass-backwards religion-as-politics ideology that is making vast swaths of this nation look like Dogpatch.

Consider this your teaser for Summer 2009, when Ed visits King County, Texas and gives the world an essay in pictures.

REGIONALISM

Posted in Quick Hits on November 17th, 2008 by Ed

In support of Mike's GOP-as-regional-party thesis, the Republican Governors Association chose its new leadership on Friday. Its five leadership positions are filled by: Sanford (SC), Perry (TX), Crist (FL), Perdue (GA), and Barbour (MS). Hmm, anything they share in common aside from being old white guys?

Also, does there not seem to be a highly-visible GOP Governor conspicuous by her absence?

TAKING ONE FOR THE TEAM

Posted in Rants on November 17th, 2008 by Ed

Being on the Supreme Court must be odd. It may be the only job that allows you to open a newspaper and read about your impending death a few times per year. Remember all those fun stories four years ago? "This presidential election is very important because the winner will get to appoint at least one Supreme Court justice, since Rehnquist is obviously going to die soon."

A few weeks before the election, after the point at which the outcome was no longer in doubt, someone asked me what would be the first big event of an Obama presidency. I may not have the timing right, but my answer was and remains appointing a replacement for John Paul Stevens.** He's not on death's door, but most Court observers agree that the 88 year-old liberal has basically been hanging on like Rick Moranis in Spaceballs to deny George Bush the chance to replace him. It should come as no great suprise, given the President-elect and the ~58 Democrat Senate, if he announces his retirement in the next 9 months. His health is strong but I'll wager that he'll defer the "honor" of becoming only the second Justice to serve beyond age 90 (after O-Dub Holmes, and check out that 'stache!) in order to allow a unified Democratic government to appoint his successor.

To put his age in context, he loves telling the story about how he attended the legendary World Series game in which Babe Ruth supposedly called his homer. That was in 1932. Stevens was 12.

The idea that change in the Court can be predicted is ludicrous. Justices often retire with little warning (O'Connor and Byron White, for example) and of course deaths can happen unexpectedly – although prior to Rehnquist, the last Justice to die on the bench was Robert Jackson*** in 1954. That's pretty amazing given the ages of the people involved. Stevens aside, there are no "red flags" on the current Court. No terminal cases of cancer, no senile 84 year olds in the throes of heart disease. Scalia and Kennedy are 72. Thomas just turned 60. Breyer is 70, Souter 69. Alito and Roberts are in their 50s and likely with us for a couple decades at the least. The next oldest Justice beyond Stevens is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, age 75.

While Ginsburg is in fair health (her 1999 bout with ass cancer resulting in complete remission) the most logical course of action is for her to take one for the team and retire.

There seems to be no reason that RBG could not serve another 8-to-10 years. But it is unlikely that at any point in those 8-to-10 years the environment for appointing her replacement would be more to her liking than it is now. Being an extremely liberal person, Ginsburg likely understands that this is the best chance that she will ever get to be replaced by an ideological clone. What's the point? Couldn't she just stick around and achieve the same result? Yes. She could give the country 8 more years of RBG. Or she could retire, let Obama appoint a 49 year-old version of RBG, and allow that person to influence the Court for 30 years.

Court appointments are without a doubt the longest-lasting part of the presidential legacy. And since Reagan the Presidents have consciously tried to maximize it by appointing 45-50 year-olds to the Federal courts. Stevens was appointed by Gerald Ford. Ford left office 32 years ago. Has any other part of Ford's brief presidency influenced the country for three decades? Of course not. It's no accident that Roberts and Thomas were not yet 50 when appointed. And I do not expect that the value of younger appointees will escape Obama.

The new President is extraordinarily likely to have the chance to replace Stevens (and if he wins re-election it is essentially guaranteed). He is currently the Court's most liberal member, and therefore amenable to giving Obama that opportunity. Ginsburg is the second-most liberal Justice. Will she sacrifice a few years' worth of her own influence on the Court to ensure that a large Democratic majority gets to appoint her replacement? It would make sense. Retiring in the next 18-20 months would leave no doubt about the ideology of Ginsburg's successor. Beyond that would be rolling the dice. There is no guarantee that the Democratic Senate majority will hold beyond 2010 or that Obama will serve two terms. As much as I personally enjoy Ginsburg on the Court, I'd enjoy a 48 year-old version of her even more.

**For most of my teenage years I confused him with John Paul Jones, the bass player in Led Zeppelin.
***Jackson was the last Justice who didn't attend law school. Can you even imagine that in the hyper-politicized context of modern SC appointments?

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GINANDTACOS PRESENTS: GREAT MOMENTS IN THE HISTORY OF BALLS

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 14th, 2008 by Ed

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I would like to draw attention to one of my favorite true stories and a Great Moment in the History of Ballstm – the tale of Melvin Dummar, the Utah gas station attendant who forged Howard Hughes' will in barely-intelligible English and claimed that he was due $156,000,000 on that account.

Hughes, as many of you may be aware, was bat-shit insane. To wit:

In 1957, Hughes descended into one of the most bizarre episodes of his life. In December of that year, Hughes told his aides that he wanted to screen some movies at a film studio near his home. Hughes stayed in the studio's darkened screening room for more than four months, never leaving. He subsisted exclusively on chocolate bars and milk, and relieved himself in the empty bottles and containers. He was surrounded by dozens of Kleenex boxes, which he continuously stacked and re-arranged. He wrote detailed memos to his aides on yellow legal pads giving them explicit instructions not to look at him, speak to him, and only to respond when spoken to. Throughout the duration, Hughes sat fixated in his chair, often naked, continuously watching movies, reel after reel, day after day.

Nice. Hughes died without a will, which unsurprisingly is an enormous legal clusterfuck when the deceased happens to be the wealthiest non-Sultan on Earth. And childless. Seeing an opportunity, one Melvin Dummar sprung into action. In his paranoia, Hughes trusted only a small group of Mormons who served as his personal attendants in his final years. So it wasn't terribly surprising when, in 1976, the Mormon church announced that they discovered a hand-written will by Hughes in their headquarters. Since Hughes was bonkers, it was not outlandish to think that he might have hand-scrawled a will in secret.

There were some problems with the will.

First of all, it was laden with spelling errors, the kind that no other written correspondence from Hughes happened to have. An excerpt:

After my death, my estate is to be devided [sic] as follows –
First: one-forth [sic] of all my assets to go to Hughes Medical Institute of Miami –
Second: one-eight [sic] of assets to be devided [sic] among the University of Texas

But the strangest part of the will was that Mr. Hughes inexplicably decided to leave 1/16th of his vast estate – more than $150 million – to a "Melvin DuMar." When contacted by a curious world, Mr. Dummar explained that he happened upon a disheveled man on the side of the road one night and drove him to Las Vegas (where Hughes resided for many years). Apparently, a stunned Dummar noted, Mr. Hughes had decided to reward this kind stranger with a metric assload of money.

At this point there were skeptics but again it should be noted that Hughes was "eccentric" and writing a stranger into his will was not beyond the realm of possibility. Then the FBI found Dummar's fingerprints on the will.

His cock-and-bull story exposed, Dummar turned a regular scam into a truly Great Moment in the History of Balls – he made up an even more ridiculous story. He claimed that a "man in black" type mysterious individual showed up in his gas station and handed him an envelope containing the will in question. Attached was a note that instructed Dummar to take the will to the Mormon headquarters, which he did. Without telling anyone. Like, he hid it. In a place where it could be discovered shortly after Hughes' death.

Jesus. What balls. He must have needed specially-tailored pants to house them. Wait, it gets better.

In the circus-like legal proceedings that followed, Dummar stuck to these two stories to the letter under oath in court. He stood up before a judge and jury and repeated this with a straight face. The will was ultimately ruled a forgery in court and Dummar received no portion of Hughes' estate. He also got stuck with a sizeable legal bill. But he's pretty lucky that he wasn't charged with a crime, I suppose.

Everyone together, salute Melvin Dummar. "Jesus, Melvin. What balls!"

This story was the basis of the Jonathan Demme film Melvin and Howard, which most viewers assumed was heavily fictionalized. It wasn't. For more reading on this saga and the rest of Hughes' life – and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more interesting individual who lived in the 20th Century – check out Richard Hack's biography Hughes.