Monthly Archives: January 2016

Taking Care of Business (chapter 47)

For an introduction to the novel Taking Care of Business, links to all chapters posted so far, and a list of characters who have appeared so far, go here, to the Taking Care of Business resources page. To see every part of Taking Care of Business posted so far in one place, go here.) 

“Good morning, and welcome to a very special edition of Sunday Morning Philadelphia. I’m Ken Emery. We’ve given our regular panelists the day off today so we can spend the entire half hour with Philadelphia Mayor James Norbert. Good morning, Mr. Mayor.”

“Good morning, Ken.”

For the next few minutes the television anchorman made small talk with the mayor – about his transition from running a business to running a government, about the changes in the mayor’s life, about his basketball team’s recently completed season. Eventually the discussion turned to the reason Norbert had offered to come on the program: the city budget.

“Mr. Mayor, you seem to be facing an unusual and imposing series of budget challenges this year: difficult labor negotiations, an uncooperative city council, and an apparently mean-spirited attempt by Harrisburg to strip Philadelphia of a significant portion of its normal state funding. Is this a matter of bad timing, bad management, or just bad luck?”

“I think it’s a combination of all three, Ken,” Norbert replied. “There are things I could’ve done better, but there do seem to be some people pushing pretty hard against us this year.”

“Who and why?”

Norbert knew he had to be careful here. His advisors warned him not to cite the demands of political leaders for the firing of Shaniqua Watson as the reason for this resistance. Doing so, they feared, would be taken as a direct attempt to embarrass them that would only cause them to dig in their heels even harder.

“Well, you know the story, Ken. City employees want more money, which is entirely within their rights, and we think we’ve made them a very attractive offer. In the end, I’m confident we’ll come to an agreement with them.”

“But last week, blue-collar workers’ union president Fred Gilliam said that his union had already begun strike preparations and was ready to close down the city if they have to.”

“What else do you expect a union leader to say in the heat of contract negotiations?” Norbert replied.

The anchorman never even considered pursuing a more complete answer.

“And what about city council?” Emery asked. “Why the delay in passing a budget? Historically, city budgets are passed by the end of April, a good month ahead of the legal deadline, and now it’s early June, past the deadline for the first time that anyone can remember, and there’s still no apparent movement. What’s the hold-up?”

“Just a lot of details, most of which have already been worked out. We’re almost there.”

Ever uninquisitive, the anchorman dismissed the possibility that his viewers might be interested in learning about some of those details, again accepting the mayor’s response at face value and moving on.

“And the state budget? They’re threatening to cut Philadelphia’s funding by more than $812 million.”

“The usual Philadelphia-bashing, I think, Ken, plus testing the new guy – me.”

“Can you get it done in Harrisburg without state representative Michael Ianucci?” Emery asked.

“Michael’s still on the public payroll, Ken, and there are thirty-four other very capable members of the Philadelphia delegation in the state capital, too. We’ll get it done.”

It never occurred to the anchorman to ask how. He had something far more interesting to ask.

“Is there any truth to the rumor that the major point of contention in all of this is streets commissioner Shaniqua Watson?”

“I don’t think so. At first, I think a lot of people who are involved in constituent service were concerned that her innovative programs were taking away their usual work, but I think people have come around to the idea that Commissioner Watson’s programs represent a huge step forward for Philadelphia’s government and should be applauded and supported.”

“And if it doesn’t all work out the way you think it will?”

Norbert was relieved. This question – and the answer he was about to give – was the entire point of his appearing on the program. His next words, he knew, would be headlines in tomorrow’s newspapers, the lead story on all of the local television news programs, and one of the primary subjects on local talk radio for the next few days.

“We’ve made a careful and intentional point of avoiding any talk about specific cuts in jobs and programs, Ken, because I hate the idea of crying wolf or trying to scare people, but now, I think, the time has come to lay it on the line so Philadelphians will understand where we stand and what’s at stake.

“Let’s start with the school district. They’re in the process of doing budget contingency planning right now, and here’s what they’ve come up with.

“If the state cuts our school funding by $400 million, as currently proposed, the school district would lay off a little more than 2000 teachers and 700 non-teaching personnel. That would increase class size from the current maximum of thirty-two to around forty, which would put Philadelphia back to where it was around 1965 and wipe out nearly forty-five years of progress.

“But there’s more. If they cut us by $400 million, there’ll be no summer school this year, which means that every student who would have attended summer school – currently projected to be around 29,500 children – would be held back a year.

“We would eliminate all extra-curricular activities. There’s no possible justification for ordering dessert when you can’t afford dinner. Among those programs cut would be football. Unfortunately, a number of our football stadiums are used by city Catholic high schools, but we would stop anything more than bare-bones maintenance of those facilities, so they’d have to find other places to play unless they’re prepared to pay for one hundred percent of the stadium maintenance.

“We would end all-day kindergarten and close two-thirds of our school libraries. Schools would be partnered up so that one library would serve three schools.

“There’ll be more, but they’re still ironing out the details.”

“That sounds like a huge step backwards for a school district that seldom takes any meaningful steps forward, Mr. Mayor.”

“That’s about the size of it, Ken.

“Now let’s turn to the city,” Norbert said.

“The state legislature is considering cutting our health care funding by $65 million. If that happens, we’d close four of our twelve district health centers. Approximately 75,000 uninsured Philadelphians would lose their access to care. That, in turn, will send a lot of people running to hospital emergency rooms – so many, in fact, that we think this onslaught of uninsured patients could threaten the solvency of two Philadelphia hospitals.”

“Which ones?”

“I’d rather not say. We don’t want to scare their bondholders or destroy their ability to borrow money.

“The governor is talking about cutting our recreation funding by $10 million. If that happens, we won’t open any of our city pools this summer and our playgrounds won’t offer any recreation programs. We’ll also have to lay off our entire staff of summer recreation leaders and cancel our summer jobs program for inner-city youths.

“They’re talking about cutting our community development funding by $35 million, our infrastructure funding by $15 million, our highway repair funding by $35 million, and our convention center subsidy by $8 million. To compensate for these losses, we’d be forced to lay off 1500 city employees, close five fire stations, and close half of our public libraries. Trash would be collected every other week instead of every week so we could lay off 600 of our 1200 trash collectors.

“We’d also lay off 400 police officers. They’re also proposing to eliminate the $25 million in annual funding that we were promised for two more years so we could hire an additional 400 officers, so without that money, we would lay off the 400 officers hired under that state program as well. We have 100 new recruits scheduled to start training at the police academy in July, but we’ve already notified them that we’ll probably have to cancel that class.

“The final piece involves our labor negotiations. Our offer of two percent a year for three years is our best and final offer; that’s all we have to spend. Just so people understand, for every quarter percent extra we have to spend to buy labor peace, we’d have to lay off an additional 225 city workers. If we want to make up the difference without layoffs, then for every quarter percent extra we’d pay city workers, we would need to raise the city wage tax one tenth of one percent.

“There’s more, Ken, but I think you get the idea.”

The veteran anchorman, normally poised and calm, was momentarily speechless. The program’s director, standing behind the camera, frantically waved his arms, urging his anchorman to speak. Finally, he did.

“What you’ve described would be devastating, Mr. Mayor – truly devastating. Virtually every Philadelphian would be affected.”

“I think that’s a fair assessment,” Norbert replied. “But we’re hoping it doesn’t come to that. We expect the unions to be reasonable, for council to pass a budget, and for our Harrisburg delegation to persuade their legislative colleagues to restore Philadelphia’s usual funding. It’s important to keep in mind that we’re not asking for even a dime more than we got last year from Harrisburg. All we want is what we got last year, which is less than what everyone else around the state is getting.

“We have a terrific group of legislators representing Philadelphia in Harrisburg. Working as a team, they’ve gotten the job done for Philadelphia time and time again in the past, and I have every confidence that they’ll do so again this year as well.”

A few minutes later the program ended and the mayor immediately left the studio to spend the rest of the day with his family. As he departed, he felt he had accomplished everything he had set out to do on the broadcast. Now, though, he and his staff needed to plot their next step – and whatever it was, he knew it had better be a good one.

(more next Sunday)

He’d Have to be VERY Hungry or VERY Broke

An acquaintance with a particularly low regard for how The Curmudgeon earns his living recently sent him a job listing for something he thought would represent a significant improvement. It says:

Are you interested in the opportunity to work for an industry-leading firm that services clients that include the Fortune 500, and will give you the experience and exposure you need to build your career and personal brand?

In light of his expressed disdain for associating individual people with brands or branding, The Curmudgeon would have to be VERY hungry or VERY broke or VERY unemployed even to consider working for such a company. He stubbornly insists that he’s a person, not a brand: Joe, or Joseph, if you must, and not Crisco, Hot Pockets, Kotex, OshKosh B’Gosh, or any others like them.

January News Quiz

1. ISIS militants wearing suicide vests attacked a mall in Baghdad recently, where their main target was:

a) Dairy Queen, because homosexuality is an abomination to the militants;

b) the Sports Authority, because they and they alone are the ultimate authority;

c) Old Navy, because they wanted to prove they’re tougher than any American navy; or

d) Annie Sez, because ISIS extremists aren’t interested in anything that anyone named Annie might have to say?

2.After the New York City health department closed the city’s first Chick-fil-A restaurant for health code violations, company officials blamed the store’s problems on:

a) an overzealous city health inspector;

b) a lax manager;

c) Colonel Sanders; or

d) secular humanists and the city’s pervasive homosexual culture?

3.In honor of Texas’s new “open carry” gun law, a barbecue restaurant near Houston is offering customers a 10 percent discount if they come into the restaurant carrying their gun. The restaurant is offering a 20 percent discount if customers:

a) bring other customers with guns;

b) twirl their guns like cowboys in the old west;

c) take one shot and hit a paper Obama target right between the eyes; or

d) shoot someone before before they’re presented with their check?

4.The ultimate proof that Russian president Vladimir Putin is truly a bad guy is:

a) his invasion of Ukraine;

b) his invasion of Syria;

c) his alleged role in the poisoning of a former KGB officer; or

d) Donald Trump likes him and he likes Trump?

5.An earthquake that registered 6.7 on the Richter scale rocked northeastern India and:

a) killed nine people and injured 100 more;

b) caused houses and other buildings to collapse;

c) left hundreds of thousands of people without power and water; or

d) meant that customers of Apple, Dell, HP, Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Southwest Airlines, Microsoft, Bank of America, and others were without access to customer service for a week?

6.A Kentucky man shot down a toy drone flying over his house because:

a) it’s his property so it’s his right;

b) what’s the point of having the right to bear arms if you can’t actually bear some of those arms once in a while;

c) he thought it was an ISIS attack; or

d) why on earth would he need a reason?

7.Among the four newly discovered elements to be added to the periodic table of elements is:

a) Bieberanium, which makes people act like a jackass;

b) Sandersium, a substance that leads people of a certain political persuasion to embrace candidates for public office who can’t possibly win a major election;

c) Palinium, an attractive but highly toxic substance; or

d) Trumperanium, a substance that sprouts wispy strands of strangely organized protein fibers that its discoverers insist is the greatest element in the history of the world, really terrific, never been anything better?

8.Two small U.S. Navy vessels carrying ten sailors were captured by Iran while in Iran’s waters. According to the Navy, the boats accidentally wandered into Iran’s waters because:

a) the crew thought it was Iraq they were supposed to avoid, not Iran;

b) after three months at sea, they strayed from their course while looking for some hot Iranian chicks;

c) they used Mapquest instead of Google Maps; or

d) it was Captain Stubing’s day off and Gopher can’t navigate to save his life?

9.Caitlyn Jenner will publish a book about her transformation from male to female because:

a) it’s a story worth telling;

b) she hopes to be an inspiration to the millions of American men whom she knows would really like to cut off their schmeckle, shave their Adam’s apple, sprout boobs, and become media celebrities;

c) anything for attention; or

d) you don’t seriously expect a member of the Jenner-Kardashian corporation to miss a money-making opportunity, do you?

10.New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have prohibited people convicted of carjacking, gang criminality, racketeering, or terroristic threats from purchasing or owning a gun because:

a) the constitution says they have a right to own guns;

b) with the primaries coming up, Christie realized it was either veto the bill or go back to New Jersey to stay and he really, really doesn’t want to go back to New Jersey to stay;

c) just because they’re convicted, violent felons doesn’t mean they’re bad people; or

d) Christie’s going after the convicted violent felon vote?

(Barring a change of heart or an unexpected uprising of popular sentiment, this will be the last monthly news quiz. The rest of the circus, however, will continue as always because there’s always something interesting going on under the big top.)

Gutless

If you tune into the Republican presidential debate tonight, the proceedings will be one candidate short of the planned complement.

That’s because The Donald won’t be there.

As of this morning, when The Curmudgeon posted this piece, Donald Trump has decided to boycott the debate, to be broadcast on Fox News, because he believes the debate moderator, Megyn Kelly, is biased against him.

Boo hoo, Donnie.

trump- newSuddenly The Donald is afraid of a few tough questions.

If he can be scared off that easily, how is he going to react when Vladimir Putin gets in his face and says “nyet” to something President Trump wants from him?

How is President Trump going to respond when an ISIS terrorist slips through the cracks – something you know is inevitable at some point – and kills Americans at home or abroad?

How is President Trump going to react when the Secret Service uncovers a credible threat to his life?

Or when Congress overrides his veto of a bill?

Or when the polls say his popularity is slipping?

Republican candidates have been getting on the stage with this demagogue for months now, often with poll ratings in single digits, knowing he’s going to belittle them or overshadow them because they understand that you do that kind of thing when you’re asking your countrymen to elect you president.

You don’t run away.

Not from an enemy. Not from an opponent. And certainly not from a reporter whose only weapon is a question.

Something we’ve all probably seen at one time or another is a local election in which one candidate wants to debate but his or her opponent doesn’t, so the one who wants to debate announces an arbitrary time and place for a debate, shows up, and stands across from someone wearing a chicken suit.

“Chicken” as in afraid to debate.

It won’t happen, because it’s too outrageous even for Fox News, but wouldn’t it be great if Fox News would put a guy in a chicken suit at the center podium for the entire debate?

We’ve been waiting a while now for The Donald to show his true colors.

Who knew it would be yellow?

More on the Press Not Doing Its Job

[Note: this story starts out being about sports but really isn’t, so The Curmudgeon hopes non-sports fans will hang in there.]

We expect good reporters to be smart, to be strong, critical thinkers. Sometimes they live up to our expectations but sometimes they don’t.

A month ago the owner of the Philadelphia Eagles football team fired his head coach, a man named Chip Kelly. Kelly was with the team for three years, the first two pretty successful and the third decidedly not. The Curmudgeon has his own thoughts on whether the firing was a good or bad decision but that’s not the subject at hand today.

No, the subject is a bunch of television, radio, and newspaper reporters and commentators who let the team’s owner get away with a disingenuous explanation of his decision to fire Kelly based on an assertion of fact that was not even remotely a fact.

In firing Kelly, the owner stated that his decision to hire Kelly in the first place had been “a bold choice,” implying that he deserved credit for making that bold choice, but that once he decided that his bold choice had proven to be a mistaken choice, he acted swiftly to correct it.

It’s the assertion that the owner’s decision to hire Kelly was “a bold choice” that The Curmudgeon – and pretty much anyone who understands football – realizes was simply wrong, at best, and at worst, intentionally misleading. When the press passively and unquestioningly accepting the owner’s explanation, it surrendered to that owner control of the dialogue surrounding his decision to fire his coach – and in the process of doing so, did a great disservice to the fans who were looking to the media for information and insight.

Kelly’s hiring was not a bold choice. Bold would have been if Kelly had been a massive failure in the past and was being hired anyway. Bold would have been if no one had ever heard of him. Bold would have been if everyone knew who Kelly was but no one else thought of him as head coach material.

But Kelly was none of these things. He had never coached at the professional level but had been extremely successful as a college coach. He had never been fired from a coaching job. And, most important, almost everyone thought of him as head coach material. That year, eight National Football League teams hired new head coaches, and of the other seven coaches hired, the only one who was arguably more attractive to those other teams was the man Kelly was hired to replace.   Three of the teams with coaching vacancies interviewed Kelly, all of them wanted to hire him, and eventually he was hired by Philadelphia.

A bold choice? No. Actually, the consensus choice. Even a safe choice that was more widely praised than his later firing.

Yet today, the Philadelphia Eagles continue to refer to Kelly as a bold choice – and the press never, ever challenges this assertion. In fact, the Philadelphia-area sporting press and media not only continue to mention it but also use the assertion to explain why the owner, this time around, made what is considered a very safe and conservative choice – a man who, his ultimate ability aside, has nowhere near the credentials Kelly brought to the job and is, for that very reason, actually a much bolder choice than Kelly.

But the sporting press and media in Philadelphia rolled over and played dead at the owner’s feet, accepting his fallacious assertion as fact.

But The Curmudgeon promised that this isn’t about football, and it isn’t.

Remember when things in Iraq were going badly for the George W. Bush administration in the 2000s and the president announced a “surge” of U.S. participation in the fighting there? That “surge” meant sending more soldiers. Those of us of a certain age almost surely remember sitting in front of our televisions in the late 1960s, during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, when decisions to send more soldiers to Vietnam were always described as an “escalation” of the war effort, and those escalations inspired enormous anti-war protests across the country.

But when George W. Bush called his escalation a “surge” the press immediately and obediently adopted his terminology and the surge/escalation inspired little in the way of protest. Even today, the press routinely refers to that event as a surge in the U.S. role in the Iraq war.

And one more recent example. During one of the Republican presidential debates late last year, one of the questioners asked Donald Trump about something he had said recently. You know – you absolutely know – that the reporter had the quote in hand when asking the question. But when Trump challenged the reporter, insisting that the premise of the question was inaccurate, the reporter backed down, apologized, and asked another question. This has happened on a number of occasions between reporters and Trump on the campaign trail: they call him on past statements, even on text from his web site, and when he challenges them they meekly back down.

On the old television series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip there was a scene in which an experienced comedy writer who is coaching two young writers interrupts them as they’re explaining a sketch they’re working on and tells them that he still doesn’t understand what the sketch is about.

“Buy the premise, buy the bit,” he says, explaining that despite their explanations they still haven’t told him what their sketch is about.

The American press needs to do a better job than it’s doing today. At a time when public officials, candidates for public office, and public figures, whether business leaders or performers, have more and more ways to talk to us directly, without press intervention – ways like Facebook, Twitter, web sites, Instagram, YouTube, direct mail, and more – it’s never been more important for the press to do a better job of asking public figures good questions, holding them accountable for their words and their deeds, and not backing down like cowards or fools every time they’re challenged.

And that should start by not automatically buying the premise.

 

Thanks, Obama

Last week, Track Palin, son of Sarah, was arrested in Alaska for beating his girlfriend while drunk. He’s being charged with fourth-degree assault, interfering with the report of a domestic violence crime, and possession of a firearm while intoxicated.

palinMama Sarah had an explanation, which she chose to offer while speaking on behalf of Donald Trump, whom she had endorsed the previous day. As Time magazine reported (and which you can see here):

“I can talk personally about this, I guess it’s kind of the elephant in the room,” Palin said. “My son like so many others, they come back a bit different, they come back hardened, they come back wondering if there is that respect for what it is that their fellow soldiers and airmen and every other member of the military so sacrificially have given to this country. And that starts from the top. It’s a shame that our military personnel even have to wonder, if they have to question, if they’re respected anymore. It starts from the top. The question though that comes from our own president where they have to look at him and wonder, do you know what we go through? Do you know what we’re trying to do to secure America and to secure the freedoms that have been bequeathed us?” 

“I can certainly relate with other families who kind of feel these ramifications of some PTSD and some of the woundedness that our soldiers do return with,” Palin continued. “And it makes me realize more than ever it is now or never for the sake of Americas finest that we have that commander in chief that will respect them and honor them.”

In other words, it’s President Obama’s fault that Track got drunk and smacked around his girlfriend.

Seriously?

No further commentary necessary.

A Post-Script on “Winter Storm Jonas”

When did we start naming our snow storms?

Why did we start naming our snow storms?

Who decided that we needed to anthropomorphize falling snow?

Taking Care of Business (chapter 46)

(For an introduction to the novel Taking Care of Business, links to all chapters posted so far, and a list of characters who have appeared so far, go here, to the Taking Care of Business resources page. To see every part of Taking Care of Business posted so far in one place, go here.) 

As the day drew to a close and he finished a few pieces of work, Mayor Norbert was worried. More than 15,000 city employees were threatening to strike in less than a month if he did not give them large raises in pay; the city budget, which would have to cover those raises no matter what their size, still had not been passed even though the legal deadline for doing so had now come and gone; and the state budget, which called for $812 million in cuts in funding for the city and its school district, was still not the subject of serious talks in Harrisburg because with the deadline for passage of that budget still more than three weeks away, officials there reportedly were at least two weeks away from developing a sense of urgency about addressing the matter.

The entire process made no sense to Norbert. He had built one of the largest and most successful businesses in the country, starting literally with an office in the basement of his parents’ home; employed more than 150,000 workers around the world; participated in IPOs worth tens of billions of dollars; and negotiated numerous complex financial deals, including bonds, loans, and lines of credit that reached into the billions. This experience, he had told himself when he was preparing to run for mayor, should be strong preparation for the job of overseeing a city government that, despite its obvious complexity, was far, far smaller than his business. Compared to managing his business, he thought, managing the city’s finances should be easy.

He had thought wrong.

It made no sense, he realized, to be required by law to propose a budget in February – a budget that had to include personnel costs and that, also by law, had to be passed by May 30 – when contracts with four unions representing more than 20,000 city workers expired at the end of June.

But even worse than that, Norbert told himself, his budget proposal relied heavily on state revenue – but the state budget, also proposed in February but with a deadline for passage of June 30, was never passed before the city’s budget deadline of May 30.

In essence, Norbert concluded, he was expected to propose a budget, and lead council to its passage, without knowing his labor costs, which accounted for roughly seventy percent of his total budget, and without knowing how much money the city would receive from the state.

And amid such thoughts, Norbert sadly concluded that his proposed city budget, carefully crafted by dedicated people working hundreds of hours, was not worth the 600 or so pieces of paper on which it was written.

The question now, though, was where to devote his energies to try to do something about this disaster in the making.

On the labor negotiations?

On the recalcitrant council?

On the state legislature?

He immediately ruled out getting involved in labor talks. Although the unions were threatening to strike, history had shown that their contracts were seldom settled until within twenty-four hours of when they were to expire. Besides, his personal involvement at this stage would probably increase the unions’ public posturing and make the talks even less productive than they already were.

He did not know what to do about council but considered seeking advice from his wife. In the early years of their marriage she had taught kindergarten, and he thought she might be able to shed some light on council’s childish ways.

Finally, there was the legislature. Of the three, he thought this was the most pressing, because of the amount of money at stake: the $812 million that the governor had proposed stripping from the state’s financial support for Philadelphia. Without that money, his budget would collapse – and without Michael Ianucci, who was now clearly out of the picture, Norbert was also without the long-time solution to this very problem.

But how best to overcome these obstacles? That was the challenge Norbert now faced. Whether it was the unions, the legislature, or council, the problem, as the mayor saw it, was that no one was taking seriously these threats to the city’s financial health. Most of the ways he might go about trying to rally public interest in these problems, he decided, would be taken personally by the people he needed to engage to get what he desired. What he needed, Norbert concluded, was a way to do that, to get his point across clearly, publicly, and visibly but without further antagonizing the people whom his message was really intended to challenge and to get the public and the media behind him. Right now, though, he had no idea how to go about doing that.

It was nearly six o’clock and he was still in his office, so he turned on the television to see the local news.

And then he knew.

(more next Sunday)

NY Theater Stages Adaptation of “Death of a Salesman” – in Yiddish

Oy!

Ted Cruz on Donald Trump’s “New York Values”

The other day Ted Cruz criticized Donald Trump for what he called The Donald’s “New York values.”

In responding to criticism of the remark, Cruz blathered about the New York and Washington “media elite,” liberals, abortion, and other such matters.

There are many, many wonderful working men and women in New York. But everyone understands that the values of New York City are socially liberal, pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, focused around money and the media.

While Cruz’s remarks didn’t entirely apply to Trump, the reference to money and the media are code words and we all know what they mean. That, in turn, enables us to observe that once again, life imitates art.