Monthly Archives: January 2016

Some Dubious News Reporting

Last week the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the beginning of demolition of a mostly abandoned strip shopping center about five minutes from The Curmudgeon’s home. The story noted that a backhoe had begun ripping into the vacant K-Mart site, mentioned some of the other stores that had once occupied the shopping, and added that “A Burger King store on a separate pad site was recently demolished.”

Coincidentally, The Curmudgeon headed in that general direction the following night and, while spinning through one of New Jersey’s notorious jug handles, thought he noticed some light coming from the area where the Burger King is – or, according to the article, was – located. His interest piqued, The Curmudgeon returned to the scene the following afternoon, in daylight.

And there stood the Burger King: lights on, cars in the parking lot, and open for business, the scent of searing animal flesh wafting through the air.

That night The Curmudgeon wrote a quick and only partially snarky email to the Inquirer reporter who wrote that the Burger King was gone. After three days without a reply The Curmudgeon contacted the person who runs the newspaper, himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. It still took more than a business day but the error was corrected (although the beginning of the article did not note that it had been updated, which is usually the case on the newspaper’s web site).

Last month another Inquirer reporter wrote of the announced closing of a factory located one very long block from where The Curmudgeon once lived in Philadelphia. The factory’s jobs, the article reported, were to be relocated to one of the company’s other plants in Wisconsin. Funding for the shift, the reporter noted, was underwritten in part by the state of Wisconsin.

If only he had written it that way. Instead, he wrote that

… Bemis [note: the company] is using corporate welfare grants from Wisconsin as it consolidates operations (from Pa. and other states) to its homestate. Gov. Scott Walker, who has shared credit for Bemis’ relocation, was running for President at the time. (I felt it was hypocritical of him as a conservative to be throwing money at corporations that way, but I’ve heard from a number of readers who insist Walker hasn’t claimed to be that kind of a conservative.)

Is there anything inaccurate about this statement. No – at least, assuming it’s true.

What bothers The Curmudgeon is the reference to “corporate welfare grants” and the explanation that the reporter felt that providing the grant was hypocritical on the part of the state’s government.

[Note: The Curmudgeon made a mistake in preparing for this account by not keeping the original newspaper story. Readers blasted the author for his editorializing and he revised it, softening his criticism, which originally was longer and more biting, although – interestingly, and like the correction noted above – the newspaper’s web site did not indicate that the article had been updated.]

The Curmudgeon has used this space to rail against corporate welfare on more than one occasion – including twice just last week – and will undoubtedly do so again, but his problem here is that this particular railing was done in a news article. In his eyes, that kind of observation belongs in a column or on the op-ed page and clearly labeled as opinion.

And last we look at an Associated Press story published last week, the day after the Republican presidential debate, that began by observing that

Two fresh faces in the Republican Party – House Speaker Paul Ryan and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley – are offering messages of diversity and openness to immigrants that could answer the GOP establishment’s increasingly desperate search for an antidote to the loud pronouncements of presidential front-runner Donald Trump.

Two fresh faces? The Curmudgeon agrees that Haley is a fresh face since, prior to election as South Carolina’s governor in 2010, she’d only served as a state representative and her response to the state of the union was, as far as he can recall, her first major appearance on the national stage.

But Paul Ryan is a fresh face? This is his 17th year in Congress, he spent four years as the high-profile chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee, and he spent ten months as chairman of the similarly powerful House Ways and Means Committee before being chosen – elevated, really – to Speaker of the House.

Oh, and along the way he ran on a national ticket as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential candidate, which put him on television and in the newspapers, and all over the internet, on a daily basis for three months.

The Curmudgeon’s not fond of Ryan, but this has nothing to do with that. He’s been in Congress for 17 years and is now running the whole show, and he’s not a fresh face. If you asked the average American to name ten members of the House he or she probably wouldn’t be able to, but those who can probably would name Ryan. The very public process of persuading the seemingly reluctant Ryan to seek the speakership played out on television and in newspapers across the country for several weeks last fall. If Ryan were to announce his candidacy for president tomorrow, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich would lose virtually all of their supporters and Ted Cruz and Chris Christie would lose many of theirs.

Certainly, Ryan’s is a young face – at least, for the world of politics: he turns only 46 later this month. But a fresh face?

The Curmudgeon thinks not.

A late addition to this piece: today’s Washington Post devotes an entire news story/commentary to the outfit Sarah Palin wore when she endorsed Donald Trump in Iowa – hair, glasses, and sweater. Naturally, the writer – a fashion writer – disapproved and suggested all sorts of untoward and underhanded reasons why Palin dressed as she did. No one would write such a piece about a man making a political endorsement. The Post should be ashamed of itself.

And so should the New York Times, which yesterday ran an article titled “How Hillary Clinton Ended the Clothing Conversation.” Again: unnecessary, insulting, and sexist. And, ultimately, untrue, since the Times wrote about it.

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Generalissimo Francisco Franco is Still Dead…

Well, it's not as if any of us would recognize a picture of Franco himself.

Well, it’s not as if any of us would recognize a picture of Franco himself.

…and sadly, so, too, is The Curmudgeon’s late father – but that hasn’t stopped the world from seeking his money.

As The Curmudgeon wrote some time back, when his father passed away in September of 2013 he arranged to have all of dad’s mail forwarded to him. The post office, however, is a lot better at keeping that stuff coming than you might think, and now, more than two years later, The Curmudgeon continues to receive – almost daily – mail addressed to his father. A few weeks ago The Curmudgeon decided to hold onto it for a little while, and now, he’d like to share with you just about a month’s worth of items that have arrived in the mail addressed to dad. (And this doesn’t include the 1359 items in dad’s email in-box and 84 more in his email account’s spam folder.)

First are the causes:

  • Paralyzed Veterans of America (four times)
  • Disabled American Veterans
  • Wounded Warrior Project (twice)
  • World Jewish Congress
  • Anti-Defamation League (twice)
  • Simon Wiesenthal Center
  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
  • St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital (along with a supply of address labels)

Sorry, folks, but the guy who lived on a very modest fixed income won’t be helping you anymore.

Then, the contests: Publishers Clearing House (twice)

Next are the insurers:

  • AARP (three times) (surely you know that AARP has become little more than a front for insurers)
  • Silver Script (a Medicare prescription drug plan)
  • GEICO (twice)

Drat, no life insurers: The Curmudgeon would’ve loved to take advantage of an opportunity to buy some life insurance for dad.

And then there are those selling products:

  • Easy Rest (adjustable beds) (three times)
  • REM Audiology (hearing aids) (twice)
  • Philadelphia Protestant Home (senior housing)
  • Miracle-Ear
  • Consumer Reports (twice)
  • Health After 50 (a health newsletter)
  • Dodge/Jeep (a $1500 check toward the purchase of a car)
  • Turnersville Jeep Chrysler Dodge (pre-qualified for a car loan of up to $29,995)
  • Visa (twice)
  • Mayo Clinic Health Letter

Memo to Easy Rest: dad is resting quite comfortably, thank you.

And to Miracle-Ear: if you can restore dad’s hearing that would TRULY be a miracle.

junk mailMemo to Visa: way to perform those rigorous credit checks, fellas: you “pre-approved” (surely you understand why The Curmudgeon places “pre-approved” in quotation marks) dad for twice his approved credit line of $700 once he makes his first payment on time. Here’s the deal, Visa: Never. Gonna. Happen.

All of this in around one month – and this has been going on now for twenty-seven months.

The Curmudgeon thought that surely the constant flow of junk mail to dad would slow to a trickle after a while, that surely all of these companies and organizations would figure out that dad hasn’t responded to any pitches in nearly three years and it’s no longer worth whatever they’re spending on printing and postage for goods and services he’s no longer in a position to buy.

The Curmudgeon, alas, thought wrong.

 

 

 

Ask Your Internet Provider

Remember “I want my MTV”?

Of course you do. It was everywhere in the 1980s and was even in the Dire Straits 1985 song “Money for Nothing.” MTV was a new cable channel that wasn’t having a whole lot of luck persuading cable operators to carry its programming so it went right to the people – okay, the young people – with its message: call your cable operator and tell them “I want my MTV.”

And it worked. Are there any cable systems that didn’t carry MTV by 1990?

MTV created the template for that kind of campaign and other fledging cable channels emulated it: they told prospective customers to contact their cable operators and tell them they want the such-and-such channel. That really worked, too, for a number of years, until more recent times, when it’s become harder and harder for new and independent cable channels to get up and running because broadcasting is now so corporate that small guys are mostly excluded and weak channels count on their corporate owners, which also have strong channels, to “persuade” cable operators to include them.

Cable operators back then only provided television programming, but now, they – and telephone companies – are all internet service providers as well, and The Curmudgeon believes there’s a question we should all be asking our internet service providers:

Why is my internet service so damn slow?

aol_imageIt’s true. We’ve come a long way, baby, from our AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy dial-up days and our jokes about the “world wide wait and we probably think our internet service these days is pretty damn fast.

And if we think that, we’re wrong.

Of course, “fast” is a relative term, and our service today is much, much faster than it once was.

But not nearly as fast as others have it or as fast as it could be.

What others?

Well, here are a few numbers for you.

Internet speed is measured in megabits per second, or mbps. In the U.S., the average internet connection speed is 11.5 mbps.

Which places us 12th in the world.

So who’s higher than us? England? China? Canada? Germany? France?

No – to all of them.

Here’s a list of the 11 countries that have faster average internet connection speed than the U.S.

  • South Korea – 25.3
  • Hong Kong – 16.3
  • Japan – 15.0
  • Switzerland – 14.5
  • Sweden – 14.1
  • Netherlands – 14.0
  • Ireland – 13.9
  • Latvia – 13.0
  • Czech Republic – 12.3
  • Singapore – 12.24.15
  • Finland – 11.7

Okay, The Curmudgeon gets countries like Hong Kong, Japan, and Sweden; these are pretty advanced industrial and technological countries.

But Latvia? The Czech Republic?

South Korea? SOUTH KOREA? That tiny, backward country that cowers in its boots and needs protection from one of the most backwards countries in the world HAS AN AVERAGE INTERNET CONNECTION SPEED MORE THAN TWICE AS FAST AS OURS?

How can that be?

And why are we settling for that?

Well, the “How can it be” part has two answers: first, we, as customers, are not asking for better service from our providers; and second, in few parts of the country is there real competition for our business, so internet service providers have little incentive to offer us better, faster service. Don’t like their speed? Well, they’ll be happy to point you in the direction of a dial-up service because that’s the only alternative in most places. Instead of focusing on the quality of the service they offer, they focus on piling on more services for which we might be willing to pay extra so they can make more money.

Why not faster internet service, too?

Well, there’s a third answer, too: because our elected officials are constantly erecting barriers to new companies trying to compete in our individual markets and have gotten very, very good, with the help of generous campaign contributions from the existing companies, at rebuffing the very few bold enterprises that seek to overcome those barriers. It’s a lethal combination: rich companies making money as fast as they can count it and groveling politicians who will do anything to help them protect their monopolies in exchange for campaign contributions. And your interests? Not really a consideration: neither the internet service providers nor the public officials consider your interests a priority.

And that’s why, if you want faster internet service – and the technological capacity for much faster service already exists, it’s not as if someone has to figure out how to do it – you have to move to Latvia.

Or the Czech Republic.

Or South Korea.

SOUTH KOREA!

A Great Headline

The Curmudgeon promised himself he wasn’t going to write about the Philadelphia 76ers this year. To refresh your memory very briefly, the professional basketball is in the midst of a multi-year campaign to field the worst team it possibly can so it can accumulate draft choices that will give it the opportunity to acquire the most talented players coming out of college. The plan isn’t going well: the team’s intentional losing continues unabated because its leaders have done such a poor job of identifying that talent. The problem has gotten so bad (The Curmudgeon wrote about it here, here, here, here, and here) that the National Basketball Association intervened and imposed a new executive on the team who immediately took steps to acquire more talent. The first player he obtained: a player who had been with the team last year and proved useful, so the team chose not to retain him because the player might actually have helped it win too many games.

But this isn’t another screed about a vile plan that undermines the integrity of an entire professional sport, so The Curmudgeon’s telling himself (or is it deceiving himself?) that he hasn’t broken his promise.

No, it’s about one news outlet – Comcast Sportnet Philadelphia – and how it reacted when the team, with just one win and 29 losses – let’s repeat that: one win and 29 losses – lost again by the score of 104 to 90 to the team from Memphis to lower its record to one win and 30 losses.

The headline of the story (a story, by the way, that didn’t actually reveal the score, which tells you all you need to know about the quality of journalism at Comcast Sportsnet Philadelphia) was priceless:

Sixers trounced by slightly less than usual by Grizzlies

Taking Care of Business (chapter 45)

(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.) 

“Is there any new business?” city council president Harold Miller asked from his seat – actually, it was more like a throne – overlooking the large chamber in which Philadelphia’s city council conducted its official business.

His question elicited no response.

“Motion to adjourn?” he asked.

“So moved,” a voice called out from below.

“Do I hear a second?” Miller asked.

“I second the motion,” another voice responded.

“Then I declare the May 29 meeting of this council to be adjourned. Our next meeting will be on Thursday, June 6 at ten o’clock in this chamber.”

With that, he rapped his gavel twice and the people gathered in the chamber – council members and staff, Ed and Larry from Norbert’s staff, the press, and spectators – rose from their seats.

This was the final council meeting before the legal deadline of May 30 to pass a city budget. During the ninety-minute session, council had honored six high school seniors who were about to graduate without missing a single day of school in thirteen years; commended the residents of the 1300 block of Tasker Street for their day-long “community clean-up;” and passed resolutions honoring a minister for thirty years of service to his flock and declaring the week of July 13 “Philadelphia soft pretzel week.” It also enacted an ordinance providing for stop signs at four busy intersections and another ordinance endorsing the city’s application for federal community development funds.

But council did not pass a budget for the coming fiscal year. It did not vote on a budget. In fact, it did not even discuss that budget – nor did it do so in the ten-minute preparatory meeting that council members held in their caucus room right before the official meeting began. In so doing, it became the first Philadelphia council in more than fifty years to fail to pass a budget by the legal deadline.

A local radio reporter greeted council budget committee chairwoman Mary Amordella outside council’s chamber immediately after the meeting.

“Councilwoman Amordella, why didn’t council pass a budget today?”

“We haven’t worked out all of our issues with the mayor yet.”

“Would you say there are a lot of those issues or just a few?”

“Just a few, but one of them is certainly the revenue gap of more than $800 million between what the mayor says we can count on from the state and what the governor says he’s giving us.”

“But hasn’t council routinely passed budgets in the past with state funding still unresolved and then addressed any discrepancies with amended budget ordinances in the fall?”

“It would be irresponsible of us to do that, and this council will not act irresponsibly.”

“But you did it two years ago, and the year before that, and two years before that.”

Recognizing the undeniable accuracy of the reporter’s assertions, Amordella said nothing.

“Councilwoman?”

Amordella again chose silence, so the reporter had little choice but to change the subject.

“Is there any truth to reports that the major stumbling block to a budget deal between council and the mayor is his continued employment of Shaniqua Watson as streets commissioner and not the questions surrounding state funding?”

“I don’t know where you get such misinformation.”

“Does that mean it’s not the problem?”

“It means I don’t know where you get this stuff,” Amordella replied.

“Will council take its three-month summer vacation if a budget isn’t passed?”

“It’s not a vacation, young lady, it’s a recess, and council members work just as hard during our recess as we do when council is in session.”

“On what, councilwoman?”

“We meet with constituents, provide constituent service, and work on legislation for the fall session. We’re hard at work the entire time.”

“As you know, councilwoman, last year the Post visited council’s offices every day during the three-month vacation…”

“Recess,” Amordella interrupted.

“Yes, recess,” the reporter continued. “And it found council members in city hall only about thirty percent of the time.”

“You don’t need to be in the building to be working on council business.”

“Like writing legislation?” the reporter asked. “They don’t need to be in their offices to write legislation?”

“Exactly,” Amordella replied.

“Councilwoman, according to council’s own records, eight of council’s seventeen members haven’t been the primary author of any legislation at all since this session began in January. Are you suggesting that these members are among those working on legislation for the fall?”

“Especially them, yes. They have to make up for lost time.”

“Councilwoman, the city controller has indicated that he’s going to direct the city’s personnel department to withhold the paychecks of council members until you pass a budget. What’s your reaction to that?”

“First of all, he can’t do that during the current fiscal year, which still has another month to go. Second of all, if he does, we may never get a budget, because if we’re not getting paid, we can’t very well be expected to work, can we?”

“Are you suggesting that under such circumstances, council might consider walking off the job?” the reporter asked.

“That would be an option, yes,” Amordella responded.

“Do you mean council could go on strike?”

“I wouldn’t call it that.”

“What would you call it?”

“I would say we could conceivably find ourselves walking off the job.”

“And that’s not a strike?”

“Calling it a strike would not be an inappropriate way of describing it.”

“What about your constituents?”

“What about them?”

“Don’t you think your constituents would be unhappy if the entire legislative branch of their city’s government went on strike?”

“I’m sure our constituents believe that council should be paid for its work, and I’m confident they would support us.”

“Even if not having a budget results in closing city recreation centers, pools, libraries, health centers, and many other city programs and laying off hundreds or even thousands of city employees?”

“I’m confident that our constituents would walk in solidarity with us on this matter. This is, after all, a labor town, and the seventeen members of council are laborers.”

“With salaries of $105,000 a year, a personal staff of four to six people, fully paid health care benefits, large pensions, and city cars, you consider yourselves laborers?”

“Absolutely. We’re laborers, just like our constituents.”

(continued next Sunday)

 

 

Curing Cancer

During his state of the union address this week President Obama announced a campaign to cure cancer.

Even though he’s a cancer survivor, The Curmudgeon doesn’t think much of the idea. He thinks cancer’s going to be cured by pharmaceutical companies, because they have dollar signs in their eyes, and not academic scientists working with the help of government grants.

The Curmudgeon also thinks that launching such an obviously long-term venture in the last of eight years in office is really, really weak. He sees it as an attempt to distract the public from more pressing issues, and that seems to have worked: along with the implicit criticism of Donald Trump and the Republican response to the president’s speech by South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, the cancer campaign seems to have gotten more attention than any other aspect of the rambling speech and succeeded, at least in the short run, in doing the desired distracting.

But this isn’t the first time a president contemplated using his state of the union address to announce the launch of a campaign to cure cancer. Another president, also trying to distract people from other problems in his administration, strongly considered doing the same but ultimately decided – wisely, in The Curmudgeon’s view – not to do so. Read about the almost-campaign here and see how he intended to announce his plan here.

Yet Again With Public Financing for a Football Stadium

Yesterday we looked at the lengths to which the city of Tampa is willing to go to keep a professional football league in town.

Today we turn to St. Louis, where a similar effort is under way.

The St. Louis Rams football team plays in the Edward Jones Dome, which is now 21 years old. The team’s owner, Stan Kroenke, wants to pick up his team and move to Los Angeles. The city is desperate to keep the Rams, and despite Kroenke having no apparent interest in staying, has been busy fashioning a plan to save the Rams by building a new stadium for the team.

ramsThe plan: a new, $1.1 billion stadium for which the city would pay $150 million, the state would kick in another $150 million, the National Football League would pay $200 million, and the team would pay the rest.

The team, Forbes reports, is worth about $930 million. Kroenke, the owner, is worth about $6.3 billion.

Now, a little about St. Louis.

Like Tampa, St. Louis isn’t a huge city: a population of only 317,000. Its city budget this year reached the $1 billion level for the first time.

Unlike Tampa, St. Louis is a pretty poor town. Its unemployment rate is 6.8 percent, or 24 percent higher than the national average of 5.5 percent. 27.4 percent of the city’s residents live under the federal poverty level – 89 percent more than the national poverty rate of 14.5 percent. The infant mortality rate is nearly twice that of the U.S. as a whole.

So in this case, we have a city – a city with high unemployment and an astronomical rate of poverty – that just can’t wait to spend $150 million, and a state to spend another $150 million, to help build a football stadium for a business worth nearly a billion dollars that’s owned by a guy worth $6.3 billion. That business, moreover, just like that of the team we looked at yesterday, generates only a handful of good full-time, benefits-paying jobs for local residents; almost everyone associated with the business who makes a good salary is imported from another part of the country, will put down no meaningful roots in the St. Louis area, and will find his or her next job in a place hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Again, The Curmudgeon has to ask: what’s wrong with this picture? And the people who are so eager to spend the public’s money in this manner – what can they possibly be thinking?

(The Curmudgeon wrote today’s piece last week and on Sunday posted it so it would appear here today. Two days ago, however, the National Football League announced that the St. Louis football team would be moving to Los Angeles next year. While the outcome of the situation is no longer in doubt, the underlying concern – foolish public officials offering hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid to highly successful but ultimately small businesses owned by astonishingly wealthy people – remains.)

Another Kind of Corporate Welfare

Raymond James Stadium in Tampa is home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team. The stadium is 18 years old.

The Tampa Sports Authority recently voted to contribute to the stadium’s renovation. Under the plan it adopted, the authority will pay $29 million of the $87 million renovation, with the team to pay the remaining $58 million.

tampa bucsAnd it’s hard not to wonder why taxpayers should be involved in this matter at all.

Forbes estimates that the team is currently worth $1.5 billion. The team increased in value 23 percent, in fact, in a year during which it was the worst team in professional football, losing 14 of its 16 games. The team generates only a handful of good full-time, benefits-paying jobs for local residents; almost everyone associated with the business who makes a good salary is imported from another part of the country, will put down no meaningful roots in the Tampa Bay area, and will find his or her next job in a place hundreds or thousands of miles away.

The team was purchased in 1995 by Malcolm Glazer for $192 million. Which means it’s worth… a lot more now. Mr. Glazer passed away in 2014 and his family now owns and runs the team. Forbes estimates that the Glazer family is worth $4.7 billion.

So a city of 353,000 with a budget of about $850 million is going to spend $29 million to help a business worth $1.5 billion that generates very few good local jobs and that’s owned by a family worth $4.7 billion.

What’s wrong with this picture?

 

 

Vaccinations Revisited

The Curmudgeon has written about vaccinations before: written about the bizarre circumstances under which nudie model Jenny McCarthy has come to be viewed by some as the foremost authority on the safety of vaccinations and how not one but two Republican presidential candidates, Rand Paul and Ben Carson, are doctors yet refuse, for political reasons, to reject this whole anti-vaccine nonsense when they are directly asked about it.

vaccineSo maybe it’s only fitting that it takes a comedian to put all of this in perspective for us – and no, for once, it’s not Jon Stewart. That comedian is Jimmy Kimmel, and last year he interjected some common sense into the whole vaccination debate – as if there should even BE a vaccination debate – and then brought in some experts to tell us how it really is.

See Kimmel’s bit here; it’s worth watching from beginning to end.

Congratulations (again)!

Congratulations to the faculty of the Anne Frank Elementary School in Philadelphia, named best public elementary school in the city for the third consecutive year.

The Curmudgeon’s interest? The Curmudgeonly Sister teaches there and is as dedicated to her work as anyone her older brother has ever met.

So congratulations to sis; teachers present and recent past The Curmudgeon has met – Mary, Joni, and Jody – and those whose names he’s heard so many times for so many years, including Susan, Michelle, and principal Mickey.

Anne Frank ElementaryjpgThe distinction was announced during a visit to the school last week by the school superintendent and mayor, who had only been sworn into office three days earlier.

Congratulations, Anne Frank School!