Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sinking Liberal Newspapers Throw Readers Overboard, & the Chicago Sun-Times as a Case in Point

The decline of American newspapers appears relentless – shrinking readership, dropping ad revenues, and mounting losses as former readers increasingly look to the web for their needs. But as their businesses sink and with water up to their knees, the liberals in charge blissfully carry on.

Although newspapers have a long tradition of taking sides politically, in recent years liberal newspaper writers have increasingly promoted the myth of the “objective” journalist – balanced and fair, just reporting the news. This myth in reality has been nothing more than a great lie to brainwash inattentive readers to the increasing one-sidedness of their product.

But now, faced with a downward spiral with no end in sight, one would think that rational newspaper people would recognize that now they cannot afford to alienate any potential readers with extreme political ideologies, and that offering a product balanced and fair in reporting and commentary would be the best chance at survival. One could think that, but then one would be wrong.

Why would the ultra-liberals who have taken over most newspapers (and all of the wire services) increasingly force conservatives and Republicans, a big portion of potential readership, away from their product? Well, to start with, liberals in the media don’t see their work as a business – they see it as a mission to promote the liberal agenda among the malleable proletariat, the ones with all that false consciousness. And like the scorpion that stings the frog giving it a ride across a pond, thus drowning them both, liberals just can’t help themselves, even if they wanted to.

Case in point – the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper. As it sinks, it veers left. Here are just two examples of the depths to which the Sun-Times has sunk – from two articles I clipped, both from the same day in the paper, March 8, 2008, on consecutive pages:

(1) Article on page 14 regarding Vice-President Cheney’s graduation address at the Great Lakes Naval Base in north suburban Chicago: Big headline: “It Took Him 8 Years To Get Here”; Sub-header – “Cheney visits base for graduation, though Iraq veteran not impressed”. While stating that 4,000 were present for the graduation ceremony, the author focuses essentially the entire article on the anti-Bush and anti-Cheney comments from just one man, a training officer. How representative was that one man’s sentiments of the entire audience? Not very, I’m sure, but that’s not the point when your role as a “journalist” is to be an ultra-liberal advocate in every “straight-news” article you write.

(2) Article on page 15 regarding the special election to fill the seat of retiring U.S. Rep. Dennis Hastert, pitting Republican Jim Oberweis, a man with interests in a financial services firm and a dairy company, against Bill Foster, a physicist: Big headline: “Physicist vs. Ice Cream Man in Rare Saturday Election”; the last paragraph reads “Obama and 28 Nobel Prize winners have endorsed Foster. Hastert and Republican John McCain have endorsed Oberweis.”

Now I have my share of criticisms of these Republican politicians, but smears and dripping condescension at every opportunity in what are supposed to be non-opinion, straight news articles are tiring and pathetic, and drive away readers. But this has become common in the Chicago Sun-Times. And as for its commentary, their columnists are no different – the paper prominently displays ultra-liberal featured writers who provide cheap shots and invective rather than reasoned arguments. The sports pages are very good, though, and are now the only reason to buy the paper.

So how is the Sun-Times doing these days? The paper is the primary asset of its parent company, the publicly-traded Sun-Times Media Group, which also owns many small local suburban newspapers. The company just reported that in the most recent quarter it lost over $168 million. That’s 168 million dollars. The last closing stock share price – 6 cents.

John Michael Greco

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

No Bailout for Detroit Automakers -- If We Want Them to Survive

Now have come the Detroit 3 “automakers” with outstretched palms demanding a piece of the half-baked federal bailout pie, formally known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Democrats control Congress and could pass, if they wanted to, a “bailout” package specifically for Detroit, but their leaders are afraid to do so since such an unpopular and consequential act would be out in the open for all to see. Instead, they prefer the backdoor approach of pilfering money from the TARP, money that they themselves have already allocated for another purpose – an ill-conceived bailout of financial firms.

The Detroit 3 “automakers” are functionally bankrupt, if not right now then in a few months, or possibly in a few days. They have received much sympathy from those who want the US to retain an auto industry based here and all of the jobs connected to it. But that sympathy is misplaced.

What have the Detroit 3 companies become? At one time they were automobile and truck manufacturers, but they have gradually and almost imperceptibly morphed into something else indeed. They are now private social-welfare-plus-executive-stock-plan cooperatives, which finance themselves through the financing of increasingly uncompetitive motor vehicles that they manufacture at a loss. And these social welfare cooperatives have finally run out of money and now want American taxpayers to subsidize them.

Most of us do indeed want to save American-headquartered auto companies. But sensible people realize that the Detroit 3 business model has failed, and nothing short of a major restructuring will fix it. To understand how to save them from themselves one has to be clear about the current reality.

The US has two auto industries -- the Detroit 3 “legacy” companies and the many foreign–headquartered companies that manufacture vehicles in the US, primarily in non-unionized plants. These second generation US manufacturers are doing very well as the Detroit 3 inexorably ossify.

It’s a wonder the Detroit 3 lasted this long. Compared to the second generation US manufacturers, their competitors, the Detroit 3’s labor costs are way higher ($73 total average hourly compensation, 52% higher than the $48 for Toyota in the US), the quality of their vehicles is lower, the array of their brands is counter-productive, and the number of dealerships is unsustainable. These issues have been written about for years, and yet even as they slide further and further into oblivion the Detroit 3 have been unable to change in a meaningful way. They say they are about to turn it all around, but they’ve been saying that for 30 years.

Anyone who really wants to secure the long-term survival of the Detroit 3 can only hope for one thing – their complete restructuring in bankruptcy, which would give new, fresh management the power to forge new labor and dealership arrangements, perhaps additionally with warranties guaranteed for some period by the US government to assure new buyers. The companies would continue to exist, and would emerge from bankruptcy in the fighting trim necessary to be competitive in the 21st century.

Many Democrat politicians, however, do not want that – they seek to preserve for their union supporters the very extreme union contracts that are a major reason the companies have failed. When the Detroit 3 CEOs showed up in Washington the other day, too many Americans were paying attention and the outrage at a possible “bailout” was too great. So the Democrat party leaders retreated to regroup and try another day (preferably after dark) under the ruse of sending the Detroit 3 leaders away to prepare a plan for how they will spend any money given to them. When the heat dies down and most attention is elsewhere, Democrat party leaders will likely give the Detroit 3 the money they want, and thereby place the irredeemably dysfunctional companies on government life support, from which they will never wean themselves. At that point, why should they, even if they could?

For additional commentary, see a great piece from Dennis Byrne (link) and lots of statistical information from Mark J. Perry at Carpe Diem (link).

John Michael Greco

Monday, November 24, 2008

Illinois Republicans: Slip, Slidin’ Away

The declining fortune of the Illinois Republican party continues apace -- it has dropped so low so fast one can only hope that the bitter experience will rescue the party from the incredible amount of self-destructiveness and blundering it has managed to exhibit in recent years.

As of after this month’s elections, both US Senators are Democrats, 12 of 19 US Representatives are Democrats, all six state-wide elected officials are Democrats, and Democrats control about 60% of both the state Senate and state House. In recent years, three historically majority-Republican US House districts have elected Democrats, including one earlier this month. In this last case, the incumbent Republican Rep. Weller resigned to go off with his recent bride – the daughter of a former dictator of Guatemala; his hand-picked successor, new to elective politics, won in the Republican primary but shortly thereafter decided not to run for the seat after all, leaving Republicans to name a replacement who had also never held elective office and entered the fall race without the name recognition at least a primary brings. I’m not making this up.

The root causes are many.

· Many lackluster candidates. Cases in point: Republican Speaker of the US House Denny Hastert retired from a strong Republican district (he won his last re-election race with 60% of the vote). In the Republican primary, wealthy perennial candidate Jim Oberweis knocked off a State Senator and proceeded to lose a special election last March to a Democrat political newcomer, and lost a second time earlier this month to the same man. In 2004, Republican Rep. Phil Crane, 73 years old, the longest-serving Republican in the US House at the time (he gained his seat when Donald Rumsfeld resigned to take a position in the Nixon Administration), and long felt to be disengaged, lost to a Democratic political newcomer in a Republican district G.W. Bush carried in 2000 with 56% of the vote.

· Public corruption – the governor before the current Democratic one (who seems at risk to be indicted any day now) was a Republican and is in jail for corruption. Just before he was indicted, he sought to curry favor with Democrats and the press (not to be redundant) with a “death-bed” conversion into an anti-death penalty zealot. He still wound up in jail.

· Ideological rigidity: For some Republican opinion leaders, abortion is a rigid litmus test, seemingly even in local races in socially “moderate” districts. The ruinous internecine warfare continues.

· Abandonment of the basic tenet of small-government-oriented fiscal control and responsibility -- all Republican governors within memory and many legislators have been tax-and spend types.

· Weak party leadership. Prime case in point: In 2004, a young, energetic, and engaging candidate named Jack Ryan won the Republican primary for the US Senate seat of retiring Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (a “maverick” who seemed to fight more with other Republicans than with Democrats -- hmmm, that sounds familiar -- and who was responsible for securing the appointment of crypto-Democrat Patrick Fitzgerald as federal prosecutor). On the Democratic side, the relatively unknown Barack Obama won the Democratic primary when his covert supporters in the media somehow got his main primary opponent’s sealed divorce records unsealed, revealing embarrassing information that caused the candidate to withdraw. Once he was the Democratic nominee, Obama and his team went to work again with the same tactic – they got Ryan’s supposedly sealed divorce records unsealed (Illinois had a rash of candidates with sealed divorce records), once again revealing an embarrassing item. But rather than rallying around their candidate and weathering the minor storm puffed up by the Democrat party and its media branch, Republican leaders promptly folded and forced Ryan to withdraw. That was bad enough, but the real lunacy was that they had no viable replacement candidate. These party leaders then declined to pick some young, up-and-coming Republican who would gain valuable experience and name recognition even in a losing effort; instead, they selected, astonishingly, Maryland resident and perennial candidate Alan Keyes to run against Obama (Keyes is black and was picked presumably for that reason). Keyes moved a suitcase of clothes into a hastily-rented apartment somewhere inside the state line and the farce was on. Needless to say, Obama won the Senate seat and the Illinois Republican party and its leadership looked ridiculous.

It’s a wonder things aren’t worse than they are.

John Michael Greco

Friday, November 21, 2008

Markets, Mortgages, & Bailouts – About Root Causes & Lessons Learned

We find ourselves at an inflection point, knowing now that things can no longer be as they were. Gravity has reappeared and brought us back to ground. We consume more than we produce. Many of our industries cannot compete in the face of cheaper foreign labor. We borrow money from foreigners and divvy it up among ourselves (see social security, cheap mortgage loans, unemployment insurance, subsidies, etc.) and then send cash back over our borders for stuff we can’t afford to make ourselves. The party seems to be coming to an abrupt end.

Mortgage loans going bad started the collapse of the house of cards. Democrats for years have been forcing banks to issue lots of loans to people who couldn’t afford them (see Community Reinvestment Act; Frank, Barney; Dodd, Chris; Friends of Angelo; community activist organizations). An exceptionally low interest rate set by government made too much money available for these risky loans. Then the loans were packaged into complex investment vehicles (see securitization, CMOs, CDOs, SIVs, etc., etc.) whose risks few people seem now to have ever understood, thus allowing the initial lenders to pass the toxins off to an ever-widening sphere of people. Credit rating companies performed their devious alchemy, making gold out of lead by proclaiming that baskets of these risky loans were actually credit worthy. Misbegotten agencies of the federal government with funny names, under the ruse of being publicly-traded companies (which simply allowed them to hire at high salaries Democrats between jobs [see, for example, Gorelick, Jamie; Raines, Franklin] and to donate money to Democrats [see, for example, Dodd, Chris (again); Obama, Barak]), bought lots of this toxic stuff on behalf of American taxpayers. Investors foreign and domestic hungry for yield amidst prolonged low interest rates themselves feasted on the toxins, and great financial companies full of people with degrees in finance from great schools even borrowed ever increasing amounts of money (see leverage) to buy risky loans for themselves, and then when they couldn’t get enough on their own bought other companies engorged with them (see Countrywide Financial; Washington Mutual). And finally, in what now looks tragic-comic in retrospect, financial firms even wrote and bought insurance contracts among themselves against the default of these toxic loans (see credit default swaps).

Those many Americans who lived prudently and responsibly within their means had little to no idea any of this was going on, and certainly had no notion of the extent of it, but nevertheless are now paying for it, one way or another. And where did all the money go? Well, some of it may have been paper money inside a bubble, but the wealth (see yachts, big; estates, country; jewelry, expensive; etc.) that all the clever financial engineers extracted from the game is real. They built Wall Street into the world capital of financial legerdemain, while the people now stuck with the tab were simply out teaching or healing or policing or building or growing or discovering or cleaning or whatever.

We will now see if enough of us have learned, or can learn, the real lesson of our relevant history -- that the misguided and all-too-visible heavy hand of government command and control is what put the “Great” in the Great Depression. The Troubled Asset Relief Program, passed some weeks ago with sudden urgency lest the economy immediately collapse (it was said), was an inauspicious start down the same path, giving one man, a Secretary of the Treasury, a $700 million discretionary slush fund to buy toxic assets from financial firms at prices that would have to be significantly above market value to have any beneficial economic effect, and thusly rescue the malefactors as well as our financial system. Fortunately that man, finally agreeing with his critics, has just now admitted that his original plan was a bad idea after all and that he has been doing something else instead. But he retains the slush fund and has now spent some of it, and is widely believed to have done some good with it. It is hard for ordinary mortals to fathom much of this, and everyday even experts on TV seem to disagree about everything.

John Michael Greco

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Great Architecture: The Rookery, Chicago -- "Forceful, Yet Friendly"

The Rookery is one of the great Chicago buildings, and one I particularly enjoy glimpses of while walking in the Loop. Designed by noted architects Burnham & Root, completed around 1886, and with a lobby remodeled by Frank Lloyd Wright, it sits squat and imposing, ornate yet serious, along the LaSalle Street canyon. Judith Paine McBrien writes in the Pocket Guide to Chicago Architecture that the Rookery’s “robust Romanesque exterior has a two-story rusticated granite base punctuated by glass and stone columns, a grand arched entry, and intricate terra-cotta ornament.”

From Chicago’s Famous Buildings, edited by Ira J. Bach: “The vigorous contrast of columns and heavy stonework, … as well as the combination of massive walls and large windows and the degree of emphasis at the corners, top, and center of the façade, all help to establish the building’s strong presence. John Root held that the virtues of architecture were similar to the traits of civilized people, and the Rookery can well be viewed this way. It stands there like a stronghearted and cheerful person, forceful, yet friendly.”

[Click on photo to enlarge; another exterior view here; great photos of the lobby here and here; Wikipedia article here]

Richard Balsamo

Saturday, November 15, 2008

At the Movies: A Cold War Comedy Masterpiece ---- One, Two, Three

The other night I caught part of one of my favorite movies and one of the funniest I’ve ever seen. Directed by Billy Wilder, co-written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, and released around 1960, it features a cross-dressing gag and won a Golden Globe for best comedy. Ah, you say, that sounds exactly like Some Like It Hot, the top movie on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 funniest ever. Well, yes, but the movie I watched was One, Two, Three (link), which isn’t even on the list. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

The film is a witty and frenetic satire of communist values and behaviors set in pre-Wall Cold War Berlin. Jimmy Cagney is terrific as a regional Coca-Cola executive who discovers that his boss’s loopy young daughter, who has been staying with his family during a stop on a European tour, has been sneaking into East Berlin to rendezvous with a young, scruffy outspoken communist named Otto whom she has recently met and married. Simultaneously learning that his boss will arrive in Berlin in a few hours time to fetch his daughter, Cagney must turn the reluctant doctrinaire socialist into a capitalist with manners before the new in-laws show up.

One, Two, Three skewers the absurdities of communist society. Billy Wilder was born and raised in central Europe and experienced totalitarianism up close and personal, so he knows well of what he ridicules. The farce is loaded with lightning fast jokes, usually political, and filled with hilarious cold war references -- Sputnik, unilateralism, 20 year plans, a shoe-pounding Khrushchev-looking Russian, talk of “we will bury you” and “Yankee go home,” White Russia, spying, and missiles, of course. Otto reluctantly goes along with his transformation as a show of commitment to his new wife, but protests all along the way about Western imperialism and materialism. To the manicurist -- “a strong healthy girl like you shouldn’t be cutting nails, you should be cutting wheat in the Ukraine.” To the tailor -- “I will not be caught dead in striped pants – they’re for bankers and war profiteers; the tailor: “Actually, they were ordered by the ambassador of the People’s Republic of Yugoslavia;” Otto, shouting: “We will deal with Tito when the time comes.” Otto’s wife begs him to start wearing underwear to help support cotton sharecroppers in Mississippi. And there’s Cagney directing the haberdasher to show Otto his new shirts but warns “don’t tell him they’re French cuffs, not with the Algerian situation the way it is.”

Wilder also gets in some funny digs at the West. When Cagney’s wife laments the state of their life away from the States and compares their marriage to stale beer, he, ever the Coca-Cola corporate man, admonishes “can’t we discuss this without your bringing up a rival beverage?” And lots of bleeding jokes as Cagney pays an impoverished German count, who boasts that his family has “one of the oldest blood lines in Europe, and one of the most in-bred,” to adopt Otto and thus give him an instant aristocratic background.

Lots of little side jokes too. One scene has Cagney parodying himself, followed by Red Buttons mugging Cagney mugging himself, and another has Cagney holding up a grapefruit threatening to shove it in Otto’s face, a reference to his famous movie scene decades earlier. And Cagney has a cuckoo clock that plays “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” referencing one of Cagney’s great movie roles (it won him an Oscar).

I don’t understand why One, Two, Three is not well known and better appreciated for the gem that it is. It’s funnier, and much wittier, than Wilder’s other farce Some Like It Hot. Perhaps it’s too much of a period, asking for a knowledge and feel of history that’s beyond most of us who lived through it and harder by far for those of us who haven’t. The film reminds me in many ways of the other great cold war satire, Dr Strangelove. They serve as two bookends, one light, one dark, on a time fast receding.

R. Balsamo

Saturday, November 8, 2008

In Minnesota, If It’s Close, They Will Try to Steal It

With the votes all counted, Republican Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota won his reelection bid against the ultra-liberal, humorless Al Franken, but the race isn’t over yet. Since the margin is only a few hundred votes, a mandatory recount is next.

But now newly-found additional votes and revisions of already counted votes are coming in to the state’s election official, reported to be a left-wing Democrat associated with ACORN. And guess what – all the new counts benefit Franken.

It’s déjà vu all over again. Older Chicagoans may remember watching Mike Royko on election nights cautioning Illinois Republicans not to get too hopeful when their candidates were narrowly running ahead of Dems in state-wide races because the final vote tallys from the Daley-controlled city “river wards” hadn’t all come in yet and always came in late – implying that the Democratic machine held back submitting counts until they knew how many votes were needed to win. The machine’s only limitation, usually, on the number of Democratic votes they would report was some general notion of the number of adult residents in the ward, living and recently deceased. Well, it seems that Minnesota has some “river” counties.

We’ve seen this recently in 2000 in Florida, and in 2004 in the Washington state governor’s race. The playbook is the same: after official vote counts show the Republican winning by a very narrow margin, previously submitted vote totals are “revised” and new votes are found that had been “overlooked.”

Past Republican surrenders to this assault have been instructive, and no doubt provocative, to some Democrats, who apparently think they can outlast and outmaneuver most Republicans in the inevitable exhaustive court fight. So now Democrats in Minnesota try again, brazenly in slow motion and in broad daylight.

John Michael Greco

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Needed: New Republican Leadership in Congress

Republicans are about to enter wilderness years in Washington, far out of power. All, however, is not lost if they use this time profitably in careful self-examination and then in the methodical rebuilding of their policies and strategies. Crucial to this process is the immediate step of choosing new party leaders.

Among their failures, Republican leaders have done an astonishingly poor job of winning hearts and minds over to their cause. Political leaders should always be educating and explaining and persuading, and should view this public advocacy as important as their voting and legislative maneuvering. Look at the more successful Democrats. I may not like them, but I know well who Pelosi, Reid, and Dean are, for they use every opportunity to speak out against Republicans and to advance their agenda, which in turn help to elect more Democrats. This they did even when in the minority. They may be personally unappealing, but they are vocal, visible, and unrelenting, and so their message continually percolates through the electorate. What a chance now for Republicans to put forward new, intelligent, energetic, articulate, persuasive, and telegenic leaders to contrast with these unpopular, shrill demagogues.

Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative John Boehner, Republican minority leaders, are almost unknown to the public, most of which is politically only semi-attentive at best. So what messages have they conveyed, what voters have they persuaded? Whatever their back-room skills at legislative maneuvering, they have been singularly ineffective in establishing and maintaining a high-profile advocacy role with which to advance Republican and conservative ideals and policies. And how many Republicans can name the party’s national chair – Howard Dean’s opposite number? With a Democrat in the White House, Republican congressional leaders will now be the face of the party to the nation (and to the world).

Time now for new leaders who can not only maneuver and vote on the inside but who can also persuade and recruit on the outside. Sticking with the old who have had their chance and who have come up wanting, however well-intentioned, well respected, and legislatively-effective they may be, will show that lessons have not been learned, that realities have not yet penetrated, and that opportunities are still squandered.

John Michael Greco