March 28, 2009

A More Perfect Union? (part 1)

Folks in my hometown have been battling for the past several weeks as one of our largest employers, and one of the few remaining in the traditional manufacturing sector, prepares to close its local shop.

The employer, Canada’s Magna International, purchased New Process Gear (NPG) a few years ago from the ill-fated DaimlerChrysler, and since that time, they’ve never made a profit at this plant. NPG makes parts that are used on SUVs and trucks, a hard-hit segment of the American auto market. In the old days, NPG, or simply ‘Chrysler’ in the local vernacular, was a huge deal – well over 3000 employees who were significant contributors to the local economy on the basis of their high hourly wages and annual profit-sharing checks.

Since Magna came in, the local UAW union has been challenged with trying to balance the desire to keep their members working, and the need of management to cut costs and try to earn a profit in a downturned (or at best stagnant) market. There have been losses for the membership – wage cuts, layoffs, buyouts, payments to employees willing to transfer to other locations – and apparent frustration with union leadership if recent actions are any indication. In two recent votes, the local employees have refused to renegotiate their contract with Magna – the first time by an overwhelming majority, the second by only 50 votes - and as a result the plant will close. Politicians have made overtures including allowing a foreign company to take advantage of a federal line of credit, but Magna has indicated they need
more than just cash to keep the plant open. We’ll likely hear more from our elected officials as they try to delay what appears to be inevitable.

What this all means to our local economy, and more importantly our psyche, has not yet been fully defined. What has been defined is the line between those who thinks the votes against the contract were stupid and those who think the union did the only thing it could do.

On the ‘the no votes were stupid’ side, the most frequently heard comment is that making $16 an hour is significantly better than making $0 an hour, which is what will happen when the plant closes. On the ‘we had no choice’ side of the argument is the belief that even if the employees took a cut to $16 an hour, there was no guarantee the plant would stay open. I can’t speak for the folks who had to make this choice, but I do question what happens next.

Are the soon to be unemployed workers really entitled to extended benefits and additional federal help, if they sealed their own fate by a voting down a contract? How long will we continue to say that any job lost in the auto industry is due to foreign competition, when the foreign competitors are making their cars right here in America, using American workers, albeit non-union ones? Are auto workers really more special than workers in other industries who are losing their jobs in this very difficult economy? Is it time to rethink the whole union thing?


March 24, 2009

Future Shock

S Drummond photo
Updated, March 15, 2014

I wrote this post, about the future of personal computers, five years ago this month.  I thought of it earlier this week when I was shoveling snow for almost two hours straight. Even for me, that was a little too much. 

So, in addition to what's below, I'd ask my modern computer to put some kind of force field up around my house as soon as we had six or eight inches of snow on the ground, to keep us from getting any more.  And to open up the force field and let a light dusting fall, when the snow on the ground gets too dirty to enjoy.

And, of course, to have the snow melt at just the right time, before I can't stand it any longer. 

March 21, 2009

The Bonus Round

Each day brings more news about the tens of millions of dollars in bonuses paid to current or former employees of AIG, the insurance giant that has so far received about $170 billion in taxpayer bailout money.

The news today is that there are likely some $60 million more in bonuses than originally publicized – the total is now upwards of $215 million, not just the $165 million we thought, according to the Not Bad, Considering…Nightly News.

Given what we know, how are we responding? Well…

The current head of AIG, Ed Liddy (he of the $1 annual salary) has asked some employees to return at least 50% of their bonuses. Folks took a bus tour of AIG executive mansions and AIG employees are receiving emailed death threats. People are protesting in the streets, in the blogosphere, and in every newspaper and magazine in the country. The Attorneys General of New York and Connecticut are issuing subpoenas seeking more information from AIG, including the names of bonus recipients. Congress is doing some collective chest-thumping, bizarre legislating and of course looking wherever they can to place the blame, with Democrats and Republicans alike pointing mostly at the current administration.

And yet, while our elected leaders are screaming about the behavior of AIG and other bailout recipients, they know (and we are now finding out) how much money they've received from the same troubled companies over the years. Connecticut’s Christopher Dodd, finger-pointer of the week, has received over $280,000 from AIG in contributions; NY’s Charles Schumer over $110,000. We can be sure they’re not alone.

This should not be surprising; we all know that most elected officials will take money from pretty much anyone. It’s always interesting when they later stand up anywhere within sight of a camera and scream at the top of their lungs about the horrible behavior of their contributors. Shareholders – that’s Joe Sixpack and all the rest of us on Main Street – loved Wall Street up until recently, and didn’t care about obscene executive pay, bonuses, golden parachutes or any of the whole ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ aspect of our irrationally exuberant financial wizards. Heck, they were making money for us, and we simply didn’t care. Neither did Congress. Neither did any regulatory agency, or any pension fund, or any Attorney General (other than Eliot Spitzer).

I think the bonuses stink – I can’t imagine how much these folks would have gotten in a good year, if they get as much as $4 million after a horrible one – but I’m not sure spending time trying to get the money back, or taxing them at 90%, or peeking in the windows of their homes, or threatening them, is going to make a bit of difference. Our problems are bigger than that, and the issues run deeper. For starters, why are we paying AIG partners 100 cents on the dollar for their contracts? I’m looking for the leader who can get us focused on that, instead of this nonsense.

Are you out there?


March 17, 2009

St Patrick's Day

Revisiting another post from 2009. No corned beef this year, and a little too early (and cold) for the garden to wake up, but I just know it's not far off...

I was hard-pressed today to determine which I liked better, the house filled with the aroma of corned beef roasting slowly in the oven, or the smell of spring that greeted me as soon as My Sweet Baboo opened the bedroom window, put up the storm and pulled down the screen. Each could have stood independently as the sign of a great day, but taken together they were almost intoxicating.

It’s been a beautiful three or four days here in The Valley – I don’t remember for sure how many nice ones we’ve strung in a row, because I get a little lost in each of them, especially at this time of the year.

Our winters start early and end late, it seems – and we can generally count on about 120 inches of snow on average. This year we’re up around the 140-inch mark, I think. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like all of the snow is on the ground at the same time – it’s just a big number when the TV meteorologists start doing the math.

When we have days like this in March – and there were a couple even warmer earlier in the month - there’s a temptation to do too much. Too much raking, too much pruning, too much cleaning up around the perennials. We tend to focus on the fact that we can be outside in the garden, we can shake off some of our winter doldrums, we can try and take advantage of every minute of the day.

What we forget is that Mother Nature has to catch up to our exuberance. We forget that she’s got a plan (and I think at least part of the plan includes torture, by the way), and we have to remember the patience that we hung up with the hand tools last fall.

Today, I enjoyed a walk in the yard, and took a picture or two, mostly to send to my brother who still has several inches of snow on the ground in southwestern New Hampshire. I admired the progress that our daffodils, tulips, irises and lilacs have made in the past few days; I watched as sap dripped out of the sugar maple, and fell into the garden below. But then, I got closer to the house, and caught a whiff of the corned beef, and reminded myself that it’s still only the middle of March.

I’ll have hours and hours to enjoy being outside in the coming weeks and months, but the corned beef is a treat that we only have this week.

Today, the kitchen trumped the garden.

March 15, 2009

Got Stimulus?

There’s so much stimulating talk these days, ideas to stimulate the economy, stimulate job growth, stimulate spending, stimulate savings – it’s enough to make you think we’re a nation of Viagrans or Cialins or Levitrans. We’re not quite at the point where we are completely defined by a couple of bathtubs on a hill overlooking an ocean with a glorious sunset off on the horizon, but it seems like we can’t get out of our own way with all of the different ideas that have been floated around about how to get out of this recession, or depression, or whatever it is.

While I don’t yet know if any of these plans will give us either lasting economic strength or only the short term day-to-day benefits we see advertised, I have to wonder if any of them will do us any good if we can’t stop arguing about them, whether they’re too much, or too little, or too soon, or too late. Here are some random thoughts on all this mess from a ‘Jane-the-person-who-just-cut-back-her-401(k)-contributions-because-she-can't-stand-watching-her-money-disappear’, in case anyone’s listening to my specific demographic:

(1) When all is said and done, is there really that much difference between an ‘earmark’ and a ‘stimulus’? Back in the day when everyone was flush with cash, and could have afforded to fund their own studies, it would have made sense to complain about things like the stinky pig manure study, one of the member items in Obama’s stimulus plan that’s discussed with wrinkled nose by John McCain as wasteful spending. Actually, in a weird way it’s kind of interesting; here's what Scientific American has to say about it.
But, if the purpose of the stimulus plan is to get money into the economy and keep people employed, shouldn’t scientists be able to benefit? To say nothing of Iowans and anyone else who lives near a factory pig farm?

(2) Does it make sense that we use new stimulus money to plug holes in our state budget, rather than using it to put new money into the economy and put people to work? New York is facing a huge budget gap and our Accidental Governor is proposing that $1.3 billion of the Empire State's portion of the Obama plan be used to replace some of the new taxes he had proposed to close the gap. New taxes aren’t one of my favorite things, but neither is delaying the inevitable by not making the real hard decisions we should be making. If we use stimulus money this way, when it’s gone, we’re still going to be on the high wire, but without a net.

(3) If a government entity, university, or business has already planned on doing work and has a way to pay for it they should not be eligible for stimulus plan funding for that work. Use new money for new things, use existing money for existing plans. Period.

(4) Shouldn’t modernizing the power grid be more important than broadband computer access and digital TV? The stimulus plan includes $4.4 billion for the grid, but $4.7 billion for broadband and an additional $650 million for digital TV. Call me silly, but if a tree falling in Ohio can shut down power to 50 million people and cost upwards of $4 billion as it did in 2004,
whether I’m unable to watch the Not Bad, Considering... Nightly News in analog or digital won’t matter all that much to me.

(5) Anyone who received any return on their investment with Bernie Madoff should not be eligible for any future settlement, and if they're lucky they won't have to pay anything back. Anyone involved in refusing or failing to investigate Madoff should be prosecuted just as fully as Madoff. We have regulators for a reason, and if they ignore multiple reports of actual or potential wrongdoing over several years, they should go to jail.

(6) Here in Syracuse, there’s been nothing as stimulating as this week’s Big East basketball tournament since, well, 2003 when the Orange won the whole shebang. Thursday night, SU played the UConn Huskies and ending up winning in the sixth overtime. Friday night’s game against West Virginia was another nail-biter, with SU winning again, needing only an extra five minutes. Sadly, after a great start against Louisville, they came up short, but down the road what people are going to remember the heart of this team, and that game on Thursday. This shirt sums it up perfectly.

Here’s hoping your stimulus plan is half as exciting as this week was for us.

March 10, 2009


The last time My Sweet Baboo and I flew anywhere, I had an expired New York State non-driver ID card and a paper ‘promissory note’ from the DMV attesting to my request for a new ID. Again, my ID is expired, and as we’re flying out of town next month, I thought I’d get a jump on the renewal this time, if only because there was a risk the same TSA agent would get me and not believe that I actually had an out of date ID twice in five years.

To renew the ID card in this post- 9/11 world, New York requires a social security card. Which of course I don’t have. Most likely I threw it out thinking that no one could possibly be interested in it, my signature carefully affixed when I was about thirteen years old, and bearing not a whit of likeness to my current gorgeously illegible scrawl. But – and here comes the catch-22 – to get a replacement social security card, you need a state-issued driver’s license or non-driver ID. I went online, checked the Social Security Administration’s web site, downloaded an application and headed off to the Federal Building to see if I could get a new card.

What was interesting about the trip was the 40 minutes I spent in the waiting area. Some folks were there for simple things like me (including a man in my same catch-22) but others were there for more stressful reasons.

One of the more captivating stories I had the opportunity to overhear was that of a widow in her late 70s, who lost her husband last month. She spoke with an accent but was “a citizen for 44 years and proud to be one,” she announced. She needed to speak with someone because ‘Alice’ from the Social Security office had called her on Saturday (on Saturday!) and among other things had asked the widow to confirm her social security number. She did, but with some hesitation, because even though Alice seemed trustworthy the widow knew there were bad people out there looking to take advantage of her. Her friends were upset that she gave her information over the phone, so she had come to the office to make sure everything was OK. She had “not slept, too scared, I haven't eaten I’m so scared about giving the number out”, she told the gentleman at the window.

Her story had a good ending. Alice is an SSA employee, she was working overtime on Saturday, and there was a record of her phone call in the computer. The gentleman confirmed all of the information, answered a few other questions, and the best part? He was happy to call the woman’s god-daughter to come downtown and get the widow safely home.

And my ending? Well, when I pointed out the catch-22 with the expired ID I can’t renew without a social security card I can’t get without a current ID, I was told that “this is America, you need ID to get ID these days” – pretty ironic, I thought. Fortunately, I had my completed application, my original birth certificate (never looked at), my employee ID card (carefully examined), my credit cards (no use), my health insurance ID card (useful but surprising since my ID number is no longer my social), checks with my name and address on them (cute design but of no value), my card from Sally Beauty Supply (always a great conversation piece), my expired non-driver ID, and an honest face.

I’ll have my replacement card in about 10 days, which means I’m one giant step closer to the DMV and the dreaded photo op. I can’t wait!


March 7, 2009

RIP, Larry and Fred

Our home in The Valley is in a generally safe neighborhood, although I did ask My Sweet Baboo to get an alarm system when I moved in. We’ve only had one incident, where our forgetting to lock the car doors cost us $16 and a pair of sunglasses.

The same can’t really be said for much of our street. It's one of the main routes heading south out of downtown, and we go through a pretty dicey neighborhood on the way to and from work, the grocery store, our favorite home and garden centers, and visiting family and friends. Most of the gangs that used to be in the area have moved on or withered away as their members were jailed, but there are many abandoned or dilapidated houses, under-appreciated and under-cared for. It’s not a street without hope – just one that faces a significant uphill battle, like many others here in Syracuse.

There used to be an abandoned one-story building at one of the intersections, smashed glass and exposed wire mesh in the windows, the door boarded up, the small parking area and sidewalk littered with debris. At some point in an effort to clean it up a little, it had gotten a fresh coat of paint, but after two young men were murdered, someone spray-painted ‘RIP Larry and Fred’ on the side of the building. The words remained, the only graffiti on the building, until it was finally torn down months later.

In our area, if an empty lot is at an intersection with a traffic light, the grass gets mowed regularly and sometimes you’ll see an evergreen or two. On this corner, two flowering trees and a cute little shrub were planted; MSB and I for the longest time have referred to the trees as Larry and Fred.

Last summer, the lot was being mowed but no one was taking care of the trees; suckers had shot up around their trunks, and the grass surrounding them was not being trimmed. I kept saying that we should stop and take care of them, and finally one day we did. MSB pulled off to the side of the road and I went and cut back the suckers and pulled the weeds. They looked much better after that, as if they appreciated the attention. We have agreed we'll do the same this year, and I’m trying to convince My Sweet Baboo that we can spare a tree spike or two and give them a little nourishment as well as an occasional pruning.

Today, on our way home from running errands, we caught a red light at that corner, and as always looked over at the boys. Two fat robins were bouncing from one tree to the other – the first we’ve seen this year. Yes, rest in peace, Larry and Fred; we’ll stop by in a couple of weeks to see how you’re doing.