Monthly Archives: March 2009

Obama — The Used Car Guy

Hey. Have we named a Secretary of Rustproofing yet? LOL. I couldn’t stop chuckling about that during my running tour of the neighborhood this morning. Actually, credit for that goes to Dana Milbank, writing in The Washington Post:

Minutes before the president’s arrival in the Grand Foyer of the White House, a technician in the back of the room tested the teleprompter for Obama’s speech. “Fourscore and seven years ago,” announced one of the screens in big letters, “our fathers brought on this continent a new nation . . .” In the actual event, Obama opted for a more modest text — less Lincoln at Gettysburg than Krystal Koons cutting an ad for the family car dealerships.

“If you buy a car from Chrysler or General Motors, you will be able to get your car serviced and repaired, just like always,” the president promised yesterday morning from the executive mansion.

And that’s not all, folks! “Your warranty will be safe,” the salesman in chief went on. “In fact, it will be safer than it’s ever been, because starting today, the United States government will stand behind your warranty.”

Incentives? Obama’s got ‘em. “If you buy a car anytime this year, you may be able to deduct the cost of any sales and excise taxes,” the president offered. And nobody beats Obama on trade-ins; he wants a “generous credit to consumers who turn in old, less-fuel-efficient cars.”

OK. Back to reality — or at least the reality as I see it standing firmly in my own little echo chamber. Obama got it right yesterday. Good to save the auto companies — and the thousands of jobs that go with it. But at some point Mr. and Ms. Taxpayer have to stop tossing megabucks down a rat hole. (Note to self and Eugene Robinson: Check in a few months to see if that standard applies to the Wizards of Wall Street.)

So now it is up to GM and its new chief, Fritz Henderson, another company lifer, to come up with Plan B. By the way, I like the sound of “Fritz.” That strikes me as a take-charge kind of name. I digress. And Chrysler is gone — at least as we know it. I’m starting to look at the Italian-at-a-glance books in anticipation of my next service call to the Jeep dealer.

And Obama was also correct yesterday when he talked about the crisis in Detroit being a failure of leadership — there and in Washington. The Prez said:

The pain being felt in places that rely on our auto industry is not the fault of our workers; they labor tirelessly and desperately want to see their companies succeed. It’s not the fault of all the families and communities that supported manufacturing plants throughout the generations. Rather, it’s a failure of leadership — from Washington to Detroit — that led our auto companies to this point.

Year after year, decade after decade, we’ve seen problems papered over and tough choices kicked down the road, even as foreign competitors outpaced us. Well, we’ve reached the end of that road. And we, as a nation, cannot afford to shirk responsibility any longer. Now is the time to confront our problems head-on and do what’s necessary to solve them.

A failure of leadership — responsibility — and ethical conduct. Gee. Just like we used to talk about in those media ethics classes at Kent State. I guess there were some lessons there after all. Bush and team never seemed to understand any of that.

Remember a year ago when Bush could not even admit that we were in a recession — economic or moral?

And as I mentioned yesterday, Michael Moore flagged the decline of the auto industry as well as any historian or commentator in his 1989 film, Roger and Me. Take another look at that documentary. You’ll see the devastation that had already been done to many communities in Michigan that relied on autos. And you’ll see the arrogance — and lack of public concern — demonstrated by GM management and its PR staff.

Lack of leadership. That, to paraphrase Obama, is the can that kept getting kicked down the road.

And by the way, baseball season opens next week. And Citi Field in opening in NYC — at a time when we are closing GM and Chrysler in Detroit.

Play ball.

GM’s Bailout Plan: “F”

Wow. In an era of grade inflation — where anything below “A-” is considered failure, GM CEO Rick Wagoner turned in the most important term paper of his career a few weeks ago. And Professor Obama gave him an “F.” Ouch. To paraphrase John Belushi (Bluto) in the film Animal House when told he was being expelled with a zero point zero GPA: “Seven years of college down the drain.”

OK. I think Wagoner should have been asked to leave years ago. But by the GM Board and shareholders, not by the federal government. Still, the fact that he (and other senior managers like the resident blogger Bob Lutz, before his retirement a month or so ago) was able to remain at GM — a company that has lost some $80 billion and virtually all of its market value in the past four years — says a lot about the economic and moral recession that we are mired in these days.

And there really doesn’t appear to be great support thoughout the nation to rescue the auto makers. Some of the air went out of that balloon when the Big Three Auto Chiefs were asked how many of them came to Washington on a commercial flight a few months ago. Not one.

Obama is going to outline his plan for GM and Chrysler later this morning. Apparently Chrysler is toast. It’s one of the few companies in this entire bailout and nationalization debacle that isn’t too big to fail. And reports indicate that Chrysler will have 30 days to merge with Fiat. Wonder if I’ll have to be semi-fluent in Italian next time I take my Jeep Wranger in for service? I digress.

Then, according to reports I’ve read this morning, GM will have 60 days to resubmit another restructuring plan — one that I guess the Obama team hopes will actually work. Good luck with that — particularly if the plan rests on the electric car GM is developing to be the flagship of the fleet. Not a long enough extension cord for the amount of driving we do in this country. Europe, maybe. USA, nah.

Shoveling my bullshit aside for a minute, this really is a serious matter. Thousands of jobs — blue and white collar — are at risk. Communities — many in Ohio — may receive another economic blow that they can’t recover from. And we may very well be looking at the endgame of the fundamental restructuring of our economy that began decades ago. Ever see Michael Moore’s Roger and Me?

And we get back to some themes that I write about a lot these days: fairness, responsibility, trust and confidence. It will be interesting to me to see how Obama — and others both inside and outside GM and Chrysler — address these issues today and in the days to come.

I know. Jimmy Carter said life isn’t fair. But you really do need to hold a barf bag when looking at the millions that have gone to senior managers — in autos, banking, insurance and so on — who have crashed their companies and the economy and really taken no responsibility for failure. And I really do believe that this perception — and in many cases reality — about a lack of fairness undercuts trust and confidence.

There will be plenty of commentary about Obama’s plan and about the future of the Detroit auto makers, the willingness to bail out the Wizards on Wall Street but not the workers on Main Street and so on. But if you read only one article, take a look at this one from The New York Times over the weekend, “Detroit Faces Its Critics With Anger and Tears.”

It’s about Detroit — and about families who relied on the auto industry from generation to generation. It’s also about a community that has already undergone tremendous change — with no clear roadmap ahead.

I can relate to that growing up in Pittsburgh and living my adult life in Akron.

I think we are witnessing the dismantling of the America that was built by my mother and father’s generation — post World War 11 and post the Great Depression.

And maybe when historians write their term papers about this era years from now they will conclude: “Wagoner should have flown commercial.”

Time will tell.

GM and Chrysler: Batter Up

Well, a little chilly this morning at 5 a.m. on the concrete in NE Ohio. But the birds are chirping. And we are only a little more than a week away from the start of baseball season. And I was thinking while circling the neighborhood, let’s opine on some positive things today.

OK. Here goes.

  • USA Today reports that more and more people are becoming optimistic about the economy. “For the past two weeks, the percentage of respondents in The Gallup Poll who say the economy is getting better has been steadily ticking up. Monday through Wednesday, 29% took the optimistic view — the highest number since 2007.”
  • For those of us getting ready to run a long-distance road race, there is a performance-enhancing drug available that is legal. It’s coffee. Well, caffeine, actually. Check out the NYT article, “It’s Time to Make a Coffee Run.”
  • Steve Wozniak is still Dancing with the Stars. And, hey. Until he gets the boot, there’s hope in life for all of us slightly out-of-shape, older guys. Wonder if Steve sings? American Idol could be the next stop. I digress.
  • Villanova crushed Duke last night. Woot. I have a glimmer of hope in the NCAA pool. By the way. Why does the guy/gal who organizes the office pool never seem to do anything else during the rest of the year? I digress again.

And then we get to GM and Chrysler. Remember how everyone was so mad at the auto companies and the Captains of Commerce a month or so ago. (Note to those in business school getting MBAs: Always fly commercial. If you learn nothing else, try to remember that.) Well, now that we have collectively put our pitchforks back in the garage after the AIG debacle last week, maybe the administration and the Beltway Blowhards in Congress will take a reasonable look at the automakers. Lot of jobs at stake here folks. Let’s try and give this a little thought.

And does it really make sense to force GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy — with one outcome being to void the contracts with workers and suppliers — when apparently a contract is a contract when it comes to the Wizards of Wall Street. Just a thought.

GM and Chrysler step to the plate again next week. Let’s hope there is some more good news to add to my list.

Let the weekend — and the games — begin.

Snail Mail: The Next Bailout

OK. On to the next bailout: snail mail. Looks like the U.S. Postal Service is going belly up. Twitter anyone?

Here’s from a USA Today article this morning:

The financially strapped U.S. Postal Service will run out of money this year without help from Congress, Postmaster General John Potter warned on Wednesday.

“We are facing losses of historic proportion. Our situation is critical,” Potter told a House subcommittee.

The agency lost $2.8 billion last year and is looking at much larger losses this year said Potter, who is seeking congressional permission to reduce mail delivery from six days to five days a week.

Potter also urged changes in how it pre-pays for retiree health care to cut its annual costs by $2 billion.

If the Postal Service does run out of money, the lingering question, Potter told the House Oversight post office subcommittee, is which bills will get paid and which will not.

Kind of an interesting dilemma facing Congress — and ultimately — taxpayers here. And it’s not unlike the situation facing the administration and Congress next week when a decision has to be made about what to do with GM and Chrysler.

Have we reached the point in this country where any large institution — public or private — is too large to fail? Maybe. Can we live without manufacturing autos in the U.S.? Without snail mail? Maybe not.

With the U.S. Postal Service — as with the automakers — thousands of jobs are at stake here. And this follows, by accounts in the USA Today article, a whole series of already completed or expected moves to reduce costs, including voluntary retirement programs and other cutbacks.

But here’s reality. The nation doesn’t rely on — or use — snail mail the way it did years ago. Volume, it appears, is way down — sparked by the economic downturn and changes in technology. And in a lot of ways that’s a shame.

I enjoy scanning the updates on Facebook. And Twitter is the most amusing time-suck ever invented — and I’ll admit, I’m beginning to see some value in it both professionally and personally.

But I was thinking about this this morning. I kind of miss getting a personal letter or even a postcard from a real-world friend. I can’t remember the last time that happened. And maybe it’s generational. Like looking forward each day to reading a newspaper, dead-tree edition.

And like many (most?) people these days, I get hundreds of e-mails each day/week — personal and business related. Many are junk — and magically disappear with a touch of the delete key. But others just sit there on the screen, virtually crying out at you: “C’mon asshole. Hurry up and reply. It’s been 30 seconds or so.”

Remember when you could go to the office and leisurely sort through the stack of mail that appeared on your desk once or more during the day? I do. But most likely those under 50 reading this don’t. And again, I think we have lost something there. Snail mail gave you the opportunity to craft a thoughtful response — and it made it difficult to slam everyone with the “reply to all.” (By the way, I wonder what we did to waste time at work before the advent of the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, the Food Channel online and so on? Must have been some long, boring days. I digress.)

Oh well. I can’t imagine the Congress will let the Postal Service go belly up. For those of us living in the electronic online echo chamber — let’s try to remember that not everyone spends their days tethered to e-mail, Facebook and so on. And many people — yound and old — don’t have access to computers, or don’t know how to use them or have any interest in learning.

And if we are at all concerned about the increasing number of government bailouts, here’s a way we can help. Unrealistic to think that everyone can go out and buy a new car. But how about writing a letter — one where ink actually touches paper — and sending it to someone via snail mail.

Gee. That might actually be fun — and it may save some jobs and some taxpayer bucks in the process.

Now, if I could just get rid of that damn tweeting noise on my computer.

We’re Screwed: No Pitchforks in NYC

Gee. It seems like just a week ago that Ed Liddy was sitting in the congressional dock, facing the full fury of the Beltway Blowhards. Seems as though the enthusiasm for recovering the AIG bonus money has waned somewhat since then. Obama and team helped to unleash the mob last week, but he pretty much folded last night during his press conference. Much like my brackets in the NCAA pool. I digress.

Reports the New York Times:

At a time of anger and anxiety in the country, Mr. Obama showed little emotion. He rarely cracked a joke or raised his voice. Even when he declared himself upset over the $165 million in bonuses paid this month by the American International Group despite its taxpayer bailout, his voice sounded calm and unbothered. “I’m as angry as anybody about those bonuses,” he said, adding that executives needed to learn that “enriching themselves on the taxpayers’ dime is inexcusable.”

To a certain extent, Mr. Obama’s demeanor could have been calculated — an effort, aides said, to lower the temperature after a supercharged week and nudge the country toward what Mr. Obama considers the more pressing issues of fixing the banking system and reviving the economy. Even after excoriating the A.I.G. executives, he cautioned that “the rest of us can’t afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit.”

And don’t expect the Senate to follow the lead in the House to tax the AIG bonuses. Politco reports:

Financial Services Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, says he can’t even speculate on the prospects of the Senate passing legislation taxing bailout company bonuses.

“It’s kind of a big jar of marbles right now. You gotta shake it up and see what the patterns are,” Baucus told reporters Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is promising action – some day.

“This issue is not going to go away,” Reid said Tuesday. “That’s why I say, if we don’t finish it today or tomorrow, it doesn’t mean we can’t finish it some other time.”

A jar of marbles? Well, OK. We’ll see. I’m sure there is no easy answer here — as for most of the mess we are in these days. And Andrew Cuomo, the New York State AG, played at least some modest role in getting back $50 million of the bonus bucks voluntarily. All he had to do was hint that he would post the names and addresses of the recipients in places where a lot of unhappy could see them. Wow. The power of personal, direct communication.

This whole debacle with AIG and executive compensation in general was never solely about the money. It was about fairness. And about honest, truthful communication — and restoring trust and credibility. If Obama and team and members of Congress — along with the Wall Street Wizards — have learned anything about the importance of those points, then maybe the taxpayer loss of this bonus money hasn’t been a total loss.

And I don’t think it was ever realistic to believe that public opinion fueled by an angry populist mob would ever amount to anything here anyway. Here’s why. There ain’t enough pitchforks — or bullwhips, for that matter — in New York City to get the job done.

Clyde Haberman wrote in The New York Times yesterday, “Where Are the Pitchforks and Torches When You Need Them?

But you try finding pitchforks in New York City. It can be done, but it isn’t easy. A Home Depot outlet on DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn said that it carried them. A gardening store in the Bronx said that it usually had a supply in stock but happened to be out.

No doubt, other businesses also have them. But those places are few and very far between. Manhattan, as might be expected, is a vast wasteland in this regard, as we learned from going to one hardware store after another and trying shops that sell gardening supplies. “This isn’t big pitchfork country,” a man behind the counter at one store said in a masterly display of understatement.

At least torches are easier to get hold of. Most people can make their own.

And Haberman continues:

Politicians can thank the stars that pitchforks are in short supply. Horse whips, too, as we said. Tack shops carry them, but their numbers are few in this city. As with pitchforks, there’s never a crop around when you need one.

Hmm. This is just a thought. If we let GM and Chrysler go bankrupt next week, I wonder if they could retool and begin producing pitchforks and horse whips? Something tells me those products will be in demand in this country and around the world for years to come.

Life After Newspapers

Had a great five-mile run this morning at 5 a.m. A little windy, but overall, pretty, pretty good. And by the time I got home, the Akron Beacon Journal and New York Times, dead-tree editions, were occupying prime territory on my porch. I like that. And like old friends who retire to Florida, I’ll miss them when they are gone. Or when they take up residence somewhere in the blogosphere.

Not everyone will. The Pew Research Center sums it up well in a just-released study titled “Stop the Presses? Many Americans Wouldn’t Care a Lot if Local Papers Folded.” And this isn’t one of those academic discussions. It’s playing out now, in real time, as owners are shuttering newspapers in total or moving them to online publications only. Yesterday’s example: Ann Arbor News. Previously announced: Rocky Mountain News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Christian Science Monitor, Kentucky Post and on and on.

Clearly, the newspaper industry is changing — and this has implications for newspaper employees and their families, for journalism and other students, for our communities and for our democracy. And this isn’t my line — I’ve seen it written in different ways by many people recently. But — we can live without dead-tree editions of newspapers. But we are always going to need ethical, responsible and high-quality journalism.

So saying all that I was encouraged by an article in The New York Times Sunday about Mike Hanke, former editor of the Canton Repository. I knew Mike when we were both taking graduate classes in journalism at Kent State in the early 1970s.

Anyway, Mike went on to carve out a distinguished career in journalism — one that spanned nearly 30 years before his job was eliminated because of financial conditions that are prevalent throughout the newspaper industry.

Yet Mike Hanke represents the qualities that we can’t afford to lose as the industry implodes: character, integrity, ethical conduct and a commitment to informing the public.

There aren’t any NCAA games today to take up your time at work or play. So take a minute and read the story about Mike Hanke.

There is life after newspapers — particularly for people who represent what journalism really stands for, dead-tree, online, whatever.

Obama and Mixed Messages

Well, maybe this week we’ll learn if there really is any hope. Nah. Not for my NCAA pool. My brackets over the weekend folded like tents in a hurricane. But we’ll see if Obama and team can get back on message. Remember the — Yes, we can — that had such a nice ring to it a while back?

Last week, in the midst of the AIG shitstorm, administration officials were handing out advice about upholding legal contracts one day and pitchforks the next. Wow. Talk about mixed messages. And by the end of the week, things had gotten so nasty — and confusing — that even the Three Musketeers of the liberal left — Rich, Dowd and Friedman — took a poke at the Prez and his team in the Sunday NYT. To quote the philosopher Gomer Pyle, “Shazam.”

Obama guys and gals — let’s take a deep cleansing breath and see if we can’t come up with a  consistent message this week that will get us back on track. In addition to the economy, there are other big fish in the skillet, including health care, education, a couple of nearly forgotten wars and so on. And the American public — for the most part — wants you to succeed.

So we need leadership — and consistent messages and policies. In the long run that’s how we’ll regain trust and confidence. Last week we were following the Yogi Berra dictum: “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

A couple of potential forks in the road this week.

Treasury head Tim Geithner is scheduled to provide reporters this morning before Wall Street opens with specifics about the government purchasing as much as $1 trillion (wow, a billion here, a billion there, it adds up) in “toxic assets from financial institutions.” This went over like a fart in church when first discussed a few weeks ago. If people on Wall Street and elsewhere are holding there noses later this morning, look out below.

Then the White House — and Congress — are still going to have to resolve the executive compensaton and bonus issue involving AIG and others. Again, the Prez and the administration are going to have to step up, stand tall and give some clear direction and straight talk. Little of that yesterday on the Sunday scrum with the TV Talking Heads. From Politico.com:

The Obama administration appears to be dialing back its support for the bonus tax legislation generally, and particularly the bill passed by the House last week.

After the House passed the bill, the White House issued a statement from President Barack Obama saying “I look forward to receiving a final product that will serve as a strong signal to the executives who run these firms that such compensation will not be tolerated.”

But on Sunday, a top administration economist was much less enthusiastic, calling the bill “dangerous.”

“The president would be concerned that this bill may have some problems in going too far – the House bill – may go too far in terms of some legal issues, constitutional validity, using the tax code to surgically punish a small group of people,” Jared Bernstein, Vice President Joe Biden’s chief economic adviser, told George Stephanopoulos, host of on ABC News’ “This Week.”

Bernstein continued “That may be a dangerous way to go. That said, let’s see what comes out of the Senate. He has not said he won’t sign this bill. Let’s see what comes out of the Senate. Let’s see what gets to his desk.”

Good grief. “Let’s see what gets to his desk.”

What happened to — “Yes, we can”?