Friday, November 27, 2009

Progress and the Continued Pussification of Society

Visit your family practitioner doctor and ask her why her patients come to see her.  Ready for the top two reasons?  Okay, in order, here it goes:
  1. Depression
  2. Back pain
Okay, so you're expecting me to go off on what a shame this is.  These are genuine medical conditions, people, and they certainly deserve the attention of our finest medical minds!  Of course, that last statement precludes 99.9% of all general practitioners and the entire HMO industry.  However, as far as going off, who am I to disappoint?

Depression.  It's an age-old problem.  People don't like to feel bad.  Sure, if you have the talent, you can write a great blues tune or paint a picture that literally tells a story of a thousand totured words.  But, for the rest of us untalend lot, we want to feel good - or at least better.  Over time, we've changed the way we go about it, particularly those of us in the United States.  In the 1920's, Americans drank themselves stupid to feel good.  In the '60's and '70's, they smoked pot and dropped acid.  In the '80's, there was the collective turn to cocaine.  The '90's saw heroin fuel the Seattle grunge music scene.  The 2000's though, well, it's all about the antidepressants. 

Now, depression takes its hold in people from all parts of the globe.  However, in America, we make an art form out of it.  In 2004, Americans took 71% ($9.9 billion) of the antidepressants sold.  Sold globally, that is.  In contrast, all of Eurpoe accounted for just 19%.  [With Japan taking it's fair share of 5%, that leaves just another 5% for the rest of the world.]

Now, why would Americans be so depressed?  We enjoy unparalleled freedom and live in a society with democratically elected leaders.  We have grocery "super stores," where each store contains more food than the entire country of Somalia.  We have disposable income, pizza delivery, a robust internet pornography industry, sports sedans, houses, and too many more luxuries to consider.  Turn on the news and see reports of people across the globe eating rock and dirt soup - that is if they can find the water to make it.  Worst case scenario for us, we can at least make tomato soup out of  Ketchup packs gathered from ubiquitous face food restaurants. 

No, we're pampered little bitches in America.  We have everything, and it's still not enough.  Forget the basics of food, shelter, etc.  True, not everyone enjoys the riches, and there are a few very unfortunate souls.  But, on average, we're so much better off than everyone.  As our country has grown and prospered, we've raised generations of increasingly pampered little bitches.  Here's a time line of the evolution of that great American tradition, a child's birthday party:
  • 1940 - Mom makes cake from eggs, flour, and sugar.  Cost:  $0.10.
  • 1960 - Mom makes cake by mixing an egg into boxed mix.  Cost:  $1.50.
  • 1980 - Single mom buys cake at bakery.  Cost:  $10.00
  • 2000 - Stepmom creates birthday "experience," either with entertainment or offsite location.  Cost:  $150.00
  • 2005 - MTV introduces My Super Sweet Sixteen, chronicling the outlandish birthday parties thrown for rich kids.  Cost:  Approximately the annual GDP of Puerto Rico
Yeah, it sucks here.

It sucks more when you have a bad back.  The question you might want to ask is why do we have so many people with back pain, so much so that it's risen to the number two symptom requiring a doctor's visit?  It's not like we're a country of manual laborers.  Not too long ago, a typical work day went something like this:
  1. Wake up at dawn
  2. Work ass off for 3 hours
  3. Eat a huge breakfast
  4. Work ass off for another 4 hours
  5. Eat a pretty big lunch
  6. Nap for one hour
  7. Work your off for another 6 hours
  8. Eat dinner
  9. Go to sleep
For most Americans now, here's the typical work day:
  1. Wake up and eat breakfast
  2. Drive to work in your four-seater car with 18 cup holders, get a latte at Starbucks on the way
  3. Grab a donut within 2 minutes of arriving at the office
  4. Sit on ass for 3 hours reading emails
  5. Eat a greasy, fatty lunch
  6. Sit on ass for two hours
  7. Starbucks run!
  8. Sit on ass for another 2 hours
  9. Drive home
  10. Make some poor slob cook for you as you dine out in a restaurant
Doctors' offices are filled with back pain "injuries" suffered while we play golf or sit on our fat asses, getting out of shape, while we watch the gardener mow the lawn in the mid-day heat. 

Okay, no one can argue - reasonability - that we're not, collectively, a wee bit pampered.  The only way to attack it is to address the root cause.  For me, it's as plain as the nose on the late Karl Malden's face.

Wheeled luggage.

Since when did it become okay to admit you can't physically lift and carry your own stuff when you take a trip?  Okay, you might argue that one can carry it, but chooses not to.  Touché!  To which I counter, since when did it become okay to broadcast exactly how lazy you are by pulling your suitcase behind you instead of carrying it?

Oh, and it hasn't stopped with wheeled luggage.  Pampered society demanded, and received, more.  How many of you have seen wheeled briefcases?  What's next, wheeled wallets?

I wonder what John Wayne would think if he walked thorugh his namesake airport in Orange County.  All of us minions, sipping our $4 coffees, cleaning our hands with cucumber/melon scented antibacterial hand gel, complaining that the flight that is going to take us clear across the country in just five little hours has the audacity to take off 15 minutes late, all the while dutifully toting all our important stuff behind us in a "roller bag."  The level of pussification in our society is staggering.

Of course, that's just this guy's opinion. 

My roller bag, by the way, is a nifty blue and gray number, easy to spot on the baggage carousel. 

Tweet me up at @RayHartjen

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Worst President Ever?

If you've spent any time lately on Facebook, you've undoubtedly noticed one of your "friends" and his/her vote on whether George W. Bush was the worst President ever. Worst. Ever. Gets you to thinking, doesn't it? I mean, what's the criteria for being the worst President ever? Those are two words with quite a stigma, "worst" and "ever."

For Presidents, there's a long list of factors to consider, evaluate, and ultimately judge - domestic and foreign policy, economic stability and growth, human and civil rights, education, health care, national security, and international leadership, just to name top of the list. It's easy to forget a President doesn't do it alone, and I'm not just talking about cabinet Secretaries. Our "Checks & Balances" government includes the Legislative (Congress and Senate) and Judicial (Supreme Court) branches. It's far from a one-man show, but that clouds our sound bite attention spans and one-liner appetites.

You want the office, you (and your family) has to bear the scrutiny. Yeah, it's a bit unfortunate, but all candidates know the game.

Now, for the matter of G.W. No question, he had a tough row to hoe. September 11, 2001 knocked the luster off his inauguration faster than you can say "Osama is a sniveling little bitch hiding in a cave." Despite how bad ass our military is, public opinion never embraces a modern war for long - the graphic pictures from the frontlines are just too much for many of us to stomach. Bookend the wars with the global economic meltdown. In between is a shit sandwich of failed diplomatic relations and a variety of other woes. Tough eight years, no doubt.

But, worst ever? For that, you have to compare, and to do that, we need to flip back the pages of history just a wee bit.

Andrew Johnson was a white supremist who opposed Reconstructionist efforts to extend the most basic of civil rights to freed black slaves. Richard Nixon visited China, yes, but he also rode roughshod over the Constitution and abused the power of the Presidency, eventually getting implicated in the Watergate burglary. James Buchanon divided our country into the North and the South, where brothers fought brothers. Calvin Coolidge oversaw wide-spread corruption and the dawn of the Great Depression. James Polk attacked Mexico unprovoked and took one third of its land.

And I'm just getting started.

I don't want to defend W. I also don't want to indict him. Smarter people than me will debate the merit of his Presidency and its rank among the others. Key words above are "smarter people" - in those I trust, and I look forward to reading their opinions. No, what, or rather who, I want to indict are the less than smarter people who serve up opinions like Courtney Love serves up eight balls to house guests.

Now, I think I should be the last one to assert that everyone isn't entitled to their own opinion - after all, I write a blog titled, "Just this guy's opinion." But, before spouting off, it's good to at least assume some degree of credibility. I'm not suggesting you have to be a Presidential scholar to weigh in on the debate, and you certainly don't need to know Tippecanoe (William Henry Harrison) and Tyler (John Tyler) too. But, there has to be some litmus test to serve as a qualified contributor to the discussion. I've never been one to shy away from proposing guidelines, so here it goes - the somewhat definitive criteria that must be passed before passing judgment, in at least the neighborhood of an educated opinion, on the "worst President ever" includes:

  • You have to know how many U.S. Presidents there have been. I'll cut you some slack if you don't know all their names. But, you absolutely must know the number. How many Presidents have there been, including President Obama? If your answer is a number other than 44, then resist your temptation to spout off - you're simply unqualified.
  • Second consideration: If you're over 18, not a convicted felon, and a citizen of the United States, you must be registered to vote. If you're too stupid to exercise your right to choose government representation, you're too stupid to afford an opinion; at least too stupid to offer one that anyone wants to hear.
  • Next, you must be able to name all the Presidents, in order, since you were born. This is a minimum requirement. If you want to judge merits relative - worst ever, after all - you at least need to know some names of the others in which you're comparing. Forget for the moment platforms and policies - all I'm asking for is names. Now, if you can't name names, you can't offer up "worst ever" or "best ever." You'll have to settle for just "good" or "bad."
  • Of the Presidents who held office before you were born, you have to know the names of at least 10%. C'mon, it's 10%. Are you smarter than a 5th grader?
  • You have to know the difference between Washington state and Washington, D.C. I'm not just talking geography either. I need to move this one to the top of the list.
  • You have to swear to never have voted a straight party ticket just for the sake of voting a straight party ticket. If you don't examine the individual merits of each candidate, regardless of party affliation, you do not make decisions on all the available data. Said differently, you don't make good decisions. Said even more differently, no one wants to hear the opinion of someone who doesn't make good decisions.

So, there you have it. Was George W. Bush the worst President ever? I don't know. To tell you the truth, I don't care. I just want to make sure that the current President and all of the next Presidents don't become the worst ever. As for those of you compelled to express your opinion on history, I look forward to hearing them - but only if you first pass the minimum qualifications.

Then again, what do I know? That's just this guy's opinion.

Like what you read? Hate? Vote on Twitter @RayHartjen.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Tallest of Trees for Polanski

Perhaps the saddest part of our cultural "evolution" is our collective obsession with celebrity. We can't - we won't - get away from it. Are there really over three million people who care what Ashton Kutcher tweets? Simply, unbelievable.

It's everywhere you turn, our obsession with celebrity. Years ago, it used to be only the checkout aisle of the grocery store and its tabloids - half of which featured alien babies and "jackalopes." Over time, the newstand sprouted US Weekly and all the other glossy trash, to whereas now a shopper has to deploy a search and rescue team just to find a Snickers bar at the checkout aisle. Our stupid obsession with celebrity even gave birth to the absolute shittiest channel in television history, the E! network, where even bad shows won't go to die.

Somehow, over the past two decades, celebrities have grown in stature to shape the very opinions we used to develop on our own. Did you know that 50% of women 18-55 won't do anything unless Oprah tells them to do/believe in it? Okay, I made that statistic up, but I bet it's pretty close. As for politics, since when does the beacon of intelligence shine from none other than Alec Baldwin or Susan Sarandon, or some other idiot best known for entertaining us in little 30-minute to 2-hour segments?

Thankfully, we my be experiencing just a bit of a turn - for the better - away from our celebrity fixation. On September 26, famed director Roman Polanski was arrested as he entered Switzerland, on his merry way to being honored at an awards ceremony. We tend to forget, as we snatch up Blu-Ray copies of Chinatown out of the bargain bin, that Polanski is a fugitive from justice, running from a 1977 felony conviction for unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.

As news of Polanski's arrest spread virally through the world media; including, presumably, through Kutcher's 140-characters-a-tweet-literary-brilliance; several members of the close-knit Hollywood community offered vocal support for ol' Roman, including renowned celebutard, Woody Allen.

I know - ridiculous. After all, what does Woody Allen know about taking advantage of a young, impressionable girl who ... . Uh, never mind.

Defending Roman Polanski and his past actions? Some of us ordinary non-celebrities almost fell for it too. Luckily, the facts of the case have re-emerged after 32 years and one somewhat off-base documentary (2008's Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired) suggesting Polanski has already served his punishment (yes, in many respects, living in exile in France could be construed as punishment). For those living far removed from both tabloids and Twitter, let's review the legal facts of the case, to which Polanski has confessed:
  • Used the false pretense of a fashion magazine photo shoot to lure a 13-year old girl to a friend's house (the friend being Jack Nicholson, no less)
  • Provided several glasses of Champagne to set the mood
  • Took topless photos of the child
  • Provided a now drunk adolescent with a Quaalude
  • Forced himself on the teen (that's euphemistic phraseology for vaginally and anally raping her)

13 years old. Collectively, the above would be designated multiple felonies if the victim was 31. No matter where you're from, it's wrong.

Polanski wrote in his autobiography that he remains bewildered that "I should be sent to prison, my life and career ruined, for making love." Are you kidding me, Roman? Yes, you should be sent to prison. And, it wasn't love, you douche bag, it was a rape of a scared 13-year old girl by a then 43-year old sexual predator. As for your career, your Hollywood buddies, the very ones who gave you an in-absentia raucous standing ovation when The Pianist won you an Oscar in 2003 - well, they don't seem too terribly put off by your crimes.

Over the past ten days or so, public support for Polanski has, for the most part, waned. Celebutard indignation may sprout privately over egg white omelets and vegan sausages at The Beverly Hills Hotel, but thankfully the loud and noisy proclamations have been re-targeted at the old standbys - the war(s), the environment, the price of "bling," etc.

We still have a nice political tug-of-war in determining if Polanski, a French citizen, will be extradited by Switzerland to the Unitied States, where upon Polanski would land in a Los Angeles courtroom. One can only hope that it works out - for the justice system, that is, not for Polanski.

Maybe it's because I'm the father of a 14-year old girl, I don't know. But me, if I can't see "short eyes" Roman swing from the tallest redwood in California, I would like to at least see him do a little well deserved time in the joint. It doesn't have to San Quentin, Pelican Bay, or any of the other gladiator schools. Rather, LA County lock-up would be good enough, where I'm certain one of our societal standouts would show Ro a whole new enlightened meaning of justice and "love."

Now, of course, I could be wrong - that's just this guy's opinion.

Tweet me up @RayHartjen

Friday, October 2, 2009

Blending Olympic and Presidential Seals

So, did you hear about the one about the 4 international cities – Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, and Chicago – that each put up a bid to host the 2016 Olympics?

Oh, you did, huh?

Interesting story out of Copenhagen, Denmark today. The International Olympic Committee went through its series of secret ballots to determine the host country of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. While not as mysterious as a papal election, an Olympic vote is every bit as much shrouded in intrigue, suspense, and secrecy. Delegates gather their votes in blocs (all of Africa voting for the same country, for example) and vote in rounds, with the lowest vote getter eliminated after each round until a single survivor remains standing.

The real intrigue begins after the first round. An entirely new election is held for each subsequent round. A country could vote for one city in Round 1, then, even if the city they voted for originally is still in the running, vote for any of the three remaining in Round 2. Blocs and alliances are built, and double-crosses are played, all in the protective enclave of a secret ballot.

Now, there was a better story in the good old days – and, by the good old days, I mean just a decade ago. Used to be votes were plied the good old fashioned way – bribery. Sure, there was the usual – and very boring, I might add – cash and gifts. Better yet were the storied, sordid forays into the debauchery of steak and lobster, scotch and cigars, and strippers and hookers. Nobody parties like an IOC representative, save maybe hair metal rockers from Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the bozos in Salt Lake City; who, as we know, are a bit inexperienced in hosting raunchy parties; got caught with their pants down with the whole bribery thing and ruined a good party for everyone. Never would have happened from a Las Vegas Olympic Organizing Committee, I’m telling you that now.

So, in the absence of strippers and hookers, scotch and cigars, steak and lobster, and cash and gifts, the big story of this Olympic voting process was the primping and pimping of the Obamas, President Barack and First Lady Michelle. In the midst of a national debate on health care and the economic recovery, the Prez went to Norway to sell the IOC on the relative merits of his adopted hometown Chicago.

By all accounts, the Obamas were a hit – some in the media described them as “rock stars.” Yeah, that’s what I want. I want the President of the United States (POTUS), not that long ago universally described as “the most powerful person in the world,” degraded to the level of a celebritard signer. You know what’s going to happen if Bret Michaels gets wind of all this, don’t you? I can see his candidacy speech on VH1 now, followed by a new episode of “Daisy of Love.”

Rio, today’s winner, is a good choice for the Olympics – in its history, the Olympics have never been held in South America. Hey, it’s not just going to be samba, boat drinks, and topless beaches, although all of that sounds great. Imagine the fun of watching Usain Bolt try to sprint away from a mugger on the streets of Rio. Or, the Brazilian police supplying the javelin throwers with equipment from their “let’s make the homeless children problem disappear” arsenal. But, if it hadn’t been Rio, I would have had no quarrel with any of the cities being named host.

I do have just a bit of a problem with the President working delegates for votes like a truck-stop waitress slinging hash looking for a wrinkly Washington so she doesn’t have to double-shift at the strip bar for baby formula money.

There’s supposed to be dignity in the Office of the President. Naturally, I mean after it was steam-cleaned after the whole Monica Lewinsky thing. We’re not supposed to cheapen the man (okay, okay, Hillary - or woman, someday) and his message – our message – by using the platform for anything less than the highest of public priorities. What’s next? Can we expect Obama to hit the trail for votes for some dim-witted, gorgeously hot bimbo on the next season of American Idol (quick word to Kelli Pickler – call me)? Will we start to see sponsorship of press conferences and speeches – “This segment of the State of the Union address is brought to you by Budweiser, the King of Beers?” Will Air Force One sport Home Depot sponsorship, making it an airborne version of Joey Logano’s racecar?

Interesting deficit reducers, mind you.

Some might describe Obama’s Olympic campaign as the ultimate in pork barrel spending, benefiting Chicago to the detriment of the greater United States. Collectively, we’ve hosted the Olympic Games recently – 1980 (Lake Placid), 1984 (Los Angeles), 1996 (Atlanta), and 2002 (the aforementioned Salt Lake City). Let someone else deal with the hassle and the incredibly large security bill – anyone take a look at Greece’s post Olympic financial situation lately?

As for you, Prez, we have slightly more pressing issues than committing to spending billions of dollars on hosting a two-week party. Enough with the pimping, time now for governing and leading. Losing was good – your charisma and charm couldn’t carry this day. Hopefully it humbled you a bit too, because if you haven’t noticed the polls recently, the post-G.W. honeymoon is coming to a close, and your charisma and charm aren’t likely to carry the day domestically much further.

Of course, I might be wrong - that’s just this guy’s opinion.

Tweet me up @RayHartjen.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Oh No, It’s Obama Care

The clock is ticking until the start of the Armageddon – six weeks or so is all we have left. No, silly, I’m not referring to a plague of Biblical proportions, a really big belt from a rampaging meteor, or an eruption of the massive volcano under Yellowstone National Park. Rather, I’m referring to the pending health care legislation hanging over all of our heads – “Obama care,” if you will.

Now, before I go off on an ill-advised rant, please let me emphasize that what I’m about to write is not re-warmed partisan politics. True, I tend to side with moderate Republicans, but I don’t have anything against the President. He seems as if he’s a nice enough fellow, despite the “mommy jeans” he wore at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game – dude, they had a crease in them for crying out loud! It is a shame he’s tainted by his association with Nancy Pelosi, the wicked witch of the West, but I digress. No, the reason I oppose national health care is that I am a dyed-in-the-wool, free market capitalist. Where I come from, we have a saying (embellished greatly for these purposes), “Water’s for washin’, Dickel’s for drinkin’, free markets are for fixin’, and governments are for wastin’.”

In 2007, nearly 46 million Americans were without health insurance – that was about 18% of the under-65 population of the United States. With unemployment having sky-rocketed since, that number has surely gotten much worse. Any way you cut it, it’s a terrible statistic, for there might not be anything more critical to our Constitutionally-protected right to the pursuit of happiness, and more expensive, than health care.

Except for a Ferrari 420 Scuderia, of course.

Again, I digress - back on point.

The idea behind a national health care plan is reasonable and logical. If you’re not covered by insurance, the price of health care is prohibitively expensive. Prescription drugs are one thing, a hospital stay, for the love of God, something entirely different. Hey, I don’t know about you, but I think my co-pay for a routine doctor’s visit is too damn expensive!

However, I’m against national health care for a handful of reasons:
· When it comes to handling big programs with a big budget, the U.S. Government doesn’t own a terribly impressive track record – we all know the stories of outrageously expensive toilet seats and hammers. Health care is a big proposition – we’re looking at upwards of $1 trillion (that’s with a “T”) over the next ten years.
· The U.S. Government hasn’t exactly excelled with other health care initiatives. Quick question for those of you with health insurance: Would you trade your existing program for Medicare, Medicaid, or Veterans’ Administration care?
· When it comes to executing upon strategy, or in the case of government parlance, “policy,” again, the U.S. government doesn’t have a very good track record.
· When it comes to providing a high level of customer/consumer experience, … well, you get the point.

C’mon, if you were a hiring manager for the “business” of health care, would you hire the U.S. government? Would it even be a candidate for a screening interview? Seriously?

Okay, so it’s easy to poke holes at a plan, you say. How about some solutions? I’m glad you asked; here’re some things to consider:
· Americans are so out of shape we’re practically endangered! In October 2008, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report projected the entire adult population of the United States will be overweight or obese by 2048 if current trends persist. Entire – that means every adult.
· Please, don’t tell me our overweight problem is caused by disease and disorder. Go to Disneyworld for a day. Count the overweight people. Then, go to Tokyo, Beijing, Copenhagen, Munich, Paris, Barcelona – hell, anywhere – and count the overweight people. Compare. It’s not disease and disorder for most. Rather it’s bacon and cheese and Krispy Kreme and Doritos, and lots and lots of other food.
· The New York Times reported, based on 2006 data, that obese Americans spend 42 percent more on health care than normal-weight Americans.
· New diagnoses of Type 2 diabetes rose from 4.8 per 1,000 people from 1995 to 1997 to 9.1 per 1,000 people from 2005 to 2007, not coincidentally mirroring the increase in obesity rates (the CDC states obesity is the leading cause of Diabetes).
· Almost 6 million Americans don’t even know they suffer from diabetes!
· We still have over 43 million adult American smokers of cigarettes or cigars – and, I don’t mean just at bachelor parties or on golf course smokers.
· According to Campaign for Tabacco-Free Kids (admittedly a less than objective source), $96.7 billion is spent on public and private health care due to tobacco use; additionally, each American household spends $630 annually in federal and states taxes due to smoking. Okay, let’s say those stats are greatly exaggerated. Take 25% of it – that’s still a lot of money for anyone not named Gates (Bill), Buffet (Warren), or Woods (Tiger).

My solution to the health care crisis:
· Everybody, and I mean everyone who does not suffer from bulimia or anorexia, losses 5 to 10% of their body weight. That makes us more healthy right away, lowering the amount of health care services needing to be provided.
· Impose the same “sin taxes” as found on alcohol and tobacco to every restaurant with a drive-thru window. If we’re going to eat unhealthy, at least let’s bring in some tax revenues to help off-set the cost of health care.
· As it relates to alcohol taxes, raise them up just a touch – off the Kennedys alone, we’ll likely float health care for the unemployed and their families.
· Outlaw cup holders in cars. It’s just a pet peeve and I thought I would throw it in to see if anyone notices. However, without a cup holder, maybe it will limit eating in cars, which would limit the need for drive-thru’s. [Note to self: this is promising – deserves more study – time for a beer run].
· Ban cigarettes, except for export, of course – might as well make a few bucks off the misguided impulses of others.
· I know, I know, a ban on cigarettes will never work – let’s just tax the living daylights out of them; $1 a cigarette sounds good. All of the tax revenue goes to subsidize health care.
· No new health care-related taxes for the people who don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t eat junk food, etc.
· Let private enterprise fill the void. Where there is a need and a value desired by the market, there’s an opportunity. What do you think explains Wal-Mart, after all?

A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that the American people are slowly coming to their senses as the post-Inaugaration honeymoon begins to wane – 42% of Americans think the proposed health care plan is a “bad idea,” up from 32% just one month ago. Unfortunately, if doesn’t matter what Americans think now. What matters is what they thought the first Tuesday of last November. It was on that day American voted all practical legislative political power to one party – the Democrats. With that, rest assured a health bill will be passed in September unless the public significantly raises the volume of its protests.

Damn that Democratic majority in the House and Senate! It makes killing national health care a tough row to hoe. Remember, years ago, when we thought Al Franken as a politician was funny? As the filibuster-proof 60th Democrat in the Senate, it’s not so funny now, huh?

Of course, that’s just this guy’s opinion.

What do you think? Further the dialogue on Twitter @RayHartjen.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Graduating With Honors

May and June is a great time of year for students all over the United States. First off, it’s the start of summer break, and that means the world to kids. Students everywhere declare their hatred for school, then begin the time-honored ritual of sleeping late, hanging out with friends, and desperately trying to get Alice Cooper’s chorus, “School’s out for summer,” out of their heads. That’s for four days. Then, they moan to their parents about how bored they are.

May and June also brings around the graduation celebrations for high school seniors. It’s the last real school graduation celebration, for no one in their right mind celebrates graduation from college. After all, who wants to leave the comfort of two classes a day, a nap in the afternoon, a party every night, and scantily clad co-eds for the rigors of a 9-to-5 job for the rest of your miserable life? The only celebration is if you can talk your parents into a fifth year. If you get so lucky as to get a sixth year, you’re required to die right at the end, Logan’s Run-like, for it’s all downhill after that (plus, you’re almost thirty anyway, and that was the end of the line for everyone but Farrah in Logan’s Run).

I wrote high school graduation is the last real school graduation. Unfortunately, it’s not the first. Now, when I was going through school, we had only had one graduation celebration – that was for the completion of high school. Today, it seems every idiot in our recognition-starved society celebrates graduation or “promotion” from almost every single grade.

This spring, I had friends who actually had to take off work to celebrate their kids’ and grandchildren’s promotions out of pre-school. Are you fucking kidding me? Hey, congratulations! Over the course of the year, you learned how to stop shitting your pants and how to color within the lines. Next year in kindergarten, your teachers will instruct you on how to best pick your nose without being seen. Then, first grade – farting! Here, take your diploma, toss your little tassle to the other side of your mortar hat, and get the fuck out of the way – we have a schedule to keep and that angel food Bundt cake looks delicious.

For the love of God, getting out of pre-school, kindergarten, elementary school, or middle school shouldn’t be a cause for celebration. It should be an expectation!

It’s not just school either. Anybody have a kid who participates in youth sports? Every kid on every team gets a trophy. Everybody is a winner. Not so when I played. When I played, winners got trophies – really big championship trophies. Losers might get a little tiny one, which was quickly thrown away or hidden so as to stave off embarrassment whenever a winner came over to the house.

Now, I get that everyone should be recognized and supported. I also agree that it’s absolutely wonderful that every participant in the Special Olympics gets a medal and is declared a winner. But, folks, that’s the Special Olympics. If every child garnered the same treatment, no one would be special anymore.

This entire mess started about twenty years ago with grade inflation. Teachers started giving out higher and higher grades – to everyone. Standards crumbled. It’s supported by data. Grades are steadily rising, while standardized test scores are flat, or as in the shining case of California, declining. Getting a 4.0 doesn’t mean as much anymore, not when 20% of the class boasts of the “achievement.”

Celebrating every little achievement will have, or perhaps is currently having, a long-term detrimental effect on our society and way of life. We can’t continue to celebrate every time a mouth breather fogs a mirror. Eventually that leads to an unaccountable, unmotivated, slacker workforce that sits around and feels a false sense of entitlement.

Have you taken a peek at enrollments at an engineering or medical school lately? They are packed with foreign students who have worked hard and clawed their way to the top of their classes. In India, China, Korea, Japan, and Eastern Europe, students don’t get jack shit for “graduating” fifth grade. They get a hand-me-down coat, a loaf of stale, crusty bread (or noodles, depending on the nationality), and are shoved head-long into sixth grade.

You watch – twenty years from now, Korea, China and India will be the leaders in science, medicine, and business. Americans will have two choices for careers: either working at Wal-Mart, or working at Starbucks and serving lattes to those who do work at Wal-Mart.

Of course, it’s just this guy’s opinion.

I’m interested in what you think – feel free to leave a comment below or tweet me up on Twitter @RayHartjen.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Blowing Smoke Back at North Korea

There have been interesting reports coming this week from North Korea. First off, any reading from North Korea, is by itself, interesting, for there is a dearth of information that flows from the dark country. There’s never any “news,” and rarely even propaganda. If it wasn’t for “Team America” reruns on cable, you could go months without even thinking of Kim Jong Il and his fourth world country.

Biggest shock on the news was the story of a 100,000 demonstrators marching, chanting for the destruction of the United States. Shocking! How could they possibly fuel the activities of 100,000 citizens in a famine-struck country? They must really be angry. That, or it was 100,000 political prisoners being forced to march by the pointy end of a bayonet pressed against the small of the back.

The politics involved in the situation is most fascinating. In North Korea, you have a brutal dictatorship of a truly backward country. This is a country that is literally in the dark, without reliable electricity for much of its territory. They have repeatedly shown an inability to grow enough food for their citizens, and its only cash crop for export is opium poppies, the profits of which they use to build crappy weapons (which, in turn, are sent to Myanmar for money to fund their nuclear research). Throughout all this despair – and believe you be, if you’re not Kim Jong Il or one of his cronies, you live in deprived disparity - somehow its government (read: Kim Jong Il) feels compelled to devote ever scarce resources to building rockets, and most probably, nuclear warheads.

All this for a country whose biggest wireless carrier is smoke signals.

The truly scary part of the entire story is the nuclear component. Earlier this week, Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell dismissed North Korean threats as “silliness.” Still, the thought of North Korea; or Iran, for that matter; possessing nukes is as unsettling as having your teenage daughter locked in a sauna with the members of Motley Crüe. Nothing really good can come from it.

The reason it’s so scary is that we’ve been “trained” to think of the North Korean and Iranian regimes as being a bit crazy. We see wild happenings in the street and loud, angry proclamations we don’t fully understand. Crazy plus not understood equals scary.

What we need is scary too, and I’m not talking about the threat of the finest military in the world. No, I am referring to the unpredictable usage of the finest military of the world. We need to impress upon political leaders across the world that we’re a bit crazy too. Think of the signal we’d send if we just quickly invaded Toronto, tore the place up, then gave a big relief settlement to help with the rebuilding. We could state, “Look at us crazy motherf#*kers; look what we did up there. They’re our friends! We like them! Yeeee Haaaa!

That would send a signal, smoke or not.

Of course, that’s just this guy’s opinion.

Thanks for reading. Continue the conversation, either below in the comments or on Twitter @RayHartjen.

Monday, June 8, 2009

It Ain’t So Great for Jon, Kate and Their Eight

Americans love a good train wreck. Not a literal train wreck, mind you, but rather the figurative disasters that so frequently flavor our news stories and water cooler conversations. We can’t take our eyes away from the wreckage. At the first screech of the wheels, our heads turn and necks crane, our toes rise us up by their tips, and our mouths hang open aghast.

Okay, so maybe jaws only gape open for the mouth breathing adults who continue to wear Osh Kosh B’Gosh overalls despite their falling out of favor about the same time the Star Trek movie came out - the first Star Trek movie.

I’m not sure why we’re fascinated with the downfall of others. Despite being pretty damn well off in this country, we like to see the failures. It’s not so much who wins, but more often who loses. How else can you explain the galling popularity of reality television, where “fans” turn in to see who gets dissed, voted off, kicked off, etc.? Except fans of Bret Michaels’ “Rock of Love” franchise, who, naturally, tune in to catch scantily clad skanks vying for the fleeting affection of an aging, pudgy rock star.

I try to escape the nonsense, I really do. It seems, however, that I’m one of the few diehards who picks up a newspaper anymore (sales of newspapers declined an additional 7% last year, as America grows more stupid by the hour). Seems most everybody else is settling for picking up a mirror or a double-tall, non-fat latte, or as fate would have it both. Thus, while I wait in line at Starbucks for my latte, I have to listen to the yammering stupidity of what passes for news these days; and these days it’s impossible to break clear of either that mousy Scottish singer or Jon & Kate Plus Eight.

To get you caught up to speed, Jon & Kate Plus Eight is the television show that chronicles the lives of Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight, yes eight, children – twin girls and a split set of whatever the hell you call a gaggle of six babies (sextuplets?). The show appears weekly on the TLC network. Remember when TLC went by “The Learning Channel” and ran shows that actually taught you something? Well, now, with Jon & Kate, all it seems to be teaching is planned parenthood.

If you’ve seen one show, you’ve pretty much seen them all. With eight kids, it’s not difficult to imagine a complete madhouse every day – hey, big surprise, that’s what you get! Viewer numbers have grown gradually over the years, but have skyrocketed this season, all in eager anticipation of the train wreck. You see, Jon has repeatedly been seen out and about with female “friends,” and the tabloids (I wonder how their readership stands) proclaim a split is in the works. Without question, TLC loves the attention – never has the network reaped the benefits from such a highly rated show. Last week, despite a big fall off from the premiere a week before, the show drew almost 6 million viewers, becoming the top rated show – broadcast or cable – for women and persons 18-35. Unbelievably, it was even the number 2 show for men, behind only pro wrestling (see: comment above, America growing more stupid by the hour).

Jon has gotten more than a bit pissy lately. I’m sure it has its foundations in Kate being an unadulterated shrew. Compounding matters is Kate attracting all sorts of attention – Kate has the book deal, the book tour, the incredible luxury of being away from the zoo (aka the house) for days and weeks at a time. Jon, Jon, Jon, you know how I feel about accountability. You want a book deal, dumb ass? It’s simple, get off your lazy, whiny butt and write a book. Stuck for something to write? Let me tell you, all of us guys out here are dying to know your secret – write a book on how to pick up hot college girls while being both married AND having 8 kids!

There’s a lot that bothers me about Jon and Kate. Don’t get me wrong, I love their kids – they’re the innocents in the whole deal. The parents are another thing entirely. No violins here for the pity party complaining of the media, paparazzi, and fans invading personal space. Hey, here’s a solution – stomp pimping your kids like they’re $5 hookers pounding the pavement Friday night of Fleet Week. Quit the bitching and sniping at each other – you have 8 freakin’ kids, so don’t you suppose your spouse feels exactly the way you do? Give each other a break, for crying out loud.

But, maybe most of all, there’s just one thing I have to know. Kate, honey, I’ve seen enough of the show to know you are some piece of work. And as you are as vain and pretentious as they come, I know you watch the show. So, as you see yourself on television, which totally beats a mirror and its reversed image, share with me this one thing. How do you explain that hair?

As always, it’s just this guy’s opinion.

All you Tweeples, tweet me up on Twitter @RayHartjen.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

US Terror Detainees – Prison or Frat House?

I find it peculiar to read, yet again, ad nauseam, about U.S. treatment of detainees in facilities in Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and super-secret CIA-operated prisons across the globe. The epicenter of the discussions, of course, radiates from Washington, as members of Congress and the Senate race to take their positions, get their names in the paper, and pad their campaign contribution funds. After all, politicians are in the business of getting re-elected.

I’m resigned to having to put up with the topic in the press for another 12-18 months, though, as it looks like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is going to run this through the public hopper in an effort to cleanse herself of that dirty feeling she wakes up with every morning. The Washington “Gang of 4,” and what they knew, when, will be debated in a public forum, and it won’t be short and sweet. Pelosi is viewed considerably less favorably than President Obama and the rest of the Democratic Party – a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of Americans showed favorability ratings of Obama at 64%, the Democratic Party at 45%, and Pelosi at 31%. This data suggests the Democratic party will be happy for Pelosi to be the face of this public battle; they’ll allow it to stretch out and have her bake in the heat of public indignation while they smoke contraband Cuban cigars and sexually harass young pages and interns.

It’s the public indignation part I’m beginning to wonder long and hard about. Waterboarding, I’m sure, is a real bitch. I imagine even fish don’t like it. But, in the relative context of a post-9/11 world, I’m not going to stand up and say its evil. If one just one life was saved by having one bad guy feel for a minute like he was drowning, I think I’m probably cool with it (it’s important to note that the bad guy doesn’t actually drown – he just feels like he’s going to until he coughs up more than name, rank, and serial number, or, as is more likely the case in the war on terror, the name of the tailor who makes custom-fitted, suicide bomber vests).

However, you never see pictures of waterboarding; ditto for pictures of sleep deprivation. What you do see are pictures like those below:

Okay, before you react, stifle that angry sneer (or amused chuckle). There’re a couple of very important points that need to be made.

First and foremost, it’s PRISON. Prison is not supposed to be dinner and drinks at The Plaza. It’s supposed to suck, and really suck badly at that. It’s supposed to send a message to wannabe scumbags everywhere – that message being, regardless of your circumstances right now, you do not want to be here. As the theme song to Baretta stated, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

Now, I’ve not been in prison. Yet. But, I have seen Midnight Express and a number of episodes of Oz on HBO – enough to know, or, rather, suspect, that there’s a whole host of pretty bad things that happen in prisons – in Turkey, in the United States, wherever. It’s not an evil U.S. government thing. It’s a prison thing. If you don’t want to be stacked in a buck-ass naked human pyramid, don’t do bad things and get tossed in the clink.

Second point that needs to be made, is the very real fact that many of us have similar photos in a shoe box hidden under our bed, either from bachelor parties, honeymoons, weekends in Las Vegas, or our 4 (or more, and you know who you are) years spent matriculating in campuses of higher education all around the world. Don’t look up – just think back to the pictures above. Every fall, those scenes, and worse, are repeated all over the United States. People actually pay for the privilege of being victimized, knowing down the road, they get to be the headmaster at this particular school of humiliation. It’s call “Pledging,” and it goes on beyond closed doors at fraternities everywhere.

Now, I know some of you reading this are shaking your heads and thinking, “No it doesn’t.” Just keep telling yourself that, particularly you mothers of teenage boys.

There is one hope that maybe all of this goes away as a nasty bit of “family business,” something that we just don’t talk about at family gatherings. As you’re aware, in his first week in office, President Obama ordered Guantánamo closed. Yeah, even his Democratic buddies are beginning to fight that now. Where are the “bad guys” going to go, the mainland U.S.? Sent back home to fight us again? Maybe Gitmo is the right place afterall?

There are no good answers to the quandary, which can mean only one thing – break out the restraints, edible undies, and digital cameras – we got a party on our hands!

Now it’s possible I could be wrong – it’s just this guy’s opinion.

Hey Tweeples, tweet me up on Twitter @RayHartjen.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Messy Divorce in the Works: GM's Arranged Marriage

Soon after taking over the helm at General Motors, CEO Fritz Henderson introduced the GM of the future – “Lean, flexible, and customer-focused.” During the same “rally the troops” announcement, he also introduced its new largest shareholder, the United States government. Hmmm. Something seems out of place there: Lean, flexible, customer-focused, and the United States government. Can you pick out the one that doesn’t fit the series?

I’m not saying the government is not exactly the best equipped to literally stick its nose into someone else’s business. Not yet; I’ll get to that in a minute. Before I do, let’s build a bit of a case by taking a look at some recent headlines:
- In the first quarter of 2009, General Motors saw its revenues fall by nearly half to $22.4 billion. Remember, that’s a drop of nearly 50% off a less-than-stellar first quarter ’08.
- Those $22.4 billion in revenues did absolutely nothing to stem GM’s hemorrhaging $10.2 billion negative cash flow over the quarter. Think about that - $22 billion in sales, yet $10 billion more went out of the company than came in. No household, run by us ignorant tax payers, would dare spend 50% more than it takes in. Nobody with any financial responsibility and wherewithal would.
- Uh oh. The U.S. government is currently sporting a nifty $11.2 trillion national debt (that’s $11,200,000,000,000. Assuming a U.S. population of 305 million, per person that’s – uh, never mind, my calculator won’t accept 11.2 trillion as a value).
- Let’s call a mulligan on this year; what about next? Oops, the new federal budget for fiscal 2010 weighs in at a hefty $3.6 trillion. At a minimum, that ’10 budget will add $1.2 trillion to the national debt. That’s in addition to the record $1.9 trillion (again, a minimum) that the debt will grow in fiscal ’09.
- By the time the Iowa presidential caucus rolls around in 2012, the projected national debt will be $17 trillion. If you take the New York Yankees’ opening day payroll this season of $202 million and kept it unchanged, the national debt in 2012 could pay for the next 84,158 seasons of Yankee baseball, with just a pinch left over to cover the first half of the next season. [The good news is that over the next 84,000 or so baseball seasons, the Yankees will probably figure out how to sell their $2,500 front row seats]
- Okay, budget aside, how about the “lean” aspect? Let’s see here, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 5 million private-sectors workers have lost their jobs in the last year, and the unemployment rate in that sector tops 9%. On the public-sector side, government, employment has grown in nearly every month of the current recession, and its unemployment rate is just 2.8%. I know what you’re thinking - you’re thinking those aren’t all federal government jobs; that they include state jobs. Yes, but many of those jobs are funded by federal economic stimulus grants.
- Good luck with the federal influence in union negotiations, GM, where your healthcare benefits for retirees and workers add an additional $2,500 in cost per car (Prescription drugs alone cost GM $1.9 billion.). Remember those jobs referenced in the public sector – lots of union influence. In California, unions spent $50 million in 2005 to help defeat ballot measures that would cap government spending (i.e.; protect public-sector jobs). The school system of Los Angeles County faces a $600 million budget deficit this year alone. Too many votes for politicians to not spend tax payer money there.
- As far as austere spending, GM is not going to learn a whole lot from the U.S. government, those famed purchasers of thousand dollar toilet seats. Remember the outrage on Capital Hill and in the public eye when the heads of the Big Three (what a misnomer, huh?) auto makers each flew to Washington on private planes? Well, you’d never catch a fat cat Washington politician flying in a private aircraft – particularly on junkets sponsored by campaign contributors.
- Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi regularly flies coast to coast on “business” at tax payer expense in a military aircraft (read: private). By the way, for you “greenies,” each one of those flighst produce an estimated 80,000 pounds of carbon, much more than the average American produces in a year.

I love the U.S. government – I wouldn’t want to live under any other kind of system. It does a lot of things well. But, looking to the government to help managing a lean, flexible, and customer-centric organization is like hiring Courtney Love to protect your liquor and medicine cabinets. By June 1, General Motors will propose a sweeping business reorganization plan to Uncle Sam, whereupon, the government’s economic wizards (I know, I’m laughing too), will, if the proposal so convinces them, grant the company a new lifeline of federal dollars. That money, in the billions, won’t be used to create a sustainable enterprise; rather it will be used to float GM as it enters bankruptcy.

With our high powered journalistic machines at every media outlet in the U.S. fixated on whether Ms. California was going to loose her crown over a couple of booty call photos this week, you probably missed a juicy tidbit that slipped in under the slamming car door. General Motors decided to push up its next scheduled payment to suppliers. Ordinarily, its key suppliers would be paid June 2. GM is pushing that date up, sooner, to May 28. Now, you might be asking yourself, why would a company that so desperately needs cash look to spend their hard earned, or rather hard begged, cash early? GM is doing so because it knows it’s declaring bankruptcy on June 1, and wants to ensure that suppliers will continue to ship needed parts – needed so GM can continue to build cars that no one particularly wants or needs.

Bankruptcy is going to be a mess, just like the Chrysler bankruptcy is currently. A couple of GMs will eventually emerge: A “bad” GM with outdated brands and defaulted debt, and a “good” GM with union ownership, even more outdated brands, and an uncompetitive offering in an already overcrowded car marketplace.

An arranged marriage not exactly made in heaven – is it too late to stand up and object?

The government – you and I, and all the other tax payers – have already floated billions of much needed working capital to companies. It’s a necessary evil to keep companies afloat and workers employed. It’s an investment. When it’s an investment in a company with a somewhat promising future – in the banking industry, for example – it’s likely a good investment. When it’s an investment in a company that saw its glory days fade decades ago, it’s a “learning experience.”

Okay now, learning! Now that’s something the U.S. government can teach the private sector.

Just this guy’s opinion.

Like what you read? Hate what you read? Either way, I’d like to hear from you - tweet me up on Twitter @RayHartjen.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Yo Ho Ho, It’s the Pirates’ Life for … Them

It seems every time you turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper, a pirate story is right there, front and center, like a “Ho Train” at a Bret Michaels’ concert. Used to be when you thought of pirates you thought of Johnny Depp and Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Or, if you’re old, you thought of the actual Disneyland ride. If you’re just plan goofy, you thought of September 19, international “Talk Like a Pirate Day.” All those good times are ruined for now, for these days when you hear or see the word “pirate,” you likely think of one other word: Somalia.

The pirate attack on the Maersk Alabama this month was a good, old fashioned pirate tale – forceful takeover of a vessel, a crew versus crew throw down, and hasty retreat with a hostage. Just like the Blackbeard era, only with automatic weapons, diesel engines, and a heretofore unheard of and almost inconceivable complete lack of rum. Drama galore on the high seas, the final act of which saw 80 meters of night time rolling seas, three US Navy Seals, three Somali pirates, three shots, and three kills. A quick heads up to bad guys everywhere: You don’t want to mess with the US Military. You don’t want there to even be rumors of you thinking about it in passing.

Last week, papers around the world showed one Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse. Not familiar with him? Well, he’s the sole surviving knucklehead of the pirate crew that took on the Maersk Alabama and barked at the big dog on the porch. Catch his picture, below:

As a picture is worth 1000 words, or so they say, it seems most of those words are forming themselves into questions. Questions like, what’s Abdiwali’s age? [His parents claim he’s only 16] Why is his name spelled sometimes Abdiwali, sometimes Abdewali? Isn’t piracy the same as terrorism? Good questions all, but, to me, this picture speaks one question in particular - Why is this jackass smiling like that? Me, I think it’s because he wants to show the world that despite being dirt freakin’ poor, Somalis have better teeth than the English.

I’m kidding.

You think.

No really, the real reason Abdiwali is smiling is because he’s about to enjoy a number of years living the high life of the US penal system. Oh sure, there’s a dark side of the federally- and state- funded gladiator schools that are in session every hour of every day – of which constant danger of getting shanked for a pack of smokes and having to put out to another dude to get your own copy of Barron’s are the least of one’s worries. You see, for no matter how tough life is behind bars, it sure beats the crap out of living in Somalia. If you’re down and out, and feeling a bit blue, just thank your lucky stars you weren’t such a miserable bastard as to be born in Somalia.

If you don’t know much about Somalia, go check it out on the CIA website and it’s World Fact Book. Some lowlights for you to consider:
- No real, viable government since the authoritarian, socialist regime of Mahamed Siad Barre collapsed in early 1991. That’s 18 years of the wild, wild West.
- As there’s no real government, there’s no real surprise that Somalia does not have a national legal system.
- Not a whole lot of domestic issues, that is if you don’t count famine, contaminated water eroding human health, deforestation, overgrazing, soil erosion, and desertification.
- Speaking of desertification, arable land makes up just 1.64% of Somalia’s territory.
- But, even with that, permanent crops make up only 0.04% of land use.
- Median age of the Somalia population is 17.5 years. Said differently, over half of all Somalis have never known a viable, national government.
- 45% of the population is 14 or under, making one wonder what you call a Pirate ROTC program.
- Of course, you need schools to have an ROTC program, and something tells me there aren’t a lot of schools when the national literacy rate is 37.8% (only 25.8% for women). Good thing it isn’t particularly difficult to spell “AK-47.”
- Life expectancy is only 50.
- The Gross Domestic Product of the entire country is $5.5 billion ($600 per capita), or roughly the amount Oracle’s Larry Ellison spends annually on polishing his ego.

An increasing number of Somalis take to the open seas and piracy for two reasons. One, it’s pretty lucractive, acccounting for somewhere upwards of $150 million in 2008. Secondly, there’s not a whole lot of alternatives, save knocking off an occasional aid truck stocked with food. But, if you do that, where’s the money in it – who’s going to pay for stolen food and medical supplies in a country with no economy?

Of course, we can’t just have pirates frollicking on the oceans and disrupting our shipping, which if you consider what’s carried in cargo holds every day, is really messing with the very fabric of our civilized society. But, arming ships to the teeth and siccing the US Navy Seals on pirates is not the answer. No, the fight against piracy starts on land. Fix Somalia, you fix the Somalia pirate problem.

Ah, but fixing Somalia. Now, that could be tough. But, here’s an idea. While the water is polluted and over-fished, it’s a helluva lot less polluted than the water off Dubai. Additionally, the beautiful coast of Somalia stretches as far as the eastern seaboard of the Unitied States. You thinking what I’m thinking? We annex that bad boy. Bring in truckloads of sandwiches, water, and construction supplies. Build us another vacation paradise.

We did it once in Nevada, and if you can do it there, you can do it anywhere.

Just this guy’s opinion.

Tweet up my bad self on Twitter @RayHartjen.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Bossnapping and the Neglected French Art of Persuasion

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I get all that, I really do. I can imagine how desperate one might feel when faced with the prospect of losing a job, your livelihood, and, maybe soon after, your Citroen coupe, your Dogue de Bordeaux, and more. It must be incredibly frustrating. It probably ranks right up there with, but just behind, having one of your most basic human liberties taken away.

There’s an interesting phenomenon sweeping Western Europe. Okay, I’m too kind. Enough of the charades - it’s not Western Europe at all, but rather the purveyor of long, skinny bread, sauces for sauces’ sake, and a glass of wine or two for good health, France. And, it’s the biggest thing since Marie Antoinette let her breasts be used as the mould for the champagne coupe glass. When desperate times come a knockin’, there’s really only one logical thing to do, and that’s to simply kidnap the boss. Or, if you’re lucky and they’re “in season,” maybe bag a whole bunch of bosses.

I know, it sounds so stupid as to be an April Fool’s Day joke. Au contraire, mon petite cheri, for it’s certainly not a joke to anyone who fills a managerial position anywhere in the country. In the last month, bosses have been held against their will – bossnapped, if you will, a new word in the language uncovered as a media-fuelled euphemism for kidnapping and false imprisonment – at French manufacturing plants belonging to Sony, Caterpillar, 3M, Continental AG, and, most recently, Scapa Group PLC.

When examining this new centerpiece of iconic French culture a bit closer, you might be inclined to think that it’s just a couple of isolated incidents, the folly of under-educated, over-worked, blue-collared Jean Claudes and Francoises. Ah, if it was only the case. Alas, a new poll for Le Parisien reports that, overall, 45% of the French population thinks bossnapping is acceptable. Astoundingly, but not surprisingly, that percentage rises to 56% among the rank and file blue collar set. Most unbelievably of all, the acts, as repeated as they have become, have not been condemned by French President Nicholas Sarkozy. That’s right, have not.


Okay, Nick – can I call you Nick? Or, maybe since you’re just 5’5” tall, maybe lil’ Napoleon? Oh, you prefer Nick? Alright Nick, I can see how the situation might not interest you, as you’re too busy trying to figure out how to keep hush hush the naked photos of your smokin’ (third) wife, former model, Mick Jagger play toy, and all-around Italian hottie, Carla Bruni. But, c’mon, Nick. Kidnapping? It’s just so … so … gauche. Like serving poorly kept Beaujolais Nouveau with a choice chateaubriand.

Has socialism so gotten you down that you tolerate, even implicitly endorse, kidnapping? It’s not like businesses are shuttering because it’s a load of fun or that they’re bored. No, they’re consolidating business efforts because it’s fundamentally the right thing to do given these current economic times. Now’s not the time for foreign companies to subsidize your complacent, unionized, escargot chewing labor force. No, your all-for-one, one-for-all society needs to fall back on its own stalwarts of industrial might. You know, legendary French businesses like … uh … uh … Michelin. Yes, Michelin! Never mind the fact, Nick, they disgraced themselves by failing miserably – and publicly – at the 2005 Formula One United States Grand Prix. Michelin was pretty competitive up to that point, unlike other legendary French institutions, like your armed forces, for instance.

Do you find it interesting, Nick, that all of the above hostage taking incidents were at French subsidiaries of foreign companies? No, not coincidental at all, for the French citizenry seem to love to blame everyone else for ills your own state policies have incubated over time. Social conditions suffering? Blame the French Muslim immigration. Crime up? Blame the Gypsies. Come up empty in the Le Tour de France? Blame Lance Armstrong.

Do everyone a favor, Nick. Stop the kidnapping thing. It’s old news and it just wastes time. And, over time, it’s going to escalate to something serious that’s not going to go away with a wave of a French-cuffed arm or a nod from a beret-clad head – someone is going to get hurt. Tell them to stop. Now. Actually arrest people when they break the law. And, instead of all this back-and-forth nonsense, maybe you all can sit down and solve for the bigger problems.

With wine and bread, of course. C’est la vie.

Just this guy’s opinion.

Tweet me up on Twitter @RayHartjen.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Gee, Now There’s 20?

I know I’m getting old. I remember G6, G7, and G8. I even remember G8+5 and G22. G19+1, anyone? Yep, remember that too. Now, G20 takes a bow in the sun, figuratively speaking, of course, since this week’s carnival was in London. I’m thinking we might benefit from lowering the panel to 19. Why’s Italy in there? Let’s be serious here; like we’re really going to take economic and business consultation from the Italians.

Perhaps the most interesting note coming out of the G20 meeting is they are planning on reconvening in November. Yeah, and how do you suppose the host city is selected? Whoever pulls the short straw out of the hat has to host? At which point, some country’s poor bastard of a leader will have to burden one of his (sorry, women, but look around the conference room – it is what it is) cities with hosting duties, and the accompanying guaranteed riot, wide scale destruction, and civil unrest. And the best part? All the chaos doesn’t come from the fun-loving denizens of the host city, rather from semi-professional, anarchist protesters from around the globe.

Ah, good times.

Saw a clip on the news the other night. Young British lad, bleeding from a cut on his forehead – not a bad cut, mind you, but a cut nonetheless. He’s incredulously shouting at the reporter, “I’m 18 years old. Look at me, I’m bleeding. They hit me in the head. I’m just 18 years old!”


Dude, so you’re 18. All that means is that you’re legally an adult, and therefore, a prime target to get your ass whupped, in a completely legal fashion mind you, by other adults. And, if you don’t watch out for your whining, you’ll likely be getting your ass whupped quite regularly, so prepare yourself accordingly. Oh, and while it’s not exactly a “law” of evolution, it is a pretty generally accepted rule-of-thumb guideline: If you don’t have a baton in your hand, you shouldn’t get in the grill of a London bobby that does have a baton in his hand. Consider yourself fortunate that you’re not in someplace like Pulaski county, Kentucky, where you’re libel to taste 20 inches of a polished persimmon hardwood nightstick for simply omitting the “Sir” after saying “Good morning” to the local sheriff when getting your morning donut and tin of Copenhagen at the convenient store.

The protesters are quite the sight, don’t’ you think? One out of thirty is of the Berkeley societal dropout classification - dressed in hemp clothing, malnourished due to the fickleness of a vegan druggie lifestyle, and at the conference simply to fill all the emptiness of the calendar since the Grateful Dead stopped touring after Jerry Garcia’s death. However pitiful, that minority of protesters at least adorns itself proudly with its cloak of integrity. It’s the other clowns – the vast majority and those very easy to spot. Anarchists protesting the greed of free enterprise and capitalism, all the while finely attired in the latest styles from Benetton, Abercrombie, Boss, and Nike. Un huh, yeah.

That said, the official participants of the conference (those inside the ornate palaces and bastions of mahogany tables and overstuffed leather chairs) have no better standing in the hypocritical lineup, either. I love that the Germans and French are united in their stances. Germany and France? Wow, what a difference a few short years makes.

The big G20 takeaway for me is the American bashing that is so in vogue around the world, despite our immigration offices being jammed to capacity every day. I guess we’re an easy target, and that probably comes with being the straw that stirs the world’s economic drink. Maybe, and that’s a “maybe,” not a concession, we precipitated the global crisis with lax regulations of a free market economy. Fine, call us the first ones to blame; hell, you can even call us evil and question our collective moral being. But, how about a little balance on the other side too? Whenever there’s a natural disaster, anywhere in the world, whose fucking boat or plane packed with aid shows up first? You can’t have one without the other. There’s a bushel basket full of things wrong with this country. There’s also a whole heaping shitload of stuff that is really great, the first of which is that I can post that previous sentence on an internet forum without fearing government reprisal or jail time [try even accessing a politically charged internet forum in China, one of the G20 delegates joining in on the US-bashing – you probably can’t even open the page – if you do, and actually get your post up, don’t answer the knock at the door – if you’re in Tibet, turn yourself in just for reading about it].

So easy to point a finger – not raise a finger, as that’s something completely different, albeit just as easy. It seems we all fail to recognize that when pointing a finger, there’re three other fingers pointing back the other direction. Go ahead, try it. See?

So, G20 crowd, politicos and protesters alike - Watch the frequency and ferocity of your finger pointing. A little, and done with a degree of diplomacy and tact, is spark for great dialogue. Done repeatedly and with ill temper … well, you’re likely to get a big red, white, and blue single raised finger in return.

Just this guy’s opinion.

Continue the conversation - follow me on Twitter @RayHartjen.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why Chrysler Must Die

It’s a lesson we all learn, sooner or later, usually as kids. Be it a bicycle, a skateboard, or simply trying to grow into feet already two times bigger than necessary for your body, a tragic fall occurs – right smack dab in the middle of a patch of concrete. As far as world tragedies, it doesn’t rank that high – a bloody knee and/or elbow. [Although, I am reminded of a Mel Brooks’ quote, which goes something along the lines of “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; Comedy is when you fall down an open sewer and die.”] The lesson is not how to prevent another fall. Rather, it deals with the dreaded Band-Aid removal. It’s gonna yank hair, and it’s gonna hurt like the dickens. So, pull it all at once, really fast.

Okay now, enough is enough. Brace yourself people. It’s going to sting, and maybe a good deal longer than just a bit, but it’s necessary. We have to let Chrysler wither and die. No more bailout, no more heroic rescue efforts. It’s a lost cause. No sense throwing good money after billions and billions of bad. It’s time to cut bait and fish elsewhere.

Letting Chrysler go the way of the Dodo bird and Pan Am airlines is no little lark. We’re looking at thousands of employees and families. But, does it really make sense to poor billions and billions of dollars into the company? Chrysler has already received $4 billion in bailout money. Despite that, they still have their tin cup out waving for an additional $5 billion just to survive – not thrive, mind you, but survive. I think it’s important to keep in mind that the owners of Chrysler, Cerebus Capital, only have $7.4 billion invested, the price they paid Daimler AG for the American icon of ineptness.

Pulling the plug on Chrysler is probably not politically appetizing, particularly for those seeking electoral votes in Michigan. Additionally, labor union membership across the country will be literally crapping their pants. However, when putting aside emotions for logical, rationale reasoning, some pretty compelling evidence pops up to support other possible options for economic recovery.

1) The Numbers. Chrysler auto sales are off over 40% year over year. 40%! General Motors is in the same boat. Ford and the other manufacturers are off another third. Simple supply and demand here folks. There’s not enough demand – not by a long shot – to accommodate the manufacturing capacity. Will there be demand when the global economy recovers? Good question. Here’s an answer for you. Did you like the economy of the past five years, up to October of 2008? Did you own shares of Ford, General Motors, or Daimler AG (owners of Chrylser up until the summer of ’07)? How did you like your performance vis à vis the general market? Ha! You didn’t, did you? If you’re lucky enough to not be familiar with those “returns,” you can find them graphed here – Ford, GM, Daimler AG. Note how the market felt about Daimler kicking Chrysler to the curb. C’mon, you weren’t surprised, were you?
2) The Cars. Are you kidding me? When was the last time Chrysler hit it big on design? Sure, they’ve had some big wins. Remember the Ram trucks and their Peterbilt-esque front ends? Yeah, that was the late ‘80s. The minivan? Even older. Durango? Jeep? Don’t think so. Sure, there’s little bumps of innovative design – the Viper, the Prowler, and the Magnum come to mind – but those cars were designed and built for niche markets, and were certainly not the financial cornerstones on which to prop up the business. About the best new car design related to mass appeal was the PT Cruiser. Puh-leeze. But, regardless of the outside of the car, there’s one thing common to all Chryslers, and that is the very cheap, u-g-l-y, you ain’t got no alibi interior. Comparable to a European car? Yeah, like a movie director compares Pamela Anderson to Meryl Streep – one’s made of plastic and good for a night or two of bouncing around; the other is a timeless classic, delivering outstanding performance year over year. [My wife is never going to believe that I compared my dream girl Pam less favorably to anybody. I’m getting old.] Let’s cut to the chase by asking this: When was the last time you heard of someone considering buying a Chrysler car? If it wasn’t for fleet sales to rental car agencies and corporate cars, I’d already be writing about something else.
3) The Terms. Okay, selling crappy cars means you better come up with some good promotions. Look at what Chrysler is reduced to offering today. “Employee Pricing Plus” is what they call it. The company is willing to sell the car for essentially no profit, with a money back cash bonus eliminating the need to put anything down. Not exactly a recipe for healthy free cash flow, now is it? They want another $5 billion to support this business model? Okay, now what will it really take to create some degree of sustainability? Give us a real number.
4) Robert Nardelli. Aside from the entire history of the airline industry, perhaps no one has been personally responsible for the erosion of more shareholder value than Mr. Nardelli. Don’t worry about Bob though, for he has a certain ability to land on his feet. With Home Depot crumbling around his autocratic throne, he slid out the door with a $200 million plus package. I can’t figure out what Cerebus/Chrysler was thinking, but for whatever reason they offered him the helm of Chrysler. Fast forward a couple of years to today. Whether Chrysler lives or dies, we should soon be rid of Bob forever. I do know this, if he gets another job at a publicly traded company, I’m immediately shorting the stock. I’ll do so on the mere rumor of that company beginning the recruitment effort. Oh, and please don’t evoke Bob’s experience with GE. Giving him credit for GE’s past growth is like giving the rooster credit for the dawn (with all due apologies to Ann Richards for stealing her quote referencing G.H.W. Bush). Advice to Bob: Next time you drive past a neighborhood lemonade stand, stop, look, and listen. Take it as your B-school education.
5) The Options. The U.S. government can give money to Chrysler. But, we’d be better off lighting a big stack of $20 bills and using the heat to provide energy for Detroit during the cold winter months. The best option for the company is Fiat leaping to the rescue. Yes, that Fiat of “fix it again, Tony” yore. You know times are bad for your car company when Fiat is positioned as your savior. What Fiat has going for itself is a variety of small car models, something Chrysler has a noticeable dearth of. Bad news is that it will take upward of two years to get Chrysler up and running stamping those out of U.S. factories. Two years? Yeah, at the rate of $9 billion a year, that’s not going to do.

Bailing out Chrysler just doesn’t add up. The company is doomed, plain and simple, and life lessons tell us it’s better to pull quickly, all at once. Better to take the $5 billion and pay it out to the employees right now – a super severance, so to speak. Or, maybe this: You know the real figure is more likely $10-15 billion to make Chrysler survive long enough to indebt the entire country, and still ultimately fail. How about using that money to seed new industry for Detroit? Maybe fund some software startups; a couple of biotechs perhaps? $10 billion is a lot of venture capital – a lot of innovation and creativity. At any rate, any option is better than a bail out rescue. The question is, “Will we have the guts?”

Hey, just this guy’s opinion.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Risking Our Returns

No real surprise here, but most of the world hates America. You don’t think so? Really? Well you’re wrong, simple as that. The majority of the world’s population (outside the United States, that is) hates us for any number of reasons. Let us begin to count thy ways:
1. We swim in pools that hold thousands of gallons of perfectly drinkable water
2. We sleep indoors every night we want to
3. When we sleep indoors, we often do so with animals; we call those animals “pets;” others throughout the world – nearly all of Africa, a great deal of Asia, and big chunks of Central and South America – would call those same animals “livestock”
4. We actually spend money to feed those pets of ours, all the while much of the world struggles to feed their children
5. We have skinny, blonde celebutard actresses who actually dress their pets in tiny clothes
6. When we turn 40, our mid-life crisis entails internal debates of “Corvette or Mercedes convertible;” elsewhere, if they’re lucky enough to turn 40, it’s the muni bus or maybe a less stinky yak
7. We have pizza delivery

That list can go on and on, and it does. I haven’t even brought up big screen TVs, high speed internet porn, booze, or really any of the seven deadly sins – although admittedly this sentence toes the line. But, when you dig deeper, all those reasons are “symptoms” of the hatred; the “root cause” is really just one. The Typhoid Mary, so to speak, is money. We’re rich. We’re swimming in it. And, as such, we are afforded the luxuries that so many in world do without. They’re jealous, and that’s not a fault. Who wouldn’t be?

Now, we’re rich primarily because we’re willing to take risks. It’s a basic tenement of a free market, entrepreneurial, capitalistic society – the greater the expected risk, the greater the expected rate of return. The good ol’ risk/return ratio. And, watch out – we’re in danger of screwing the whole thing up.

Note: That loud noise you’ve heard since October is Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, and Milton Friedman rolling over in their graves.

It’s in vogue these days to rip Wall Street – the beacon of greed and excess in the storm that is the world-wide recession. We tend to forget that those losses are inextricably tied to Main Street. The reason those collateralized debt securities of Wall Street are in default? It’s because people – not just companies, but people – over-extended themselves. Typical scenario in a typical town – for argument’s sake, let’s call it Phoenix – goes something like this:
1. Dude, whose job is cutting grass, buys a $200,000 house, putting a down payment of 10% or $20,000
2. Real estate market goes mad, and house has a market value of $400,000
3. Dude refinances his house, putting no more money in, but taking out a big chunk of equity, say $100,000
4. Dude buys a Lexus and a Range Rover
5. Real estate market goes mad again, and house goes up in value to $600,000
6. Dude refinances again, takes out another $100,000 – vacations in Europe and buys a Porsche
7. Real estate market collapses. House is worth $220,000. Dude has a mortgage balance of $380,000. Oh, and he also has a used Lexus, a used Range Rover, and a used Porsche, now collectively worth $18,739.
8. Dude loses his job and mails his house keys into the bank – after first flushing 18 bags of concrete down his three house toilets.
9. Dude drinks beer at the bar and bitches at the AIG bonuses and blames Wall Street for his troubles.

Yep, always someone else’s fault.

That’s when things go sour. But, what if things go like they did in numbers 1-7 above, only this time the dude doesn’t get greedy and hog material, tangible assets (like luxury automobiles)? If he doesn’t take equity out, he’s still paying on an original $180,000 mortgage on a house now worth $220.000. Dude has doubled his equity, and doubling ain’t bad.

He took a risk, and was hoping it would turn out to pay big bucks. For a while, it did. In the end it hurt him. Who’s fault? His. Just playing the game, he was, and that’s cool. More risk, more potential return. But, keep in mind, the ante of the game is more risk. Risk. Dude, look it up in the dictionary.

In battling out of the recession, we have to be sure not to take the risk premium out of the market. Any market, for risk brings the promise of potential high returns. Not a promise of guaranteed returns, mind you, but potential returns. And potential returns are enough to drive bold creativity, innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, ingenuity, and that good old “just freakin’ get it done” mind set. It’s the promise of riches that helps us advance and evolve as a society; without it, we’d have one step in the cave, another on a banana peel. Simple proof: Russian automobiles of the mid-70’s. ‘Nuff said.

I said we’re in danger of screwing things up, and we are. We have to be super careful with bailouts. Said differently, not everyone can get one. We saw it with the investment banks in the autumn. Why were some helped and others (Lehman, anyone) left to die? Because, if we bail out everyone, there’s no threat of failure, that’s why. No threat of failure leads to taking hugely irresponsible risks in a game of “one upmanship” to make the highest of all possible returns and allow us to build over-the-top, glass and steel skyscraper phallic symbols to our greatness (see dude in Phoenix, above). Bail out enough to stave off panic from the masses. Let enough fail to keep the game in check.

Okay, investment banks down, automobiles up next. GM will get a lifeline, just to save some jobs. But, jobs be damned – and you heard it here first – Chrysler gets hung out to dry (that’s after being ridden hard, hard into the ground). Two shaky U.S. auto manufacturers are better than one shaky company and two shitty ones. To keep the risk/return ratio relevant, someone has to hurt. Cerebus Capital, how’s that $7.4 billion investment in Chrysler paying off for you? You took the risk to potentially make billions. It didn’t work out. Don’t bitch about it. You knew what you were doing. [Oh, and Bob Nardelli, don’t expect a golden exit package like the one you swindled from Home Depot.]

Speaking of bitching, here’s one final word. Words, rather. Quit bitching about the AIG bonuses, people. You want to make big bucks too? Here’s a prescription. Get off your lazy, pompous asses and take a risk. You can always quit your relatively safe job in a cozy corporation and jump into the shark-filled waters of the American dream – start your own business, draw nothing in salary for years, work your ass off daily – every day. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be the next Famous Amos. Or Ben and Jerry. Or Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and Smith. There’s no different rules for the elite and the rich. Only opportunity, and there’re the same opportunities for everyone. Take the risk. It will pay off big for a few, and it will crush a few on the way. It’s our game. If you don’t like the rules, there’s still a handful of socialists regimes around – have you tried the good life of Boliva lately?

Hey, that’s just this guy’s opinion is all.

If you like what you read, follow me on Twitter @RayHartjen.