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27 April 2007

House Organists

In case you wondered whether Fox News was the official cable network of the Republican party, Eric Kleefeld of TPM Cafe has some awfully good empirical evidence.

[T]ake a look at this screen capture of the National Republican Senatorial Committee's multimedia page. You might think the term "multimedia" would imply that it's a collection of stuff from various news organizations, plus in-house content from the NRSC. It turns out, though, that it's nothing but ... a collection of Fox News video clips. Every clip in the NRSC's "multimedia" section is from Fox.

Better yet, it has been four days since that report. And the same four clips are the only clips there. Perhaps the web team at the NRSC is being a tad subversize with a dusty corner of the web site, or perhaps the powersa that be are not even ashamed. (Or both.)

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Posted by Tim W at 4/27/2007 10:03:00 PM

Rudy Awakening

When one hears about how great Rudy Giuliani somehow was as mayor of New York, one does not hear much about his myriad and obvious faults—supporting the incompetent and corrupt Bernie Kerik, carrying on an open and notorious affair, and even suggesting that he somehow should remain mayor even after his second term was to expire.

But what is almost always left unsaid by Giuliani's supporters, who so ofter hail from outside New York, is that on the fateful day of 11 September 2001, he was hardly heroic and in the months and years leading up, his missteps made the horrible event all the worse.

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Posted by Tim W at 4/27/2007 09:49:00 PM

Traditional Values

Yet again, the Roman Catholic Church in Massachusetts is establishing itself as the paragon of moral virtue.

In Attleboro, high school senior Rosanne Strott wanted to bring a date to the prom, but she can't, because her date would be a woman. At a public school, the administration would have trouble enforcing such a rule, but this is Bishop Feehan High School, run by the local catholic diocese.

Administrators say they have banned same-sex couples because they want the prom to remain traditional.

"We're not looking for trouble at our prom," George A. Milot, superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Fall River, said yesterday. "Having boys bring boys or girls bring girls opens the door to all kinds of scenarios that could lead to problems. We're not willing to open the door. We're sticking with tradition; we have enough problems as it is."

He insisted the diocesean schools are not discriminating against gays and lesbians.

"Rules are made by schools that anyone can call discrimination if they want," he said in a telephone interview. "The school has the right to make rules in the best interests of the students. We teach tolerance towards people who may be gay. That is not the issue at all. That's the confusion. It's against gay sexual activity."

Yes, proms will surely be chock-a-block with "gay sexual activity" if girls can bring girls or boys can bring boys.

It is surely better to enforce the "traditional" prom, with most of the opposite-sex couples getting drunk on cheap liquor and engaging in traditional, straight, sexual activity instead. Much better.

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Posted by Tim W at 4/27/2007 09:40:00 PM

21 April 2007

The Welch Way: It's My Company and I'll Cry If I Want To

Another week brings with it another issue of Business Week and with it the columnar stylings of Jack and Suzy Welch, the business columnists for those who like their business columnists to be both predictable and bad.

This week, they take on the question of whether what rises to the top of American business is not always the cream.

Do the "best and brightest" actually lead American business?—B---- F----, Modesto, Calif.

It depends on what you mean by business. If your definition includes hedge funds, private equity, and investment banking, then the answer is a flat yes. If by business, you're referring to the industrial and consumer companies at the core of our economy, the answer is: less and less so. And therein lies a problem.

O.K., so maybe it's not a big problem yet, but there is definitely a worrisome trend emerging as a growing number of talented senior executives leave publicly traded businesses for privately held concerns. Dave Calhoun's departure from GE to run Nielsen and Mark Frissora's leap from Tenneco to Hertz are just two of the more publicized cases. But as a seasoned executive-search consultant we know recently put it: "The shift is real, and it's gaining momentum. You can almost feel a landslide coming."

And not only in the upper echelons—it's happening in middle management and at business schools as well....

One reason, of course, is money. Compensation for senior managers in public companies doesn't compare with the heaps routinely handed out by private equity and financial firms....

But we'd make the case that this trend is not totally about pay. There's a sociological phenomenon at work here. It's about people who love business wanting to get out of the crosshairs of people who despise it, or at least seriously distrust it. Everyone knows that American companies are being maligned these days. So-called shareholder activists have put the vast majority of corporate boards on the defensive, draining their attention away from growth initiatives, mergers and acquisitions, globalization, or anything even vaguely risky that involves building for the future. Meanwhile, CEOs face persistent scrutiny in a guilty-until-proven-innocent media environment. So when private equity firms or hedge funds call, what business enthusiast, young or old, wouldn't consider answering?

We will cut the column mercifully short there.

There are two big problems with this column. The first is that it flies directly in the face of advice that the Welches gave out earlier this year to an owner who was trying to choose between four worthy possible successors

Not all of them have the "stuff" for the challenge ahead, meaning the kind of insight and courage that will be required to reinvent your organization when you step aside. You need to push yourself to identify the single candidate who does.

Will that move prompt the runners-up to leave? It's very possible, due to feelings of disappointment or embarrassment. But don't focus on that too much. Their departure will actually be a favor—for them and the company. For them, because it certainly sounds as if they earned the right to run their own shows, and they deserve the challenge and fun of it. And when other companies show up to "steal" them away, make sure their severance packages are generous and contain some form of noncompete clause. That will help everyone...

In February, letting three senior managers fly the coop was "a favor" for both the managers and the company. But now, the flight of talent is something to worry about. But perhaps the flight of talent has a calculus that only Business Week columnists can understand.

The second, deeper, problem is the benighted notion of the corporation inherent in the column. It is hard to find a more arrogant statement in the American press that the "so-called shareholder activists" are somehow responsible for the perceived mediocrity of top American business leaders. Those shareholders are owners of their companies. Yes, owners. And managers like Jack Welch would prefer that the owners shut up and let the managers run the show.

Publicly-held companies are among the very few institutions in which the owners as a whole have very little say in how the the institutions are run, not just in their day-to-day activities, but in general. Shareholders vote on precious few items every year, and rare indeed is a position that management backs ever overturned by the shareholders. How many companies even offer their shareholders to choose among directors up for election? (Almost without fail, the best that shareholders can do is to withhold their votes.)

Now, the Welches might have a point if the shareholders were always complaining and the managers were nonetheless doing well by them. Alas, that is not the case. As the New York Times reported on Friday, when managers public companies focus their precious attention on acquisitions, they dramatically overpay when compared to private firms or private equity funds.

If it’s not your money, you may be quite willing to spend more of it.

That insight may seem rather obvious, but academic research demonstrating that it is true set off the great boom in equity compensation for corporate management over the past three decades....

Now academic research offers insights into how the very equity-based incentives—stock options and restricted stocks—that were supposed to make managers think like owners have instead encouraged them to overpay for acquisitions. The bosses win, whether or not the owners lose.

A new study by economists at the University of Pittsburgh and Ohio State University looked at all-cash takeovers done from 1990 to 2005, and found that the premiums paid varied based on who was doing the buying.

On average, public companies made bids that drove up the target share price by 32 percent. But bids from privately held companies were lower, pushing prices up 22 percent. The figure for private equity funds was 20 percent.

That difference means the public companies are paying more—and thus the merged companies are less likely to do well, all other things being equal.

I think that the "shareholder activists" are on the right track. But, then again, I did not convince the General Electric board to lavish me with millions of dollars of perks both extraordinary and quotidian upon my retirement.

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Posted by Tim W at 4/21/2007 01:05:00 AM

Don't Be Evil

Dear Google Mavens:

Now that you own Blogger, someone should have pointed out that doing stupid things to Blogger could be misconstrued by some as doing evil things to Blogger.

Reconfiguring the archive file name format without telling anyone was a particularly stupid thing. (Some of us manually configure our archive links.)

And so was forcing bloggers to resort to hacks to get rid of the intrusive "navigation bar."

After all, one knows that big companies are never, ever, evil.

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Posted by Tim W at 4/21/2007 12:55:00 AM

17 April 2007

Separate and Quite Unequal

Why is gay marriage so important to some people? The easy answer is that every alternative to it, for gay couples, is so utterly lousy.

Nickie Brazier called UPS, where she is a driver, to add Heather Aurand to her health insurance the day after their Feb. 22 civil union in New Jersey, knowing it would save them $340 a month. But UPS said no. "They said it was because we’re not married," Ms. Brazier recalled.

Dr. Kevin Slavin was able to sign his partner up for the health plan at the hospital where he specializes in pediatric infectious diseases but soon learned that both men's benefits would be treated as taxable income—not the case for his married coworkers—and that his partner could not collect his pension if Dr. Slavin died.

Merissa Muench of Mount Olive, N.J., said her employer of seven years, a medical sterilization office where she is a technician, told her the company did not cover civil union partners.

"It just irks me that a guy they just hired, his wife—bing!—has health insurance," said Ms. Muench, 30, who declined to name her employer for fear of being fired. "What else does the gay American community have to do to prove that we're worth it just as much as you guys?"

Nearly two months after New Jersey became the third state to approve civil unions for same-sex couples, many are finding that all partnerships are not created equal, raising questions about whether the new arrangement adequately fulfills the promise of the State Supreme Court ruling that led to it.

Merissa Meunch just pointed out the utter absurdity of heterosexual privilege in American society. if encouraging marriage is so important that married couples ought to receive literally hundreds of special benefits, then those benefits ought to extend to gay and lesbian couples as well. Alas, too many Americans are content to treat gays and lesbians much worse than everyone else. Republicans have thrown their lot in with the Christian Reconstructionists who view homosexuality as somehow reprehensible; Democrats are too often too timid to point out the absurdity of encouraging only certain, God-approved, versions of families.

At least in Massachusetts, there is hope. In Massachusetts, the number of legislators who support gay marriage has increased from 50 members out of 200 to fully 141 out of 200. most of the difference has come from legislators changing their minds in the face of widespread evidence that same-sex marriage has been good for the state. And in New Hampshire, although the state legislature is unlikely to approve gay marriage anytime soon, an amendment to ban same-sex marriages went down to decisive defeat last month.

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Posted by Tim W at 4/17/2007 09:04:00 PM

A Tax Day Reminder

Today is the deadline for most Americans to file their income tax returns (or, at least, file for extensions). And the usual nitwits will argue that they are paying for the taxes of those nefarious illegal immigrants.

But those pesky facts get in the way. Not only are illegal immigrants pouring several billion dollars annually in Social Security and Medicare taxes to the federal treasury, but they are paying income taxes as well, lots of income taxes.

In 2005, the Internal Revenue Service issued 1.5 million Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs), numbers used for those who owe taxes but cannot get Social Security numbers.

For some illegal immigrants, paying income taxes is part of a gamble that keeping current will lead someday to citizenship. For others, it is a facet of trying to play by the rules as much as possible.

In 2005 alone, more than $5 billion in tax liability—the total owed, including money withheld from paychecks during the year—was reported in the 2.9 million returns that listed at least one person with an ITIN, [an IRS spokeswoman] said. And between 1996 and 2003, such filers reported nearly $50 billion of tax liability....

[A] help center in Queens did record business among illegal immigrants like Dionicio Quinde Lima, who has worked in construction strictly off the books since he arrived from Ecuador three years ago, but was eager to join the fold of United States taxpayers last week.

"I feel it's my responsibility to pay," said Mr. Lima, 39, clutching a $202 money order for the Internal Revenue Service. "And if it helps me get papers, fine. The most important would be a permit to travel back and forth to see my family...."

Mr. Lima said that he had been a police officer for 16 years in Ecuador, before the country's economic crisis left him unable to support his wife and three daughters on his wages. He sent them about half the $12,000 he made last year, he said. "I'm not afraid," he added. "I really don't feel I'm doing anything wrong. I'm working and I'm paying taxes...."

Elsa Forero, 35, from Colombia, knew no refund was possible. She watched anxiously as a tax specialist and a volunteer parsed her cash wages as a baby sitter and her deductions for two children, including a 4-year-old son born in New York. The bottom line: She had to pay the federal government $579, but could expect a state tax credit for $115.

"I want to pay taxes because I live in this country and I like to follow the rules," she said.

Illegal immigrants, trying to pay their taxes because it's the right thing to do? Now that is a story that the big-mouths are going to keep quiet about.

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Posted by Tim W at 4/17/2007 08:05:00 PM

15 April 2007

Tom Turkey

Pity poor Tom Finneran. After plea-bargaining a federal perjury charge down to mere obstruction of justice, the former Speaker of the House in the state legislature now plies the trade of a radio talk-show host. And see what happens when he is asked about that perjury rap.

Three years ago, you took the witness stand and said you weren't involved in a redistricting plan. What were you thinking? In January, you pleaded guilty to felony perjury [sic].

My interpretation of the question was very different than the interpretation of the people who presented the question. I was involved in redistricting to the extent that I was asked [for my help], but it wasn't an active thing for me. The US attorney in court said there was evidence of as many as eight meetings on redistricting. I had probably somewhere between 2- and 3,000 meetings a year. A year! Eight meetings on redistricting, and somebody wants to present that like I was heavily involved?

I would think that any issue on which required a legislative leader to attend eight meetings meets a fairly stringent test for "involvement," but let us assume that it does not. How many meetings would Finneran need for involvement, and how many, if any, issues would meet that test?

Sometimes talk-show hosts need to keep their mouths shut, lest they let the truth out.

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Posted by Tim W at 4/15/2007 10:55:00 PM

13 April 2007

On-Line Advertising

I think that the Boston Globe is trying to tell me something.

A sticker on the front page of today's paper yelled, "Make your message stick. Advertise with Front Page Notes!" When I removed it, it pulled up two strips of newsprint with it.

I think the Boston Globe is telling me to read the paper online.

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Posted by Tim W at 4/13/2007 10:29:00 AM

09 April 2007

Pop Culture Immortality

The New York Times reviews the DVD release of "Twin Peaks" in quite favorable terms.

It's critical boilerplate to say that the best narrative art creates a world. But the world of "Twin Peaks" is a truly rich and commodious one, attentive both to narrative mythology and to character back story, suited equally to the scrutiny of fanzines and dissertations. At its best the show achieved a crazy, cosmic harmony, setting the comforts of the everyday against the terror of the void. The great unifying element is Mr. MacLachlan's superbly unflappable performance, a witty distillation of the Eagle Scout qualities often ascribed to Mr. Lynch (whose cameos as Cooper's hearing-impaired boss provide some of the funniest scenes).

The way to know that "Twin Peaks" was pop-culture gold is to realize that "Sesame Street" aired a most excellent parody of the show. "Darn fine town ... (devours the pie) Darn fine pie! (devours the plate) Darn fine plate too."

One of these days, someone smart at Sesame Workshop will decide to put all of the Monsterpiece Theatre episodes on video. Until then, we have only a few furtive YouTube clips.

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Posted by Tim W at 4/09/2007 07:04:00 PM

07 April 2007

Getting Nuclear on the Subject

Max is completely right that saying bold things about Iran's nuclear ambitions is way, way too popular among those in Washington who are supposedly liberal.

I never agreed with the argument of Kenneth Waltz that more nuclear weapons states are better than fewer, but it is an intriguing argument that relies on the actual uselessness of current nuclear arsenals. Still, having more nuclear weapons states means more chances to test the uneasy framework of nuclear deterrence. I think that it would be great if Iran followed in the steps of South Africa (which developed nuclear weapons then gave them up) and Sweden (which worked in the 1960s on nuclear weapons and halted its program before building any).

The abject truth is that the United States and its allies have almost no moral standing to be lecturing states like Iran about nuclear weaponry.

First, the United States is still the only country in the entire world to have used a nuclear weapon on another country. Twice.

Second, the United States, despite the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has made only feeble steps toward the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Third, despite the frequent and fervent discussion by George Bush of nuclear weapons as evil and of the possession of nuclear weapons by Iraq or Iran as dire, other nuclear weapons have meant less to us. The United States has over 10,000 nuclear weapons in its stockpile, yet has no enemy with nuclear weapons to deter. The Bush administration has strengthened military links with India, a country that first exploded a nuclear device in 1974 and then detonated a series of nuclear weapons in 1998, just before Pakistan did the same. Throughout the 1980s, the United States ignored Pakistan's desire to build nuclear weapons, because Pakistan was a useful ally against the Soviet Union and its adventures in Afghanistan. And the United States cozied up to Pakistan in the last several years, even though Pakistan was instrumental in jump-starting nuclear programs in both North Korea and Libya. And for all of the talk about not wanting nuclear weapons in the Middle East, the Bush administration, like its recent predecessors, has refused even to acknowledge that the Middle East already features dozens of nuclear weapons, in the hands of Israel.

Fourth, the United States has placed itself in the bizarre position of invading a country that claimed nuclear capability, but certainly lacked it (Iraq) but not invading a country that claimed nuclear capability, but probably had it (North Korea). The leaders of Iran are not irrational. What does recent American behavior suggest is the better deterrent to invasion: merely a claim of nuclear weapons, or having the weapons themselves?

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Posted by Tim W at 4/07/2007 12:14:00 AM

No Comprende

Somehow I get the feeling that this esteemed statesman is more upset when bilingual education happens in an escuela than when it happens in an ecole.

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Posted by Tim W at 4/07/2007 12:10:00 AM

06 April 2007

Romney is a Fraud, Part I

Willard Mitt's own website proclaims his fiscal discipline.

Yet, his campaign's own filings show just the opposite. With fully nine months until the Iowa caucuses, he has raised some $23 million, but spent $11.7 million of that already. With fiscal conservatives like this, who needs Keynesians? The Romney campaign might be a clever bit of Robin Hood writ small, robbing the rich to give to everyone else, from law firms to advertising agencies to copy shops. It would be better to give the money to the poor, but the rich need to start somewhere.

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Posted by Tim W at 4/06/2007 11:59:00 PM

Supreme Irony

A rash of shootings in the Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods of Boston has residents on edge, and Mayor Thomas Menino is trying to stop the gangs behind much of the violence. And he should be doing exactly that.

He said gangs seem to be behind much of the violence. "There's a lack of respect for life out there," Menino said in a telephone interview. "They don't understand what life is about and they don't seem to understand death, either, that it's final."

Yes, that is a good and true message to send out. Alas, the mayor is undermining his own point.

Menino, seeking to calm frayed nerves, said he plans to attend two church services today, one in Mattapan and the other in Dorchester.

The problem with attending Christian churches is that they hold—as a central tenet of their beliefs—that, for at least the chosen, death is not final.

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Posted by Tim W at 4/06/2007 11:52:00 PM

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