Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Carnival Cruise: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

In our previous two posts we summarized the pros and cons of cruising and commented on cruise life. Today, we finish our cruise series with a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of our Carnival Cruise trip.

The trip was mostly good. The best of the good was the service we got from the ship's crew, most of whom appear well-trained, courteous and helpful. Our waiters in the main dining hall were friendly, efficient and fun, including doing some napkin tricks to entertain the kids. For dinners, we had two tables--one with adults and one with the kids. At one point, the Curmudgeon offered to cut his younger son's pizza, only to be told, "no dad, Paul [their waiter] will do it."


Comedian Alan Ball, who came aboard and did three shows, including a late night R-rated version, was excellent. Singer Marcus Anthony, who did a medley of mostly Mo-town hits, was also quite good. The rest of the shows were so-so.


The excursions at Cozumel (swimming with dolphins), Belize (reef-bottom fishing) and Honduras (kayaking/snorkeling) were all good. The bus tour of Grand Cayman was not so good.


The crew also did a good job getting everyone on and off the ship with a minimum of delay and fuss, while keeping us all on schedule. We came to appreciate this when we happily by-passed a long line in Grand Cayman--at least an hour long--of passengers awaiting the opportunity to board a different cruise ship. Then, in Honduras, we encountered quite a few very unhappy passengers of a Holland America ship who were standing in two-hour line to re-board their ship, while we had no wait at all.


The regulars at the poker table were good. The casino's cut from the table was bad.


The photographs taken around the ship each day were good. The cost for purchasing them was not so good.


The breakfast buffet was pretty good--we liked having grits every day, there was little wait for omelettes, and the coffee was strong. The pancakes, however, were cold and rubbery.


The lunch buffet was ok. The sandwich selections were pretty lame, but the burgers and hot dogs were good, apart from the long line. What seemed like a lot of variety at the beginning of the trip turned out to be pretty monotonous at the end--some variation in the buffets would have been nice.


The dinners were fine, with plenty of selections. Portions were a bit small--thankfully--but if you really didn't get enough they'd gladly bring you a second round. The chocolate melting cake dessert was divine, maybe too good.


Our dinner in the aptly named "Golden Fleece"--the steakhouse at the top of the ship--was quite good. Don't go there early in the cruise, or you may dislike the quality of the regular dinners after being fleeced.


Some other things on the "bad" side. The ship offered a couple of "free" lectures from the spa/health club staff, which turned out to be infomercials for some questionable "de-toxification" treatments that, of course, cost a lot of money. Also, the tacky "entertainment" at the end of each dinner was unnecessary.


So what was ugly? Two things: first, for some reason, even though all meals are included, you had to pay extra for standard soft-drinks. We understand paying for alcoholic drinks, but not for sodas. To make it worse, Carnival offered a soda-card option, where for about $40 you could purchase an unlimited soda card for the week. But the card was in the name of an individual passenger, so if you wanted soda for a family of four for the week, it would cost you $160. That's RIDICULOUS and a complete rip-off.


If you buy one of the cards for a child, then you're going to want to force the child to drink as much soda as possible to justify the purchase. On the other hand, they didn't have a family option, where you might buy a set amount of sodas that anyone could use. We don't know what other cruise lines do, but if another included soda as a regular "free" option in the meals, that alone would be enough to switch us from Carnival. (And if they all do what Carnival does, then they're all a rip-off.)


The other ugly aspect was the basketball court on the ship. Granted, this is a limited complaint, but with two active boys who are avid hoopsters, it was quite important to us. The ship had a small court on the top deck, with one hoop. No net. For some unfathomable reason, the ship rented the only two basketballs to a couple of older kids, so that when they weren't around, there was no basketball. There's no logic at all for doing that, other than limiting play on the basketball court.


While we were in Grand Cayman, we noted that the ship anchored next to us--we believe it was from the Royal Caribbean line--had a larger basketball court, with two hoops and nets. Call us petty, but next time we'll be on one of their cruises.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Cruising Life

As we reported yesterday, the Curmudgeon family has returned from a weeklong Caribbean cruise and we are doing a series of posts (in this period of little political news of note) summarizing our thoughts about the trip.

Today's post focuses on life on a cruise. Tomorrow, we'll have the good, the bad and the ugly of a Carnival cruise.














Cruising life was interesting to us. We generally like to fend for ourselves on vacation, with a loose itinerary, so being in such a structured environment was quite different.

Being in the Caribbean in the middle of winter is warm, but not hot. When the ship was moving, with the attendant breeze, it was a bit too chilly on the upper decks to hang out in just shorts (or swim trunks) and a t-shirt, but the kids seemed to manage okay. (We also saw some incredibly sunburned tourists who evidently thought sunscreen was unnecessary in the winter).

We had a group of 15 related people together on our cruise from four families, ranging in age from 9-70's, so it was good that the ship had a variety of activities. While there aren't that many decisions to make on a cruise, one does need to choose which activities to pursue each day.

Our cruise was of the western Carribean, with four stops: Grand Cayman; Cozumel, Mexico; Belize and Isla Roatan, Honduras. At each stop the ship had a choice of many shore excursions, all at a cost of somewhere between $50-$100 per person. (For a family of four, with four shore stops, this adds up pretty quickly.)

You can forgo the ship-arranged excursions and work something out for yourself once ashore, but we recommend against it. The amount of time available at each shore stop is limited and there is already quite a crowd at the docks at each stop awaiting their excursions. More importantly, if you're on a ship-sponsored excursion and you're running late getting back, the ship won't leave without you.

In any event, we felt sorry for those who didn't arrange or have shore excursions. Sure, you could just go ashore and shop, but most of the shopping was pretty lame, and the alleged "bargains" were hard to find. The shops right around the docks were pretty standard tourist fare, and one would need to get away from them to get any sense of the native environment. On shore days, little is going on aboard the ship, and in any event, what's the point of going on a cruise if you aren't going to explore the exotic shore stops?

Our first stop, Grand Cayman was a bit of a disappointment. There were at least six cruise ships anchored there (the photo here is of the cruise ship traffic jam there), so it was quite crowded. It was also very windy, causing cancellation of the snorkeling part of our excursion. That left us with, essentially, a bus tour of the island. The only part worth seeing was the turtle farm, where thousands of sea turtles are being raised. The lucky ones will be released to the sea, the next luckiest ones stay to breed, and then the unlucky ones will become someone's dinner. (Our guide went on at some length about how delicious turtles are.)



The rest of the tour was pretty boring. In particular, we'd urge anyone to avoid the tourist stop known as "Hell," which is an unusual rock formation and an excuse to sell a lot of predictable t-shirts. We can't imagine why anyone would want to go to Grand Cayman for more than a day, or why it seems to be on every cruise ship's list of stops.

Our next stop was Cozumel, which had the greatest variety of shore excursions. We chose one where you get to swim with dolphins at a nearby park. It proved the best of all our activities the whole week. In a group of 12, we spent about 45 minutes in the water with a guide and a dolphin who did various tricks with us, including pushing each of us at high speed on a boogie board. We all had quite a blast and felt we'd had some "quality time" with our dolphin. (We're sure that at night the dolphins get together at their underwater bar and debate whether humans are really intelligent or whether they can just be taught to do a few tricks.)


After our dolphin swim, we had the option to stay and explore the park, including doing some snorkeling on our own. We were able to enjoy the outing without feeling rushed, but still managed to get back to the cruiseship pier in time to let the tourist shops part us from some of our cash.


From Cozumel it was a short trip down the coast to Belize, where most of our group decided to go bottom fishing. This was fortuitous because it meant we could transfer directly from the ship to our fishing boat, rather than taking a "tender" to shore. We had a great time fishing, catching quite a few grouper and snapper in the course of a three hour trip. Afterwards, we made a quick trip to shore--so we could say we'd actually been to Belize. We wouldn't have missed much if we'd decided to skip the shore stop--the port town was very poor and the undistinguished group of tourist shops at the pier were fenced off and guarded by men with machine guns. Those who took trips inland described harrowing bus rides on narrow roads.


Our final stop was Isla Roatan in Honduras, where we went to a national park to go kayaking in clear bottom boats, and then snorkeling. The kayaking was a bit disappointing--we didn't go far and you couldn't see much through the bottom of the kayaks despite the clear water. The snorkeling was terrific, however--the reef there was home to a large variety of very colorful fish. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy, breezy day and the water wasn't too warm, so the youngsters got cold pretty quickly, and then it rained. Still, Honduras was the prettiest stop, and by the time we got back to the ship it was sunny and warm. Others we talked to at Honduras enjoyed their excursions as well.


Aboard the ship there were quite a number of activities every day. The Curmudgeon and his brother gravitated to the Texas Hold-em poker table in the casino, where we soon made a number of new friends, who also happened to be happy to take our money if they could. Most of the money, however, went to the ship, as the computerized poker table took a sizable "rake"--the casino's cut--from each pot.

There were shows each night, some ok, some not. The entertainers brought aboard the ship for one night tended to be decent--a comedian, a Motown singer, a fellow who balanced things on his head. We wondered about the life of an entertainer doing the cruise ship circuit. The shows put together from the crew were a bit of a mess--a lot of mediocre to bad singing, dancing and costume changes. Still, with time to kill, they were the best shows in town.


Others in our group did their thing. One went to the karaoke lounge a number of times, which had a lively crowd each night worthy of the very worst American Idol auditions. The younger set tended to roam the upper deck, eating the "free" ice cream, swimming, playing ping pong and basketball. For just hanging out, there were quite a variety of bars with the expected over-priced drinks.



On cruise days, we also tried out some of the trivia contests, bingo games, fitness seminars and other offerings, but found reading a good book on the sundeck to be quite fulfilling. Of course, it seemed not much time ever went by before the next meal loomed. And, feeling guilty about all the food, we all tried to get to the onboard gym, which put a tiny dent in our calorie counts. The women also made spa appointments for the obligatory vacation facials, wraps and other treatments offered.

There were golf options, but the Curmudgeon, enjoying a winter respite from golf, decided to forego them (and spend shore excursions with the rest of the family). The hard core golfer, however, will have some choices, including hitting balls into a net aboard the ship, and at least a couple onshore golf outings.

All in all, the range of activities was sufficient to suit most tastes, but few of them would blow anyone away. Reflecting on many vacations past, however, we can't say that many had as many choices and few have a true "wow" factor. By the same token, few of the onboard activities would appeal to us elsewhere, and we'd hope that eating would not become our central focus on any other vacation!












To Cruise or Not To Cruise

We spent our Christmas/Hannukah week on a Caribbean cruise with our extended family, courtesy of the Curmudgeon's mom (aka "Library Lady"). Since this was the Curmudgeon family's first luxury cruise, we thought we'd spend the next couple of days summarizing some thoughts for anyone contemplating a similar excursion.

Today's focus: to cruise or not to cruise.


We've long resisted going on a cruise and doubtless would have avoided one this season had it not been for mom. Having now gone on one, we can see why cruises have their fans; we can also see why some folks don't like them.


We don't think a week-long cruise necessarily costs much more than a week of similar activities at a decent resort or hotel, so cost, while an issue, shouldn't be a big one. (To be sure, a cruise costs more than an economy vacation--you could certainly spend a week at Myrtle Beach in a budget motel for less.)


The main advantage of a cruise is that virtually everything is already done for you. All the meals are taken care of, and in a fashion that should please even the pickiest child eater. A large range of activities is provided for, both onboard and in shore excursions; and your itinerary is set, but for you filling in a few hours here and there from a Chinese menu of excursions.


In the sense of having everything planned out, a cruise is similar to a luxury tour, but probably with more options in terms of activities you can do along the way. (On many tours, you spend an inordinate amount of time travelling around on a bus, during which time there's little to do; while you're traveling on a cruise, you get to take your hotel with you.)


On the other hand, a cruise is like being confined to a hotel--albeit a nice one--for a week, with a few hours of parole for shore excursions. On our Carnival cruise, we made four shore stops in seven days, allowing us off the ship for roughly 5-8 hours on each of those days. The rest of time was aboard the ship.


A cruise ship is like a good hotel that's been shrunk. It has everything you could find in the hotel--maybe even more--but it's all in smaller spaces. And if you go when we did--over the holidays--then the hotel is full. Not only is it full, but imagine being in a hotel that's at capacity, but where no one has left the hotel. In other words, you're going to have trouble getting away from the rest of the crowd.


So, if we take the hotel analogy a little further, here's some contrasts. A hotel does not travel. That means you can't unpack all your stuff and leave it in the same room for a week, and then wake up in a different locale every morning. Thus, if you go to a hotel (or resort) for a week, you need to be sure there's enough activities/sites nearby to keep you and your family occupied.


On the other hand the lack of movement of a hotel can be a good thing. It doesn't sway back and forth, or pitch and roll in the sea. A cruise ship does. For most people, most of the time, the movement of a cruise ship is not too bothersome. But you will definitely feel it rocking most of the time, and at times the movement can be disturbing. Out of the 15 members of our cruise group, none got "seasick" on the cruise, but a few of us got nauseous or had trouble sleeping at least twice as we went through particularly rough stretches of ocean (last a couple hours each time).


Cruise life is also fairly structured. Everyone goes to dinner at the same time. Everyone starts their shore excursions at roughly the same time, and must be back aboard the ship at the same time. Nighttime shows tend to be at the same time. If you like being on your own schedule, or shopping and exploring at your own pace, you may find cruising a bit frustrating.


Also, while all your meals are provided for (with the exception of lunch during excursions, which was sometimes a problem), there is a certain monotony to eating at the same table, in the same restaurant, with the same waiters, each night. After all, who would do that at a hotel? (If you say "I would," then by all means, go on a cruise.) The menu changes each night, but the basic style of food and service is the same.


Finally, cruising does limit one's physical activities. Sure, there's a decent gym aboard (although try doing the elliptical in rough seas!), but you can't just go off for a run or a bike ride or even a decent walk. (There's a "jogging track" but it's a joke--a very short, very windy circle on the upper deck.) Some shore excursions involve some physical activity, but they're generally planned for a lowest common denominator of exertion, so don't expect too much even if you are on a kayaking, hiking or bicycling tour for a day.


At bottom, if you and your family are adventurous, independent travelers, a cruise may not be for you. If, however, your family likes structure and you want to avoid the stress of vacation decisionmaking ("where should we go for dinner tonight?" "what should we do now?"), then a cruise to the right destinations may very well be a fun trip.


Tomorrow, we'll focus on life on a cruise.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

The Curmudgeon will be enjoying a week long Caribbean holiday cruise with his extended family, so don't expect to see much here for a few days!

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Franken Poised To Pass Coleman In Minnesota

According to the Associated Press, Sen. Norm Coleman's lead is down to just two votes over challenger Al Franken, with many more challenged ballots yet to be tallied.

We think Franken will pass Coleman tomorrow and stay in the lead thereafter.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Arlington County Funds New Church

Now, if the Arlington County Board were to give a $13 million low interest loan to a local church so it could rebuild it's facility, folks around here would be in quite an uproar.

Yet that's what the Board had done in a complicated deal where the money is dressed up as a loan for low income housing.

The First Baptist Church of Clarendon sits on an oddly shaped somewhat triangular block on the edge of Lyon Village (where the Curmudgeon resides). Faced with a declining congregation and an old, overly large and deteriorating facility, church elders came up with an ingenious idea to get taxpayers to subsidize a brand new church that the congregation could never have afforded on its own.

The church's proposal was to raze most of the existing building and replace it with a new church and an eight story apartment building, in which about two-thirds of the units would be designated for low and "moderate" income families.

The only problem was that the property, surrounded on two sides by single family homes, was--quite appropriately--not zoned for high rise apartments. So the church elders dressed their proposal up as an initiative to increase the stock of lower income housing and persuaded the County not only to rezone the parcel, but to kick in several million in low interest loans as well.

Local residents objected, for good reason. The proposed eight story apartment tower is too big to be that close to single family homes. If it had been sought by a private developer, the County Board would've turned it down in an instant. By the same token, if the property had previously been zoned for such high density development, then neighbors would have at least been on notice that a large building could eventually be in the offing. The local neighbors, however, had no reason to believe a church would be transformed into an eight story behemoth next to their homes.

Another indicator that the project is more about the church than low income housing is the cost/benefit analysis. For a $13.1 million loan, the County is going to get 70 housing units (out of 116 total in the building) designated for lower income residents. According to the church developers, the "affordable" units will be priced at roughly $1200-$1300 less than the market-rate apartments. [Our guess, however, is that they won't be the same as those units, so their market value is probably lower, meaning the rent subsidy is really smaller than that.]

The cost of the $13 million loan is about $186,000 per affordable unit. That money could be used NOW--not in a few years when the building is completed--to pay a $1200/month rent subsidy to 70 families for many, many years, especially if the $13 million were earning interest (even at today's low rates).

There's no demonstration that Arlington needs the new housing on the First Baptist site. Right now, there is a glut of condos and apartments in the Clarendon area, although the neighborhood, due to its popular location, is doing better than most. Housing is Clarendon isn't cheap, but it could be subsidized.

The County Board should never have entered this deal. It should have been evaluated as if the developer were a private one, offering some affordable housing in exchange for certain concessions. If it had been examined that way--even without a large County loan--it never would have been approved. Likewise, we'd feel differently if the church was taking the lead in a novel development on an independent parcel of land, suitable for high density development, that had nothing to do with rebuilding the church itself.

In an article about the development in today's Sun Gazette, the church's pastor said, "allow the religious community to be part of the solution" to affordable housing. We agree. But it shouldn't be the BENEFICIARY.

Thumbs Down To The Sun Gazette

We enjoy our lively Arlington weekly newspaper, the Sun Gazette, which keeps us up to date on local items ignored by the Washington Post and other local media.

The Gazette editorial page likes to give thumbs up and thumbs down to various people, projects, organizations--and especially the County Board. Nothing wrong with that. But somebody needs to give the Gazette a thumbs up--or down--on occasion.


Today, we give the Gazette a thumbs down for publishing a lengthy "letter to the editor" from none other than THE EDITOR. It'd be one thing if they had nothing else to publish, but right below the letter from Gazette Managing Editor Scott McCaffrey is a little statement saying the paper "receives more letters to the editor than it can print in each week's edition."


So why give the letter space to McCaffrey, who presumably could've ginned up a story, or a thumbs up editorial, to make his rather obvious point, which is that Arlingtonians can boost the local economy by shopping locally.


The Gazette should feel free to give us a thumbs down as well--we're sure (as some commenters have been quick to point out) that we've said some dumb things!

Greenland Is Melting

Ice Melting Across Globe At Accelerating Rate, NASA Says

The rate of melting is particularly alarming in Greenland.

This is serious business folks. Thank goodness we've got a new administration coming in.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

There's Nothing Wrong With Being Academically Gifted

What's wrong with being academically gifted?

School officials in Montgomery County have announced they plan to drop the label "gifted" for high achieving school students.

"Officials say the approach slights the rest of the students who are not so labeled" and notes that white and Asian American students are more likely to be identified as gifted than blacks and Hispanics.

As a progressive liberal, we think it's time to get over this nonsense. When it comes to athletics, schools are able to achieve pure meritocracy based on athletic performance. Kids try out. The best kids make the team, the rest fail. They move on. Most accept it--they realize the kids who made it are just better at whatever sport (or theater play, singing group, band, etc.) than they are.

To be sure, the basketball teams in Montgomery County high schools tilt decidedly toward African-American players, and most sports teams, chorale groups, art classes, thespian clubs and band organizations have a makeup that doesn't exactly reflect that of the school or the district. You don't hear anyone saying that slights the white boys who didn't make the teams.

Yet, for some reason, liberals have this thing about academics, that somehow everyone should be equal and that but for some unfair factor of income, parental education, etc., they would be.

That's baloney. Some students, like some athletes, are simply more academically gifted than others. Just like a talented athlete, artist, singer or auto mechanic they SHOULD be singled out for special training and treatment.

Will Obama's Rail Ride Into D.C. Be Like Lincoln's?

Headline in today's Washington Post: "Like Lincoln, Obama Will Ride The Rails To D.C."

Let's hope it's not like Lincoln's inaugural trip to D.C. Warned of an assassination attempt by secessionists in Baltimore--Maryland, a slave state, was still considering joining eight southern states that had already seceded after Lincoln's election--Lincoln stole into D.C. in the middle of the night after skipping any speaking engagement in Baltimore.


The following day saw riots in Baltimore, and Lincoln was ridiculed by many newspapers for the escapade. [The Post finally gets around to some, but not all, of these details in the last paragraph of its story.]


The Post also ought to mention that in Lincoln's day the inauguration was in early March--a bit warmer time for massive outdoor speeches than in the middle of January.


Let's cut all the Lincoln crap and let Obama be Obama. Then, maybe 100 years from now, so new President can be accused of pulling an Obama.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Is Sarah Palin Jewish?

We got this from our aunt in Philly--could be urban legend, but the claim is that Sarah Palin's really Jewish. You betcha!

"Based on Jewish tradition that makes one Jewish if born to a mother of Jewish ethnic decent, Sarah Palin is Jewish, though she touts a mask of evangelical Christianity.


"Sarah Palin's mother, Sally Sheigam, was of Lithuanian Jewish heritage and so were both of her mother's parents, Louise Sheigam and Shmuel Sheigam. Her father, Chuck Heath, also comes from Jewish blood because his mother, Beatrice Coleman, was of Jewish descent.


"Further information on Governor Palin's ancestors can be found in the vital records in the Lithuanian State Historical Archives in Vilnius (http://WWW.archyvai.lt/archyvai/index.jsp ).The Archives holds birth, marriage, divorce, and death records for the Lithuanian Jewish community from 1851 until 1915 when the Jews were required to leave the country because of World War I. They are in 18th Century Cyrillic script and Yiddish. Many of these records include themother's maiden name and town of registration.


"Palin's maternal grandfather, Schmuel Sheigam, was a Lithuanian Jew, born in 1912 in Vilkaviskis, Lithuania, The Sheigams' grandmother was a Jewess named Gower. At the Ellis Island Immigration Center, the name was entered as Sheeran, instead of Sheigam, a standard practice when immigration officers were unable to understand the pronunciation of non-English speaking immigrants. They are buried in the Jewish cemetery at Budezeriai."


Ok, but do we really want her?

Bloggers for Miles

Tonight the Curmudgeon attended an Arlington fundraiser for Miles Grant (aka The Green Miles), who's running for Virginia delegate, that doubled as a farewell party for the bloggers behind RK (formerly Raising Kaine), who are shutting down at the end of the year.

It was a fun little get together. We chit-chatted with Lowell Feld, one of the forces behind RK, who told us that after four years it was time to move on to something new--or maybe old. Feld used to be with the Energy Information Agency before he got sucked into full time blogging a few years ago, not long before the Jim Webb campaign took off on the net. It was easy for him to leave then since it was the Bush administration, but now, with Obama in, he wants back in on energy policy. And doing nothing but blogging and campaign consulting can be a bit wearing.

We also talked to Ben Tribbett of Not Larry Sabato, who hosted the event. We were surprised to learn that Ben is now an Arlingtonian, after spending his entire life in Fairfax County.

Then, in one of those "small world" moments, we met a fellow from Santa Monica who, it turned out, had dated a woman Mrs. Curmudgeon went to elementary school with. It was certainly an OMG moment.

We also caught up with Jessica Barba, one of Tom Perriello's campaign staffers. Perriello, you may recall, had one of the grandest upsets of the campaign season when he narrowly unseated GOP incumbent Virgil Goode in Virginia's 5th congressional district (we'll know for sure tomorrow when the final recount is completed). We'd gotten many an email from Barba during the campaign season, so it was nice to put a face with the name. She'll be joining Tom's congressional staff come January, going from poorly paid campaign staff to poorly paid hill staffer.

At some point, we talked briefly with a guy, whose name we failed to note, who is working on Terry McAuliffe's Virginia gubernatorial campaign and exchanged some observations on strategy and tactics in what will clearly be an entertaining three-way race for the Democratic nomination to succeed Tim Kaine as governor of the Commonwealth.

Oh yes--we also chatted with Miles Grant, the candidate for whom this was all about. Miles is running for state delegate against Arlington incumbent Al Eisenberg (assuming Eisenberg runs for re-election). Miles is an environmental activist and fellow Arlington blogger and would make a terrific delegate to Richmond. We were quite astounded, however, when Tribbett told our assembled group that, based on his research, Miles's campaign against Eisenberg would be the first time since the 1970's that any Democrat in Northern Virginia had challenged an incumbent Democratic delegate in a primary race!

If Miles does nothing else, just breaking that long record of unchallenged incumbency will be a good thing.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Isn't Identity Theft A Serious Crime?

Evidently not.

Yesterday, federal Judge Emmet Sullivan, in D.C. sentenced two women to a mere 6 months in prison for a scam in which they stole the identities of 65 public school job applicants and went on a $40,000 shopping spree. ("Pair Charged In Identity Theft Scheme")

C'mon judge! Identity theft crime is spreading like an epidemic. You should've thrown the book at those ladies.

Granted, the biggest part of the problem is banks making it so easy to steal identities. Everytime we're asked to fill out our social security number and birthdate on some application, we realize than anyone handling that application at any point could easily open an account in our name, no questions asked. Banks could make it more difficult, but they don't.

Anyway, giving such thieves a slap on the wrist is hardly going to deter the crime.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Obama No Brainer: A National Net Metering Law

The new Obama administration has a lot on its plate, but here's one item, on the energy front, that's a no-brainer: a national net-metering law.

Net-metering laws require electric utiltities to allow individual homeowners and businesses to tie their own electric generation systems (usually solar or wind) into the existing grid and credit them for the electricity they generate.


Most states--more than 40--now have net-metering laws, but the particulars of them vary considerably, and a few backwards states still don't have any net-metering provisions.


What we need is a national net-metering law based on the most progressive state laws, which have been most successful in encouraging additional investment by individuals and businesses into clean electricity generation.


A progressive net-metering law would include provisions that:

--Prohibit a utility from imposing expensive, unnecessary or punitive conditions on interconnection,

--Standardize forms for applying for interconnection

--Allow power generators to be compensated if they generate more electricity than they use (some states only allow a credit up to the amount used)

--Require, under certain circumstances, premium payments to generators who help a utility meet "green-power" benchmarks and/or when the generator is offsetting peak power loads


By encouraging individuals to invest in alternative energy, especially wind and solar, net metering laws increase our national ability to reduce greenhouse emissions and reduce our reliance on imported oil and natural gas.


In addition, net metering helps utilities offset the demand for new transmission lines by adding distributed on-site electricity generation in the middle of high demand areas. Utilities are planning to invest billions of dollars in new transmission lines, when instead that money could be invested in alternative energy generation (primarily solar) in the middle of dense urban areas. By generating additional electricity in the middle of the grid, utilities can forego wasteful construction of long transmission lines to new, remotely sited, central power plants.


For more information on net metering and variations in state policies, go to the Department of Energy's net metering information page, HERE.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Welcome Blue Commonwealth

With RK, aka Raising Kaine, about to shut down, we're happy to welcome Blue Commonwealth to the Virginia political blogosphere.

BC, you've got some big shoes to fill!

Blagojevich Arrested For Trying To Sell Obama's Senate Seat

What a sleezebag!

Moran Leads The '09 Virginia Gubernatorial Field

It's not even 2009 yet, and the first poll is out for the Virginia governor's race next November.

On the GOP side, Attorney General Bob McDonnell is the presumptive nominee. Democrats will have a knock-down, drag out primary to see who their nominee will be. At present, the candidates are Delegate Brian Moran (pictured) from Alexandria, Senator Creigh Deeds from Bath County (southwest Va.), and former DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe from McLean.


The first poll, from Rasmussen, is good news for Democrats. It shows that in various two-way match-ups, Moran leads McDonnell by 41%-37%; Deeds and McDonnell are tied at 39% apiece, and McDonnell leads McAuliffe by 41%-36%.


The results are interesting. First, we're fascinated that Deeds and McDonnell are tied. Four years ago they faced off for Attorney General and essentially tied. McDonnell ended up winning by a few hundred votes, the closest statewide contest in modern Virginia history. Three years later, they're still tied!


McAuliffe is behind. No surprise there. He's new to the race and still viewed suspiciously by a lot of Virginians. We remain skeptical, but McAuliffe is a skilled political operative who can raise money. The first time Mark Warner ran for office, as a political unknown, folks were equally dismissive, and look where he is now.


The good news part, however, is that McDonnell, who is a bit better known statewide and who is the consensus candidate of the GOP, is not leading all three challengers and in fact trails Moran. We expect the race to be pretty close, but if Democrats again take the governorship, it will reaffirm Democratic dominance of a state that not that long ago was reliably red.


We're a bit disappointed with the Rasmussen people, however, for not polling on the Democratic primary. The implication of the head-to-head matchups is that Moran would lead in that race, but it would be nice to see some numbers. One possibility is that McAuliffe will siphon Northern Virginia votes from Moran, giving the nod to Deeds, even if Moran is the stronger general election candidate.


The poll results will certainly be a boost to Moran's camp as it tries to line up money and backers for the bruising primary ahead. (We're not worried that the primary will somehow divide Dems and give the election to McDonnell; in fact, history shows that a good primary battle builds interest and vets the winning candidate. See: Obama.)


In any event, there's plenty of time to cogitate on this one--we've got a long way to go.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Unethics Of Short-Selling Journalism

While we were surfing our favorite various news, gossip and blog sites today, we came across a lengthy piece in New York Magazine on our old Yale classmate Jim Chanos (we called him "Doc" in those days), who has made a killing managing a "hedge" fund that shorts stocks.



It was an interesting profile. We especially liked the claim that Chanos "disdains Wall Street's elite culture." Sheesh--Chanos reportedly made $300 million last year, has a huge house on the beach in the Hamptons, has sued his neighbor there over a dispute about a beach path, and recently closed on a "$20 million triplex on 75th Street near 5th Avenue." Yeah, he's the common man all right.


Anyway, we digress.


One of the points in the article is that Chanos cultivates financial journalists, who can help him by penning negative stories about the companies his fund has shorted. Those negative stories, in turn, help drive the stock price of those companies down, ensuring that Chanos and his investors make money.


Now, Chanos will say he's just feeding the truth to those journalists, exposing companies with weak, or even fraudulent, balance sheets.


That's fine--we have no problem with that. What we do have a problem with is the absence of disclosure by the journalists. (The magazine story points out that many of those journalists have also gone on to land lucrative publishing deals for "exposing" the troubled companies.)


Journalists are loathe to name their sources. First Amendment and all that. But truth be known, they're more reluctant to disclose their sources because us, the readers, would be shocked at how unreliable, despiccable, self-serving, and double-dealing most of these anonymous sources are.


Anyway, they don't need to say "according to Jim Chanos . . ." But what they SHOULD say is that "one of the sources for this story is an investment fund manager who has taken a significant short position on company X and thus stands to make a lot of money if company X's stock goes down." After all, when the journalist gives--as they always do--Company X's side of the story, they don't do it anonymously. Instead, they say, "a spokesperson for Company X disputed these [anonymous] claims . . ." The reader, of course, then figures, "well, of course they dispute it."


When we were practicing law, we frequently ran into the same kind of Bermuda triangle of anonymous allegations in product liability cases. Plaintiffs' attorneys going after this drug, or that chemical, would tip off reporters, selectively giving them snippets of documents and depositions in the hope of getting a story that would provide adverse publicity to the product. Such negative stories generate more claims, put public pressure on the product manufacturer to settle, and inflate the value of such settlements.


Again, we're not against such stories--First Amendment, yada, yada. But, the reader ought to know that the story is based on information from an attorney who has a personal stake in the outcome and who, of course, is quite biased. (In many product liability suits, the plaintiff's attorney ends up with more than half the award--40% as a "contingency fee," plus all the trial costs.)


[And yes, it can work both ways. The Curmudgeon was not against using a friendly journalist to plant a favorable story.]


Let's face it, readers would be a tad more skeptical if they read a story like this: "Today, a group of lawyers who hope to make at least $10 million off pending litigation, alleged that X Pharmaceutical's new anti-nose hair drug causes depression, headaches, grouchiness, PMS and bloating in women under age 45 who've been treated with the drug."


An amazing amount of what we read in the papers these days comes from either someone with an axe to grind, or someone who expects to make money off the publicity. Real journalistic ethics--something that doesn't exist--would disclose these conflicts of interest, even if names were not named. (Note how quick the press is to jump on anyone else who fails to disclose a conflict.)


Don't expect things to change. Anyone who makes $300 million shorting the market is no more a hero than the folks who made that kind of obscene money leading investors into the financial mess we're in today.


Now, if only we could figure out how to make money with this darn blog!


Sunday, December 07, 2008

Jefferson Defeated

Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson, under indictment on various corruption charges, lost his bid for election yesterday. In the overwhelmingly Democratic and African-American district, a Vietnamese-American Republican won.

Good. That's how democracy should work.

More HERE.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Justice Served

Do you think it's a good idea to let an 8-year-old shoot an Uzi submachine gun? And if so, should he be supervised by a 15-year-old?

No. In fact, it's not a good idea to let either one touch the weapon. Sure enough, an 8-year-old boy in Springfield, Massachusetts accidentally fatally shot himself in the head at a "Machine Gun Shoot and Firearms Expo" sponsored by a local sportsman's club.

The boy's father was standing 10 feet behind him, getting ready to take a photo, while the 15-year-old handed the weapon to the younger boy. When the younger boy fired--he was trying to hit a pumpkin--the weapon recoiled (duh) and he shot himself in the head.

We can only say that it's too bad he didn't accidentally shoot the organizers of the event.

The organizers, however, will have to answer for their criminal negligence. Three men have been indicted on involuntary manslaughter charges: the Pelham, Mass. chief of police, whose company, COP Firearms and Training, sponsored the gun fair, and the two men who brought the Uzi to the show. They face up to 20 years in prison.

We imagine the NRA will soon have a campaign going to free them from such a gross injustice.

One wonders about the father, but he's lost his son, which will haunt him for the rest of his life.

The Problem With Government Money

Giving away government money to jump start the economy, help victims of the housing crisis, bail-out employers, etc. may be necessary. But, as with all government money, it doesn't always get spent wisely.

We were struck by this in a Wall Street Journal page one article on how the limited grant funds available from the $4 billion Neighborhood Stabilization Program, authorized by Congress in July, is forcing cities to make tough choices.


The lead to the article focuses on Avondale, Arizona, one of those unfortunate booming exurbs that went bust in the housing meltdown. Avondale, which has about 2600 homes in--or about to be in--foreclosure, has received $2.5 million in fed funds to ease the crisis. (That's about $1000 per foreclosed home.)


So what is the town doing with it? The Director of Neighborhood and Family services wants to spend a quarter of the money refurbishing two abandoned townhomes , filling up an empty, graffiti covered swimming pool, and "build[ing] two additional rental units for low-income families."


Whoa! The swimming pool is pretty iffy--people are losing their houses--but the part about building NEW housing with the money made us see red. The town has more than 2000 properties that are either abandoned or close to it. They hardly need NEW housing. You'd think if they need low income housing, they could easily RENT some of the foreclosed units, thereby helping stabilize the neighborhoods the way the program is supposed to work.


Geesh!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Time For The Sierra Club And Nature Conservancy To Green Their 'Zines

As an avid supporter of the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy, we periodically receive their highly produced glossy magazines, filled with lovely photos of endangered species and threatened ecosystems.

As we were finishing lunch today, we flipped through the Nature Conservancy mag that had just arrived in the mail. There were a number of tips on "going green," and some articles on endangered forests. When we finished, we dumped the magazine on our recycling pile, along with other detritus from today's mail. And then it hit us.


There's nothing green about that magazine. According to the magazine's circulation statement, more than 800,000 copies are printed up and distributed every year. The magazine is about 80 pages. So that's 64 MILLION pages of paper sent out by the Conservancy for its magazine. (We're not sure how many trees that equals--we saw one estimate on the web that an average tree could produce 100,000 pages of paper, in which case it would be 640 trees.)


The Sierra club is on a similar footing.


We like those magazines. But we'd feel a whole lot better if these and other "green" organizations found a way to deliver their content electronically--or at least give their patrons an electronic option.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

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Hawaii To Support Electric Car Network

Let's hear it for Hawaii and its Republican Governor, Linda Lingle.

Lingle announced yesterday that the Hawaiian government would support a plan to build a network of electric automobile charging stations throughout the state by 2012. ("Hawaii Endorses Plan For Electric Cars.")


This makes a lot of sense--Hawaii is heavily dependent on oil imports to fuel its economy, and thus is quite vulnerable to disruption.


To make the plan work, however, Hawaii needs to end its dependence on burning oil to make electricity. That shouldn't be too difficult: the cost of electricity in Hawaii is quite high, running between 30-38 cents per kilowatt hour, versus an average of less than 10 cents on the mainland.


At costs like that, wind energy is quite economical, and solar looks pretty good, especially in sunny Hawaii. We'd guess, too, that Hawaii, with its large, active volcanoes, has ample sources of geothermal energy. Indeed, one wonders: what has taken Hawaii so long to make big progress on the alternative energy front.


A Wall Street Journal article (not available online) on the new car electrification plan suggested that one problem is lack of transmission capacity between the islands. That's a lot of baloney. The problem is the monopoly given to Hawaiian Electric Co. and the perverse incentives it has under traditional utility regulation.


Like most electric utilities, Hawaiian Electric has every incentive to build large, central generating facilities with extensive transmission/distribution lines, and to utilize expensive sources of fuel, such as oil. Regulators give the company a set return on its investments.


If Hawaii can revise its regulations to incentivize the power company to invest in distributed solar--rather than more transmission lines--as well as wind and geothermal, it can quickly move forward as a leader in alternative energy.


The plan to electrify the state's auto fleet is a good first step forward. Combined with other steps to reform the way electricity is generated in the state, Hawaii can become a model for breaking the oil addiction, achieving energy independence and reducing greenhouse emissions.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Terror And Courage At The Taj Mahal Hotel

We've read a bunch of accounts of the terror atrocities in Mumbai, but this is one of the best we've seen, from an American who was trapped in the hotel for hours, along with his wife.

He recounts the terror, but also the extreme courage and bravery of many of the Indian staff members at the hotel.


It's a good read:


If Congress Bails Out The Big Three, It Needs To Help Them Sell The Right Cars

Detroit's automakers were back in front of Congress today seeking a $25 billion handout. We predict that's just a downpayment at the rate GM, Chrysler and Ford would burn through the money.

Previously, we said we're opposed to bailing out the domestic auto industry. We still are--Chapter 11 bankruptcy would help them go through the necessary restructuring faster and more efficiently.


Our guess, however, is that Congress will give the not so big three the "loan" they want. And before we bemoan the expenditure of $25 billion on the auto industry, we ought to look at the tens of billions of dollars Congress has been throwing at the ethanol industry over the past few years!


In any event, if Congress wants Detroit to build better, greener cars and wean itself from addiction to SUV's, then Congress needs to help out by enacting policies that will severely discourage consumers from wanting gas-guzzling SUV's. That includes enforcing stricter fuel economy requirements, taxes on gas guzzlers, subsidies for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles, and other policy changes.


A carbon tax would also do wonders in this area, by raising gasoline prices. We doubt Congress has the political will to do most of this. Congress seems to think it can have everything--high wages and benefits for auto workers; guaranteed employment; low gas prices and green cars. Ain't gonna happen.


Instead, we'll probably get something that looks like the ethanol debacle.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Testing For "Sports Gene" In Children--A New Way To Part Foolish Parents From Their Money

Yesterday's New York Times had a fascinating front-page article on a rush by parents--especially in Boulder, Colorado--to get their toddlers tested for a so-called sports gene.

That's right, genetic testing now purports to be able to tell you whether your little tyke will be the next Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan or Usain Bolt. Well, not really--the gene has been identified in white Olympic athletes, so we guess you'll have to settle for Roger Federer, Tom Brady or David Beckham.


Anyway, we had a good time with some friends yesterday making fun of this genetic test (they've probably all secretly swabbed their children's mouths and sent in for the test by now). For $150, Atlas Sports Genetics in Boulder will tell you whether your child has has the version of the ACTN3 gene that is supposedly beneficial for elite/power athletes, such as sprinters, as opposed to the version found more frequently in "endurance" athletes.


When you get the test results back, you also get a little pamphlet telling you how to develop your little super-athlete. And if you haven't parted with enough of your money on such silliness yet, then you can also go to Epic Athletic Performance, a company that will put children through a talent identification test.


The apparent idea behind the testing is to match your children with the types of sports they are most genetically compatible with. One overwrought parent quoted in the NYT article said she thought such testing would "prevent a lot of parental frustration" as she watched her 2 year old struggle through a toddler soccer class. (Note: 2 year olds do not need soccer classes--just let them run around and have fun!)


As a public service, the Curmudgeon is going to give all those parents contemplating these tests some completely FREE advice: (1) no matter what your child's genes say, he or she has an infinitessimally small chance of becoming an Olympian or professional athlete; (2) if your child is really talented, it won't be that difficult to tell; (3) if you want to know if your child is going to be fast, wait until he or she is 5 and have 'em race the kids at their school. And finally, this: for goodness sakes, encourage your kids to play sports for FUN(!!!) and as their parents, take a chill pill.


Now, if you're still hoping to part with your money to find out what your child's professional sports prospects are, leave us a comment with your email address and we'll get in touch with you about our program for a mere $200 that will help you decide whether he or she is going to be a 2024 Olympian.

Martin Leads Chambliss In Georgia Senate Run-off Early Voting

For what it's worth, Democratic challenger Jim Martin appears to be leading GOP incumbent Saxbe Chambliss in the early voting for tomorrow's run-off election for one of two remaining undecided U.S. Senate races.

In a Public Policy Polling canvass of Georgia voters (as of Nov. 23) 27% of respondents said they'd already voted (under Georgia's liberal early voting rules). Among those voters, Martin was leading by 52%-46%.

That's the good news. The bad news is that Martin trails among ALL likely voters in every poll taken in the Peach State, by between 2-8 points.

UPDATE: Today, PPP released its final poll of Georgia voters and the early voting numbers have flipped, with Chambliss now leading Martin by 58%-41% among the 35% of respondents who said they'd already voted. Did things really flip in just a few days of additional early voting? Not likely--more likely is a polling anomaly. In any event, Chambless appears to have a solid lead going into today's runoff.

While the early voting lead is nice, Martin had a similar lead (as did Obama) among early voters before general election day on Nov. 4, but ended up behind Chambliss (and Obama behind McCain) when the votes were fully tallied.

Our guess is that Martin will fall short by 4-5 points after running a good, hard-fought campaign.

In the other still open race, it appears that Dem challenger Al Franken will fall just shy of ousting GOP Senator Norm Coleman in Minnesota. With the statewide recound almost complete, Franken is a couple hundred votes short and it does not appear he'll be able to make up that ground.

We still think that with 58 senators in their caucus, Democrats will be able to defeat GOP filibusters on most issues.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cunningham To Transition Team

The Curmudgeon's BFF and old college roommate Nelson Cunningham has been announced as part of President-elect Obama's transition team, as one of the leads for the International Trade and Economics Team.

Nelson is well-suited to the task. He started public service in Rudy Giuliani's U.S. Attorneys office in NY, then went on to be general counsel to Joe Biden's Senate Judiciary Committee (during some key Supreme Court appointments). From there, it was General Counsel to Bill Clinton's Office of Administration.


After that, Nelson, who grew up in Latin America, is fluent in Spanish and well-versed in foreign policy, got the job he really wanted, serving as chief of staff to the U.S. Special Envoy to the Americas, who was Mack McLarty--Bill Clinton's childhood friend who served as White House Chief of Staff in Clinton's first term.


When the Bushies took power, Nelson and McLarty started an international consulting firm that has done quite well, recently celebrating its tenth anniversary. Bill Richardson--former U.N. Ambassador, Secretary of Energy and New Mexico Governor--worked with Nelson at the McLarty firm for a couple of years after the end of the Clinton administration.
In 2004, Nelson advised John Kerry's campaign on international relations issues (Nelson worked on a Kerry campaign early in his legal career while practicing law for a firm in Boston).
Nelson also assisted the Obama campaign on foreign policy issues and raised money for the general election (he was neutral in the primaries, in deference to having worked with or for several of the candidates).
He will provide sober, practical guidance to the Obama transition team as it rounds out appointments in the international arena, guided by years of experience working with representatives of primarily Latin American and Asian nations.


Other members of this part of Obama's transition team:


Reed Hundt
Michael Warren
Josh Gotbaum
William “Thomas” Dohrmann
James Johnson
Anjan Mukherjee
Gregory L. Rosston
Sylvia Mathews Burwell
Susan Ness
Phil Weiser
Peter M. Shane
Fred P. Hochberg
Ginger Lew
Gary Gensler
Mozelle W. Thompson
Peter Blair Henry
Lisa D. Cook
George Munoz
Alan H. Fleischmann

Monday, November 24, 2008

Obama's Senate Is Virtually Filibuster Proof

It now looks unlikely that Al Franken will catch GOP incumbent Norm Coleman in the Minnesota Senate race, and we think Republican Saxby Chambliss will hold his seat in the Georgia run-off.

That means Democrats will hold 56 seats in the new Senate, along with two independents--Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders--who vote with the Democratic caucus, giving them 58 votes on party-line issues.

Republicans will hold 42 seats, enough to sustain a filibuster IF everyone stays in line.

Make no mistake, however: this is a virtually filibuster-proof majority, especially if Obama governs from the center, maintains party discipline and reaches out to moderates on the other side, thus isolating hard-core conservatives.

Indeed, Obama's working majority in the Senate is stronger than the super-majorities Democrats held in the 1960's and early 1970's. Back then, many southern Democratic senators were far more conservative than the national party; they were more conservative than some of the Republicans senators from the northeast.

For example, in 1964, Democrats held an astounding 68 seats in the Senate, but many of those Senators, such as Mississippi's John Stennis and Virginia's Harry Byrd were staunch conservatives.

Today's southern Senators in the Democratic party are still more moderate than their northern and west coast colleagues, but not nearly as conservative as the old southern Democrats. On most issues, you can expect them to stick with the party.

Meanwhile, there are some Republican senators, especially those up for re-election in 2010, who will chart a moderate course and whom Obama will be able to woo successfully on many issues. These include Arlen Spector in Pennsylvania, George Voinovich in Ohio, Judd Gregg in New Hampshire, and perhaps John McCain in demographically changing Arizona; Mel Martinez in Florida and Kit Bond in Missouri.

On the big issues of the day--energy, environment, universal health care, economic stimulus--Obama should be able to craft a Senate majority sufficient to overcome a filibuster.

At the same time, the more moderate Democrats in the Senate will serve as the canaries in the coal mine, so to speak, alerting Obama when Congress has gone too far left on an issue.

So, not to worry. Yes, it would be nice for Franken and Martin to knock off Coleman and Chambliss, but the failure to do so shouldn't prevent Obama from getting his agenda through Congress.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Four Million For Obama Inaugural? It Won't Happen

We've seen some speculation this week that as many as four million people could turn out in January for Obama's inaugural festivities.

Don't count on it. That's one of those extreme numbers that gets invented by the same folks who thought turnout in the recent election would shatter records--which it didn't.


One reason it won't happen is that it would be physically impossible to get that many visitors into D.C. The Washington metro area has a population of roughly 5 million, only a small fraction of whom commute into D.C. on any given day.


There's certainly fewer than 100,000 hotel rooms in the region, even if you go out 100 miles, and there's only so many planes, trains and buses that come in each day.


Metro can handle about a million people on its subway cars (at least in summer--we're not so sure about in January when everyone's wearing a coat!), and maybe another 500,000 on buses, but that's about it.


So, while there may be 4 million who'd LIKE to come here for the inaugural, we're confident it won't actually happen. That said, there could be 1-2 million, which is still a LOT of folks in town.


The Curmudgeon family is trying to decide what to do--it's a four day school weekend for the little Curmudgeons, so we just might go off skiing and leave the crowds behind.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Arlington's Dave Foster Decided Underdog In Race For GOP Attorney General Nomination

David Foster, former chairman of the Arlington County School Board, has officially thrown his hat into the ring for the GOP nomination to run for Virginia attorney general in 2009.

Foster, an attorney at Fulbright & Jaworski in D.C., was the last Republican to serve in any elected position in Arlington. A moderate, Foster was reelected to the school board in 2003 with 62% of the vote.

Foster was well-liked in Arlington because he was fiscally hard-nosed but kept Republican ideology out of the school board's work. Indeed, many who voted for him probably didn't know he was a Republican--school board elections are non-partisan and generally tend to be low-key affairs here.

Foster will have an uphill battle to get the GOP nomination for attorney general. Republicans will select their nominee at a state convention next May or June. That convention will be dominated by the social and religious conservatives who have taken over the party machinery in Virginia and steered their party to a series of disastrous losses in the last three elections.

Foster will face state Senator Ken Cuccinelli of Fairfax and John Brownlee, the former U.S. attorney for the western district of Virginia. Cuccinelli narrowly won re-election in his increasingly Democratic district last year, and probably see the writing on the wall for the next race. But Cuccinelli's socially conservative credentials are strong, and he will no doubt attempt to paint Foster as a RINO (Republican In Name Only).

Foster's strategy appears to be to convince delegates that he can reach out to Northern Virginia moderates. Good luck with that strategy! We don't think the GOP party activists give a darn. They think they're losing because their candidates haven't been conservative enough. More likely than not, they'll continue to purge their ranks of moderates, at least until they lose another election or two.

We like Foster and wish him well. We wouldn't advise him to go into hock on this one, however!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Coleman's Lead Over Franken Narrows In Minnesota Recount

In Minnesota, officials are hand counting more than 3 million paper ballots cast in the Senate race between Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken.

The recount began today, with Coleman leading by 215 votes. Franken gained about 41 votes today, with officials finishing 18% of the recount. So now the margin is down to 174 votes.

UPDATE (11/20/08): Coleman's lead is down to 142 votes with 31% of the recount completed.

For a chart from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune with all the data, click HERE.

The recount is not expected to be completed before December 5.

Politicizing The Veep Residence

Here's a fun little piece on how Dick Cheney has managed to politicize even the website describing the Vice Presidential mansion:

http://www.vanityfair.com/online/politics/2008/11/biden-beware-cheneys-den-of-iniquity.html

The End of Bonuses

The other day, the top executives at Goldman, one of Wall Street's consistently most profitable investment firms, announced that they would be forgoing their year-end bonuses in light of the current financial situation.

What's remarkable is that this amounted to news. Not just any news, but lead story with blaring headline news in the Wall Street Journal.


Twenty--or maybe thirty--years ago, bonuses were really tied to performance. If a company had an exceptional year, executives would receive bonuses on top of their regular pay. Everyone knew that if their company went back to having just an ordinary year--or a bad year--then the bonuses would disappear.


Along the way, the "bonus" concept became corrupted. During the 1980's, there were so many good years that every year, it seemed, was exceptional and merited a bonus. Bonuses became a greater share of compensation than "regular" pay.


Before long, it went like this: if it was a great year, then the executives took credit for it. Pay no mind to the fact that a monkey could've made money easily in many of those years.


But, if it was a bad year, well, that was different. Then it wasn't the executives' fault. It was due to "economic circumstances beyond our control."


So what happened was that if it was a good year, you got a bigger bonus; if it was a bad year, you only got the same bonus as in the previous good year--a real hardship. The bonuses, of course, were all ridiculously large, and lots of people who had demonstrated little skill other than to follow the herd into the market were rewarded with astounding amounts of money.


[It works that way in the law profession, too. Lawyers complain endlessly about how hard they work. They ought to try working in a real job--like being a paramedic--where there are no bonuses.]


The Goldman executives are doing the right thing. No one on Wall Street deserves a bonus this year. In fact, they ought to have to cough up the bonuses they made over the past five years, especially if they "earned" them pushing investments like collateralized debt obligations and other instruments at the heart of our current economic malaise.

Wear Your Seatbelts! The Life You Save May Be Your Own

Driving is dangerous. In the past two days, there have been three fatalities on I-66 in or near Arlington.

All three fatalities were the innocent victims of someone else's moronic driving. (Two women were killed when an intoxicated teenage driver hit their car head-on after driving the wrong way on I-66; another woman died when her car tried to dodge a mattress that had fallen into the roadway from another vehicle.)


We can't emphasize how important it is to wear seatbelts at all times because accidents like these can never be predicted.



In the most recent accident, one of the fatalities might have been avoided with seat belt use. The Washington Post report says it all:





"[The driver of an Isuzu Rodeo] ran off the road into a box truck that had swerved to miss the mattress, hit a guardrail and flipped over. [The driver], who was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the vehicle, which came to rest in the woods."





"A passenger in the Isuzu . . . was wearing a seat belt and survived. He was treated for minor injuries at the scene."





Need we say more!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Begich Pads Lead Over Stevens In Alaska As Ballot Counting Continues

Democratic challenger Mark Begich has increased his lead over embattled Republican Ted Stevens (pictured here) in Alaska following additional vote counting today. As of now, Begich leads by 2374 votes, up from about 1000 over the weekend, according to the Associated Press.

There can't be too many votes left to count, although overseas ballots received by tomorrow will be counted.


At this point, we think it's safe to say that Begich has won the seat, which probably means Stevens will avoid a vote on whether to expel him from the Senate due to his conviction on federal felony corruption charges.

Truly Affordable Wind Power

Here's some good news for folks who live in a zone with moderate amounts of wind: truly affordable personal windpower is here!

We found this one in our current issue of Popular Science, which features 2008's 100 Innovations of the Year. It's the Mariah Power Windspire, a compact, affordable wind turbine that can be installed just about anywhere.


According to the manufacturer, the Windspire is expected to generate approximately 2000 kwh's of electricity annually in a zone with 12 mph average windspeeds--what you could get on ridgelines in western Virginia, and in coastal zones along Virginia's shore.


The cost is roughly $5000--before the federal 30% tax credit. That's one-quarter what the Curmudgeon paid for solar panels that put out about 2500 kwh's per year.


Let's say it costs $5000 installed. You get back $1500 in federal tax credits, so your cost is $3500. If you live in Virginia, you're paying about $.11 per kwh for electricity from Dominion Power, so you're reducing your electric bill by $220/year. In less than 15 years, your Windspire would pay for itself, even if the price of electricity never went up (which is pretty unlikely).


You can get better paybacks from some conservation measures, but 15 years is not that bad an investment. It's certainly better than solar. And if utilities are required to pay consumers more for generating green electricity from wind, as proposed in some legislative schemes, the payback could be much quicker.


In any event, with the Windspire, you can do your part for the environment without breaking the bank.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Stabilize Energy Prices

In the U.S., we like to have our something, for nothing.

We want energy independence, we want reduced carbon emissions, and we want low gas prices.


Sorry, can't have all three.


The surest, quickest way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and reduce our carbon emissions is via higher energy prices, especially for oil and its derivatives (i.e., gasoline). Higher prices cause Americans to conserve energy. Higher prices also encourage investment in alternative energy, more fuel-efficient cars, and new technology.


Yes, high gas and other energy prices are painful, but low prices have huge costs that many would like to ignore. If, whenever you pulled up to a gas station to fill up, you had to fork over the money to an Arab sheikh in a checkered headdress, you'd surely look to buy a more fuel efficient car.


Likewise, if after every mile of driving you had to heave a one-pound brick of carbon dioxide out your car window, you'd also think twice about that gas guzzler.


Unfortunately, Americans can be blissfully ignorant of those costs. How many times have you seen a huge gas-guzzling SUV hurtling down the road, with one occupant, bearing a "support our troops" sticker? But for oil, our troops wouldn't even be over there!


A whole lot of talk, however, won't solve this problem. Higher prices for oil will. Better yet, stable prices for oil will send the right signals to markets, especially to investors in alternative energy options.


One of the things that needs to emerge from the new administration is a bill that will stabilize the price of oil to consumers in the U.S. at roughly $100/barrel. If markets drive the price higher, so be it. The $100/barrel needs to be a floor. As a nation, we can't afford to pay the hidden costs of cheap foreign oil (yes, $60/barrel is cheap) any more.

To Bail GM, Or Not To Bail?

The other day we argued against a government bailout of GM, suggesting that a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, albeit painful, would be better for GM in the long run.

Here's some additional points of view:

"Why Bankruptcy Is The Best Option For GM" (Wall Street Journal)

"A Bridge For The Carmakers" (Washington Post)

"How To Bail Out GM" (Washington Post)

After reading these and other commentary on the issue, we're still persuaded that bankruptcy is inevitable, so might as well start now. As they say, "no pain, no gain."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Arlington Environmental Activist Miles Grant Running for House of Delegates

We just learned that one of our fellow Arlington bloggers, Miles Grant, aka "The Green Miles," is planning on running against incumbent Democrat Al Eisenberg for a House of Delegates seat.

Good for you, Miles.

At age 31, Miles is quite a youngster, but he's been at it for some time with his blog and as an active member of various environmental groups, including heading up ACE--Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment.

Like the old days of the one-party (Democratic) South, Arlington today has only one party, so if you want to get in, you have to do it in the Democratic primary.

We'd say Miles has an uphill battle against Eisenberg, who has played it pretty safe as a delegate from Arlington. Miles will need to reach out to other constituencies, such as the Latino community, the fair housing folks, etc., if he wants to win.

Win or lose, however, Miles' candidacy will ensure that environmental issues and policies in Virginia will be front and center in this district, and if nothing else, prod Eisenberg to be more aggressive on the environmental front.

Of course, Eisenberg isn't the real problem--it's all those GOP delegates who still control the lower house in Virginia. We hope Democrats can nibble away enough additional seats on the periphery of Northern Virginia to swing it the other way. Then we'll see some real progress on lagging issues such as renewable energy mandates for Dominion Electric.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Ridiculous Electric Power Industry

Speaking of dinosaurs (see our last post, on the U.S. auto industry), what about the U.S. electric generating utilities?

Here's an article about a ridiculous report they have commissioned contending that the electric grid--the transmission wires that carry electricity to our homes and businesses--is so fragile it will collapse if much more solar and windpower is added to the system.

There are some utilities--Duke Energy in North Carolina, for example--that have progressive, innovative CEO's who see a way to clean alternative energy. But they are the exception. Most of them are governed by old-line executives addicted to coal because they are wed to outdated models of both electricity supply and demand.

In any event, the notion that the transmission grid--built by these same clowns--can't handle wind and solar (but can handle new coal-fired plants) is a bunch of hooey. Pretty soon these guys will have their hands out for a "bailout" of the grid. They should be slapped instead.

Don't Bailout Detroit

One of the problems you get when the government starts handing out billions of dollars to private businesses is that pretty soon everyone wants a similar deal.

Detroit's "[formerly] Big Three" automakers now have their hands out for multiple billions of dollars, and it looks like Democrats in Congress, paying off a political debt to Michigan, are going to hand it to them.


Here's our problem: no amount of federal dollars will be enough to save Detroit's automakers from themselves. They've been mismanaged for years, and nothing in any bailout proposal we've seen suggests that will change. If anything, it will only get worse, as horrible management will have been rewarded.


There's a better, albeit painful, solution: Chapter 11 bankruptcy. What would that mean? First, it would wipe out whatever shareholder equity is left in the auto companies. But it would not mean they would close their doors and cease business. Instead, with creditors held at bay, GM, Ford and Chrysler would be able to radically restructure their businesses, which is what is needed.


We don't need to extend the life of these dinosaurs by putting them on life support; instead, we need to force them to evolve into a new, viable species of auto company.


If restructuring doesn't work, or if management can't stomach it, then the still valuable assets of those companies would be sold off to other bidders, who would have a shot at doing something innovative. For example, another auto company might pay for the assets of GM's Cadillac division to augment its luxury car sales, with a new plan to streamline and update the brand and the manufacturing facilities.


It would be a painful process, but it would all occur under the supervision of a bankruptcy court that would have immense power to rewrite contracts and order other changes that the automakers either can't--or won't--undertake themselves.


Yes, there are serious issues about jobs, health benefits and pension benefits, but having the government address those issues indirectly by pumping billions into companies that would promptly lose those billions--still ultimately triggering some kind of collapse or bankruptcy--is hardly the way to go.


If, however, the Government is going to bailout these dinosaurs, then it needs to do it in a way that guarantees they will serve our national interests, not just continue to churn out gas-guzzling SUV's.


For some ideas on how the government might do so, check out Thomas Friedman's column in today's New York Times.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Terry McAuliffe For Governor? We're Skeptical

Former Democratic National Committee chairman and Clintonite Terry McAuliffe has confirmed that he intends to run for governor of Virginia next year. He joins state delegate Brian Moran, from Alexandria, and state Senator Creigh Deeds, from Bath County, in seeking the Democratic nomination to go up against Attorney General Bob McDonnell, the likely GOP nominee.

We'll keep an open mind on McAuliffe, but at the outset we're pretty skeptical. McAuliffe has never served in any elective or other public office in Virginia. He lives in McLean, Virginia, but most residents of the Commonwealth will not view him as a "Virginian."


We certainly want to see Governor Tim Kaine succeeded by another moderate, progressive Democrat, and not by McDonnell, who squeaked out the narrowest of victories over Deeds in 2005 to win the AG post.


Whether McAuliffe is that candidate, we don't know. He certainly has the ability to raise a lot of money; he's politically savvy; and he's energetic. We're reminded that when some obscure businessman named Mark Warner--who also had no experience as an elected official in Virginia--burst on the scene (audaciously running against incumbent Senator John Warner in his first race), many were, to say the least, skeptical of him. Now we know better.


One of the things we wonder about McAuliffe is whether he really wants to be governor of Virginia, and if so, why. In his announcement that he is running, he attacked Richmond for being out of touch, but what does he know about Richmond?


McAuliffe strikes us as someone who sees the Virginia governorship as a stepping stone to larger ambitions.


We'll keep an open mind. We'd like to see McAuliffe demonstrate some real knowledge about Virginia and its politics, and some sensitivity to its real issues. His initial announcement seemed to us shallow in this regard.


In any event, it looks like Democrats will have quite a donnybrook over their next nominee for Governor.


Why Obama Won, And Why The GOP Is Hardly Down And Out

Reading through the punditocracy over the past few days, there are the predictable post-mortems on the election, including a lot of hand-wringing about the GOP defeat and whether Democrats have somehow built a "new majority."


Why Obama Won


Let's start with why Obama won.


Obama had a superior campaign organization, both in the primaries and the general election. As a result of that organization, he had more money and better strategy.


While other candidates flailed around, Obama had consistent, positive themes--hope and change--that guided him through a volatile political landscape. After all, when the campaign started, Iraq was the biggest issue; when it finished, the economy had completely displaced Iraq.


Obama was also a very attractive candidate. Although we've never had a black president, he nonetheless looks and sounds like a President. He's a terrific speaker--quite a contrast to the oral bumbling of the incumbent. He also projects an aura of calm and competence. Not everyone with those qualities, however, can put together--and maintain over nearly two years--such competent campaign.


Many on the right complain that the press treated Obama with kid gloves, but that's sour grapes. Obama and his campaign deftly managed the press. Obama made himself accessible, and he addressed the issues, both substantive and personal. The Bill Ayers attack, for example, failed because there simply was no evidence that Ayers had any significant influence on Obama, or would have any influence going forward.


Obama, of course, was helped by circumstances, particularly the public's immense disdain for the Bush administration. We think Hillary would've won under these circumstances as well. But not any Democrat could've won--we're pretty sure someone like Kerry or Edwards would have blown it.


Obama was also helped immensely by the three presidential debates. Before those debates, roughly 25-30% of voters had still not firmly made up their minds. Many wanted to like and support Obama, but they had reservations. The debates gave those voters much more confidence in him. Next to John McCain, Obama looked and sounded presidential. The debates gave Obama an opportunity to showcase his talents to many Americans who had not been exposed directly to him.


In short, Obama won because he was the better candidate, with the better campaign, in a year that tactically favored the Democrat in any event.


Did Obama's Election Cause A Realignment?


Now, did Obama's election create some kind of political "realignment" or signal the beginning of a new "durable" Democratic majority? Is the GOP dead?


The question practically answers itself after we look at why Obama won. In a year that doesn't tactically favor Democrats, in which the candidate is not as good and runs a poor campaign, the GOP certainly can still win.


Now Democrats are in charge, they will have to take the blame for what happens next. You can bet that the roughly six percent of voters who swung from Republican to Democrat between 2004 and 2008 are hardly liberals. They are very moderate middle-roaders who could swing back again if Democrats go too far, and especially if the economy doesn't turn around.


If history is a guide, Republicans will gain seats in Congress in 2010. If they don't, THEN we'll start to think about whether a tectonic shift has occurred.


That said, the GOP desperately needs new leadership. They need to work hard on their tone, which alienates minority voters--not just African-Americans, but Latinos, and Asian-Americans, and Indo-Americans and Arab-Americans and just about anyone who isn't a Protestant white person. It is one thing to be socially conservative, another to be xenophobic. A guy like new Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal would be a big help to the GOP on this front, but just one fellow with brown skin won't be enough.


The GOP also needs to work on its brand. Being anti-tax is fine. But the GOP needs to articulate a message that promotes COMPETENT government that is properly funded. Voters do want services from their government. In Virginia, we need better roads and transit, but the state GOP is too mired up in reproductive rights issues to care. This is a key reason why suburbanites have turned away from the Republican brand--they want the government to solve problems, not regulate their bedrooms.


In any event, any voter with a modicum of intelligence can see that all Bush did was borrow and spend. If you want smaller government, then you have to find ways for Government, through regulatory and tax policy, to mold the private sector to provide the public with what it needs.


Energy policy is a good example. Americans want clean, inexpensive energy and they really do want to break their oil addiction. Under Bush, however, tax policy heavily favored oil--not renewables--while regulatory policy encouraged Detroit to continue building inefficient SUV's, rather than cars of the future.


The biggest problem the GOP faces now is that it has driven away many of its most moderate voices. In many states, the party apparatus has been taken over by religious conservatives.


Republicans will have their chances going forward, but only if they reform from within.