Thursday, January 29, 2009

Now comes the hard part?

I, um, don’t know how the Senate’s procedures work, exactly. Personal holds? Votes to cloture, with a flip side of a threat to filibuster?

Now that the stimulus package, with all its warts, has passed the House, will the Senate take up the same exact bill (that would make things simpler) and maybe amend it, or introduce a new bill? But the vote in the House worries me. All the Republicans in the House voted against the stimulus. That’s a bad precedent. Now, if even a single Republican in the Senate breaks ranks, he or she might as well change parties for all the crap the Republicans will drop on him or her.

But does the Stimulus have to endure a vote to cloture? Because as I remember if no Republicans agree to break ranks, then it won’t make it. The Democrats have enough votes to pass the thing, but not enough to insure debate is closed (or whatever the frack cloture means). If ever there was a time for Harry Reid to grow a backbone or grow a pair, this is it. Make Mitch McConnell stand for 12 hours or more. If the country is not going to get a stimulus package, make the frickin’ Republicans suffer a little. The bankers took our tax money and gave it to themselves as this year’s bonus. Some economist (Martin Feldstein?) on the news hour whined that the bankers have gotten huge bonuses for years and if a bank didn’t give its executives bags of money, the executives would get petulant and leave and take their obviously superior skills elsewhere (a. we have seen have talented our bankers are as the stock market dropped a full fucking third, unemployment is shooting up because of massive layoffs and the banks are hoarding money, refusing to loan it out to anyone because then it wouldn’t be in the banks to award as bonuses to bank executives, and b. the other economist on the News Hour said ‘good, let the executives leave, they can be replaced by long time middle managers who might have a long range view).

Anyway, now I am worried. When does the Senate take up this thing?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Firemen in "Luke" warmed water ...

So there was apparently a “solar” seminar yesterday on the South Side. Would have been cool (so to speak) to go to, but I do actually have to work. Maybe some private sector businesses and residential homeowners made some plans or signed some contracts.

Mayor Ravenstahl committed to setting up a solar water heater on a firehouse in the north or the west in the fall. Woo, we’re a “solar” city (as designated by the Feds); we have a solar water heater (Jimmy Carter put up a solar panels to heat water at the White House about thirty years ago, Reagan promptly took them down).

It’s not so much that we have a “smart grid” as a Luke-warm grid.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Ethics n'at...

The Pittsburgh Comet brings up the issue of sporting event tickets and politics once again, and once again I get pretty pissed off. I remember the issue from when the Mayor was first filling out the sheet that reported his debts and gifts that had been given to him. This was back maybe two, three years ago (it was a Rich Lord story, I am too lazy to chase it down once again). The Mayor I believe listed his mortgage, but not an outstanding line of credit for home improvements. He did not list any tickets for sporting events because they were all under $100, and so were under the reporting requirements. Except that they are not supposed to be over $250 cumulatively for the year, or they all need to be reported (actually, I believe they are just not supposed to be over $250 for the year, but let’s be generous here). Now there is the whole issue of the Mayor, the County Executive and the Governor going to the Super Bowl.

I think that Obama should step in, and have Congress pass a local ethics law that stadiums around the country should set up special politician seats. Not a box, not even very good seats (because they aren’t going to be paid for them). A seat for a Mayor and wife, for a Governor, for maybe City Council persons and maybe one other (County Executive?). Also maybe a couple of seats for visiting politicians (this probably wouldn’t work for the Super Bowl, BTW, where a stadium might have to bite the bullet and have seats for three sets of local politicians, plus maybe some for a visiting President and secret service). And that would be it. Have it this way all over the country. So if a sports franchise wanted to get an amphitheatre built with public money, they would have to influence the Governor or whomever the old fashioned way: money and possibly a championship game ball. Go Steelers.

I’ve started working on taxes again, so I will probably go back to posting less here. But hey, I am doing the work of the IRS, so the karma balances.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Harrisburg's parking garage lease is ... well ... parked

So Harrisburg was one of two cities that Mayor Ravenstahl mentioned when he advanced the idea of leasing away Pittsburgh's City parking garages. Turns out that idea faltered in Harrisburg. The union representing garage employees didn't like the idea, and then the plan faltered and finally died in a conflict between their Mayor and city council. Sound familiar?

Bram and the Huddler(?) both talk about this idea a bit. I personally would feel a lot better about this idea if we had a Mayor I thought we could trust. Who would our Mayor be likely to pick, a civic minded firm that would hold only raise parking rates a dollar or two, to ensure a reasonable profit, or a firm that contributes to the Mayor's campaign? Parking rates would go up, just when people are feeling nervous about their jobs.

Meanwhile, what firm would commit to a seventy five or ninety nine year lease. Are we still going to be using cars in twenty five or fifty years? Even if we are, will downtown, knowledge based employees be going into an office every day, or will they be telecommuting, tele-meeting and maybe having a coffee with a client in a Squirrel Hill coffee shop?

I don't want to just opposed everything the Mayor proposes, but so far, he has given me little reason to do otherwise.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What 100 days?

Commenters to my last post picked up on my closing thought, that if Obama has not fixed things soon, people will be very disappointed ("throw the bum out"). I expressed that thought because expectations for Obama seem abnormally high. Were they this high for Clinton in January of '93? Is that why the Democratic Congress seemed to quickly refuse to support him (this is my vague recollection)?

I skimmed through the comments in the New York Times by speechwriters to Presidents. The speechwriters themselves were from more Republican administrations than Democrat (starting with William Safire), and they all complained that the inaugural address had no overarching theme. I suspect if Obama had hammered a single theme, they would have accused him of ignoring the complexity of America's problems. Still, all of them said it was a good speech (talk about damning with faint praise). I guess that fact that God himself did not send a sign of blessing was a let down for Obama's supporters (and something his detractors could pick up on).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural address:

I didn’t hear it, (the streaming video on my work PC at noon was fitful), I printed it out and skimmed the text online. I suspect it will be held up as one of the great speeches of the modern era, but in any event I was impressed with what I read and how it was written. It captured much of how I feel about things, although not the kind of indigestible moral ambiguity that I think exists in reality. So, for example, when Obama said that we should not give up our ideals for expedience’s sake, well, we always have in the past. But Obama wants to lift our eyes, to a higher vision. Fair enough, I would be disappointed if he didn’t. And much of the rest of the address was spot on, in my opinion.

Now, if he hasn’t changed and fixed everything by next Wednesday, throw the bum out.

Monday, January 19, 2009

On the local side ...

Congratulations to the Steelers for winning the AFC championship. I will admit that I almost prefer they would have lost, only because I hate to see die hard fans spending their money to go to Tampa Bay (which is where I believe the Super Bowl will be played this year). Some of them may not be able to afford it. But, hey, I don’t want to be the Grinch here. Go Steelers!

Well, another thing that bothers me about the Steelers win and if they win the Super Bowl is that Ravenstahl will be that much more popular going into the primary. I renew my musing that Carmen Robinson might be able to pull both the African American and the progressive vote. Being a lawyer and an East End resident, she has a couple of the prerequisites already. A couple of things would have to happen. First, Shields and Dowd would have to drop out of the race soon. Maybe not this second, but soon enough that if they threw their support behind Robinson, it would help. Second, Robinson would have to get out there to progressive places. Taza d’Ora (however it is written), the Quiet Storm, the Unitarian churches in Shadyside and the North Side, some thing in Squirrel Hill and some sort of event on Pitt’s campus. These are the places where she could reach out to progressives. She would need to find a progressive patter, even if it was just something about encouraging State support for solar, an Oakland downtown connector and human rights for all. The more she said, the better, of course, but there is still a strong ABL contingent out there among progressives, if the blogs are any indication.

Mind you, I haven’t met Ms. Robinson (or perhaps she prefers Mrs.). I don’t know if she is even a reasonable candidate. This is all by way of speculation. But I do believe she is the one current candidate that has a chance to cobble together a coalition that might beat the current Mayor. There is more she would have to do, of course. Dredge up and repeat the Mayor’s various escapades. Punch hard on the debt and the under funded pension funds. Find ways to encourage voters from the South Side, the North Side and the West Hills to at least stay home because they would be embarrassed to vote for Ravenstahl. All that would give her a chance to be the Democratic candidate for Mayor, which would make her a likely shoe-in in November.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Sunday Before ...

Barack Obama can do nothing until he is officially in office. Yet already there is a timetable for US troops to leave Iraq and the Israeli’s and Hamas have agreed to a ceasefire. The bailout of the economy is already in full steam. Conservatives have been mollified and there is talk Obama will reverse the bitter cold gripping the country and in fact global warming itself just with the power of his smile. OK, maybe not that last (David Brooks has a line about how Obama was offering, at his dinner with conservative pundits, to change water into wine and asking what grape and vintage the diners wanted).

There does seem to be a huge sense of anticipation right now. A lot of high expectations, including, quite frankly my own. I think most people who have these expectations for Obama think he will miraculously create good jobs and better schools (yes, they are likely to be disappointed). My expectations are somewhat more modest and at once perhaps rather higher. Obama has a reputation as someone who does bring in people who should have different views than his own. He also has a reputation for being able to make the big speech. I am hoping both of those qualities combine to make him a more successful President. I am hoping that the Congress will pass Obama’s key proposals with only minor modification, because some key Republicans will sign on as individuals. And I hope he vetoes an appropriations bill that has been too laden down with Democratic earmarks (throws an elbow, as they say in the NBA), to establish he won’t go along with a measure just because the party wants it.

I do want to make an observation. Obama has (probably intentionally) allowed several parallels to be made between himself and Lincoln. I think if Doris Kearns Goodwin hadn’t written “Team of Rivals”, someone would have invented the term. Actually, I don’t know the origin of the title of her book, so maybe it had already been invented. Anyway, with one key appointment, Obama has decidedly reinforced the comparison to Lincoln.

In the first century of the country’s existence, the office of Secretary of State was probably the second highest office in the land (and no surprise it is number three in the line of succession). In 1860 William Seward was one of the most important figures in the Republican party. He might well have been the nominee for President in 1860, but might have been too strong an opponent to slavery. But when Lincoln chose him for Secretary of State, people thought it was a risky move, especially in time of war. Seward might have dominated the government, pushed the country bumpkin Lincoln aside. Instead Seward gradually was impressed by Lincoln, and in the matter of a year of so became his closest friend and biggest supporter.

Choosing Hillary Clinton is, for Barack Obama, a means of duplicating Lincoln’s big gamble. Of course, Secretary of State is not the same office it was then. But it is a chance for the ambitious Clinton to make a mark on history. And while she is not actually an expert on foreign policy (despite her own claims) or even much more experienced than Obama, she will work hard, perhaps harder than anyone else in the nation would, to find a way to make a mark on history. I think she will prove to be a brilliant choice because I think that if it looks like she is going to fail, she will work that much harder and find ways to salvage even a measure of victory from defeat. That sense that she will work superhumanly gives me hope that Obama will unleash her on the Middle East or on Sudan, and she will succeed where so many others failed.

Friday, January 16, 2009

A new lease on life for the pension funds ...

Several bloggers (,, ) are asking why Mayor Ravenstahl’s proposed plan to lease City garages, and possibly surface lots and parking meters, is a bad one. I have to say, Chicago has done it (I don’t know how successfully) and Harrisburg is in the process. Ravenstahl proposes using the revenue from the leases for our underfunded pensions. On paper this seems like a good idea.

Still, I can think of some issues/questions. First, if we are just looking for money to catch up our pensions with a big payment, why not sell the garages? The articles makes it sound like the new operator would pay the lease up front, and apparently this was done in Chicago (500 some million for a 99 year lease, maybe). Once they are leased, there might be some efficiencies in operation the new operator can achieve, but I think that would be limited. The operator would need to make more money than the City did, and since lots are usually pretty full on weekdays (at City and private lots, I gather), the new operator would likely just raise rates. I’m sure the justification would be that now that the lots are privately operated, they should reflect the rates of other private garages.

The problem with that is that I am sure the lower City rates currently exert a downward pressure on private parking rates. All rates would probably increase downtown, near Station Square and on the North Side by a couple of dollars for the whole day within a couple of years (more than they would have). This wouldn’t have a huge effect on downtown except that it would slow any new retail growth there. It is possible the Port Authority might increase their fares as well, leveraging the effect of the new parking rates. Downtown would become even more deserted at night.

The other thing I worry about is that Ravenstahl and his administration have already demonstrated their willingness to show favor to campaign donors. From Lamar to Club Pittsburgh, the Steelers to CLT Technologies, the City has given preference for City contracts to firms that are either politically connected or donate money. Might they do the same sort of thing with the City’s apparently valuable garages? What’s to stop them? City Council, which showed promise with the election of Kraus, Burgess and Dowd to ally themselves with Peduto and Shields, has instead taken itself off the field with it’s own bitter internal squabbles. The Ethics Bard is a joke, and the County and the State offer no recourse. Ravenstahl remains largely untouchable.

That’s why Ravenstahl’s proposal is troubling.


George W. Bush has latched onto the idea that his major legacy is that no new attacks have occurred on US soil since 9/11. Never mind the not unreasonable charge that the President could have done something to stop 9/11. It strikes me that the way Bush kept terrorists from attacking on US soil was by sending a whole bunch of targets over to Iraq.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Anonymous comments redux

I was recently involved in something of a comment skirmish (flame war) over at Bram’s Comet. This was the situation: Bram did a post about the upcoming Mayoral Campaign. The first comment, from an anonymous commenter, suggested that Bram’s opinion was incorrect (fair enough) and then asked whether Bram had any educational background in or experience in politics. Now, I think anyone who doesn’t see the huge irony in an anonymous commenter asking for more information from Bram is either hugely irony-impaired or doesn’t understand things in general. When Bram responded, a few comments later, he laughed off the request for information and then made some other point. Meanwhile, later another anonymous commenter also asked Bram the same question about his background.

So I had an opinion about the post, and after I expressed it I mentioned my own very old education and and pretty limited experience in politics, mostly as a joke. My intention with the joke, though, was to point out that I am pretty sure most commenters on any blog are not actively involved in politics, for a variety of reasons. I think it is also a safe assumption that most anonymous commenters don’t publish their own blog. I say that since one reason to comment is draw attention to your own blog (if you comment intelligently), IMO.

I got back an anonymous immediate comment: “A 25 year old pol sci degree and a 6 month stint as a coffee boy are not "credentials" Ed. They are more like glossed over line items on your resume.”

Ok, maybe I took that the wrong way. I know how I come off sometimes (if not all the time). If the commenter had not been another anonymous commenter …

Anyway, my immediate response was to ask what the anonymous commenter brings to the table. I assume anyone would understand I was asking why they thought they could “dis” my experience, what makes them better than me?

There was some more unrelated back and forth, some of it clearly in support of Bram. When the anonymous commneter responded to me, the response to (s)he brought to the table was “The painfully obvious”. I assume it was the same anonymous commenter (no way to be sure).

Now, maybe this is just the way this person talks. Maybe they are used to saying this stuff and no one ever calls them on it. And again, I know how I can come off.

Still, … at this point I was pissed. To my way of thinking, this person was hiding behind an anonymous label and claiming that I am full of shit. And making the claim not because they said I had said something stupid about politics, but because I had listed my education and experience. And I had only done that because frickin’ anonymous commenters were pestering Bram about his experience. I wrote a lenghty (surprise) comment in response.

So this went on for a while. The anonymous commenter used phrases like “pompous bragging” and claimed (s)he “was just pointing out the facts”. I made a statement wondering if some commenters used being anonymous as a license to be rude and insulting (exhibit A: a bunch of comments on posts on Pittsburgh Hoagie). I said that what was being pointed out was not facts but opinions. I also tried to explain Pat Dowd’s argument that anonymous commenting makes political discourse on blogs impossible. The anonymous commenter made the reasonable point that if you are not anonymous, you might be subject to reprisals. They also said “I am a bit more private, I don't want people knowing about my 2002 Hyundai or my folding bike. This is a political blog. It's big boy time.” Yep, tell someone they are being infantile, that is always persuasive. And yes, I am writing this post, so I may not be doing the anonymous comments justice.

Look, I know anonymous commenting is not going away. Even though anonymous comments aren’t allowed here, I suspect someone could find a way to end up commenting as Anonymous. But I think if you are commenting anonymously, you lose the right to ask about some other poster or commenter's past, or to make other personal attacks. Or as the old saying goes, simile if you’re going to say that. Because I can take a joke or even a reasonable put down. I draw the line when you all but say you are a better person than me or that my opinion is somehow forfeit because I don’t comment anonymously.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Some little asides ...

I noticed a story in the PG that stated that the number of take home cars for City employees has crept back up, to 42. The Public Safety Director mentioned that a zone commander (essentially a police captain) had to call an officer to get a ride to a crime scene. How's does this commander get to work normally? Never the less, the cars went back to the zone commanders. Then back to public works supervisors. The Mayor had vetoed legislation on limits to take home cars, but promised to go ahead and limit them. And we see the result.

A lot of people are worked up over the thought of Iran with a nuclear weapon. they could smuggle it into the US and blow up Heinz Field (and the rest of Pittsburgh). But I think that if the Iranians get a working nuke, they will put it on a boat and sail over next to Israel. Even if they also wipe out the Gaza Strip, I suspect the Iranians would see it as worth it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Mayor lucks out (again)?

I’m not sure if Mayor Ravenstahl should be relieved or insulted. After all, when the owners of Club Pittsburgh needed a political favor, they did not go to Ravenstahl. They went, first, to Doug Shields and then later to Yarone Zober. Shields, according to Shields but largely backed up by the owners of Club Pittsburgh, sent them away saying there was nothing he could do. But Zober put them in contact with George Specter, who wrote a letter cancelling the BBI letter (and order) that had been issued saying that Club Pittsburgh had to stop the activities like Live Nude Male Go-Go Dancers.

So on the one hand, the owners of Club Pittsburgh did not involve the Mayor directly in this pretty clearly illegal activity of rewarding a powerful donor with the ability to continue improperly zoned activities (which the Mayor has declared not illegal, apparently ending any investigation). The Mayor’s hands are currently clean, although he is pretty clearly on the wrong side of this issue (the right side would be to publicly reprimand Zober and Specter, and order the club closed immediately until it is either rezoned or in compliance with its current zoning). On the other hand, the owners of Club Pittsburgh did not go to Ravenstahl, perhaps because he gives off a strong anti-gay vibe. I can just about see the Mayor being upset about that. For us, maybe we can take some solace (a quantum of solace, perhaps) that our Mayor may be, currently, slightly smarter than Rod Blagojevitch. Or maybe not, since Illinois is on the way to getting rid of Governor Rod.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Finances not here, but for the whole country ...

Weren’t there “rags to riches” novels at the turn of the last century and through the twenties? That’s my vague understanding, that as business tycoons prospered, common folk dreamed of winning some kind of life lottery. It seems to me like we are still playing that game, but with more players, at least until recently. The thing is, there are more people getting rich now, so much so that newspaper articles talk about absurd new distinctions, such as the merely rich and the super rich.

I remember that during the nineties, when we had the internet bubble, people who knew how to make web pages could be hired for silly amounts of money. More recently, during the housing bubble, flipping houses was al the rage, either done by skilled craftsmen who bought dilapidated houses for little money and provided the “sweat equity”, or by the wealthy as a kind of sport. In both instances the government played along, allowing people to become quite wealthy based on abstract ideas (not found in nature). Politicians found it convenient and useful to allow people to make short term profits. This extended, not surprisingly, into the financial sector.

Michael Lewis and David Einhorn have written a couple of essays for the NYTimes on what happened in the financial market ( and what should be done ( Personally I think the first essay is the better. They identify several problems in both the financial markets themselves and in the government’s attitude toward regulation. First, they point out that right now there are complex pressures towards maximizing short term profits. This should be obvious when you consider that when firms lay off “non-essential” people, such as HR and support staff, the companies’ stock inevitably goes up. Actually, I should say that layoffs are apparently always (these days) seen as unambiguously good. Obviously in the long term a company will suffer, but layoffs will mean a higher profit this quarter. Companies that do not lay off people, or do not participate in what ever financial scheme (or scam) is popular right now will find that its managers will feel pressured by stockholders to explain why they are not making more profit right now. The pressure is considerable for managers to throw common sense to the wind.

The government regulators also have perverse incentives, according to Lewis and Einhorn. Most if not all of the top enforcement people at the SEC come from, and then later exit to, Wall Street. Which makes sense, you need to be able to understand complex profit making schemes to be able to decide how the might be illegal. But an aggressive regulator might find that when he wants to re-enter Wall Street several doors are closed to him or her.

Politicians also do not want to be the wet blanket that tells people they need to place less emphasis on short term gain. They don’t want to tell lenders that they need to tighten requirements for lending to either poor (risking charges of racism) or the rich (risking campaign contributions). Lewis and Einhorn go into much more detail than I am capturing here about the pressures on Wall Street and the government, and their perverse inter relationship. I recommend at least the first essay.

Blagojevich and Burris

Jack Kelly, this past Sunday, declared that Rod Blagojevich had outsmarted all the Democrats in Illinois, if not the country, by appointing Roland Burris to fill Obama’s seat. I am not seeing the outsmarting part, but I will concede that Blagojevich has handed the Illinois State Legislature a considerable problem. They are going to find it difficult to impeach Blagojevich in this situation.

By appointing Burris Blagojevich can claim that was his intention all along. He can say he always had an Illinois trailblazer in mind. As for the wiretapped phone calls, well, (as Jack Kelly suggested) Blagojevich knew the Feds were listening in, and he was a-just funnin’ with ‘em (as they probably never said in the South).

I assume the Feds have some additional evidence against Blagojevich, or they have so many damning phone call tapes that Blagojevich can not wriggle out of an eventual federal conviction. But it is funny; Blagojevich said he would not give his appointment power away for free, and he hasn’t. Burris may not have gotten Blagojevich a political appointment or anything, but Burris does give Blagojevich cover, something currently much more valuable to the Illinois Governor.