Tuesday, March 31, 2009

If we waste money, how can we expect anyone to offer us more?

From a link on a comment on Bram’s Comet, to an extended video of Pat Dowd’s event about waste in City government on Mark Rauterkus site, I caught an interesting comment. Someone asked about federal stimulus money. Dr Dowd’s response was “if we don’t have a pattern and a culture of showing we know how to use our money, why should we expect more people to give us money down the road”.

Right now Pittsburgh is one of a hundred cities with their hands out. We are in better shape than some in that a lot of the jobs here aren’t so dependent on trade with other parts of the country. We have healthcare (some people come to us, and we have lots of built in patients right now, and for a few years to come), education (again, some people come to us) and a bit of financial, although our banks didn’t have as many houses to sell at bubble prices. But we are also in worse shape in many ways, with a shrinking tax base and debt that is only getting worse in this financial climate. We are going to need outside financial help.

But consider who would help us. The Feds? They will send some money our way, but their priorities are jobs, and our unemployment isn’t that bad. Helping us with debt isn’t as interesting as creating a thousand jobs in Charlotte.

I read a lot on blogs that people feel we have to force the State to help us. Go to Harrisburg and demand the State legislature give us all the money we want. How has that worked out for us so far?

Maybe if Onorato is governor, maybe. But he’s not there yet and may never get there. Is there anything else we can do?

Well, yeah, the whole idea of running government like adults. I mean, I hope Dowd is that adult. I am pretty sure Ravenstahl is not.

So if we set a standard, if we introduce transparency to government in a big way, if we have serious ethics and campaign finance reform, if we tighten our belts in a responsible manner and try to spend our money in the wisest fashion possible, maybe we can attract some State help, if only so they don’t have to deal with an endless Pittsburgh Act 47 saga.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Experience and the man

Matt Hogue likes to tell us that Mayor Ravenstahl has matured in the job, that he has more experience now and has benefited from it. I suspect Matt may be right. Early in the Mayor’s term, the stories the media was willing to print about him involved his interactions with celebrities and his acceptance of inappropriate gifts. But now the stories are about the Mayor’s use of campaign contributions to travel to the Super Bowl and for some meals during his trip to Europe, and how those contributors are getting lucrative contracts from the City. The Mayor has learned how business is done.

Ethics reform has resurfaced as an issue, as City Council turns its attention to it. But as far as the Mayor is concerned, that ship has sailed. Mind you, if someone offers the Mayor tickets to the Steelers, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind too much. But what the Mayor really wants is the cash as a contribution, which the Mayor can use to buy the tickets and shake a couple of hands at the game. Then it is all perfectly legal.

Campaign finance reform is also working its way through Council right now. The reform proposed by the Mayor and the County Executive would slow them down some on fund raising, but not by much. Of course the Mayor’s ace in the hole is his promise that if City and County Council’s final bills differ even a smidgen, the Mayor will again veto the bill. Even if the two Councils should find a way to agree, the Mayor could still veto their compromise bill if it differs from the original bill. Or because he feels like it. And the Mayor still likely has enough allies on Council that his veto would stand.

I’m hoping Pat Dowd won’t turn out to be Pittsburgh’s John Kerry. Still, we might all remember that though John Kerry was annoying at time, if elected in '04 he probably would have pushed for more regulation and oversight of the financial industry. In 2004 things weren’t so far gone that some cold water thrown on the housing finance industry and the credit default swap business would not have had a positive effect. We let that get away from us, because we were willing to believe Bush when he said that we needed him to keep us safe. Ravenstahl will say something similar, that we need a Democrat from the Bob O’Connor tradition, not some pointy headed professor type. But we get to make up our own mind what we need.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Are we ready?

I could do another short animation thingie using Dr Dowd’s “administration for sale” text as the script, or the pieces in the PG on the connections between contributions and City/Authority contracts. Once again the media is putting some instances of questionable behavior by the Ravenstahl administration out there for the public’s consideration. TV news reports will be vague and short, and few people will read the newspaper accounts. But they will be there, and they should rattle around the back of people’s minds.

Now, Pat Dowd is not an unknown. I would bet that at least 8 out of 10 voters would recognize his name, but I doubt many could say much about his background or what he stands for. I think it is even money that those who did have something to say about his past would have a negative impression (John Thompson, Schenley). Dr Dowd can claim the reformer mantle, but it may not stick.

So can Dr Dowd knock off the Mayor this time, with a low intensity Anyone But Luke sentiment simmering and a loose claim to a reformer/progressive mantle (with Al Gore … I mean Bill Peduto standing in the wings)? Bram thinks there is (maybe) a grassroots groundswell against Ravenstahl looking for an outlet. I think maybe.

I want to say something about Obama and Geithner (sp?), and the AIG bonuses that are really more income floor payments, but I am out of time and energy. Maybe later.

Friday, March 20, 2009

My own little short ...

I notice Bram, Matt and Chris have all created these new little animation movies, competing with each other and advancing their agendas. Of course, I am hardly immune. I have created my own little movie. The text is from my post "History", my list of the Mayor's ethical lapses (I emblished for the sake of clarity here and there). As far as I can tell you can't add written text to these little animations yet. When you can I will add the links I had in "History". Until then, go look them up yourself.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What's the score?

So how’s the primary going? Pat Dowd raised the question of a refinancing deal the Sewer and Water Authority got into, where the mechanism for determining the payments we have to make looks awful risky, and the extra hundred million raised has to be kept in the bank to defray the higher than expected payments. So there is another 400 million the City could be on the hook for, but alas (for Dr Dowd) we won’t find out till June.

Meanwhile, Mayor Ravenstahl called for a war on potholes. It is a pity Mayor Ravenstahl wasn’t in the White House instead of George Bush from 2001-2009 (the youngest President of a major country!). All of Mayor Ravenstahl’s wars, and there seem to be at least a few, are bloodless wars. Most bloggers and newspaper columnists would say they are in fact sham wars, but they seem to play ok with voters. Better than Droopy Dog Paul Tsongas-like bad news from Dr Dowd (sorry Pat, couldn't resist).

By the way, Did anyone catch not this past Sunday’s, but the Sunday before’s 60 Minutes. There was a story on how a particular financial arrangement between transit agencies and banks involving buying light rail cars using borrowed money from banks, then selling the cars to the banks using the same money, then leasing the cars and letting the banks take the tax write for the depreciation, well those deals are in trouble because the insurer, AIG, is no longer truly solvent. It was pointed out to me (by Chris Briem) that Chris Briem had linked to a blog post back in the fall that listed the Port Authority (of Allegheny County) as one of the transit agencies that did these deals. So let’s see, that’s 300 or 400 million for PWSA and who knows, maybe 30 or more million for PAT. Who says Pittsburgh’s better off than the rest of the country. Our bad news seems to be in suspended animation, but it looks just as bad or worse than everyone else’s.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Ruth Ann today

I happened to catch a bit of Meet the Press this past Sunday. David Frum, who had written a piece for Newsweek (which I read part of) explaining why Rush Limbaugh should not be allowed to be the de facto voice of the Republican party, was trying to defend Michael Steele’s comments that allowed for the possibility that abortion is part of a woman’s right to choose. Tavis Smiley was sitting right next to Frum, saying the Republicans can not simply put a colored face on TV and expect black voters to respond. Frum tried to differentiate between a colored face (bad) and a different face (good).

The Republicans are treading carefully now. The politicians know that the minute they criticize the Democrats, they will have to endure a lecture on the last eight years. They believe that Congressional Democrats are not interested in bipartisanship (and they are probably right), but the Republicans are not convincing making this case because they also wanted to punish the President for not giving them more on the stimulus bill and so not one Republican representative voted for it. Because the Republican politicians are currently paralyzed, the commentators like Rush Limbaugh are leaping into the vacuum. Rush can say whatever he wants on his show (I guess maybe there are callers, probably taped so that callers challenging Mr. Limbaugh’s views can simply be deleted).

Ruth Ann Dailey is also jumping in, carrying on the theme that the Democrats are communists. She gives us a mock letter from communists to Ed Rendell about the PLCB. Now, let me say up front that I would prefer liquor stores to be private. There is no reason why the State should control liquor sales, except to gouge citizens. But I don’t think Ruth Ann’s column was entirely about the LCB.

As I say, Ruth Ann’s letter is listed as from “Marx, Engels, Keynes & Krugman -- "Economists for a Better Tomorrow"”. In other words, she wants to link the Obama administration to communists, and Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist. Yes, Krugman is mostly a cheerleader for the Obama administration, but I defy Ruth Ann to show one credible shred of a link between Obama and communists. As for whether the Obama administration is pursing even slightly communistic policies, they have resisted stating that they are nationalizing the banks or any other industry. The government’s handling of AIG, despite having installed the current CEO and owning most of the stock, still has them saying they do nothing about the contractually mandated bonuses. The Obama administration knows it has to keep the current system running and so has to keep bankers and other financial professionals somewhat happy.

Meanwhile Ruth Ann lobs this comment at us: “Since the real estate bubble burst, triggering the economic meltdown, we've worked diligently to deflect attention away from Clinton-era mandates on lending standards and to pin responsibility for the disastrous economic fallout on the Bush administration.”

I will certainly admit that some of the mandates to loosen controls came from a Republican Congress during the Clinton years. Clinton may well have expected Al Gore to be elected President (he was, actually) and that Gore could have kept watch and stepped in if the loosened mandates proved problematic.

But the Republicans are being incredibly disingenuous when they complain about legislation from the Clinton era. We all know, for example, that the Democrats quickly came to dislike the Patriot act, but have never been able to do much of anything about it. Yet Republican commentators claim the Democrats prevented reform in the financial sector. That is bullshit. I would buy the notion that neither the Bush administration nor the Republicans in Congress nor the Democrats in Congress wanted to change things or restrict bad mortgages because the housing bubble was very popular (and I suspect the credit swaps were creating enough wealth to cause some better than average campaign contributions). The incentives were likely perverse, but still I bitterly resent Republicans blaming Democrats for something when they spent at least four years and possibly as much as eight years reaping the benefits and therefore doing nothing about the coming financial mess.

As an aside, Jim Cramer claimed, on the Dailey Show, that the financial meltdown was a one in million thing, despite the fact terms like housing bubble have been around for years. Later Cramer said that the 35 to 1 leveraged mortgages were considered realistic in a world that gave 30% returns year after year. That lster statement might explain why everyone turned a blind (and stupid) eye towards a clearly inevitable downturn.

Ruth Ann is clearly reverting to Republican code phrases and innuendo to slam the Democrats. Which is a sham, since she rails against the liberal media for doing that to Republicans. We are all still waiting for a legitimate Republican criticism of the current administration, and some hint they are interested in bipartisanship.

Friday, March 13, 2009

More questions than answers (mostly opinion)

I have attended a couple of workshops for PittPoint, a citizen journalist project of the Public Square Project. I don’t know where that will take me, if anywhere. I might have to give up this blog to establish and maintain some semblance that I can be objective, but there are lots of other issues (like having a day job) that come into play here. I plan to blog on this in the future (realizing the irony there).

But I mention that now to establish a framework for meta-analyzing (I think I made that word up) the PWSA issue that has popped up this week (http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/cityregion/s_615251.html, http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09069/954383-53.stm). The PittPoint workshops have stressed the importance of trying to be fair and balanced (not like Fox News) and present both sides of an issue. In this case I think both Pat Dowd and Luke Ravenstahl are condescending to us, but both hope that they are doing it in such a way that we will think even worse of their opponent. Actually, I think both are doing it in a purely reflexive way, but I think what that says about their instincts in instructive.

(Enough foreplay) When Mayor Ravenstahl complains that it is unfortunate that Pat Dowd is “politicizing” the PWSA problems, he seems to be saying that this is not an issue he should be judged on. After all, Council (including Dowd) voted on this, and anyway, it is what voters hired Ravenstahl for, to make the tough calls. Nothing (much) has happened yet, a paltry extra three million paid, and the City is in negotiations with new insurers. I am assuming, by the way, that you have read stories and blogs on this, that you are up to speed on the role of insurers (you may know more than me on this). The administration is handling the issue, voters don’t need to be unnecessarily frightened by Dowd’s grandstanding and the only thing Dowd can accomplish here is to distract officials from doing their job.

Meanwhile, for Dowd’s part, he did vote for PWSA deal (as did the other eight on Council) back last April. He says he spent last weekend reading the 2000 page document of the debt package. Which is funny, Chris Briem put, on Null Space, a two hundred page document concerning the package, as well as other interesting links (like a document on the SEA debt). Not to say the 2000 page thing doesn’t exist, but maybe reading the 200 page might have got the job done. Dowd does say the document he read was the most difficult and opaque thing he has read, and why can’t these documents be written in plainer language. I am pretty sure Pat Dowd understands the importance of using precise technical language agreed upon by financial professionals, but there could also be a plainer summary that could be agreed upon by the parties to the deal.

Still, there is a subtext to Dowd's complaint that the PWSA entered into a risky deal and it should not have. Even the Trib points out thousands of cities and other public institutions and entities used the “interest-rate” swaps to finance (or in this case re-finance) debt. Should the PWSA have used a fixed rate refinance? It would not have gotten the extra hundred million (which is has since put in an interest account to pay the higher than expected rates) on the refi. Which is the problem. I don’t know who even came up with this deal, whether it was the administration or the PWSA or who. Michael Lamb and Eckert Seamens (as noted by The Pittsburgh Comet) criticized the deal at the time. Should government always take the safest, most conservative path? Doing so will mean in general that citizens will have to pay higher taxes, if they want an ambitious government. In specific in this case, it would mean the PWSA would have gotten much less than the extra hundred million in the refi. On the other hand the PWSA could have actually used the lesser amount; right now it is has the hundred million in savings until the situation sorts itself out.

On the third hand, Dowd complaint that the details of the debt package was not easily accessible to PWSA’s ratepayers does have some teeth. Maybe it is only my projection, but one thing that Pat Dowd has remained consistent about since even his days on the school board is his commitment to the idea of transparency of government. Even though there is a digital divide, and even though most people who do have high speed internet probably aren’t interested, the government has an obligation, as it spends our tax money and incurs ever increasing amounts of debt on our behalf, to share the details of what it does, in painful detail. We should get to know not only the Controller’s audit on street maintenance, but the Public Works department reports on what potholes in plans to fix and how it will spend it money (sealing cracks or re-paving). Since Public Works says it has no way to track how many potholes are fixed in a day, the citizens of Pittsburgh should be invited to make suggestions (such as the PDA’s the GOP issues for it’s door knocking operations during campaigns) on how to address that problem.

Dowd may be trying to make unfair political points by accusing the Mayor of having made a bad decision when many other Mayors and other public officials were making similar decisions across the country at the same time. But Dowd’s instincts on transparency seem dead on to me. And Ravenstahl’s seeming reflexive inclination to deny and conceal when challenged are just more evidence to me that he is a poor choice for Mayor.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Other really important stuff

I forgot one link to add to the list I had yesterday: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07080/771206-53.stm. It is maybe my favorite piece of reporting on the Mayor’s ethical problems. It is ostensibly about the trip on Ron Burkle’s jets, but it is really about the Mayor’s attitude, in March 2007, towards disclosing items given to him. I mention the date because Matt Hogue likes to say the Mayor has matured; I say he has discovered that if the gifts are campaign contributions he can spend the money during trips to Europe and on paying for a trip to the Super Bowl for himself, two (I believe) brothers and a couple of bodyguards.

But all that may not be the most important story right now. Pat Dowd spent last weekend reading a couple of thousand pages of a debt package that the Water and Sewer Authority entered into last summer. He called the thing "one of the most opaque and complicated things I have ever tried to understand." (the PG mentions that Dowd has a doctorate and taught at high school level, they do not mention that the doctorate is in history; still more than I have). As I understand it, the debt package involved making continuous swaps to keep the interest rate low. It’s hard to see how this would not involve transaction costs that would not eat up any savings, but in any event apparently the stock market drop and bank issues have caused problems and we are in fact paying more than we were supposed to. To further complicate things, the insurance firm that is guaranteeing this package wants out at their earliest opportunity, which is next June, which would adversely affect our situation (anyone see sixty minutes on Sunday?). Two Political Junkies and the The Pittsburgh Comet have already commented on this, I can only echo that this appears to be an important issue, one that is worthy of our attention. The Mayor, of course, criticizes Dowd for releasing sensitive information, and also says that no one could have known there was a problem with the banks last summer.

Because Bear Sterns hadn’t collapsed last spring. Oh wait …

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Matt H lays out, for your consideration, several pieces of information about Franco “Dok” Harris Junior. The implication, to my mind, is that Mr. Harris is a drinker, opposed to publicly funded AIDs organizations, and in general is not a serious person. Now, I certainly would say that Mr. Harris has never held political office, and therefore is absolutely inexperienced in politics. But he has two graduate degrees, including an MBA from the highly regarded Tepper school. And his undergraduate work was done at Princeton, where he was active, apparently, in student government.

Now, Matt admits, in comments to this Pittsburgh Comet post to having biases. Fair enough, I certainly do too. In fact, I have worked on this, on and most off, for a little while. This is a list of the issues the Mayor has been involved in. It was supposed to be one page (like resumes are), but the addition of links pushed it further. This is what I have so far, maybe all I will ever have:

Halloween 2005: Steelers game: Council President Ravenstahl is cuffed but then released; influence used? (http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/s_489262.html)

“Late” 2006: Dinner meeting between Pat Ford and Liberty Pacific media executives to agree to violate billboards zoning rules, Ravenstahl stops by, later receives 25,000 in campaign contributions from these executives. (http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08108/874136-53.stm)

March 2007: Trip to NYC on Penguins owner Ron Burkle’s jet instead of attending scheduled community meeting. (http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/cityregion/s_498601.html)

April 2007: Oakmont: Gate crashed private American Express event with Tiger Woods even though he was told not to, approached Tiger Woods even though he was told not to. (http://kdka.com/topstories/Luke.Ravenstahl.Tiger.2.379852.html)

May: 2007: Approved promotion of four police officers, three of whom have had domestic violence related issues. (http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07181/798369-53.stm)

June 2007: Instead of attending Council hearing on domestic violence issues in the police force, plays golf for two days paid for by Pittsburgh Penguins and UPMC (to the tune of $27,000 for a package for three), claims he received nothing of value and was conducting City business. (http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/cityregion/s_515982.html)

August 2007: Uses Homeland Security bought police SUV to go to Toby Keith concert, spills barbecue sauce in SUV. (http://www.thepittsburghchannel.com/news/14260422/detail.html)

August 2007: Appearance before Ethics board. (http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/s_523359.html)

December 2007 – January 2008: Energy two-bid contract. (http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07087/772999-53.stm)

December 2007: Supports UPMC attempt to exempt itself proactively from taxes. (http://thebusmansholiday.blogspot.com/2007/12/upmc-side-agreement-on-pittsburgh.html)

January-March 2008: Lamar downtown LED billboard. (http://thebusmansholiday.blogspot.com/2008/04/billboard-back-story-brewing.html)

June 2008: Vetoes Council proposed campaign finance reform. (http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/breaking/s_571986.html)

?-August 2008: Pat Ford scandal, accepting gifts, resignation with vague allegations. (http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08240/907303-100.stm)

January 2009: Club Pittsburgh issue unfolds. (http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09015/941926-53.stm)

January 2009: Proposes (with Onorato) campaign finance reform.(http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/cityregion/s_606786.html)

February 2009: Trip to Super bowl paid with campaign cash (and parts of trip to Europe) and the parade. (http://thebusmansholiday.blogspot.com/2009/02/snoop-dogg-mayor-luke-power-of.html), (http://www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A59195)

February 2009 $1000 trash cans, with Ravenstahl’s name on them (free campaigning?).

Covering the point spread ...

A bit more on the 11 points (God could only manage ten commandments).

Ravenstahl says "I know that not everybody will agree with my plan,". Well, yes and no. I mean, those points do basically cover all the things (vaguely) that you might want to see happen in the City. Who can argue with “Solve Our Legacy Costs Crisis”, for example?

Of course, who can explain exactly what that means, and how it is going to happen? Shouldn’t Ravenstahl explain that, or more accurately have explained it already? Further, if Ravenstahl means that he is going to work on all those 11 points all at once (like the Obama administration is trying to take on all our national problems at once), then yeah, some may question how a city in Act 47 status is going to do all that at once. Are the 11 points/goals ranked in the order they will be addressed? Why is greening the City so far down, then?

But basically disagreeing with Ravenstahl’s 11 points is like disagreeing with someone who says “don’t kick puppies”. Which is Ravenstahl’s intention. Voters will say to Dowd “why don’t you want to solve our legacy cost crisis?” or if Dowd agrees with Ravenstahl, then why is he running against him?

If it were me, I would have made each of the 11 points on Ravenstahl’s campaign web site clickable. They would have been hyperlinked to a detailed description of what Ravenstahl has done on this particular point and what he wants to do if re-elected. But that’s why I’m not a campaign person, because I think of stupid ideas like giving the voting public more information.

Monday, March 09, 2009

11 points ... no, wait, ...Franco?

It was actually a fairly big day in local politics. Luke Ravenstahl released a 11 point plan for a Pittsburgh Renaissance III and upgraded his website. But that was quickly overshadowed by the announcement that Franco Harris’s son, Franco “Doc” Harris, is getting in the race as a independent. Harris could garner quite a few votes, especially since Franco Harris is arguably the most popular former Steeler ever. If Doc Harris had run in the primary he might have siphoned off enough African-American votes to give Dowd a chance. Which is why it is clever of him to run as an independent (IMO). He might get enough Republican, progressive and African American votes in the general to win.

But I actually want to talk about Ravenstahl’s 11 points (which I have not memorized any of yet). This appeared on his website sometime in the recent past (maybe today, timed to coincide with the announcement). There is a certain amount of genius in these eleven vague statements, and apparently Luke has already given general answers when asked about what he has done specifically done already on any one of these points, or what he plans specifically to do to achieve these goals. Luke doesn’t do specifics, but the average voters love him for it. He’s not as boring as a lot of those DC politicians. Instead Luke is (still) like a college kid, smart and earnest but also someone who knows how to have a good time.

(devil’s advocate mode) To the average voter, these eleven points look like a lot of specifics. Just them being there makes it sound like Luke has done a lot of homework, and then explained it better than that Mark DeSantis ever did. DeSantis rambled on about micro-loans and letting workers rush out of the City. Luke told him, not gonna sell da city down da river (or up da river, or whatever). Luke is good at explaining things with just the right amount of details, so the average guy gets it. Let the brainiacs take a job in Luke’s administration, pushing pencils around. Meanwhile, Luke can make the big decisions the City needs. (/devil’s advocate mode)

You thing I’m wrong about the average voter? Wait till the primary. Pat Dowd needs to grab the attention of the average Joe soon, or all will be lost.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Party Wars IV: A New Hope

I remember last year smug conservative local blog commenters, who, right after smugly asking liberal blog posters whether they have a degree in business or economics or own a company, would then extol the virtues of Michael Steele and Bobby Jindal. They are supposed to be smarter and more disciplined than their Democratic counterparts (read: Obama).

Except that now we have seen Michael Steele and Bobby Jindal up close. We have seen Michael Steele attempt to wrest control of the Republican party away from Rush Limbaugh by pointing out (quite rightly) that Limbaugh is primarily an entertainer, and his primary concern is ratings. If the conservative audience dwindles, Limbaugh would turn liberal like that. Not to say that most politicians don’t blow in the wind as well (e.g Arlen Specter, moderate Republican and Zell Miller, conservative southern Democrat), but entertainers almost by definition need to be able to change their philosophy or they will relegated to having a cult following (e.g. Ed Begley Jr).

And Bobby Jindal’s Republican reaction to the non-State of the Union address by President Obama was painful. His delivery reminded Jon Stewart of Fred Rodgers, and his rhetoric was simply to call once again for tax cuts. Why should we believe that the Republicans don’t want to follow Grover Nordquist’s philosophy of shrinking government to a size where it could be drown in a bath tub?

National talking heads have started to observe more and more that a sizable fraction of the population on the low end of the income scale not only does not pay tax but gets money back from the government. I see this as I prepare taxes for the poor at a VITA site, that they get three, four, five or even six thousand back in a tax return, including as much as forty eight hundred in earned income credit, and a refundable part of child tax credit up to a thousand dollars a child. So in addition to retuning federal taxes with-held, the feds give people thousands of dollars in additional income, to help them out for the year. Now, this is a matter of giving a single mom with two or three kid an extra five thousand dollars a year so, to stretch her income from $20,000 to $25,000, hardly giving her an opulent lifestyle.

My point in mentioning this is that these are the people who will see their assistance cut. Tax cuts are not going to hit rural red districts and rural red states. Conservatives who talk about cutting taxes one minute start talking about how defense is being cut too much the next, that our troops can do anything if we give them enough money (and out of work poor people to chew up). It’s head start and the earned income tax credit that conservatives are still gunning for. And if Mitch McConnell can turn around Arlen Specter and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, even for one vote, then the Republicans (in the Senate) can demonstrate that the minority still controls the fate of this country. They may not be able to enact their own plans, but they would be able to keep the country from recovering from the recession that they caused. If they did that. Any bets that they would like to try (hint: did Rush Limbaugh say he would like Obama to succeed)?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

What's in a gallon ... (about 20% more in England)

As I mentioned in a comment yesterday, I probably was a bit hasty in reporting the fantastic mileage of the cars on Top Gear on Thursday. I sorta knew there was something called an "Imperial Gallon" (aproximately 4.5L, as compared to approximately 3.8L for a US gallon, according to wikipedia). So the MPG the Top Gear guys quoted has a bigger G. If I use imperial gallons for my mileage, I think I am up around 50 MPG highway, and around 36 combined. Not bad.

Still, that VW Polo diesel is pretty impressive.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Our mileage does vary ...

I am a big fan of the Television Show “Top Gear” on BBC America. If you are not familiar with the show, it is three guys presenting (as they say in the UK) a program about cars. They review horribly expensive performance cars that no one will ever be able to afford, they put a celebrity guest in a Daewoo Nubria (actually the English Chevrolet model of the Daewoo) and have them race around their track and the have humorous challenges for the three presenters. It might be to spend 1000 pounds on a used car and turn it into a police car (complete with secret weapons), and then test out how well they did, or to have one them race a parachutist with a flying squirrel suit who has jumped from a helicopter, or to put to various challenges two luxury cars from the seventies (a Rolls and A Mercedes) that would have been the type to have been used by Elton John or Idi Amin. I hope you get the idea.

Anyway, the other night the challenge on the program was a race (not surprisingly). There is a resort town in England called Blackpool (the subject of a different series) where apparently they have a light turning on event every year (maybe this episode was near Christmas, I have no idea). They invite a celebrity to flip the switch, this year it was the Top Gear presenter’s turn. But the producers of top Gear decided to turn it into a race, where the three would start from a point in Switzerland and drive to Blackpool, 750 miles away. They could choose their own type of car. Whoever got there first would flick the switch. But the twist was they could only use one tank of gas.

So one fellow chose a Suburu diesel economy model that has a pretty big gas tank, one chose a Volkswagen mini type diesel car with a smaller gas tank, and one chose a Jaguar diesel touring sedan, because he reckoned the challenge was impossible and he wanted to run out of gas near his home (which is near London, a couple of hundred miles from Blackpool).

The segment was fun to watch and interesting, but what struck me was the gas mileage they reported as they were going along. They, of course, have cars that report real time gas mileage (I think many American cars also now do this, but probably not as many models as European car companies have that do). So the Volkswagen was getting 75 miles per gallon, the Suburu was getting 70 and even the Jag was getting 50 some miles per gallon.

This really pisses me off. All the Americans who say we need to drill off the coasts and in Alaska, so we can put fuel in the SUV’s that make under twenty MPG on the highway. Engine technology got better over the last thirty years, and the Europeans used that technology to make their cars more efficient and we used it to make our cars more powerful. We made heavier and less stable SUV’s that have the speed of a muscle car and the handling of a panel van. At under twenty miles per gallon.

I hope Obama gets serious and arranges to get some efficient cars imported over here, or even better sets up a plant in Pittsburgh to make them here. 75 MPG. Although your mileage may vary.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Actually getting something done ...

So on Thursday I complained that the Mayor (and the challenger Pat Dowd) had not updated their campaign websites in the last couple of years. Both have now done so (and I am confident that I had nothing to with that, I just spoke too soon, as I often do).



Well, both are in the process of doing so, both sites are under construction. Mayor Ravenstahl’s campaign site immediately adopts an informal tone when you type in the URL “Luke for Mayor”. By contrast, Pat Dowd’s uses the same phrase, but with his last name. Dowd’s has working widgets for joining the mailing list, becoming a volunteer or making a donation, and nothing else. Mayor Ravenstahl’s site has a widget for emailing the Ravenstahl campaign and a phone number, and nothing else. So the broke Pat Dowd is once again showing much more internet acumen than his competitor. But neither of them is offering us their assessment of where the City is, or where they think it should go. ‘cause voters wouldn’t be interested in that (a statement I make tongue in cheek, but in fact is probably all too accurate).

It still appears that Pat Dowd is not interested in going after Mayor Ravenstahl’s little mis-steps (Tiger Woods, the SUV, the Lemieux tournament, etc), although he does end up talking about trash cans and where the City is going (at least, that is what I took away from this post on the Pittsburgh Comet).

Meanwhile, the Mayor has a new campaign slogan “Getting it done”. I pointed out, on the Comet, how that made me think of Larry the Cable Guy’s line “Git’er done”. I like a Mayor who does not hold himself above the rest of us and all, but this Mayor seems to be actively pushing the idea that he doesn’t need to explain his plans or history to us, that it is enough that he says he has made accomplishments, compared to his predecessors. In fact, his democratic committee endrsement letter (http://matth614.blogspot.com/2009/02/more-seeking.html) indicates that before he took over, the City was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Before he took over … during Bob O’Connor’s brief tenure?