Tuesday, August 28, 2007

I check in on only three national bloggers: Kevin Drum, TBogg and Digby. And Drum is the best of them...

He excerpts this from a column in the L. A. Times:
Part-time food service employees are seeking the same health benefits — including coverage for their families — that their full-time counterparts enjoy. Extending these benefits to cafeteria staff who currently work only three hours a day would cost an estimated $40 million a year, according to school board calculations.

....This is fat that the food service's too-lean budget simply doesn't have. If health benefits were extended to these part-time workers, the CFPA estimates it would mean that the per-plate meal budget would be reduced from 85 cents to 49 cents. Making healthy food available for that amount would take a miracle of biblical proportions. So we'd be improving the healthcare of nearly 2,000 part-time workers at the expense of the 500,000 children who eat in public school cafeterias every day.

And Drum, blogging at Political Animal, gives analysis/reaction that pegs it precisely:

"I would happily pay for universal healthcare just so I never had to read an op-ed like this again. It's not that Williamson doesn't have a point, it's just that this beggar-thy-neighbor attitude is enough to make me retch, and I see it all the time. I don't get dental coverage, so why should grocery workers? My copay went up last year, so why shouldn't everyone else's? I don't pay for healthcare for my housecleaners, so why should I pay it for school cafeteria workers? Our wretched private healthcare system has turned us into a nation of spiteful and small-minded misanthropes.

It's true that the growing gap between public workers and private workers is a real problem. In the past, there was something of a tradeoff: public sector workers generally got paid less than private sector workers but made up for it with job security and benefits. Today, though, public workers generally get higher salaries and better benefits and more vacation and earlier retirement and more lucrative pension packages compared to comparable private sector workers. And private sector workers are understandably annoyed by this. But their annoyance would be better directed not at the lucky public sector workers, but at the mahogany row executives and conservative politicians who pretend that the only possible use for the mountains of cash generated by decades of economic growth is to give it all to mahogany row executives and the billionaires who contribute to conservative politicians."

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Odessey? Wasn't she a minor character in an early Faulkner novel?

Out of the desert: Coming home from the war; Odessey begins

The story of the American experience in Iraq is evolving, from how the war should be fought to how it should end....
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel head and lead, 8/27/2007

For decades, now, copy editing has been one of the most persistent of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's many (since we're talking classics) fatal flaws. An Odyssey, by definition, can be a tragic tale (right so far) but it must be recounted from the moment of going out from one's home, to the return to that very place.

Crocker Stephenson--the author of today's piece-- is, perhaps, one of the MJS's better journalists. (Makes you wonder why he hasn't moved on.) Damn shame that putting his work in the hands of a summer intern on the copy desk makes it look banal.

Any genuine Iraq odyssey, as presented by the Journal Sentinel, would involve the beginnings, and that would mean dredging up the sludge produced by embedded scribbler, Kathy Skiba, in early 2003 when she donned desert camo and tripped lightheartedly off to war. And she sent back the vile crap that she later turned into a book...and a book tour. She should've been made to lend her fetid blend of bogus solemnity and banality to this "Home from the [porkchop] Hill" feature.

The stacks of that worthless, actively jingo, stinker of a book on remainder tables were monumental. When it continued to not sell, it made an "odessey" to the incinerator, where it just smoldered and gave off green fumes.

It hurts me to do this, but, here I am, actively happy to hear about book burning.

Just this once.

Just her book.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Fast rail, rapid transit, whatever you call it, consider the possibility you'll really like it when it arrives....

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I grew up in a city that opened a light rail system in 1955. I was twelve years old and instantly mobile, able to travel to all different parts of the city of Cleveland, including the suburbs which had seemed remote and unapproachable to a kid from the near west side (the equivalent of, perhaps, KK and Oklahoma in Milwaukee).

I could be out at night during high school, certain that I could get home using a reliable transit system that ran a train every half hour until midnight.

And during the past three years, I have spent a total of about five months (in 2-week chunks) in Boston. The "T"--that transit system in the mythic folk song on which "the man who never returned" rode the rails--was pure pleasure. I had to get all over town and was continually amazed at the interesting variety of people with whom I would share the T on those trips. Students--both high school and younger, professionals, professors reading student papers as they rode, families, people in work clothes, people headed downtown to entertainment and restaurants, people with enough to drink in them that they'd be a menace on the highway, but were just sleepy people getting home legally and safely.

Getting from my sister's house in Brookline to Logan airport was pure $25 dollar anguish in a taxi, a snap--for a buck and a quarter--on the T, even (especially) at rush hour.

Many riders carried a book or newspaper they were reading. Women often carried their dressy shoes and wore the kind that allowed them to walk eight or ten blocks to a stop/station. There was always lots of conversation--not all in a familiar language.

Call me out-of-step for not liking the tedium of driving to Milwaukee alone in my car. I'd love to go there oftener if I didn't have to put up with the isolation, the tension of dealing with lane-changing, tailgating and bird-flipping fellow happy motorists. All followed by parking meters, after cruising to find one that's available.

You have to experience fast rail, probably have to have experienced it from an early age to appreciate its most civilized aspects.

We will have it, but not on reasonable terms. Once the easy and cheap availability of energy/ oil declines and happy motoring becomes impossibly costly for most people, we'll build it. But we won't grow into it. Many will see it as a comedown. Most will grind their teeth over all the money we threw away on mostly useless freeways as we pay again to get a system that will work.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

I have a lovely niece, Rosalie, from Boston. She flew out to Wisconsin and Illinois for a few college visits, squired about by her crusty uncle.

She's beginning her senior year in September.

We had an itinerary that included Loyola, Northwestern and Lake Forest, the three of them laid out in a straight(ish) line along the Lake Michigan shore. Loyola was the first shock: $27 thousand for tuition, and another $9 thousand for room and board. That's bare bones. No bookstore, no travel, no cappuccino at Starbucks.

Whew. My whole education in the the early 60s totted up to the grand total of $1850./Yr. That was $7,400 for the sheepskin, including three roundtrips from Cleveland to Austin, Texas. These days it's hard to get out of the bookstore for eighteen fifty.

On the other hand....I worked for $1.375/hr in the A&P the two years before college--a job that gave me the honor of being a member of a union. I liked being in the RCIA (Retail Clerks International Association); our negotiators drew a line after my first year--no more increments discussed in terms of a dime, we were negotiating increases in eighths of a dollar. We settled a contract for dollar thirty-seven and a half, per hour; the company got what they wanted on work rules. Next time the contract expired, we shot for another eighth--back to round numbers at a buck fifty.

The point of this is to compare--then and now--the relative balance between wages and the cost of education: My four years of working paper routes, right up to my sixteenth birthday, earned me my private high school tuition ($135./yr), plus spending money and still left $600 savings in the parish credit union. The two years(actually 21 months) at the A&P, earned $1980. [How do I know? you ask. Everyone in entitled to get wage and SS contribution information from the Social Security Administration. If you're not getting this annually by mail from Social Security, request it now]

The upshot was that I was able, out of my own savings, to pay cash for most of my first two years of college. I was gonna be about eight hundred short each of the last two years. That was not impossible to handle. Parents to the rescue. And a loan from the parish credit union was there for the taking. Hell, I was good for it; they'd known me since I opened an account at age 11.

Getting a baccalaureate today involves high finance, big debts. Ratios of typical teen- and college-age wages(assuming 16 hrs a week) and cost of education are getting shockingly out of phase. For me in 1961 it was $22/wk--take-home wages and $1850/yr--cost of college.

Today a grocery clerk (comparable to my good union wage, for 16 hours) might take home $148/wk, while the cost of a year of comparable education (I checked the web page of my alma mater) is $29,000/yr including tuition, R&B, books and travel from the midwest to central Texas.

Wages have increased over the years such that a high school-age grocery clerk makes about 6.6 times as much as the same worker did in 1961 while education costs have multiplied by a factor of 15.6. It is now nigh impossible for a working class kid to put him/herself through college, in a typical four year stint, without shouldering a crushing load of debt.

I hope Rosalie gets some good scholarships. She's earned it: hard-working and--as her dad would put it-- wicked smaht.

But, whatever the assistance, it'll involve being in the hole--deep in a hole--at graduation time.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The masters of sprawl are hurting...

NEW YORK (Aug. 8) - Luxury home builder Toll Brothers Inc. said on Wednesday that it expected to report a decline in quarterly home-building revenue as the U.S. housing crisis deepened.


Pending completion of an impairment analysis, Toll estimates its pretax write-down for operating communities, land and land options for the quarter at $125 million to $175 million.

Looking to indicators of future revenue results, Toll said net signed contracts were down 31 percent from a year earlier to $727.1 million.

The third-quarter cancellation rate was 23.8 percent compared with the prior quarter's rate of 18.9 percent.

Toll Brothers Builders specializes in building 5,000 sq.ft. chipboard-and-vinyl suburban palaces, mostly on the east coast. As anyone can plainly see, they are in the dumper, probably for good. The thing that seems to be killing them is "...operating communities, land and land options..." What this means is that--in anticipation of this sprawl boom continuing unabated, forever--they have put out huge amounts of money to buy up farmland and other exurban tracts, with plans to keep selling tract mansions to people with big dreams, skinny down payments and access to cheap cheap cheap mortgage money.

Now that one of every four "buyers"-- people who put down earnest money and told the Tolls to build 'em a house--have backed out during the last three month reporting period, the Tolls are carrying an unsustainable burden of debt. All that land, all those options they purchased on more land, all the half-finished subdivisions are killing them.

The ugly part is that these high rollers will escape with their personal fortunes intact, their kids' trust funds untouchable. Their employees and sub-contractors and suppliers are the ones that will live and die and bleed.

Their corporations and partnerships will go belly-up, but the masterminds will be able to slink off to Caribbean hideaways, while all the working people get stiffed.

But, why would Waterblogged give a rip about a bunch of suits named Toll, in Horsham, Pennsylvania? Waterblogged does NOT, truth to tell, give rip about them. But the clones of the Toll trolls who operate here in Waukesha County do worry him. And, they ought to worry all of us.

Working people: carpenters and masons and plumbers, rockers and landscapers, electricians and roofers, real estate agents--all the people who have put their faith in the housing boom are about to get hammered.

And it is Pabst Farms that is absolutely emblematic of what happens when the feckless clowns and greedy speculators who spin fantasy scenarios of Waukesha sprawl run up against reality.

Waterblogged is doing some close research on the Pabst Farms progress. Early indications are that the kind of results that Toll Brothers are reporting on the east coast are being duplicated here in Waukesha County.
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Of the biblical allotment of three score and ten I have lived only three of them more than a bicycle ride from one of the Great Lakes. I grew up ten blocks from Lake Erie in the (once Irish/Italian ghetto, now newly-hip) "Near West Side" of Cleveland. I can still cycle to the Milwaukee lakefront in an hour and a half; but, a round-trip has always been more than I would (noror ever did) attempt. -0- I'm a "...somewhat combative pacifist and fairly cooperative anarchist," after the example of Grace Paley (1922-2007). -0- I'm always cheerful when I pay my taxes (having refused--when necessary--to pay that portion of them dedicated to war). -0- And I always, always vote.