The Lowe Down

Category: Economy (199)

Chan Lowe: Do corporations have religious beliefs?


Who can forget Mitt Romney’s fateful campaign line, “Corporations are people too, my friend?” It was just the kind of rhetorical faux pas that reinforced the developing narrative of Romney as a soulless plutocrat.

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Chan Lowe: Food stamp cuts


Back in the 1980s, the Republican Party courted and won over religious conservatives, forming an alliance that served both groups well through many election cycles. A lot was said about the lurch to the right in a party that had been traditionally laissez-faire on social topics. Less discussed was how the principle of the Golden Rule became corrupted by too much contact with the practitioners of amoral economic theory.

Somewhere along the line, the doctrine of individual generosity as the path to moral goodness was co-opted by the seductive notion that the best way to benefit the poor was for the state to do everything it could to help the rich get richer. The largesse of the wealthy would, in theory, trickle down to the needy. While we’ve learned through experience that “trickle down” never worked as advertised, we may have forgotten that coddling the haves to alleviate the suffering of the have-nots wasn’t preached in the Gospels.

Europeans view the quirky morality of American politics with befuddlement. Their centrist Christian democratic parties, for example, share with socially conservative Americans a reverence for the sanctity of human life, but for them that sanctity applies across the board to include an abhorrence of the death penalty, which they view as inhuman punishment.

They also generally believe that the state — as the collective extension of the will of people — has a moral responsibility to guarantee sustenance and dignity to everyone. Their fundamental self-view in relation to society is different from ours: they too see themselves as individuals, but also as members of a larger family, and to them, their responsibility to one another is strong enough that they are willing to tax themselves to make sure their convictions are expressed in practice.

Europeans are puzzled when they see a faction of Americans view the plight of the poor not as a social problem, but as a moral failing outside government’s purview.

Maybe our mindset comes from America’s unusual demographic makeup as a nation; we comprise various tribes, ethnicities and religious traditions. It’s only human to look out for one’s own identity group, and to view the idea of collective welfare as a resource grab by someone else’s.

We should remember that America was founded on greater principles than being “only human.” Sometimes, it’s wise to return to basics.

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Chan Lowe: GOP kills the payroll tax cut extension


You’d have to be one heck of a purist to turn down a thousand bucks from Uncle Sam in the form of a payroll tax cut extension just because it might swell the deficit a little. After all, the deficit is some abstract, imaginary thing like the monster that lives under your bed, while we’re talking real money, here. Free money. You can use it to buy food, a couple of iPads, or a mess of lotto tickets⎯which is the only retirement plan many Americans have left these days.

We taxpayers are a little weary of bending over backwards to bail out financial institutions and make sure their executives have a happy holiday, so it’s about time we got a piece of the action, paltry as it may be.

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Chan Lowe: The latest unemployment figures


Assigning blame to the other side when things go badly and taking credit for good news, even when credit is not due, is the stuff of politics. Any party would and should do this; it’s what parties are for.

Things get tricky, of course, when your victory strategy of hanging responsibility for the nation’s ills on the president involves, in effect, rooting for hard times to continue until your side takes power. It can look a tad unpatriotic, in fact. The only thing to do when rare glad tidings are announced is to keep your mouth shut and hope that unhappier days lie just around the corner.

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Chan Lowe: The curse of the "no new taxes" pledge


Sometimes you have to wonder if, down deep in their craven hearts, Republican members of Congress don’t regret having made that Faustian pact with Grover Norquist and his no-new-taxes pledge. Here they sit in their cushy jobs, big fish in their hometown ponds, and they uncomfortably find themselves in crisis mode, charged with the mission of saving the country for future generations with their hands tied behind their backs.

Their rational side must know that the only solution to our fiscal death-spiral involves a mix of cuts and new revenue, but they run smack up against that old survival instinct. If they choose to do the statesmanlike thing, it follows that they’ll self-destruct with their constituents.

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Chan Lowe: It's beginning to feel a lot like iPads...


What’s more American at this time of year than heading over to the big box store to pick up an armload of electronics for your loved ones? Think of it as holiday altruism, using our dollars to give a hand up to our little brothers on the other side of the Pacific Rim.

You don’t have to feel guilty about it, because there aren’t really any small consumer electronics jobs left in this country. That “giant sucking sound” that Ross Perot talked about a few years ago has faded away, since there ain’t nuthin’ left to suck.

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Chan Lowe: The Greek debacle


A couple of points to bear in mind about Greece’s economic crisis:

First⎯as long ago as 1938, when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared that Czechoslovakia was “a far away country about which we know very little,” the world discovered to its everlasting regret that all nations great and small are interconnected.

Just because we may not count a Greek-American among our acquaintances, or were bored in school when we were taught about Homer’s use of meter, doesn’t mean that the Greeks’ refusal to accept austerity measures won’t impinge on our economy and affect the pace at which U.S. jobs are restored. The world economy is so complex and sensitive an organism that even minor events can have cascading consequences, and the Greek crisis is no minor event.

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Chan Lowe: The Social Security increase


You’d think that the Democrats, with their ear for the concerns of the common people, would be the marketing experts when it came to packaging the products of government. Not so.

It is the Republicans who have traditionally won the name game, jumping in to re-label a program or tax with a catchy moniker that, by its very utterance, imparts spin in the desired direction. I’m thinking of the “Death Tax,” which, even though it imposes a levy on estates that certainly can afford it, sounds unfair and even immoral on its face. “Obamacare” was brilliant, because it forever welded a program to an individual hated by the base. The Democrats made a double mistake here, first by giving the legislation the dry, bureaucratese title of “Affordable Health Care Act,” and second by not claiming “Obamacare” for themselves, and celebrating it as a triumph.

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Chan Lowe: Cain's 9-9-9 scam


The Republican Right appears to have an endless, mystifying capacity to blindly vote against its own interests. Herman Cain, the millionaire businessman (and don’t you forget it), is riding at the top of the primary polls right now not because the plan he espouses is best for America, but because he has managed to wrap his oligarchic scam in a Twinkie package irresistible to the base.

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Chan Lowe: ID theft on the rise


Years ago, when I first heard the term, “identity theft,” it had a kind of science fiction ring to it, like a Robert A. Heinlein novel where faceless shape-shifters steal the souls of the unsuspecting and go about the earth performing heinous acts in their name.

When you think about it, that’s exactly what it is, and the crime couldn’t have been committed just twenty years ago, because our vital stats weren’t spread all over the Internet for anybody with basic knowledge to decrypt and misuse on a whim.

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Chan Lowe: The Wall Street occupiers


Yes, the demonstrations make for colorful video and a refreshing news break from dreary unemployment figures, Washington gridlock and Republicans’ garment-rending over their presidential candidate field. While our hearts are with the occupiers, we all know they aren’t going to achieve anything meaningful (see my meditation on The Man from a few days ago).

The deck was patiently being stacked during the fat years, when we were all too busy trading our ballooning home equity for flat-screen TVs, new cars and cruises to notice. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision was the final nail in the coffin for the have-nots. No matter how much money labor unions or public interest groups can raise in an attempt to influence the political process, the super-rich, who always manage to get super-richer no matter what the economy, will be able to spend more.

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Chan Lowe: Debit card user fees


You think you can beat The Man? Nobody beats The Man. The federal government thought it could. Yessir, it tried to give the economy a boost by slapping a limit on “swipe fees”⎯what banks could charge businesses for transactions made with debit cards.

But The Man doesn’t put up with that kind of sass. He was going to make up that profit somehow, because it’s his right. He came back with blood in his eye and socked the consumer with a monthly user fee for the privilege of spending his own money. So much for good intentions.

It’s like the old days, when we used to pull into gas stations to buy gas, and right there next to a pump was an air hose for filling our tires. That’s right, it was air, and it was FREE, just like air had always been since the dawn of time. Then The Man starting charging a quarter for something that used to be a God-given right. At first, there was a big brouhaha. “Gas Stations Start Charging For Air!” the headlines trumpeted.

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Chan Lowe: Obama's "class war"


“Class war.” How absurd. House Speaker John Boehner has said that pitting different income levels against one another is “not the American way.” He conveniently omits that America has been in a class war for years now, and the top 1 percent has been winning it to the detriment of the lower 80 percent. For his sponsors, it is very much the American way.

Obama’s advisers have tried, perhaps naively, to present the president as a reasonable compromiser, hoping that Republicans would respond in kind. That might have worked 50 years ago, when everybody saw benefit in getting along, but the problem now is that petulance and intransigence have been overwhelmingly effective in today’s politics. All that strategy did was to make him look weak.

The key, then, is to be equally petulant and intransigent, but in a way that resonates with the vast swath of the American people. The top one percent, while they do have most of the cards stacked in their favor, still have only one vote each, just like the poorest among us (at least, those who haven’t been disenfranchised by Republican vote suppression efforts).

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Chan Lowe: The new poverty numbers


I’ve indulged in a thought exercise lately. What if, in 2012, a disgruntled and notoriously fickle electorate, fed up with high jobless numbers, decided that it had had it with the Obama Administration’s flounderings and voted in a Rick Perry or Mitt Romney as president? What if all the so-called anti-voter fraud laws promulgated by Republican legislatures in the various states worked as intended, disenfranchising core Democratic voters so that both houses of Congress went Republican (and a filibuster-proof Senate were created)?

If we gave the Republicans the full set of keys to the store, with unfettered access to every nook and cranny, what would they do with the privilege? Would they whack taxes on wealthy “job creators” and corporations to absolute zero? After all, if lower taxes theoretically (if not empirically) create more jobs, then logically no taxes whatsoever ought to yield a tidal wave of them, bringing in so much revenue from a newly employed middle class that the ban on upper-level taxes can continue indefinitely.

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Chan Lowe: The President's big jobs speech II


When you get right down to it, there isn’t much a president can do to affect the economy in a government that is both divided by design and, as in our current situation, politically.

It ultimately boils down to “optics,” which is political jargon for how something looks to the average citizen—for example, giving a ballyhooed speech in hopes that prospective 2012 voters will come away with the impression that the president actually has his hands on the controls of commerce and is playing them like the stops of a pipe organ.

His only tools—or weapons, if you wish⎯are cajolery and shame. Judging by recent events in Congress with the debt ceiling debacle, cajolery is out as far as Republicans in the House are concerned. They will not countenance anything that might help burnish President Obama’s image with the public, even if it happens to be best for the country.

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Chan Lowe: The President's big jobs speech


This is one of those times in our nation’s history when I wish women were running things. No, by that I don’t mean that through some cruel twist of fate, a President Bachmann faces off against a Speaker Pelosi after next November. Those two ladies have lived and succeeded in the cage match of Washington politics for too long, and already have too much testosterone thumping through their veins.

I’m talking about sensible, mature women who don’t view the stewardship of this country as a zero-sum game. The kind of women who first sit down together and pull out pictures of their grandchildren, ooh and aah over them, and then leave them out there on the table so that they never forget what their meeting is really about.

After the pleasantries, they listen carefully to each other (an art which has been lost of late), take all their concerns into account with respect even for those they don’t agree with, and work out a way to make things happen where everybody wins something. It is possible, if one keeps one’s eye on the ball rather than on one’s own ego and the scoreboard.

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Chan Lowe: Payroll tax hypocrites


In case you had any doubts about who pays the freight when it comes to congressional Republican tax policy, just sit back and enjoy the breathtaking hypocrisy as Republicans try to defend the indefensible.

The same tea partiers who practically brought this country to its knees a few weeks ago by refusing to make any kind of revenue increases a part of the deficit reduction mix seem to have gone into mass catatonia when it comes to defending an extension of the payroll tax deduction. As one of them put it, “Not all tax relief is created equal.” The same way not all paychecks are created equal, we’ll have to assume.

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Chan Lowe: The hope and change president


Remember President Obama’s campaign promise that he was going to “change the way Washington works?” Unfortunately, he fulfilled it. Who’d have thought we’d be pining for the good old days back in 2008 when the parties in Congress couldn’t agree on anything, but at least one of them didn’t have a death wish?

One can probably lay the rise of the tea party at Barack Obama’s feet, not for anything he did or didn’t do, but for who he is. There’s nothing he can do about that, but there is something he can do to lead this country, which is to stop pussyfooting around trying to appease its adherents.

Instead, he can stand firm and push a sweeping, budget-busting, comprehensive public works program, whether he thinks he can get it past Republicans or not. If he can rally Americans behind him on this, he will prevail, because it makes sense that getting people back to work eventually reduces the deficit.

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Chan Lowe: America gets downgraded


Well, they did the unthinkable. Standard and Poor’s gave us the shaft. In the suspenseful lead-up to the final debt-ceiling bill, the more conservative Republicans in Congress were talking tough and allowing as how a downgrade, or even a default, didn’t matter all that much. It must matter to them after all, the way they’re now heaping blame for it on President Obama.

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Chan Lowe: Wall Street reacts


Wall Street has spoken, and it doesn’t like what Washington has wrought. There are other complicating factors, like deep problems with the economies of foreign countries, but Wall Street’s biggest beef, and that of the American public, is that we all understand we have a government of a few hundred people who don’t play well together. In fact, the issues they’re dealing with are far too important for playing or gamesmanship, but they seem to be the only ones who don’t understand that.

We can only hope that those who are not off on foreign “fact-finding tours”⎯doing field studies on the ground of, say, the Parisian or Venetian tourist economies⎯will be back in their home districts with their ears peeled. There, they might learn that over 70 percent of the nation feels that increased revenues, particularly on the part of those who pay so little, should have been a component of their unholy debt deal.

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Chan Lowe: An unorthodox funding idea


We already know that the Republican Party isn’t interested in saving the economy. It’s really interested in exploiting the opportunity presented by a bad economy to push through a long-awaited and –cherished agenda. Otherwise, why would it fight tooth and nail to pass a deal that virtually guaranteed more jobs would be lost? Why would it agree to a so-called “trigger” mechanism that amounted to more cuts than it even achieved during the first round, without painful tax loophole closures? Please, please, don’t throw us in that briar patch!

A secondary benefit to throwing the economy a life-saving cement block is that it ensures the nation will still be struggling to come out of the morass by November 2012, paving the way for even a nonentity like Mitt Romney, should he be nominated, to attain the White House.

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Chan Lowe: The congressional sausage-making process


One of the reasons that revenue increases were taken off the table in the recently passed debt reduction deal is that Republicans contended they were a job-killer. As Rep. Barney Frank said the other day, the contemplated increase would have amounted to $30 per $1,000 earned by those who make over $250,000 per year, including millionaires and billionaires.

It’s hard to believe that the “job creators” would change their hiring plans over that amount, but the Republicans would have you believe it, anyway.

Instead, Congress just passed a deal that, by slashing spending on government discretionary programs, is a true job-killer when what we need in the short term are more jobs and more people paying taxes rather than acting as a strain on social safety-net systems.

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Chan Lowe: The debt ceiling crisis II


As of this writing, it looks like the debt ceiling mess has finally been resolved, after a fashion. It’s great if you’re a tea partier. Unfortunately, most Americans are not tea partiers, so the majority did not rule in this case.

The Founding Fathers were fortunate enough to live during an enlightened period of intellectual development now dubbed “The Age of Reason.” Reason was revered as the most sublime characteristic of the human animal, the apotheosis of that which separated us from the beasts. “Je pense, donc je suis,” or “I think, therefore I am,” was the proud acknowledgement that man was capable of ordering his universe neatly and fairly according to a gift that all humans were born with, like opposable thumbs.

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Chan Lowe: Snoozin' through a crisis


It’s the financial stigma Republicans won’t talk about, and average Americans won’t remember because it happened before last week.

It was the golden son, George W. Bush, who inherited a humming economy and a surplus from his predecessor. Thanks to his bumbling, and that of the two houses of Congress his party owned for six years⎯we squandered our wealth and undercut our revenue base to the point where yahoos elected in a reactionary wave to the appalling spending spree now threaten to ruin the reputation of the country we all love. The only silver lining to the crash having happened in late 2008 is that there is no way it can be blamed on his successor⎯President Obama’s detractors have to content themselves with attacking him for cleaning up the mess too slowly, and (horrors!) for spending more money in the process.

Meanwhile, President Mission Accomplished slumbers on, enjoying the undisturbed, dreamless sleep of the benighted.

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Chan Lowe: Latinos get shafted


If you’re a Latino in this country, you or someone you know or love may well have an immigration problem. Unless, of course, you’re a Cuban-American.

The official Republican view of Latino migrants is xenophobic and borders on racist. Since Latinos often don’t speak our language all that well when they first arrive, and they don’t resemble the people who disembarked from the Mayflower, it's easy for GOP pols to demonize them as the dreaded “other,” terrifying the local folks with talk that our culture is being overrun by furriners while simultaneously reaching out for political contributions.

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Chan Lowe: The debt ceiling crisis


The contours of this debt ceiling battle, at least the congressional portion of it, now appear to be developing around two kinds of lawmakers: the professionals and the amateurs. The former, the so-called “adults in the room,” are aware that the structure of a viable democracy is rooted in the bedrock of compromise. The latter are those who were sent to Washington by an angry electorate with a simplistic mandate to fix things once and for all, then leave.

Fix-it-and-leave sounds like a noble undertaking, and comports with the Founding Fathers’ idea of the clear-eyed, pragmatic citizen-legislator who laid down his plow, his adze or whatever, and journeyed to the national capital to serve his country for a short period before returning to his vocation.

That was back when the fundamental unit of government was the state. The federal operation was so insignificant that had it defaulted, it probably wouldn’t have made any difference to the average citizen, nor would other countries have even paused in their endless cycle of European land grabs to take notice.

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Chan Lowe: The West/Wasserman Schultz flap


From a political junkie’s standpoint, we here in South Florida are treated to a deliciously abrasive congressional combination⎯adjoining districts represented by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a proud liberal and chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, and Rep. Allen West, the tea party champion who has been touted as Republican Vice-Presidential material.

The other day, the antipathy the two harbor toward each other exploded on the floor of the House, when Ms. Wasserman Schultz expressed her incredulity that Mr. West, a congressman from this senior-rich area, would pursue with such alacrity the cutting of entitlement programs upon which so many of his elderly constituents depend.

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Chan Lowe: Tea party bomb throwers


It helps to look at the tea party congressional freshmen, who form the core of the opposition to a sane, reasonable resolution to the debt ceiling problem, the way one looks at terrorists: individuals who are so committed to their cause that their own martyrdom in its service is considered an acceptable sacrifice.

These are especially dangerous groups, because in the past both the political process and the nation’s security have been predicated on the idea that the actors wish to live to see another day. When some guy lights his shoe on an airplane, or pursues a catastrophic political course in the name of his dogma without caring if he’s reelected, it becomes much more difficult to defend the established order.

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Chan Lowe: Rogue tea partiers


It’s like the movie, Chucky. The ventriloquist’s dummy acquires a vengeful mind of its own, and turns on its masters.

Chucky is today’s tea party. Created, bought and paid for by corporate and Wall Street fat cats to keep their taxes down and enable them to maximize the accumulation of wealth, the puppet has begun doing its job too well. It has taken the tax pledge so much to heart that it has now painted itself, its patrons and the nation into a corner of its own making.

Frantic letters are being sent and backroom pressure applied by worried plutocrats, calling upon the tea party freshmen to bend on the tax issue and avoid a default. “For God’s sake,” they plead, “don’t kill the goose! If you push this too far, the economy will crash, and that won’t be good for anybody. Even we won’t be able to weather it. We’re willing to take a small hit to keep the golden eggs coming!”

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Chan Lowe: Tea party plays with matches


Normally, inter-party one-upmanship in the halls of Congress is, like polo, a spectator sport that appeals to only a slim cohort of the general public. It shouldn’t be this way, but what with the demands on the average citizen’s time of making a living, raising a family, and other mundane tasks, most of us (unless we watch this stuff for a living) only have the luxury of tuning in for a couple of months right before a big election.

Unfortunately, the latest “crisis,” which could result in the nation’s default, is much more serious that usual and warrants our full attention. If we stop paying our bills on time, we will lose our worldwide financial credibility. For starters, we’ll have to pay more to borrow money from our Chinese bankers, for example, and everything we want or need is going to cost us more. Are we ready for a permanent recession?

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Chan Lowe: Debt ceiling paralysis


“When each side starts to care more about reducing our country’s debt than about advancing its own political agenda, we’ll finally make some progress.”

I don’t remember who said it, but it applies equally to both parties in congress. It’s all about fear…of the electorate. Not much about the daily give and take on Capitol Hill manages to percolate down to the proletariat, but we have just seen what happens when somebody threatens one of America’s great socialist programs, Medicare. Since that little stumble has now tarred the Republicans, Dems are delightedly standing back, washing their hands, and letting them hang themselves. For the moment, entitlements have become untouchable.

On the other side, Republicans owe much of their legitimacy to holding the anti-tax line. They doggedly hew to the long-discredited Laffer Curve, which posits that removing the fetters of taxation stimulates greater economic activity, thereby creating more revenue. We’re still waiting for that one to pan out in field trials.

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Chan Lowe: Mitt Romney, the Wild One


I wouldn’t want to be in Mitt Romney’s shoes right now. The punditocracy is pushing the conventional wisdom that, despite having an empty account in the personality bank, all Romney needs to do is trumpet his business experience and sit tight while the economy continues to tank. No amount of Obamic charisma and charm will be able to save a president who can’t deliver the goods. In frustration, we will even turn to a stiff like Romney to save us. At least, that’s the theory.

Neither the chatterers nor Romney appear to have thought this thing through. Since he’s offering little or nothing in the way of specific solutions to our economic problems, what remains is a strategy that consists of betting on the president to fail. Unfortunately, if Obama fails it means the country has failed as well. This puts Romney in the uncomfortable position of cheering for higher (or at least, sustained) unemployment and deepening misery.

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Chan Lowe: Developers gone wild


“Concurrency.” It’s one of those awful bureaucratese words that cause the average citizen to instantly flip to Dancing With The Stars.

Which, of course, is what the pols are counting on. Loosely translated, it means that when developers create whole new communities out of swampland, they are required to build roads, schools, sewers and other infrastructure to service these communities as they go, by adding surcharges to individual units.

Well, they were required. Thanks to our Republican super-majority business-friendly legislature that just adjourned last week, we the taxpayers will now have to pick up the tab for those frills. The legislators also stripped the state of growth planning oversight, putting it back in the hands of local government, which is much easier for developers to control through judicious use of campaign contributions.

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Chan Lowe: Tone-deaf Republicans


The first polls are out since the unveiling of the Ryan Plan and the Obama response to it. It appears that a majority of Americans are in favor of including an increased tax rate on those making over $250,000 per year as part of the deficit-reduction mix.

Democrats favor it overwhelmingly. Republicans less so, but it’s still a majority. Even rich people favor it. They have said they feel they ought to pay more, but no one is asking them to. The only ones who don’t favor it are the Tea Partiers, who are against raising taxes of any kind, but these same Tea Partiers have indicated in the same polls that they don’t want Medicare to be fooled with. So they shouldn’t be taken seriously, anyway. You can’t have it both ways.

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Chan Lowe: Controllers asleep at the switch


Even the most rabid deficit hawks might want to leave the FAA budget for air traffic controllers intact. In fact, they could take a few bucks from, say, ethanol subsidies and slip them the FAA’s way, as far as I'm concerned.

It’s enough that anyone who is really determined can figure out a way to get explosives onto a plane, or that we never know if the last half of our flight might be in a convertible. The knowledge that only one controller staffs the tower at Reagan National after dark, and that he is asleep, can collapse the entire house of cards the airline industry and our government have carefully built to keep us flying and paying those outlandish fees.

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Chan Lowe: The Tea Party and the debt ceiling


The Tea Party-backed House freshmen have gotten themselves into a nice fix. They thought they had everyone by the short hairs by threatening not to raise the nation’s debt limit. Now that Standard & Poor’s has come out saying the U.S. might lose its AAA debt rating for the first time in history thanks to their shenanigans, they’re starting to look like the skunks at the ball.

The raising of the debt ceiling, as any informed person knows, is about acknowledging the fact that we have overspent in the past. The money’s gone already. If you want to have a fight about future spending policy, make it over next year’s budget…don’t hold the country’s creditworthiness hostage over spilt milk.

But the bumpkins back home don’t understand that. They elected these folks⎯some of whom have no experience whatsoever in government, not even at the local level⎯to say “no” to everything having to do with spending. It sounded so simple when they were campaigning, didn’t it? We’ll go up there and show those slickers in D.C. how wise us folks out in the boonies can be.

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Chan Lowe: Gutting Medicare II


There were elements of President Obama’s budget speech that left us wanting more, but in one area he delivered. He was right to cast the coming battle over the deficit as a moral issue, since the main battleground will be entitlement programs like Medicaid and Medicare, which exist because at the time of their inception, this nation felt an obligation to fulfill a moral imperative.

The Republican Party, particularly its Tea Party wing, is making an amoral, purely financial argument. The argument is simplistic and cunning, yet does not stand up to the test of the American character.

One thing everyone agrees on is that the deficit must be reduced. How it is done will depend on who is able to make the most compelling case to the American people. Republicans, in their zeal not to raise taxes on anyone⎯particularly the wealthy⎯will continue to push the discredited notion that by removing any financial fetters from the well-off, we will stimulate an economy that will float all boats.

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Chan Lowe: Tax day for the rich


President Obama was giving his deficit reduction speech while I was inking this cartoon, and among his proposals were the expected ones about raising more revenue by closing loopholes and hiking taxes on the well-to-do.

Two questions immediately came to mind: First, why did it take so long for him to bring up the dreaded tax issue? He (and all of congress, except for a few lefties in safe districts) allowed the entire shutdown debate to continue with no mention of “revenue enhancement.” It was all about cost cutting.

Is the American public really so selfish, so irresponsible, that it cannot understand that the beneficence it has enjoyed for so long needs to be paid for somehow? And if not by us, then by our children? And is it so dense that it doesn’t understand that raising taxes on those who make over $250,000 per year is different than raising taxes on the middle class?

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Chan Lowe: Gutting Medicare


I know, I know. Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to lower the national debt has about as much appeal as algebra homework, but
I assure you you’ll start paying attention, particularly if you’re under 55 years old, when Congress begins haggling over the Medicare portion of his proposal.

The old Republican principle about turning everything over to the private sector doesn’t work so well when you’re talking about an elderly cohort that’s guaranteed to be sick, often catastrophically so. This is why spreading the cost out to all the taxpayers makes so much sense: the government can’t turn anyone down. Sure, the program is full of flaws, but consider the alternative.

Republicans will quickly cave over this, because the backlash from pushing it would make them an extinct species in Congress. If you’re going to wake the American body politic out of its stupor over an issue that directly affects its self-interest, make sure it’s the other guy’s fault. This will be the Democratic strategy (“What? You want to cut Grandma’s lifeline so Wall Street fat cats can take another round-the-world cruise?!!?”).

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Chan Lowe: The GOP deficit reduction plan


Rep. Paul Ryan has just submitted his Great Republican Economic Plan for America’s Future, and there’s a great deal of ink being spilled about whether it’s visionary or just another Trojan horse. I’ll leave that to the pundits and pols who’ve actually read the whole thing.

The part that shouts out to me, as it should to everyone else, is the lowering of the tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. This includes you and me, as well as billionaires. Why does the American public remain so quiescent in the face of such injustice? Not all republicans are super-rich. Is the average voter that easily distracted by the culturally conservative candy the GOP tosses out every two years to placate him during the brief moment he becomes politically engaged? What happened to economic self-interest?

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Chan Lowe: Rick Scott's tax cuts


A recent poll has found that if the Florida gubernatorial election were held today, an overwhelming number of Floridians would vote for Alex Sink over Rick Scott.

This says a lot more about the electorate than it does about Scott. It isn’t as though he pulled a bait-and-switch. He always said that if he became governor, he would run the state like a business. We all knew that the business he ran paid a record fine to the U.S. Government for fraud, and we knew that he had no experience whatsoever in government. What more did we expect?

Scott’s idea of cutting corporate taxes at a time when Florida desperately needs revenue is so unrealistic that even the Republican legislators can’t swallow the trickle-down myth. They have to balance the budget, and even the most conservative Republicans know⎯deep down in their granite hearts⎯that generating revenue by creating a more favorable business climate would take more time than they’ve got. Besides, with lower taxes, you’d have to see some pretty phenomenal corporate growth for such a folly to pay off.

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Chan Lowe: Inflation's back


As if it weren't traumatic enough to watch the numbers add up at the checkout line scanner, our intelligence gets insulted by the ever-shrinking cans, the cereal boxes with two-thirds "product settling," the 1lb. pasta boxes and coffee bags that now say "12 oz." in small print, the spice jars with labels all the way around so you can't see how empty they are, and the "30 per cent water" on the meat packages.

After all that, they have the gall to raise the prices on those things, too.

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Chan Lowe: Send in the Marines?


Will they never learn?

We’ve had troops mired for years in two theaters, and they’re spread so thin that the stress of repeated tours of duty is breaking them. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Secretary of Defense said that anybody who considers getting involved in another Middle East conflict ought to have his head examined.

Yet, the armchair hawks in congress are ready to go to war all over again in Libya, and they have the gall to chastise the president for moving too slowly. Sure, it plays well back home, where people are screaming about gas prices. But it’s President Obama who, if he gets us involved militarily, will be lying awake nights with those lives on his conscience.

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Chan Lowe: Tallahassee two-step


Rick Scott⎯being both mega-rich and the former CEO of a health insurance company, (a) no longer knows what matters to average people, and (b) probably wouldn’t care if he did.

He is able to navigate in that ethereal world divorced from the daily concerns of basic survival and getting along in a community with one’s neighbors. In fact, Rick Scott can hole up in the governor’s mansion, dream up all manner of unworkable ideas and attempt to foist them on the state of Florida, like Lex Luthor from the Superman comics working his will on a miniaturized version of Metropolis that he has imprisoned inside a corked water cooler bottle.

The members of the legislature, most of whom are also Republicans, view the affairs of state through a much more mundane prism. Unlike Scott, who apparently isn’t concerned about getting reelected to a second term, they not only want to remain and prosper in politics, but they must also return frequently to their home districts to face constituents (a notoriously fickle lot).

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Chan Lowe: Gadhafi and fuel prices


This is what the Japanese dared to start a war over, back when they created the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in the 1930s.

Since the island nation lacked raw materials of its own, it determined that it was of vital national interest never to let its economy be held hostage to a shortage of natural resources and commodities.

Japan’s methodology in subjugating and brutalizing the peoples of a vast region was contemptible, but at times like these we can certainly appreciate her motives.

We like to think of ourselves as the most powerful nation on earth, yet our fragile economic recovery risks being strangled by, of all things, the reluctance of a semi-obscure North African madman to vacate his seat of power. Every day that he counterattacks and digs in is an extra day of turbulence and uncertainly in the world’s oil futures markets, with direct consequences to the prices of everything we consume here at home.

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Chan Lowe: Oil prices spike


Here we go again. We’ve been through so many gas price boom cycles that we know the script by heart: The lefties will say “We told you so,” and call for fuel tax hikes and business credits to be applied to developing alternative sources of energy, and they’ll get nowhere. The conservatives will first figure out some way to blame Obama, and once they’ve dealt with that priority, they’ll call for planting rigs right on Waikiki Beach if that’s what it takes to become energy independent.

Hardly anybody ever talks about this topic when fuel prices are low. That, of course, would be the best time to slap on a federal fuel tax, when it would do the least damage to the economy. Nobody in congress is willing to commit political suicide just yet, however. Better to play it safe and wait, so that high prices caused by disturbances in Libya, of all places, will result in our paying the same kind of “tax,” only to the Saudis and Venezuelans rather than to Washington.

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Chan Lowe: Wisconsin's labor pains


At first, I was sympathetic to the standard line about the Wisconsin public employee unions, the one the Republican Party has been peddling.

It’s the time-worn narrative that resonates with us private-sector taxpayers, who like to visualize outfits like AFSCME as a litter of oblivious piglets blissfully nursing at the public teat while the rest of us disorganized drones tighten our belts.

But then, I began hearing that the Wisconsin unions had searched their souls, and had done what other public- and private-sector unions have in hard times past, which is to give up some of their sweet benefits for the greater public good. They’re taxpayers too, after all.

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Chan Lowe: Tea Partiers revolt!


Suddenly, people like House Speaker John Boehner are learning the hard way that the Tea Party-backed wing of his caucus not only means to stay true to its rhetoric, it doesn't feel it owes the old paternalistic party apparatus any fealty. The Republican side of the house is starting to look more like the Democrats: a coalition of pressure groups obsessed with different core issues that pull together now and then to scratch each other’s backs when it suits them. More often than not, they bicker amongst themselves.

Just yesterday, a group of Tea Party fiscal conservatives allied with Democrats to finally chuck a redundant, gold-plated jet engine that even the Pentagon says is a waste, but that has survived for years because the manufacturers spread the work around to as many districts as possible. The engine is assembled in Boehner’s home district, for crying out loud.

What kind of Speaker can’t even protect federal pork in his own district? Actually, the very question itself is so last-year. It reflects an archaic, old-politics viewpoint, one that prevailed before the seeds of the whirlwind Mr. Boehner is now reaping were sown.

Boehner's only hope is that, over time, Washington culture will work its evil charms on his irksome band of zealots before they bring the whole carefully-designed traditional structure crashing down around his ears.

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Chan Lowe: Scott derails hi-speed train


Are you sorry you voted for Rick Scott yet?

What was he thinking? More important, what were you thinking? Here was a man with a completely unproven record…well, at least, in government. Unfortunately, his record in the private sector says a lot of things about him that should have caused you to pull up short before connecting that arrow on the ballot.

He’s decided to allow the running sore of pill mills to continue infecting our state (because they’re a tourist draw, I suppose), and now Mr. Seven-Hundred-Thousand-Jobs-In-Seven-Years has disdained $2.4 billion in federal gift money on the tragically incorrect premise that it will cost Florida taxpayers more than that in matching funds.

And that’s just in one week. This guy is worse than incompetent…he’s malevolent. I thought Scott was all for helping private enterprise create jobs. A consortium of business groups is ready to match the federal money with private investment, and they’re contractually bound to make up any overages out of their own pockets. Where is the risk to the taxpayers?

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Chan Lowe: The Obama budget


When I was in college, I took one of those “Physics for Poets” classes designed for art majors and other people who couldn’t count without using their fingers and toes, and who needed to fulfill a science requirement in order to graduate. Oceanography was an alternative, but it was already sold out.

Our professor opened his first lecture by saying, “This is how light travels.” He then scrawled out a ludicrously complex equation on the blackboard containing arcane symbols, superscripts, and for all we knew, Jane Fonda’s measurements. He whirled around to face slack jaws and a few signs of outright panic. “Okay,” he nodded sagely. “No more numbers in this course.”


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Chan Lowe: Gov. Scott's budget


The release of the state budget is normally pretty dry stuff… little more than bedtime reading for Tallahassee reporters and policy wonks.

Since Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature are all cost-cutting Republicans anyway, we would expect the newly minted governor’s proposed spending plan to glide through the corridors of the state capitol easier than a lobbyist in a new pair of Guccis, right?

Wrong. We must remember that for Scott, this gig is more or less a very expensive hobby, and he may not care whether he gets reelected in four years, having grown weary by that time.

The rest of our public servants do care, and they know that Scott’s draconian cuts aren’t going to go over well with the voting public, who will surely blame them when education and children’s services, for example, begin to shrivel on the vine.

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Chan Lowe: Teacher merit pay


The concept of teacher merit pay appeals to our Republican legislature and governor because it makes sense at a surface level, is a neat, simplistic solution easily comprehended by the public, and has the added benefit of weakening the hated teachers’ unions, which are part of the power base of the Democratic Party.

From the teachers’ point of view, there is no allowance made for students’ sheer stupidity, bad luck of the draw in one’s class roster, or working in schools whose families find it more difficult to spare the time to get involved in their children's learning.

It is true that unions are formed in order to collectively assure that workers receive compensation in line with the work they perform. Without unions, each worker must negotiate alone, and historically, that has led to exploitation.

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Chan Lowe: Scott targets state pensions


Much as it pains me to agree with Gov. Rick Scott on anything, I have to admit that his idea to require workers on the state pension system to contribute five per cent of their salaries toward their retirement packages makes sense, particularly in this time of financial tribulation.

Frankly, it came as a surprise that, up until now, they have had to make absolutely no personal contribution. Those who set up the system, in their wisdom, left that burden to the taxpayers.

To those of us who work in the private sector, particularly in the age of the 401(K), the idea of the personal contribution is as much of a given as the medical insurance co-pay. It’s pointless to complain, because that’s the way it is and there’s nothing we can do about it.

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Chan Lowe: Post office closings


The outcry over the U.S. Postal Service’s rumored closing of 2,000 post offices over the next two years reflects our dismay at the prospect of yet another slice of Americana fading into the miasma of rotting memories⎯like the ice-man, the gas station attendant and the bootlegger who made backdoor house calls.

The notion of the village post office⎯the warm, welcoming community center housing a half-bespectacled postmistress who knows everyone in town, as well as their business⎯is an indelible component of the national myth.

If you grew up in a big city like I did, your memories of the post office don’t reflect the same rosy, gemütlich glow. The lobby of my post office always smelled like a colony of feral cats lived behind the heating grate, and the sullen, silent lines of frustrated customers shuffling forward while slab-faced postal clerks served them at mollusk-like speed made the visit seem more like an episode of The Twilight Zone than The Andy Griffith Show.

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Chan Lowe: Big mob bust


How long do you think the outbreak of brotherly love between the parties is going to last? Well, let’s call it the appearance of an outbreak. As we know, in Washington it’s all about projecting an image for the day’s news cycle.

My guess is that we’ll be treated to some unlikely seating arrangements during the State of the Union Address (i.e. Schumer/Coburn), and then things should rapidly deteriorate to normal.

Republicans are, no doubt, heeding the latest poll numbers, which show President Obama’s approval ratings surging. If their past behavior is any indicator, they’re heeding them and coming to the wrong conclusions.

Obama’s newfound popularity is originating from the public perception that he has begun constructively engaging his political opponents for the betterment of the country. He does this whether the opposition likes it or not, and it has taken them tactically by surprise.

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Chan Lowe: The Obamacare repeal vote


So the Republicans have dutifully thrown the Tea Party people their bone. Yes, it was absurd and a waste of time, and while the Republicans won’t talk about it openly, they know just as well as everyone else how foolish it looked to pass legislation that was going nowhere.

These are the same people who accused the Democrats in the last Congress of putting their own agenda ahead of that of the American people, which purportedly consisted of jobs, jobs and jobs. This is why they inserted “job killing” into the title of their legislation, as a head fake toward relevance.

They were paying off a political obligation, and one must fulfill one’s promises. Yesterday’s vote, however, doesn’t eliminate the crosscurrent that the establishment GOP finds itself caught in.

The whirlwind that was unleashed at last year’s town hall meetings may have been directed at Democrats, but the Tea Partiers are still angry, they have no party loyalty, and they know when they’ve been played. They are not going to be satisfied with a mere kabuki dance and then quietly go back to their caves until the next election season. They will continue to clamor for the meaningful action they feel is their due.

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Chan Lowe: Fuel prices spike


First, a postscript concerning yesterday’s topic: Evidently, the country is so rent asunder that we can’t even agree on which version of the Constitution should be read aloud for the Republicans’ stunt in the House of Representatives.

They’ve decided to read an amended, Bowdlerized version, which edits out the infamous “three-fifths compromise” in Article One, wherein members of Congress are to be apportioned to free men, excluding Indians, and counting “all others” (meaning slaves) as three-fifths of a person. Rep Jesse Jackson, Jr. of Illinois wanted it read, but the Republicans would have none of it. And you thought the document was sacred.

Meanwhile, as we helplessly watch gas prices shoot up again, and wonder why we didn’t unload that behemoth in the driveway when we had the chance, some observations:

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Chan Lowe: In with the new year, same as the old year


Can you say, "jobless recovery?"

I have admitted before that I'm no economist, but I simply can't grasp, from a linguistic standpoint, how the two words can exist side by side. Maybe people who are disconnected from daily reality, like our members of Congress, can understand it.

In any case, have a Happy New Year!

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Chan Lowe: "Twas the night before Christmas..."


This cartoon is pretty self-explanatory, so I won’t muddy it up with more commentary.

In an act of cross-pollination that would bring tears of joy to the eyes of the Sun Sentinel’s online editor, our award-winning business writer Paul Owers will be posting the above effort on the blog he co-authors, House Keys, as a Christmas gift to his long-suffering readers.

I say “long-suffering” not because of Paul’s writing, but because his job is to chronicle in exquisite detail the flounderings of the South Florida real estate market, which is one of the engines that drives our local economy. Well, it would be, if somebody hadn’t stolen the spark plugs.

If you wake up in the morning with a case of what Alan Greenspan once called “irrational exuberance,” one glance at Paul’s blog will immediately set you back in balance. I work about six feet away from Paul, and by the time he’s through doing the phone reporting for a story you want to slit your throat. Frankly, I don’t know how he manages to maintain his sunny demeanor in the face of such relentless bad tidings.

In any case, the black humor of this drawing, I feel, is a perfect fit. Since our readership probably doesn’t overlap much, we thought it might be a good idea to give each other’s blog a holiday plug.

And on that note, I’d like to wish my readers a better year in 2011. I think we all deserve it.

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Chan Lowe: The tax cut deal spreads the joy


Suddenly, now that the grand bargain has been struck over the Bush tax cuts, we don’t hear any whining out of the Republicans about budget-busting programs.

Remember, before the midterm elections, when President Obama was getting blamed for every penny of the deficit? It seems that since $700 billion of new debt is being incurred to finance tax cuts for the Republican Party’s most important constituency, the deficit is no longer a problem.

Oh, and let’s not forget that to Republicans, tax cuts don’t really have to be offset to balance the budget the way government programs have to be. You see, in the fantasy world of the Laffer Curve and Trickle-Down, tax cuts more than pay for themselves in increased economic activity. Just ask George W. Bush (but don't ask his father, George "Voodoo economics" Sr.).

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Chan Lowe: GOP gives seniors the shaft


If there were any doubts left in the minds of average Americans that congressional Republicans have made the servicing of their wealthy paymasters a higher priority than their solemn oath to serve the people, then yesterday’s vote on Social Security should have laid them to rest.

At a time when the cost of living for such necessities as medicines has been steadily rising, the Republicans’ sudden desire to deny a mere $250 special payment to the elderly and disabled is not just a display of cynical party politics, it’s inhuman.

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Chan Lowe: Obama caves on Bush tax cuts


The Democratic base can go ahead and scream that Obama caved on the Bush tax cut extension, but the fact is that the Republicans were going to go to the mat on this one, and the President knew it.

Making sure that corporations and the rich pay as little in taxes as possible is the core reason for the Republican Party’s existence. For Republican members of Congress to give an inch on this matter would be tantamount to throwing up their hands and admitting that they are just being obstructionist because it’s fun.

If progressives think that they can shame Republicans by staging populist votes of principle that highlight their allegiance to the wealthy over average, unemployed Americans, then they are being naïve. When it comes to this issue, there is no shame. This is existential. As Deep Throat once said, “Follow the money.”

Besides, the GOP has an ace in the hole. There's all that other stuff⎯the social issues like prayer in the schools, the death penalty, abortion, gun rights, gay bashing⎯that’s just cotton candy the GOP picked up along the way to entice the rubes in the hinterland to vote against their own economic self-interest.

It’s been working, too. Wave the prospect of, say, gays getting married in front of some God-fearing, churchgoing taxpayer, and he won’t see that behind the curtain, his earnest, sincere vote to “take America back” is being twisted to empower cynical plutocrats who are happily picking his pockets.

Barack Obama’s greatest handicap is that, as President, he must be concerned with the welfare of all Americans, not just the ones who can buy influence. The Republicans, not being burdened with that responsibility (and moreover, not caring if everybody knows it), will always hold the strongest hand in negotiations.

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Chan Lowe: Unemployment benefits expire


You would think that one of the most important roles government can play is to act as a safety net for those who are out of work through no fault of their own.

You would think⎯now that the financial types who caused the economic meltdown have been made whole, are thriving, and are once again awarding each other obscene year-end bonuses⎯that the victims of their greed would finally get their turn at the trough to lap up what few slops were left.

You would think wrong, because our Republican friends in Congress have suddenly found religion when it comes to making sure things like unemployment benefits extensions aren’t given out unless they’re paid for in some other way.

Like so many newly minted converts, Republicans are selective in their fiscal sanctimony. They have no problem with extending unfunded tax cuts to those so wealthy they would barely notice them, anyway.

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Chan Lowe: A recession Thanksgiving


This is an update on last year’s cartoon, where I first introduced the turkey dog as a visual metaphor for the Great Recession.

In the 2009 version, the dad was nostalgically showing the family a photo of what Thanksgiving dinners used to look like. This year, since the recession is technically over (at least, according to the bean counters) he’s cutting it up and distributing the trimmings.

On that note, a Happy Thanksgiving to all Lowe-Down readers!

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Chan Lowe: Extending unemployment benefits


That the Wall Street plutocrats should get more than their fair share in both fat times and lean…it’s the way the system works, so we might as well get over it. The eternal imbalance is why the groundlings invented the concept of the Day of Judgment.

Looking at the other end of the scale, however, it isn’t just selfishness but a moral injustice that the unemployed should have their benefits curtailed when they most need them.

After all, it’s the financial industry that got us into this mess. Certainly, they who possess plenty beyond anyone’s mortal need ought to allow themselves to be taxed so that the victims of their greed might at least buy food for their families.

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Chan Lowe: Rick Scott, Gov. Slice 'n' Dice


Have I told you already that this guy is fun to draw?

Aside from the shiny pate, which opens things up to all manner of visual humor, there’s the dark, brooding, Karloffian stare that we haven’t seen in a Florida governor since the days of Bob Martinez.

Anyway, much as I’m going to enjoy the next four years with Governor Scott for selfish reasons, I’m still left scratching my head as to what logic lies behind his claim that starving the schools is going to help create jobs.

It would seem that the mediocrity of our state educational system is one of the impediments to industries locating in Florida. After all, if your workforce can’t be properly trained for lack of, say, reading comprehension or math skills, no amount of industrial tax breaks is going to change your mind. Unless, of course, you import your labor from Iowa or some other state willing to tax itself in the name of quality education.

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Chan Lowe: Deficit reduction folly


Are you good and angry about how those buffoons in Washington never seem to make any progress on deficit reduction? How they can’t manage to curb their wastrel ways, even though the money they’re blowing has to be borrowed from foreigners?

Well, shelve it. What would you do if your employer told you your job depended on how well you could plow through money to buy things that pleased him?

And what would you do if, at the same time, your boss wrote in your annual evaluation that while you were servicing him so effectively, he was getting ticked that you were busting the budget? And that if you didn’t cool it, he’d replace you with an employee who was less of a spendthrift?

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Chan Lowe: Post-election reality check


My favorite period of any election cycle is the first few days after the polls have closed and the outcome is decided, when the party that won drops the façade and begins carefully recalibrating its campaign rhetoric to reflect reality.

This is when we find out how they really plan to use their newfound “mandate,” and what they admit that they can’t possibly do and never really thought they could but didn’t want to tell us until it was too late to take our votes back.

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Chan Lowe: Republican victory


Reduce the deficit! Halt runaway spending! Starve the beast! Shrink government! It’s time to take our country back!

All lovely-sounding slogans, designed to snag votes. Something that House Speaker-elect Boehner and the rest of the Republican establishment know, however, is that actually making good on the exhortations is a much tougher proposition than shouting them out from the cheap seats.

We have learned from this election that in these times of extreme hardship, the American people are nothing if not impatient. It doesn’t matter who got us into the mess, it only matters that two years have passed since the last election and things aren’t getting better.

The Republicans and their Tea Party wing did an admirable job of getting themselves elected without having to delve into specifics. Let’s face it, there are two ways to reduce the deficit: raising revenue and lowering expenditures.

Since a Republican House will never raise taxes, that leaves cutting programs (the part they avoided talking about during the campaign). The military and national security are off the table, they tell us, so that leaves…

Social Security? Can’t cut people already getting it, or even people who are old enough to smell it. They’ve all paid into the system already. Young people? How can you expect them to keep paying in if you welsh on their future benefits?

Medicare? “Huh, whassat? We’re gonna have to start paying for Grandma’s dialysis? NO WAY, BOZO!”

And--finally--earmarks, which amount to almost nothing compared to the rest of the budget, anyway. “You mean we ain’t gonna get that civic center (or fairgrounds, or underpass, or highway spur) our congressman promised us after all?!!? We’re votin’ Democrat next time!”

Congratulations, Mr. Speaker…and our condolences.

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Chan Lowe: The foreclosure debacle


No one should be surprised that mortgage lenders have displayed the same devil-may-care attitude toward checking their foreclosure paperwork that they did when they made the loans in the first place.

It isn’t as though they’ve gotten soul transplants over the last three years since the boom went sour.

If you find yourself gripped by anger and frustration over what these cowboys have done⎯and continue to do⎯to our country, it helps to think of them as cockroaches.

Cockroaches are perfectly evolved life forms. According to scientists, they can survive anything⎯including nuclear Armageddon. When you leave out food and turn off the lights, they head for it. When you turn the lights back on, they scatter so fast you can’t possibly destroy them all.

This is what they are programmed for. It is all they do. They cannot change, for if they did, they would no longer be cockroaches. If you could somehow inject a sense of ethics into them, they would become ensnared in moral dilemmas over their behavior and die of starvation.

For this reason, we cannot judge cockroaches by accepted codes of human conduct, because to do so would presuppose freedom of choice on their part.

Until Armageddon occurs, we will always be in uneasy coexistence with the pests. That being said, we are under no obligation to encourage them in their activities.

So if we forget, say, to snap the lid down tightly on the Tupperware, we have nobody to blame but ourselves when they start feasting on the family pot roast. They just can’t help it.

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Chan Lowe: Buying the midterm election


The American body politic⎯quiescent, even oblivious in normal times⎯is restless and fearful due to economic uncertainty. In its currently aroused state, it has become prey to cynical self-interested forces. When people are angry, they are easily led.

For example, if it is a tenet of faith of one particular group that climate change is a myth, it makes sense that shadowy petrochemical plutocrats, who have so much to lose from environmental regulation, would give behind-the-scenes financial support, through patriotic-sounding front organizations, to candidates who espouse a laissez-faire regulatory philosophy (To the big money backers, all that Libertarian stuff about individual rights and Second Amendment gospel are window dressing. Being billionaires, they can simply buy all the rights they want).

Their shills in the media and in politics, all of whom have so much to gain, willingly spread the party line (As Deep Throat said, “Follow the money”). Their legions of listeners hunger for easy answers, which are cheerfully supplied in large helpings.

In the final days before the midterm elections, President Obama is playing catch-up, campaigning hither and yon to defend and explain his vision for the country. He and his party might not be in such a jam today if they had taken the trouble to do the plodding grunt-work of repetitive indoctrination from the beginning.

His opponents certainly did.

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Chan Lowe: The Republican deficit reduction hoax


They must think we voters are stupid, and maybe we are.

Poll after poll shows that when Americans are asked what bothers them the most about their government, it’s that it’s too big and it’s spending too much. Running up debt to China that our children will have to pay. We gotta rein the sucker in somehow.

Then these same Americans are asked what government programs they’d like to do without. Social Security? Hold on a minute! I paid in to that. They can’t steal it from me now. Medicare? What, and make me cough up for Granny’s doctor appointments? Obamacare? Gotta say, I like the sound of that preexisting conditions stuff. Unemployment benefits? Not if I’m the one who’s out of a job. Et cetera.

On top of that, we all want to extend the Bush tax cuts. Some have even bought into the idea that if we extend them for the rich as well, they won’t bank the difference or buy an Italian yacht with it, but instead will plow the loot back into jobs (maybe they’ll hire an extra couple of undocumented landscape workers to tend their estates).

The goal, for those who tease us irresponsibly with notions of reducing the deficit, is to somehow glide through election season without having to divulge the truth: that it can’t be done without pain, and a lot of it.

They know that if they really begin to do everything they say, voters will scream bloody murder as their favorite handouts get gouged. They’ll take it out on the perpetrators next time around anyway, so why tell them the truth now?

Better yet, once the elections are over, why do anything meaningful at all? That deficit stuff was all just rhetoric; any smart person ought to know that. The ones spouting it certainly do. Stalling has worked pretty well for us up until now. Let's keep on kickin' that can down the road.

And, when all else fails, blame Obama. Twenty percent of Americans are willing to believe anything you say about him. That’s a good solid base to build on.

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Chan Lowe: Spirit's carry-on luggage charge


The most offensive thing about Spirit Airlines’ charge for overhead carry-on luggage is that now, the house always wins.

At first, the company spiel sounds plausible; keep base fares low by charging for virtually everything that doesn’t directly affect getting you there. The airline is banking on the fact that while the flying public may be alienated at first, we’ll eventually become inured to the concept, just as we have to the myriad other indignities they’ve forced us to endure over the years.

It’s easy to rationalize the checked-baggage charge; after all, it costs money to process that luggage and then lose it for you. But carry-ons are just that. Maybe it costs a little extra fuel for the airline to hoist it aloft, but certainly not the amount they’re charging. You must either check or carry on, unless you want to wear multiple layers of clothing with toiletries stuffed in the pockets.

Spirit is also not discounting the rumor that, once the technology is in place to make human interaction a luxury item, they will soon charge you to talk to an employee at the airline,

Think about that for a moment: Isn’t having to pay to speak to an employee really just the same as phone sex?

Except that there’s no payoff.

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Chan Lowe: Teacher pay raises


This isn’t about whether teachers are worth more than they get paid. Of course they are. A lot of people are underpaid for what they do.

It’s about realizing that when times are tough, everybody has to tighten his belt a little; we can’t go on demanding things as if we lived in a vacuum.

We would all love to give teachers a raise; Lord knows they deserve it. But to do so means that more revenue must be found—this isn’t the federal government where we can just appropriate where necessary and let the Chinese pick up the tab.

We find the money by hiking property taxes on everyone, including private-sector workers who haven’t seen a raise in a long time and who consider themselves lucky to still have jobs.

As homes are foreclosed upon, counties and school districts with basic overhead expenses find themselves forced to lean on the remaining property owners, including those who don’t have the benefit of unionized collective bargaining to put the squeeze on their employers.

In other words, for teachers to get more, other already-strapped workers must get by with less. Surely, no one should feel that entitled, no matter how worthy his calling.

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Chan Lowe: Unemployment benefits extension

sacred.gifIf Conservatives in Congress really feel that extending unemployment benefits will break the bank, why is it so incredibly difficult to find the means to pay for it?

Here’s an idea right off the the top of my head, and they don’t even have to give me credit: Why don’t we eliminate government subsidies for oil companies to drill in this country and off our shores?

Does an oil company that makes a profit of several billion dollars per quarter really need an incentive from the U.S. taxpayer to keep drilling?

Here’s another: The U.S. Treasury now has an agreement with Swiss banks to flush out American fat cats who stashed their wealth over there in order to avoid paying taxes. It has offered the scofflaws amnesty if they ’fess up and pay up now, rather than face prosecution later. Can you think of a more appropriate use for this sudden windfall?

Need more? Force American companies that base themselves in places like Dubai to pay their fair share of U.S. corporate taxes if they want to do business in this country.

Wow! That was so easy, it clearly can’t be a lack of resources…it’s more like a lack of human decency.

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Chan Lowe: Jobless recovery

flatscreen.gifOne thing a crisis like this teaches you is that⎯unlike civil law⎯ the law of economics is not predicated on fairness.

When things began to go south back in 2008, business started shedding jobs like a dog does fleas…which, of course, worsened the problem.

Businesses⎯with the possible exception of some outfits that treat their employees like family⎯do not operate based on humanitarian motives, nor should we expect them to. There are economic necessities, period.

The cold reality of economic downturns, though, is that businesses eventually get used to making do with fewer employees.

When the recovery finally begins, it obviously makes sense⎯particularly if an employer is still unsure⎯to increase the workload of existing employees rather than spread the burden by making new hires, whose benefits will cost him a lot more.

Hence, the “jobless recovery.” As the economy chugs along, some people have more money to burn, and they use it to buy things, but few new workers get absorbed into the growth.

It’s too bad that our political system follows a two-year cycle. It took a lot longer than that for us to get into this mess, but we expect our leaders to get us out of it within that trial period. If not, it’s time to throw the bums out.

That’s where economics gets human: at a time when we're buffeted by forces we can neither understand nor control, it's nice to have somebody to blame, even if it isn't the right person. After all, it's what we pay them for.

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Chan Lowe: The iPhone 4 phenomenon

realty.gifWhat recession?

The iPhone 4 phenomenon is proof of what the theorists say, that we could easily spend our way out of this slump if we really wanted to.

The eighty-nine percent of us who continue to be employed (for now) are sitting on our money out of fear that we may really need it someday.

We put off buying that new air conditioner, or roof, or car, for better times, and those who would make these products we normally purchase get pink-slipped.

Then along comes a gadget which projects such talismanic appeal that people are willing to camp out twelve hours or more before the stores open so that they can be the first to spend several hundred dollars on it. To possess this thing, they will joyfully throw all caution to the wind.

It’s clear that all we need to rescue ourselves from the Great Recession are more irresistible products whose mere ownership induces the same euphoria, and—voila!⎯unemployment is banished.

Can’t you envision it? The iGarbage Disposal, the iFurnace, the iRiding Lawnmower. The manufacturers simply pay Steve Jobs a small licensing fee for the privilege of sticking an Apple logo onto whatever it is they make, and then sit back and wait for the iSheep to line up around the block.

There's probably an app for that.

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Chan Lowe: Why fear big government?

samx.gifWhat are you Tea Partiers worried about?

Crisis after crisis, the one common denominator that keeps popping up is that some government regulatory or enforcement body was incompetent, asleep at the switch, or incestuously intermingled with the industry it was meant to oversee.

When Washington displays this kind of ineptitude regarding the fat, easy targets, how can it possibly get its act together enough to intrude upon and control the lives of its individual citizens?

Congress can pass⎯and President Obama can sign⎯all the “socialistic” and “Nazi” laws they want to, but when the black helicopters land in your back yard and they beat down your door, it sounds like all you have to do is provide some booze, broads, and a few lines of coke, and they’ll be putty in your hands.

If it’s the SEC that concerns you, then simply tune your laptop to some hot Internet porn. That ought to keep ’em distracted for a while.

As for protecting our borders, local law enforcement in places like Arizona will be so busy mistakenly rounding up suspiciously ethnic-looking American citizens that the real illegals will slip through to Colorado, Kansas and Minnesota faster than a personal injury lawyer can file a false arrest lawsuit. If you aren’t brown and don’t have a Mexican accent, they won’t be interested in you.

So chill.

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Chan Lowe: Greek drama

urnx.gifI knew that if I just waited long enough, that art history degree would finally come in handy.

For most of us, myself included, macroeconomics is one of those subjects the experts natter on glibly about and win Nobel Prizes for, while their discipline inhabits some abstruse, ethereal level rarely gazed upon⎯and even more rarely comprehended⎯by us working stiffs.

You’d think, though, that the folks who managed to dream up derivatives and tranches de jambon or whatever would figure out some way to make the world markets more stable.

The fact that a third-rate economy and some trader with a fat finger can cause the world’s most sophisticated stock market to upchuck like a drunken high-school kid at a prom means something needs re-engineering.

I’m sorry for the Germans and the French (not really) for being stuck with weaklings like the “PIIG” nations (Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Greece), but their unremitting arrogance about the mighty Euro and our fiscal irresponsibility was getting tiresome.

The downside (and in economics, there’s always a downside), is that as the Euro tanks, investors will rush to convert their wealth to dollars. Our newly-strong currency will make it harder to export what little stuff we still make, which is not what our economy needs right now.

Too bad most Americans can’t afford to go to Europe this summer. I hear you can snap up some real bargains, especially near the Acropolis.

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Chan Lowe: Betting against America

goldman.gifMorality is for losers.

It’s an artificial code of principles dreamed up by weaklings in an attempt to deny their superiors the unbridled bounty that is theirs by divine right.

Why divine? Because God obviously gave them the intelligence to dream up a system whereby they could enrich themselves through the labor of others, and then enrich themselves even further by gaming the very system they created.

At least, that’s what they believe on Wall Street.

You have to figure that outfits like Goldman Sachs have engendered some hard feelings among their colleagues on the Street, for several reasons.

First, they devised financial instruments so exotic that nobody could really understand them (including the SEC, which threw up its hands in despair and resorted to downloading pornography), sold them to unwitting customers, and then bet in competing arrangements that these same constructs would fail.

This act, by its sheer brazenness, poisoned the well for everybody. “Betting against America” is something even the clods out in flyover country can understand.

Even Wall Street’s pet poodles in Congress are distancing themselves. They’re talking regulation, which means many more millions will have to be spent on lobbyists to make sure the new laws have loopholes large enough to drive a stretch limo through.

Second, the other players are looking at the Blankfeins of the world and smacking themselves. “The man’s a genius,” they’re snarling over their single malt whiskeys. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

And this, for any self-respecting Master of the Universe, is the bitterest pill of all.

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Chan Lowe: SEC porn shenanigans

sec.gifIf this is what passes for regulatory oversight in the federal government, you have to wonder why Wall Street is paying so many top-dollar lobbyists to fight it.

Now it comes out that while cracks were appearing in the financial bubble's fragile walls, senior staffers at the Securities Exchange Commission were web surfing and downloading porn for as much as eight hours a day.

In one case, when his government hard drive hit capacity, a regulator began downloading his trove onto disks.

It gives a whole new meaning to "spreadsheet."

To add insult to taxpayer injury, these people get paid a lot more than most of us in the private sector could ever hope to earn, they have job security, their health care is comparable to the average European's, and they will have a nice pension to tide them over in the twilight years when they can take their smutty DVDs home and peruse them at their leisure.

Nice work if you can get it. I should have listened to my college roommate when he told me to major in economics.

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Chan Lowe: Wall Street reform

limox.gifLet’s face it, the image of wealthy financiers crying the blues doesn’t exactly tug on our heartstrings.

If the Republicans in Congress make an issue of preserving a laissez-faire policy toward Wall Street after what has happened to this country, they’re singing to an empty house.

The Dems know this, and they’re itching for the GOP to rise in defense of their natural constituency: the fat cats. Most Americans hate big government in the abstract, except when it’s applied to restrain the rampant greed of the plutocrats who got us into this mess.

As President Obama has said, it’s a fight he’s looking forward to having.

We may finally see the cracking of the solid Republican bloc that would rather do harm than deliver Barack Obama a victory.

After all, to a pol, self-preservation comes first and foremost. Wall Street and all its lobbying dollars aren’t worth anything to a member of Congress who can’t win the next election.

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Tea Party gives back

treasury.gifIf big government is our beef, then what is more bloated, more out-of-control, more emblematic of the drain on our resources than Social Security?

Even the name sounds vaguely subversive. It bears the aroma of one of those un-American, welfare state European imports⎯like Danish pastry, French fries, frankfurters, English muffins, pepperoni pizza. One could go on, but the point is made.

To compound the insult, Washington doesn’t even give the average freedom-loving American a choice in the matter.

Anybody who wants to make a decent living is forced to participate in the Social Security system…a lot like that communistic Obamacare that Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and their collectivist fellow travelers just passed against the wishes of the majority.

Not only should we tell Washington what to do with its Social Security money, the old folks ought to pay for their own health care, too.

Medicare…now, there’s another huge bureaucracy gobbling up tax money that we should be allowed to keep for ourselves.

Let the free market take care of ’em. It’s the American way. Besides, it’s right there in the Constitution.

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Chan Lowe: Tax Day

real.gifOn this, the eve of Tax Day, some reflections:

The more local the government entity, the more people seem to understand the need to pay taxes. If it’s their own library, or school, or police and fire protection, they see evidence every day that their money is being spent for their benefit.

The federal government is another story. It’s so amorphous, the burden of expenses is spread so broadly and impersonally, that many lose sight of the fact that it’s just a larger version of their own county or town.

Statements like, “We’re going to take advantage of a federal program to pay for (insert local project here),” reinforce the idea that Washington is some other entity, a piggy bank we can raid that is continually being refilled by somebody else. When it pays, it means we don't have to.

Besides, unlike your locality, the feds can run a deficit, which means they can invent money as needed (even though it’s stealing from the future—but since we aren’t there yet, who cares?).

Even Republican members of Congress run from the idea of reducing popular “socialist” programs like Medicare to balance the budget. Average voters don’t understand why federal largess can’t perpetually extend to them, since the government runs on magic. Those who would tell them otherwise will be severely punished at the polls.

Average people also don’t understand why they have to pay taxes to Washington either, for the same reason.

So don’t blame Congress for the deficit. Go look in the mirror.

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Chan Lowe: Spirit starts charging for carry-ons

spirit.gifAnybody who’s ever taken a college Psych 101 course knows what behavior modification is.

The rat in the Skinner box gets to choose between two levers. If pressing one delivers a food pellet, and pressing the other delivers a mild electric shock, you don’t need a Ph.D. to hypothesize how the story is going to turn out.

A few years ago, the airlines started charging extra for checked-in luggage.

The bright-eyed junior exec who dreamed up that revenue stream evidently didn’t take Psych 101, because the obvious consequence was that everybody learned to cram as much as they possibly could into carry-on roller bags that sometimes, but not always, fit in the overhead bins.

Those that didn’t fit were checked at the scene without charge, so the rat/passengers learned they could get away with stuffing in a little extra. Meanwhile, stowing the extra bags ate up precious minutes while exasperated flight attendants shoved, sweated and cursed. Flights got delayed.

So the replacement junior exec⎯who clearly has studied psychology⎯wins a gold star for killing two birds with one stone: Rig the Skinner box levers so they both deliver an electric shock, and generate even more revenue by penalizing those who think they can’t travel without at least a toothbrush and a change of underwear. Bra-VO, future Spirit CEO.

Coming soon: dehydrated clothing.

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Chan Lowe: The gas shall rise again

recovery.gifThe inherent problem with capitalism⎯at least the American variant of it⎯is that for someone to win, it seems like someone always has to lose.

It’s wonderful that the Wall Street bonus babies can get obscenely rich, but at the same time, it’s not so wonderful that there are a significant number of people whose wages chronically lag behind the cost of living, and who work several jobs but still can’t make ends meet.

Not that socialism is the answer. Without a profit motive, there is a race to the bottom in terms of productivity. Nobody wins.

There is a story about Barcelona, the ideological center of the republic during the Spanish Civil War. There, for a short while, they tried pure socialism. A local opera house was issued the government decree that all employees would receive the same wages, from the stars on down to the box office ticket-taker.

Immediately, the star tenor went down to the ticket taker and dubbed him the new star tenor, as of that evening. The tenor would man the box office. The point was made that the new policy, while egalitarian, was bad for business.

So, each according to his abilities, but maybe with some restraints and regulations. Why not still allow the worthy to get plenty rich, but implement a more progressive tax system that takes more from those who will miss it the least? It won’t be enough to kill the profit motive, but it might be enough to forestall a revolution.

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Slashing Florida teachers' pensions

teach.gifWhen a professional basketball player wraps up a stellar career, he often walks away with millions. If he has been particularly outstanding, his number is retired and his jersey is hung from the rafters of his home arena. As time passes, his exploits may be recalled, with decreasing frequency, at sports bars.

When a stellar teacher retires, he or she--if lucky--can look forward to the promise of a reasonable pension. His legacy is not a retired number, but a flicker of inspiration carried in the hearts and minds of the students he touched.

When those students grow old and take stock of what they have done with their lives, they may credit that dedicated professional who set them on the path that enabled them to exploit their individual potential to its fullest.

Both the basketball player and the teacher chose their line of work out of love for their profession. There is nothing wrong with rewarding the basketball player for providing us with high-quality--albeit transitory--entertainment. He performed his role with excellence.

There is something wrong, however, with so undervaluing the profession of those to whom we entrust the nurturing of our children's intellects that they must struggle for decent pay and a respectable retirement.

Yes, we are in desperate economic straits, but surely we owe our teachers more than that.

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Chan Lowe: The great pill heist

robin.gifWhile we should never⎯no, never⎯condone theft, there is an inherent paradox about the daring medication heist at the Connecticut warehouse last week.

If the robbers who stole an estimated semi-trailer load of brand-name pharmaceuticals manage to fence the goods at a sharp discount, making them possibly more affordable to the masses on the black market, then they will be doing good by doing evil.

The stories say that the estimated “street value” (what a lovely term for a legitimate product) to the company is approximately $75 million.

Let’s hope that isn’t what they report to their insurance company, because the true replacement value of the stolen property is probably a fraction of that.

Which leads us to the question of why pharmaceuticals have become so expensive, pound for pound, that they have turned into a hot target for cat burglars. Yeah, yeah…we know all about the staggering R&D costs, the lengthy government trials. That still doesn’t explain why the same stuff is so much cheaper in Canada and elsewhere.

Do they charge us so much because they can? Because Congress doesn’t have the Viagra to stand up to big pharma?

And why can’t we import from Canada? Oh, that’s right⎯it’s too risky. The stuff might be tainted.

Poor Canadians.

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Chan Lowe: The Great Recession

genome.gifIn addition to the more apparent consequences of high unemployment, the Great Recession has resulted in a tragic waste of human talent.

Embedded in the arid statistics and monthly up-and-down jobs figures lie real stories of people who have spent a lifetime acquiring priceless experience, training and wisdom in their fields and whose intellectual wealth is now lost to the rest of us.

They are forced to settle, underutilized, for whatever they can find to feed themselves and their families. And those are the lucky ones.

Meanwhile, the financial cowboys who galloped off into the unregulated Wild West of exotic financial instruments and whose greed engendered the whole mess haven’t missed a meal or an hour of sleep.

In fact, the their first brazen order of business (as our forever-scarred nation painfully recovers) has been to award themselves bonuses for their achievements⎯flaunting their conviction that the word “conscience” resides only in the vocabulary of so-called lesser beings.

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Chan Lowe: Postal service: Next window, please

usps.gifFor Americans, the Postal Service is a little like Congress: While we despise the institution as a whole, we tend to have a better relationship with our local representative.

Postal customers nurture a romanticized, Norman Rockwellian view of the intrepid mail carrier (I guess mine is intrepid. If I happen to be around the mailbox when she gurgles by in her Jeep, she's always yakking away on her cellphone, so I can't be certain).

It is probably this view that has allowed the Postal Service to survive as a top-heavy, money-hemorrhaging bureaucracy for as long as it has. For generations, six-day-a-week mail delivery brought us holiday greetings, good and bad news, government checks, bills, catalogs--in short, it was the home front's primary contact point with the outside world.

Technology's merciless march spares no antiquated institution, and it's time to start trimming this one. Five-day-a-week delivery? Why not three...Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays?

Sure, at first it might tug a little at your heartstrings, but I ask you: Do you still miss the milkman?

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Chan Lowe: Our crushing debt

debt.gifFuture generations will curse us.

Since the government supposedly represents the people who vote it in, we will be blamed for perpetually returning sycophants to office who play sweet music for our ears, and who obediently refuse to do anything responsible that might cause us pain.

If you are from a reliably Republican district, you will hear that your taxes will never be raised for any reason. If you are from a liberal Democratic one, your representative will make sure that entitlement programs--and any other government largess that might tickle your fancy--will remain well funded into eternity.

In theory, the Tea Party movement has the right idea: Throw out all the corrupt, amoral pols and start over with a clean slate. Here's how it will go in practice: Americans have a hard time seeing past their own personal interest. If you tell them they're going to have to pony up and tighten belts to balance some theoretical deficit that they see as an abstract, they'll dump you. That's for some other guy to do, not them.

Also, don't forget that one man's pork is another man's essential project. Even Sarah Palin happily accepted funds for the Bridge to Nowhere until it became a political liability for someone with national aspirations.

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Wall Street, bonuses, financial


Since we are now in the shank of the Christmas season, it seems fitting to open today's sermon with a bible lesson:

Jesus said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

That's all very nice, but the fact is there aren't any camels in Lower Manhattan--unless they're the kind you smoke outside a Wall Street bar after a hard day's trading, and you're just killing time with a glass of single malt and a butt before you hop the 6:22 to your estate in Westport.

As for needles, you might have been able to find some on Seventh Avenue back before the American garment industry was outsourced to overseas sweatshops, but the rag trade is pretty much dead now.

And the Kingdom of Heaven? Who needs that when you've got everything you could possibly desire in the here and now?

So, Merry Christmas from all the rest of us who stand outside in the cold with our noses pressed against the glass.

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Bonuses, bailouts, banks, Wall Street

bonux.gifSome philosopher once put forth the notion that there is no such thing as "reality" in the objective sense; everything is perception, filtered through personal experience.

Was it Kirkegaard? Dunno for sure. After this long out of college, I can barely remember how to spell his name.

Anyway, if your world view is circumscribed by the borders of the bedroom counties of the Tri-State Area, with maybe the Washington Beltway thrown in, it could very easily look like the recession is over to you.

If you're one of those talking heads on the news gab shows, repeatedly asserting that we're on the upswing even when the rest of us think you're smoking something, chances are that you and all of the other swells you share canapes with at chi-chi cocktail parties are connected to Wall Street in some way.

Just look at the ads for all those fancy one-of-a-kind wristwatches in the New York Times these days, any one of which would pay the family heating bill for the entire winter in, say, Detroit. They can only mean one thing: The bonuses are flowing!

And if you ever run into some poor taxpayer on the street who asks you the time of day, please tell him. He deserves it.

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Anatomy of the scam

rothtrailer.gifIf you're going to run a major-league swindle, nothing sucks 'em in like personal example.

The first thing the scammer does with his ill-gotten gains is to surround himself with the trappings of wealth. Human nature being what it is, his willing marks will look at his lifestyle and want very badly for it to be theirs as well.

It is this wanting that lowers the internal barriers, erodes better judgment, and that causes otherwise sensible people to behave like slobbering morons. Until they see the cars, the mansions, the yachts--it's all an abstraction.

If the marks already have a lot of loot, then the lifestyle ornamentation is important to show one is a member of the club. Rich people don't get richer by investing in working stiffs--they do it by investing with other rich people.

Dangle the toys in front of them. Once the hook has been set, all that's left to do is reel 'em in.

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The Age of Ponzi

ponzi.gifTo quote Sonny Corleone out of context, "It's time to go to the mattresses!"

As in: to stuff one's money in, since it doesn't seem like you can trust anybody to invest it for you without ripping you off. Evidently, there are financial investment scams going on all the time, but as long as the economy is strong, the scammers can keep attracting new investors to pay off the old ones.

One wag-- I think it was Warren Buffett--said, "It's when the tide is going out that you find out who isn't wearing a bathing suit."

As someone whose idea of a wise investment is buying a used car that is less than ten years old, I have to admit to some schadenfreude when I hear of wealthy players who are lured into a scheme with promises of impossible returns in a short period of time. "Invest four million today, and in a year, it'll be worth FIVE! Absolutely no risk! A sure bet!"

Maybe it's just that some of us don't have a lot of loose change to go risking it on a venture, no matter how ironclad the guarantees. We're too busy spending it on things like food and electricity. So when somebody takes a massive hit at the hands of a crook, we say that maybe it's some karmic force's way of leveling the playing field when it has gotten too far out of whack.

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Chan Lowe: NASA on the ropes

NASA.gifI was a kid when President Kennedy gave his stirring speech declaring we would go to the Moon within the decade.

My friends and I could recite the names of the Mercury Seven astronauts off the tops of our heads. As Tom Wolfe observed in his book, The Right Stuff, they were like the single combat warriors of old--the very best our side could put forward to vanquish the foe. Their suits even looked like modern armor.

We were out to prove that the American Way of Life could produce better technology and finer young men than the godless Rooskies and their evil system.

Even though our great success in the spacefaring field was born out of warlike competition, there is something to be said that both sides decided duke it out in a peaceful endeavor. The first rockets those intrepid astronauts rode to the heavens were just modified ICBMs, an updated version of beating swords into plowshares. At least we weren't using them to kill each other.

I recently took a tour of Cape Canaveral. The tour touted the space shuttle program, but the focus was on the Saturn moon rocket, which last flew in missions over 30 years ago. I wanted to see the original pad that launched the Redstone rockets carrying the Mercury astronauts aloft in the 1960s, but they didn't even include it on the tour. Evidently, there is nothing to see now but cracked concrete and weeds.

Most people just don't care anymore, someone told me.

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Chan Lowe: Tone-deafness on Wall Street

toll.gif"Tone deaf" doesn't begin to describe it.

The Masters of the Universe screwed up so badly in their pursuit of lucre that they had to be rescued by the very groundlings they so despise. And what's the first thing they do with other people's money? The same thing they've always done--reward themselves for just being who and where they are.

They like to say that they create wealth. This is the great justification for being the middlemen who siphon off their cut for passing money along the pipeline.

Real wealth is created by the factory workers who claw minerals from the earth, who smelt steel, who build things, and who deliver them to market. Without their sweat, there is no surplus to manipulate.

The financial people say that they should be rewarded for taking risks. You know what risk is? Risk is getting laid off and gambling that your kids won't get catastrophically ill or hurt during the time you're not covered by health insurance you can no longer afford.

Sure, investment is a risky business. But when investors lose something, it's symbolic. Chances are they can still go home to a hot meal in their lovely home in Greenwich. They haven't lost their livelihood, or their health. Their children don't go hungry. They've taken a hit, that's all. Tomorrow they'll recoup.

But having the courage to take that risk is worth tens, maybe hundreds of millions. Why is this? Just ask them.

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Chan Lowe cartoon: Pink slip blues

HR.gifMaybe that’s why they call economics the dismal science.

The folks who know everything—the ones with all the degree letters after their names—put on their little propeller hats, inspect their goat entrails, and pronounce that we are, happily, on our way out of the woods.

Meanwhile, there’s something called “employment lag,” which means that the people down in the trenches—who have done nothing but work hard all their lives—find themselves still falling victim to arcane forces beyond their control.

Their productivity and quality are just as high as they’ve always been, but they’re told that for some reason, they and their skill sets are no longer needed.

If the recession is “technically” over, who’s seeing the benefits of the upswing? They say the financial sector’s doing well, and everybody’s back to getting obscene bonuses for whatever it is they do, thanks to bailouts and subsidies.

So if you feel you're entitled to some “trickle-down,” walk beneath a Wall Street skyscraper. And make sure to bring your umbrella.

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Chan Lowe cartoon: The last homeowner in America

When the value of your home plunges into the tank, you figure (as would any reasonable person) that at least there's a silver lining: your property taxes will go down. After all, it's only fair, isn't it?

That's in a perfect world, where money grows on trees, milk and honey flow in the streets, roads, law enforcement, parks and libraries magically maintain themselves, and FPL says, "Don't worry about that streetlight bill--we know times are tough, so we'll just let'em burn out of the kindness of our hearts."

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Drill, baby, drill!

I used to live in the “awl patch,” which is the folksy term used to describe that part of the country where petroleum and natural gas are extracted from deep inside the earth.

When the wind was right, there was a smell--not unlike what you smell when your neighbor’s roof is being tarred. That, along with the aroma coming from the feedlots, was what the locals called “the smell of money.”

The awl patch ain’t purty. I once passed through a town in the Texas Panhandle that was surrounded by oilfields. The unrelenting removal of liquid and gas from beneath the surface had caused the land above to buckle and collapse in unnatural ways. It was devoid of vegetation, and the whole tableau--dotted by pumps and power poles leaning at crazy angles--looked like a moonscape being preyed upon by a swarm of mechanical locusts.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing, because that land was probably not too appealing to begin with. But now we hear that a consortium of Texas wildcatters is trying to, um, influence the Florida Legislature to relax our offshore drilling ban with tales of vast riches to replenish the state’s depleted kitty.

Considering that preserving the natural beauty of the coastal environment is not exactly a priority for our out-of-state investors, maybe they shouldn't be trusted with the welfare of Florida’s beaches, which are pretty appealing.

But, shux--if we don't have enough gasoline to drive to 'em, what's the point in having 'em, anyway?

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Florida tourism blues


When your state's economy is based on homebuilding at a time when people are defaulting on their mortgages, and tourism when nobody is going anywhere, then it's best to stick with your strengths.

And, as any marketer knows, product placement is everything.

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Social Security freeze


If you're a senior on a fixed income who, say, takes the bus to do your grocery and drug shopping, chances are the price of gas at the pump doesn't affect you much.

Or, at least, you think it doesn't. Unfortunately, it's the huge drop in energy prices (part of the consumer price mix) that has dragged down inflation to the point where the government says that, statistically, there isn't any. So you can forget that cost of living allowance in your Social Security check, Granny.

Now, anybody who goes to the supermarket knows that food prices haven't dropped, unless you're a big milk drinker. But the government doesn't parse things that delicately. They look at the whole gorgeous panoply of consumer goods when they make their heartless calculations.

The problem, as I've said before, is that once you start giving people things on a regular basis, they come to expect them.

So Social Security recipients are going to want to know, in no uncertain terms, why they didn't get their annual raise. It will be amusing, to say the least, to hear members of congress carefully explain the above rationale about inflation to someone for whom a couple of dollars may dictate whether they have to miss a meal this month or not.

My guess is they won't be able to take the heat.

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Giving thanks for clunkers


Sure, we all know a lot of those "rice burners" are built right here in the good old U.S. of A. by American workers, who stand to benefit from any increase in auto sales.

But a lot of them aren't. Let's forget that for the moment, and the fact that these companies, regardless of how many Americans they employ, are foreign-owned. Our tax money is going to prop up Japan's and Korea's bottom line. I'm sure that if the situation were reversed, they'd be delighted to return the favor.

But, as I said, let's set that aside. Isn't it sad that when congress bestows $3 billion in free money to American consumers to go out and buy cars, that four out of the top five they choose are Japanese? Are the foreigners that much better at satisfying American demand than Americans are? Do they know us better than we know ourselves?

Or is it simply that they're more nimble and can whirl their factories around like speedboats to start producing the cheaper, more efficient units that we now demand, while U.S. companies are still trying to pull off a U-turn with a freighter?

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Your cash for their clunkers


It’s a lot like the time your new neighbors bought that bigger house down the street that you always coveted.

When their loan payments ballooned, they realized they didn’t have the means to stay in it--that is, until the government bailed them out with your hard-earned tax dollars.

Now the snobs who lorded it over you on the road in their big, fat, gas-guzzling SUV’s are getting a financial break to reform their wastrel ways. Uncle Sam is helping them buy the kind of car you originally settled for because you were doing the right thing by the environment and your pocketbook.

The only way to deal with this without going insane is to take the long view. If you’re the type who believes in divine retribution for those who irritate you, then the definition of Hell for these people will be to wait in line for all eternity at, say, Disney World while good folks like you—who, obviously, are going to heaven—jump in ahead of them to ride Thunder Mountain Railroad, over and over again.

If you’re into reincarnation, karma will dictate that they come back as a 1970 AMC Gremlin—ugly from the moment of conception and a target of universal derision. You, the hot little Alfa Romeo, will snarkily toot your horn as you blow past them in the fast lane.

If you don't believe in those things, you can just go home and try to strangle your pillow.

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Florida: Prescriptions R Us

We're going about this all wrong.

We all know that Florida is always at the top on the lists of the bad stuff, and at the bottom of the lists of desirable stuff. For once, we should celebrate--rather than bemoan--our strengths.

Tourism is one of the legs of our economic stool, isn't it? (The others are development and agriculture, I think, although you'd never know it from our tomatoes, which often taste like they were shipped from a Siberian sawmill). Here we have the one attraction that people will travel all the way down here for, even in a recession, and Gov. Crist goes and signs a law making it harder to get.

Is this the kind of thinking you want out of your governor, much less your next U.S. Senator? After all, if they can't get their prescriptions filled here, they'll just go and get them someplace else, like Mexico. So, no harm done in the end. Plus, it helps keep our international trade balance in line.

We should be offering packages to our honored visitors. "Stay two nights in a Florida hotel, and we'll throw in a bus tour of the top pill mills in Broward and Palm Beach Counties. Reserve within the next 30 minutes and we'll send you home with a pet Burmese python."

We can even have a slogan: "Florida. You'll love us from your first dose."

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Wall Street bonuses are back!!!


You may be angry, but you'd be a fool if you were surprised.

This is what President Obama means when he says that you have to fix the nation's financial system before you can fix the economy. Translation: Until they get theirs, they're not going to let us get ours.

The freeze-up in the credit market was all about the financial types not seeing a way to get rich by lending out to the rest of us. Until that obstruction got cleared, nothing was going to move through the pipe. Think of it (as we should about virtually everything) from a tribal viewpoint. You look after your own first. These folks happen to have their hands on our throats, which is why they call themselves "Masters of the Universe."

How do they get away with this? Here is an analogy: I once took lessons from a flute teacher who charged $35 an hour. I said to him, "You've dedicated your life to practicing, perfecting, and performing your art. Yet, a plumber makes far more than you do per hour. Why is that?"

He laughed. "When your toilet backs up all over the floor, you don't call a flute player."

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State employees get kid glove treatment

This wouldn't be surprising if we had a Democratic-dominated legislature here in Florida. We know how they love to throw public money around, right?

But Republicans? The party of "starve the beast," "root out waste, fraud and abuse," and "government health care is creeping socialism?" They're willing to cut education and social services to balance the state budget, yet they also know how to take care of their own.

Those of us who are lucky enough to be employed by state government get inexpensive or even free health care, access to professional financial planners, and Cadillac retirement benefits, all on the public dime. Karl Marx would be grinning from ear to ear to know that the workers were so well taken care of.

Apologists say we need to give them these benefits in order to attract the best and the brightest talent, considering they have such low salaries. A check of those salaries shows they are comparable to or better than those in the private sector. And the poor dears have to do extra work now, what with all the layoffs.

Sound familiar? If you still have your private sector job, you've probably had to shoulder an extra workload thanks to all those empty desks around you.

Maybe if our coddled public servants had to live the way the rest of us do, there might be a little money left over so that elementary school teachers wouldn't have to buy classroom supplies out of their own pockets.

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A skunk by any other name...


Recently, the Republican members of our state legislature, in a showy burst of sanctimony, signed a No New Taxes pledge. This is their shtick and they're sticking to it, but in so doing, they effectively tied their own hands when it came to giving themselves options for how to deal with the state's financial crisis.

In the last session, they were faced with a dilemma: raise taxes as well as the ire of the people who voted them in, or make cuts in services that people really need, raising ire in the same benighted voters who think services just appear as a gift from God.

The only answer is to play semantic games, hoping the lumpenproletariat is so dense it won't catch on. The government is raising "fees." A "fee," you see, is a government charge for things people use.

As opposed to a "tax," which is...oops...the same thing.

Oh, well, as long as they didn't raise taxes.

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The Great American Vacation Ripoff

We're all feeling a bit spent after the mass Michael catharsis, and our president is overseas, although nobody seems to care.

The only item of interest to come out of the G-8 meeting (snore) is that the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is a proud, in-your-face skirt-chaser, and he's not holding any teary-eyed press conferences, thank God, to justify his behavior. They're much more civilized about these things in Italy.

It's the dog days. Al Franken joined the other comedians in the U.S. Senate... at least he's honest enough to admit to his calling. Sarah Palin's flash in the pan has sizzled out. I'm drawing cartoons about the fact that theme parks nickel and dime you to death once you've paid the steep fee to get in the gates.

Anybody who goes to a family attraction should expect to get fleeced. What makes it special is the fantasy. The kids get to imagine themselves in the midst of a charmed wonderland. The parent footing the bill gets to imagine that he or she is a small shopkeeper in Bedford-Stuyvesant getting shaken down by the neighborhood gang in exchange for their not smashing his plate-glass windows.

That's why they call it the Magic Kingdom.

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Hard times Fourth of July

Americans are having trouble coming to grips with all the ways the recession affects daily life.

Sure, we trim the budget at home, but when local government makes painful cuts that we feel down at the grassroots level, we get resentful. Take Independence Day fireworks, which we feel is our right as Americans to enjoy. Somehow, they just happen.

It's this preconception that causes civic leaders to swallow hard before they take away something so highly visible. They're afraid we'll take it out on them later at the polls.

On the other hand, how would you like to be a city worker who's been doing his or her job for decades, and doing it well, when some councilman comes to you and says, "Sorry, but we had to lay you off so we could save our own butts by blowing up a few thousand dollars in the atmosphere this year?"

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Madoff Sentencing

An armed robber goes into a convenience store to steal money out of the cash register. He pulls out a pistol and points it at the store clerk.

He has no intention of using it. He just wants to show the man he means business. The store clerk, upon seeing the weapon, involuntarily recoils. He slips on a puddle of Mountain Dew and his head hits the tile floor. He dies of a cerebral hemorrhage.

The robber is apprehended, and charged with something called "felony murder," which is to say that even though he never intended to take a life, he embarked on a series of activities that directly resulted in the death of the clerk.

How is Bernard Madoff any different than this guy, when his theft resulted in several suicides by people whose entire life savings had been wiped out?

He's lucky all he got was 150 years, and not the magic mojito I.V. As it is, I heard that he's not going to a country club prison. Thanks to the enormity of his crimes, he's rumored to be headed for medium security, with rapists, armed robbers, and other unsavory types who are also serving life sentences with no possibility of parole.

In other words, the system has no way of disciplining them if they should happen to visualize their own grandmother in the place of some little old lady who is now forced to survive on cat food, and decide to take appropriate action.

That's what it feels like not to know if you're going to make it through the next day, Mr. Madoff.

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FPL rate hike

I speak here as a disgruntled FPL customer ( Is there any other kind?). What ticks me, and probably others, off as much as the rate hike is the way they insult my intelligence with their lame corporate rationalizations.

FPL says that lower fuel charges and increases in efficiency will more than offset the new kilowatt-hour base rate increase, in fact lowering our total bills. If they're doing so well with all these economies, what do they need to raise our base rate for?

They say we pay less per kilowatt-hour than customers of other Florida utilities. Could this be because FPL is the biggest, and benefits from economies of scale? And, just because other utilities rip their customers off more than ours does, is that a valid reason to increase our rates?

It wouldn't be quite as bad if our service weren't so spotty. A storm doesn't have to be a hurricane to douse the power at my house. Probably true for yours, too.

On top of all that, they're picking a lousy time to do this. By further strangling homes and businesses in an already stumbling economy, they make it that much harder for their customers to claw their way back to prosperity someday. Less money for them, in the long run.

To put it kindly (and there's no reason that I should), this business tactic lacks foresight.

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Education funding cuts

You get what you pay for, and we Floridians have always undertaxed ourselves compared to other states.

It's part of our ethos here in God's Waiting Room, and some would argue that low taxes are what have fueled an economy that has, until now, been based on immigration from other states and countries.

A lot of our retired residents escaped from such high-tax states as New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. They've put kids through the education system Up North, and they're through with that. I would be, too, if I'd had to pay that much.

They have some pretty fine public schools up there. I just visited an elementary school in New Jersey whose multi-media computer room was filled with the latest Apple computers, and the courtyard contained a $90,000 Zen garden for the children to relax in while they contemplated the meaning of life. One classroom door label said, "Mandarin Chinese."

Admittedly, this was a high-end residential community, but clearly the residents were willing to tax themselves to the hilt to give their kids the very best. Here in Florida, they'd just complain and try to hang on to what was theirs.

We could have a top-notch education system, regardless of whether we were in a boom or bust economy, if we had the will.

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Higher education cuts

There's a saying in my profession, "If you have to put that many words into a cartoon, why not just write an editorial?"

I tend to agree with that philosophy, and do my best to keep my stuff short and sweet. Unfortunately, I couldn't think of a better way to make my point this time.

That having been said, it is an unfortunate reality that revenue shortfalls and budget cuts are having an effect on higher education everywhere.

What worries me is that, in an attempt to minimize the damage, the folks in charge will decide what programs to keep or drop based on popularity, rather than intrinsic worth.

Engineering is a popular major, because engineers tend to make money. So do economics majors-turned-stockbrokers. But what about Classics, never a major that has attracted multitudes to its doors? If one of the higher purposes of education is to further universal knowledge in increments measured by the contribution that individuals make to the whole, then Classics is indispensable.

If Classics, or Literature, or Philosophy are not passed on to the next generation, who will pass them on to the next? Will we forget what intellectual forces forged our civilization? I, for one, would hate to put the character of future human understanding in the hands of a bunch of happy-go-lucky twenty-year-olds who voted their favorite courses with their feet.

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We'll miss the dealerships


Surely there are more efficient and less intimidating ways to buy a car, what with the Internet and all.

But is there a more American way? After all, think of all the Little League teams in small towns across our heartland, their uniforms emblazoned with dealership names that start with "Bud," "Chuck," "Buzz," "Scooter" and "Red," that will have to lay down their bats forever.

Think of the Fourth of July Sale-a-Brations we'll never sale-a-brate again. Think of the little minuet you do with the salesman, who knows all along what his bottom line is while you, sweat beading your brow, try in vain to divine it.

And let's talk about the law of unintended consequences. Think of all the American flags that will never get ordered. Enough, maybe, to shut down our domestic American flag production. Then, only the Chinese will be making American flags. What if there's a war, and we find ourselves without this critical strategic industry?

Clearly, this is a Mom and Apple Pie issue. Contact your Congressperson, before it's too late.

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Hummer bought by the Chinese!


This really seems to be "who'd a thunk it?" week.

It's bad enough that GM goes bankrupt, but now we have the company selling one of its iconic brands to...the Chinese!

Remember when you saw a Hummer (usually when it was blocking your line of sight to make a left turn, or back out of a parking space), and its owner looked so tall in the saddle? Remember that surge of good old American pride when somebody who drove a vehicle that got about ten miles to the gallon left it running in the parking lot to keep the A.C. running while he or she shopped, just because they could? It does bring a tear to one's eye.

Now the stylish street knockoff of our armed forces' standard combat vehicle is just another rice-burner, like all those Toyotas, Hyundais and (shudder) Mitsubishis that lesser mortals sneak around in.

No, it's worse, because the Koreans and the Japanese aren't poised to take over the world, and they don't hold the tattered remains of our economy in thrall. That's right, every Hummer that gets sold now is aiding and abetting the enemy.

Looks like it's time for our own Cultural Revolution.

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Hurricane preparedness...or lack of it


The fact that many coastal residents are not prepared for a hurricane is no surprise.

Nobody is going to prepare for anything as long as the threat remains an abstraction. It's human nature. They will begin to prepare, however, when the news that a storm is approaching percolates its way through the ordinary stress and distractions of their daily lives.

This usually happens about forty-eight hours before the storm hits. All of a sudden, there are lines at Home Depot for (now scarce) plywood, and at the supermarkets for water, batteries and other staples that should have been bought months in advance. Incredibly, home improvement stores report that much of the plywood is returned after a storm fails to materialize, as if by surviving a near-miss, we have been inoculated against future catastrophes.

That kind of attitude can only be ascribed to blind superstition. This is what a lot of people must be taking solace in when they fail to perform simple preparatory tasks despite incessant government and media reminders.

It's too late now, but realize that I left ground bat wing and eye of newt out of the cartoon. Shoulda been better prepared.

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General Motors Bankruptcy


It's supposed to be a "controlled bankruptcy," not the death knell of a once-great company. It's a way to reemerge, like Phoenix, from the ashes. We've expected it for some time.

All the same, it's still a shock. Who'd have thought it would ever happen in our lifetimes? GM was the very backbone of our country, its stock solid as bedrock. "What's good for General Motors is good for the United States of America."

I guess we're still supposed to believe that. With one in ten jobs in our economy dependent upon the auto industry, we need to pump yet more billions down the memory hole and just pray that this particular infusion will work.

A word about competitiveness on the world market: It doesn't matter how well you build a car, if the Japanese, the Koreans or the Germans can build one just as well at a lower cost. Until Congress passes some meaningful health care legislation that takes some of the burden off corporations, companies like GM will always have to build health care expense into the price of each unit they sell.

A silver lining...maybe this is just the kind of pressure our spineless pols need to resist the siren call of the health care industry for once in their craven lives. Yeah...that's the American Dream.

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Welcome, hurricane season


My editor knows something about economics. At least, he says he does.

He knows more than I do, which to me makes him an authority.

He likes to terrify us during editorial board meetings with little hypotheticals, like: "Suppose a massive hurricane hits, and you lose your roof. Sure, you have a windstorm policy, but because it's now so expensive, you opted for the highest possible deductible...say, $12,000. So you go to the bank for the twelve grand, and they say, 'We're not lending, especially to you, since the value of your home has dropped below the amount of your mortgage.' Now, multiply that by several hundred thousand cases, and you've got a real catastrophe."

Then he says that the only solution will be for the state to step in and start handing out money to people so that they can pay their deductibles. Since the state is required to balance its budget every year, that means all of us taxpayers will have to step in, including those who bought before the bubble and whose mortgages are not upside-down. A political nightmare.

Which is when we turn our eyes to our rich uncle in Washington for Federal relief. You know that old expression, "There are no atheists in foxholes?"

Try this one: "There are no Libertarians in roofless homes."

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Gas prices rising again

The reason the oil companies gave us last year for the terrifying run up in pump prices made at least some sense: the Chinese. Their unquenchable industrial growth sucked all the oil out of the market.

Well, this year it’s different. The economic meltdown is global, and the Chinese engine has throttled back. With fewer jobs to commute to, the rest of us are driving less, as well. We’re in a glut of crude.

So why are we experiencing déjà vu from last summer?

I love this one: “Reconfiguration of refineries to adjust for seasonal blends.” What is that? First of all, it’s not like the pending arrival of summer comes as a big surprise. Why do they suddenly have to shut down all of their refining capacity to “reconfigure?” Who’s doing the planning—chimpanzees?

My car, by the way, runs just as badly on “winter” fuel as it does on “summer” fuel. No need for a “seasonal adjustment.”

We consumers should band together to demand more creativity in excuses from our oil companies. We deserve at least that much.

Of course, they’ll tell us we’re lucky they even bother. If they wanted to, they could charge extra for plausible ones.

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Take Your Child To Work Day


This cartoon idea seemed like a natural under the circumstances. If Take Your Child To Work Day is supposed to teach kids about the reality of the workplace, they might as well learn that the term, “pink slip,” like, “green card,” is just a figure of speech.

In reality, it’s an icy smile from some HR type who knows he or she still has a job as long as there are people left to fire, and maybe a security guard who escorts you out just in case you turn psycho and try to firebomb your computer.

Maybe, if you’re like the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather II, your erstwhile boss catches up with you in the street with a basket containing a loaf of bread and a salami.

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The banking "crisis"


Remember how the $600 toilet seat helped us finally understand defense spending waste in a concrete way?

The auto company CEOs who flew to Washington in private planes to beg for handouts... the obscene bonuses for the same Wall Street masters of the universe whose greed got us into this mess...these are the convenient handles that we, the great unwashed, must grasp if we are ever going to comprehend the bewildering abstractions that swirl around us and snake their wispy tentacles into our pockets.

The problem with this banking paradox is that it isn't making sense to us taxpayers. If they're doing so well, why do they need our help? Even if they do need help, why should they get it before we do? And what happened to that first $600 billion of TARP money? It was supposed to grease the skids. They aren't skidding yet.

Somebody's got, as Ricky Ricardo said, some 'splainin' to do. Or some better 'splainin', anyway, because it seems like the only constant in all this backing and filling is that we, the public, keep getting ripped off. When we ask why, nobody has any answers.

The 'Splainer in Chief, for all his rhetorical abilities, could be doing a better job at laying it out. And the Loyal Opposition, rather than just sniping and obfuscating, could be displaying a little more statesmanship by presenting a credible alternative.

We should be holding their feet to the--oh, that's right. This isn't an election year. No wonder they aren't sweating it.

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The death of inflation


If you ever wanted to see the law of supply and demand in action, this is the time.

We're bombarded daily with incredible sales: a third off, half off, sixty percent off. The fact that they can afford to sell stuff at this much of a markdown and still clear a profit makes you realize how artificially high retail prices must have been when everybody was flush. Back in the good times, even so-called "deep" discounts were ripoffs.

How sad. All this wonderful junk that we always wanted, at prices we can finally afford. Only, we can't afford them anymore. We'll just have to do without.

Wait a minute...that's un-American. Ahhh, that's where credit cards come in.

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The Wheel of Ill Fortune

My Creationist friends aren't going to appreciate this, but Florida--South Florida in particular--is a Darwinian environment for people and dwellings.

It is a rare building indeed that does not fall victim to such local perils as windstorms, the Formosan termite, the Cuban Death's Head cockroach, tuberculosis-inducing mold, and a host of other natural nightmares.

As if that weren't enough, we have to face brimstone-laden panels of Chinese-made gypsum board, predatory lending institutions and additional man-made threats to home and hearth, like entire neighborhoods turning into ghost towns. Only the toughest humans and domiciles survive this brutal natural selection process.

Back to Creationism: Anyone who really believes in the doctrine of "Intelligent Design" should take a good look at how this region developed. It'll make a Big Bang theorist out of anybody.

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General Motors Obama Wagoner


They're calling it "tough love." President Obama has given General Motors sixty days to clean up its act and present a plan for the future, or we're cuttin' it off. He demanded the head of its CEO, Rick Wagoner, as part of the price of government aid.

Of course, Mr. Wagoner isn't the only one to blame. Sure, his company built big, fat profit-rich SUVs, but we--the American consumer--happily snapped them up. Then, being fickle, we abandoned them when the price of fuel rose. Now, nobody's buying anything, even small cars. Is that his fault?

Let's not forget the unions. I just heard that they get five weeks of vacation, 15 paid holidays a year, and Cadillac health insurance, for which they do not have to pay. Pretty hard to be competitive with the Japanese when so much fat is built into the cost of every car.

Why didn't Obama sack the big financial types? I heard it was because they're the only ones who know enough about the Byzantine system they created to unravel it. Wagoner's big weakness is that he runs a big industrial concern, and there are a lot of people who can do that, certainly as well or as poorly as he did.

It may or may not have been the best move, from a businees standpoint, for Obama to reach in and make breathtaking personnel decisions, but it was certainly politically astute. It looks dramatic, and in this climate, it gives people a warm feeling to see some bigwig's head rolling around on the assembly line floor.

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The murder rate and the economy

Law enforcement types are really scratching their heads over this one. Normally, when the economy sags, there's an uptick in violent crimes and murders. In this recession, however, the year-over-year numbers are down, at least in Broward County, FL.

My theory is that we are confronted with the worst economy that those of us who still have the strength to lift an assault weapon have ever seen in our lifetimes. It's scary, and everyone's too busy out looking for work or trying to hang onto his job to indulge in flighty diversions like killing other people.

An alternative postulate: you know what they say about most murders being committed by someone the victim knew personally. Maybe that someone, at the moment of pulling the trigger, remembers that the bullet's recipient is the one who brings home a significant portion of the bacon. These days, a person with a steady job is somebody to be valued. Maybe it's in everyone's best interests to kiss and make up.

Just an idea. I'm willing to hear others.

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Disney World layoffs


When Walt Disney first built his amusement park in Anaheim, CA, his genius was in creating a mystique around it. It wasn't a place, it was a fantasy experience. You paid once to get in, and that was it--you and your kids turned yourselves over to the confectionery world he conceived.

Now Disney World, Florida's biggest tourist attraction--the destination point of the great American hajj--is suffering the same fate as any other business that relies on disposable income. The suffering is real. Actual people are being thrown out of work.

And while we feel sympathy for their plight, as we do for everyone who has lost his or her job, it's impossible to resist muddying the line between the Disney concept and reality.

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Tim Geithner, Obama, and the financial crisis


You know you're in trouble when the head honcho expresses his unqualified confidence in your abilities.

Yes, there's no question that Tim Geithner has walked into the kind of hailstorm not faced by a Treasury Secretary in any living person's memory. All the same, his days are numbered. For one thing, he hasn't exactly covered himself with glory. For another, Washington is never happier than when there's blood in the water.

Some feel it's time to put a chink in the armor of the Victory Garden-cultivating, Jay Leno-schmoozing arriviste whose poll numbers remain annoyingly high. What better way than to pick off a Cabinet member?

Pack your bags, Timmy.

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AIG bonuses, Part II


When we first heard that an idea floating around Congress was to tax these arrogant incompetents, some of whom don't even work at AIG any more, 100% of their bonuses, it seemed like the perfect way to rattle their sense of entitlement.

If the government's going to take it all away anyway, why not get ahead of the parade and look like a patriot by offering to give it up for your country? You can walk away thinking you're a hero instead of the bottom-feeder you are.

The problem is, they still can't quite bring themselves to pry their fingers completely off the loot. AIG CEO Edward Liddy said in Congressional testimony that he has asked the bigger bonus recipients to give back at least half.

To me, this is even more insulting than standing their ground. It's like they're throwing scraps to a dog. Don't they realize that what they're keeping, in some cases as much as $3 million, would put a large family that had lost its income out of its misery forever, and then some?

Are we supposed to be grateful for this show of generosity? I'm beginning to agree with Sen. Grassley that a public apology followed by a hara-kiri performance may be the only way these guys will ever learn their lesson.

Even then, they'd probably have their fingers crossed behind their backs.

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AIG bonuses

I always thought that bonuses, by definition, were something extra that was awarded for good performance. The government is claiming that AIG is contractually obligated to pay these obscene amounts of money to its executives, in some cases as much as $6 million.

Most of the bonus money, we hear, is going directly to the division that made the shaky investments that put AIG in the hole. If they have the bonuses coming to them no matter what, they really aren't bonuses. They're salary.

AIG argues that if they didn't pay bonuses like these, they would lose their best and brightest talent. I submit we could find better and brighter by randomly running a finger down the Manhattan white pages.

And another thing-- AIG fears that if the execs don't get paid, they might sue. I say, let them. No, encourage them. It would be high entertainment indeed to watch their lawyers try to assemble a jury of American taxpayers that would return a verdict in their clients' favor.

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Madoff Sentencing

I think some of the vitriol aimed at Madoff, even by those who weren't his victims, is based on the acknowledgement that he is not sorry for what he has done. Not in the slightest. A sociopath, devoid of conscience.

While he was confined to his apartment, (a show of leniency that added insult to those he injured), Madoff brazenly mailed expensive jewelry and cash to friends and relatives, right under the noses of his federal keepers. Now skeptics say he's pleading guilty in hopes the feds will leave his family out of the investigation. He holds no cards, yet he's still trying to game the system.

Personally, I find it refreshing. I'm tired of people in the public trust--like politicians, for example--dragging their wives up to the podium with them to blubber about how sorry they are for what they did (read here: for getting caught at what they did). Madoff is a genuinely detestable character, unrepentant, an equal-opportunity perp who is shuffling off to the slammer with his head held high.

There is no room for pity. None asked for, none given. Bernie is offering himself up as the national pinata, someone we can hate without reservation. We needed a clear embodiment of the inchoate violation we all feel, and he has done himself proud.

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I've stopped listening to National Socialist Radio. Every day, whether it's Morning Edition or All Things Considered, you might as well just call the programs Forty Variations On The Theme That The Economy's Going To Hell. It's like Groundhog Day without the video.

For a little comic relief, they sometimes slip in a story about how Afghanistan and Pakistan are lost causes.

Forget that stuff. Here's the news that will really make your flesh crawl: a liquor wholesaler I know told me that business is the worst he's ever seen. The world is awash in wine. The French, who until last year were still arrogantly raising prices on Champagne and Cognac (because they could) are now drowning in their own swill. Nothing to celebrate. People are buying jug wines and cheap no-name vodka, which this guy says the average person can't tell from the expensive stuff in a blind taste test, anyway. And they're buying less of it.

When Americans start skimping on nutritional necessities like booze, it means they're really out of money. Time to go to the mattresses.

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Tallahassee, Republicans and taxes

It must be pretty grim up there in Tallahassee. I never thought I’d see the day when Republicans would abandon their creed and agree to look at “revenue enhancement.”

It was one thing when just poor people were hurting…they’re Democrats. But now our legislators are hearing screams from all levels.

Remember the exquisitely named Laffer Curve? As I recall, it held that lowering taxes would stimulate commerce, which in turn would create more revenue even at the lower tax rate. It didn’t say anything about what to do when you’re spiraling into the tank and there’s no commerce to tax no matter what the rate, even though there are still necessities to pay for, like schools, cops, and firefighters. Who’s laffin’ now?

So, the desperate pols are thinking about taxing previously exempt items like bottled water. Bottled water is an absurd idea, anyway, and un-green besides. Everybody should get a filtration system and reusable bottles. It’s much cheaper.

Also, they can raise the “sin tax” on stuff like booze, butts and exotic dancing. Why tax sin? Because sin is fun, and a whole wing of the Republican Party, the social conservatives, believe that "fun" is something that nobody should ever have. Raising sin taxes, therefore, has a double-edged appeal: a politician can both generate revenue and shore up his base at the same time.

See? It really isn’t so hard, after all.

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The bailout and the wealthy

Like John McCain, I’m proud to say that I don’t know much about economics. Didn’t study it in school, because it involved numbers.

I do know this much, though: it looks like “Trickle Down” has had its day. The Reagan-era concept that if you let the rich get as rich as they possibly can, they’ll share their largess with the hoi polloi--floating all boats--has been discredited.

They got richer all right, but the rest of us didn’t. In fact, those at the lowest end of the spectrum are doing even worse than before. Other trickle-ees like me at the middle-level feel like the fire hydrant outside the Westminster Kennel Club. They need us, but they don't want us inside.

I read somewhere that the Swedes have a tax system that we rugged individualists in America would abhor. Rather than allow the huge disparity in incomes that we have here, Sweden taxes its wealthiest citizens as much as one-hundred-and-ten percent of their income to keep everybody more or less in line. This is why the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman moved here (I get the feeling I wouldn’t have understood his movies even if they weren’t in Swedish, but that’s another story).

Punitive? Maybe. Stifles the capitalistic impulse? No doubt. But the last survey I could find of the U.N. Human Development Index showed Sweden as No. 2 in world standard of living, with the United States stumbling in at No.8.

But then, those Swedes have all those un-American things like cradle-to-grave health care, child support, decent retirement benefits…I could go on.

But I won’t, because that’s socialism…and as we all know, socialism sucks.

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Paying for the stimulus


You've heard conservatives use the term, "Tax and Spend Liberals." Well, at least there's a certain moral defensibility to taxing and spending.

If you tax before you spend, then you are asking the beneficiaries of government largess to pay up front for the cost of their benefits. There's a built-in accountability to that.

Borrowing and spending is less defensible, and utterly indefensible when you do it to the degree our federal government did it during the Bush years.

With the stimulus plan, we are now asking the unborn to shoulder yet another burden. This is what John McCain calls "generational theft," a term we did not hear out of him when Congress was appropriating off-the-books money for prosecuting a war in Iraq that we did not need to be fighting. Maybe an eight-hundred-billion-dollar bailout wouldn't hurt our grandchildren quite as much if they weren't expected to pay for that, too.

As we know, it is the American Way to have our cake now and pay for it on credit. The difference between this and buying stuff on our MasterCards is that the dunning calls probably won't start until after we're dead.

Yes, future generations will curse us. I think the Octuplet Mom should go ahead and have a few more. The country will need them to help pay the bills.

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President Obama's address to Congress


This must be what they mean when they say "leap of faith."

Imagine how worried you are about your job, your home, your watched that speech, and you wish you could summon up the confidence that President Obama appeared to exude up there on the dais. You want to, but it's soooo hard.

Then, try to imagine how things would look to you if that were John "Don't Know Much About Economics" McCain standing up there, instead of Obama.

And count your blessings.

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It's un-American


It sticks in your craw, doesn't it? It goes against everything your mama taught you about there being no reward for bad behavior.

You remember that day a couple of years ago, when you were standing on your front lawn holding a beer, watching as the moving van pulled up down the street. You saw it unload all that stuff for the family that bought that house with the bigger pool than yours, the one YOU'd wanted but knew was just a tad beyond your means.

Now they're in trouble because they bought too much house, and instead of being thrown out into the street like they deserve, the feds are asking YOU to bail them out so they don't lose their home. And your only crime was to mind your p's and q's. You know what that is? That's SOCIALISM.

Then they come along and tell you that if you don't help everybody in you neighborhood stay in their homes, the value of your own property will go down the toilet along with theirs. that you put it that way...

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Charlie Crist and the stimulus


Editor's Note: There has been some misinterpreation of Chan's cartoon. The governor's complexion is a play on his tan, and is not meant as a racial slur.

Antonio Fins
Editorial Page Editor

Governor Charlie looked good the other day on Meet The Press.
Compared to Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana wunderkind who is clearly positioning himself for a presidential run in 2012 (and spent most of a minute playing a coy game of tag about it with David Gregory), Crist seemed the soul of common-sense.

Charlie said he cared more about the people of Florida than political labels, and he was going to grab the money and be grateful. "We're all Americans," he said of his support of the president (he must have been reading the Lowe-Down).

And how about that magnificent tan? I like to call Charlie the George Hamilton of Politics. With the possible exception of Arnold Schwarzenegger, never has a governor so embodied one of the bedrock industries of his state, unless you want to count that bizarre Sarah Palin interview where a turkey was being slaughtered in the background.

When Charlie casually drops the term "Sunshine State" into his conversation as a synonym for Florida, you can just imagine the shivering bluenoses Up North logging on to Travelocity for the cheapest fares.

The sad thing is, his bipartisan attitude gives him a lot of appeal as a presidential candidate, but he'll never win the Republican nomination by acting so sensible.

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The stimulus hits home


It's easy to posture and spout the Newt Gingrich mantra about cutting taxes when you're up in the Washington fairyland and "deficit spending" is just a couple of words that cause some eye-rolling at Georgetown cocktail parties.

It's quite another when you're where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. State legislatures have annoying little realities, like constitutional requirements to balance the budget, to deal with.

If some federal program comes along that is going to shower billions on your state, you're going to grab the money and run, whether the Democrats passed it all by themselves or not. If it keeps you from having to make those painful cuts that bring screams from your constituents, then it doesn't matter if Karl Marx himself wrote that stimulus plan.

All together now: YES WE CAN!!!

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Obama signs the stimulus package


It looks like Obama's already gotten lost in the "bubble." Sure, Denver has economic problems, but why did he have to fly a 50-ton airplane all the way out there and back to "emphasize" that the cavalry is coming to the rescue? Tone deafness has set in all too quickly.

What do we maintain a White House Rose Garden for? Sure, it's cold out there this time of year, but Denver isn't exactly balmy in February, either.

If Obama wanted to make a point about housing and jobs, he could just as easily have motorcaded over to one of the many neighborhoods in D.C. that are suffering. The visuals would have been just as compelling, and the government would be a few million dollars less in debt.

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Congressional Republicans and the stimulus


Talk about tunnel vision. There are three things uppermost in Americans' minds right now: save my job, save my house, give me and my family medical care. Not among them is the scoring of temporary political points in the Washington echo chamber.

Congressional Republicans, by voting almost unanimously against the only possible remedy for our economic predicament that we've got going at the moment, find themselves in the unenviable position of hoping we all continue to suffer for two more years so they can gain a few seats in the House and Senate if the stimulus fails.

This is truly strange. I thought we were all Americans here. This bill was going to pass no matter what, so wouldn't it have been better to get on board, and shoehorn in some of their own pet stuff in the process? They did get more of their precious tax cuts as it was.

Remember that nutball ultra-conservative Congresswoman from Minnesota, Michelle Bachmann, who distinguished herself last Fall by calling for a full-scale investigation into the patriotism of members of Congress? She had no idea at the time how right she was.

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Valentine's Day and the economy

A survey I once read about said that men feel more stress over Valentine's Day than any other holiday. Evidently, the fear is that the wrong gift, or one not lavish enough, might wreck everything.

There was an attractive young Cuban-American reporter in our newsroom a few years back. I'm not sure being Cuban-American had anything to do with it...let's just say she was a traditionalist in matters romantic. She was known to have had several suitors on the string at the same time, and as Valentine's Day drew nigh, she began tapping her foot. Sure enough, Security began arriving carrying enormous batches of roses to the point where it looked like a funeral service was taking place over in her cubicle. Her haul became the yardstick by which all future Valentine's floral offerings were judged.

Our current economic situation is bound to create even more trauma as young swains seek to pinch pennies without looking penurious.

It will also stimulate cleverness and creativity in the art of gift-giving. For what it's worth, Ladies, I suggest you go with the creative guy.

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Jeff Kottkamp flies high


Imagine being a statewide politician so obscure that the first time most of your residents even realize you exist is when you're caught sponging on the public dime.

Our clueless Lieutenant Governor, Jeff Kottkamp, who flew his family around in the state plane while "forgetting" to reimburse taxpayers for the expense (as required by state law), has suddenly gotten religion and said he will pay us back, now that he's been exposed.

As for "legal" use of state aircraft, apparently no newly-completed outhouse or equipment shed in Kottkamp's home district of Ft. Myers is safe from his flying all the way down from Tallahassee at our expense to cut the ribbon for it.

In his oversight, Mr. Kottkamp has raised another issue, which is why do we need a Lieutenant Governor in the first place? He has no constitutional role except to take over if, God forbid, something were to happen to Charlie Crist. And, it's not like Charlie carries the nuclear codes around with him or anything. Surely a constitutional chain of succession could be put in place without fear for our collective safety.

It's a time of severe fiscal austerity for Florida, and worthy programs are being cut to balance the budget. Since it looks like we're stuck with the guy, the least he can do is have the grace to remain in one place or the other until his term is up.

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The Madoff Scandal


Whenever there's any kind of bad news, from a high incidence of HIV/AIDS to soaring school dropout rates, Florida is well represented. Our state regularly rates the poorest in the desirable statistics and the highest in the negative ones.

It is no different with the Madoff scandal. Floridians constitute a huge proportion of the con artist's victims. I suppose we can be happy we're not in the majority, but it's bad enough.

Moving beyond the Florida connection, it's fascinating that a number of really famous people--like Kevin Bacon and Steven Spielberg, to name just two--were stung. We peons have this feeling that famous people must be "in the know," and that there's some secret code among them that prevents them from falling victim to the usual scams the rest of us face. Also, they must be smarter than we are or they wouldn't be famous.

The fact that these people were not insulated tells us something important about the nature of fame: in some cases, it's a byproduct of hard work and excellence in a particular field--like Madoff victim Sandy Koufax.

In other cases, people get famous for things that have nothing to do with intelligence, like non-victims Paris Hilton and the Octuplet Lady.

Fame, in other words, says more about us than it does about them. It's about whom we're willing to confer it upon, and for what reasons. They're just folks, with the same problems and susceptibilities we have, only they can't go out to the driveway and grab the paper without some jerk sticking a camera in their faces.

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Congress and the stimulus plan

Yes, the democratic process is slow and cumbersome, but we're hanging on by our toenails while these guys grandstand for the local audiences and their lobbyist financial supporters to craft the finest possible stimulus plan.

Sure, we don't need money to re-sod the mall, or fund psychotherapy for pets or whatever little goodies are tucked in there. Normally, we'd all be against earmarks and sweeteners, but sometimes that's the necessary juice that gets things passed, Congress being what it is.

Remember Terri Schiavo? They passed that bill in about fifteen minutes, and W. even quit clearing brush and flew all the way back from Crawford at a cost of $10,000 per minute to sign it in person.

So here's an idea, Congress (Democrats and Republicans alike): Think of America as a comatose patient, and the stimulus plan as a feeding tube. Pass something, pronto.

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Wall Street bonuses


Just who do these people think they are, anyway? They get richly rewarded in the fat times; they get richly rewarded in the lean times.

Now the times are so lean that they need a bailout from taxpayers. And what is the first thing they do? They richly reward each other.

I have a theory about this. Take the podiatrist. Does a person go to medical school and then look at smelly feet all day to save the world one foot at a time, or because he wants to be the Albert Schweitzer of Podiatry and win the Nobel Prize for Bunion Research? No, he does it because it's a living. If he can do some good while he's making that living, then he can go home at night feeling like he's worth something.

Financial types, on the other hand, do not benefit from this spiritual remuneration. If your living is to make money, nothing more, nothing less, then the only sin is in not making as much of it as you possibly can. Who cares if somebody else gets screwed, or if the money comes from the taxpayers? It's green, and it pays the mortgage on that mcmansion in Greenwich, Conn.

This is where Obama has it all wrong, trying to shame Wall Street. They do not know shame. Shame is raking in less than the guy in the cubicle next to you. The only answer is to cut off the nutrition stream. Starve the beast. Regulate everything, and then double- and triple-check the regulations, because like cockroaches, the financial types will find a way to slip through the cracks.

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If the ad fits...


First off, I would like to thank Joseph, an observant reader, who pointed out that I mistakenly made Southwest Airlines the original subject of this cartoon. My apologies to Southwest, for it is, in fact, Spirit Airlines that I should have spotlighted. The correction has been duly made.

And, yes, Joseph, I do read my own newspaper, usually around 5:30 a.m., and at that hour I have been known to make more than a few mistakes.

Many of us in the newspaper business still think of what we do as a calling, not just a job. That having been said, nobody better understands the direct relationship between advertising and meaningful, rewarding employment better than we do.

We hear over and over that consumer spending is the backbone of the nation’s economy. The fact that consumers are now stashing their discretionary dollars under the mattress for a rainy day is one of the reasons why the recession is spiraling out of control.

But, when consumers are in a buying mood, advertising helps them make decisions about where to spend those dollars. It’s the circulatory system for that economic backbone, to extend the metaphor a little.

So when Spirit Airlines' flight attendants whine that it’s unprofessional to wear aprons with an ad for Bud Light on them, I say buck up. Instead of their grousing, they should join the rest of America in trusting their colds to Tylenol, in not squeezing the Charmin, in taking the thirty-six hour pill that’s ready when they are, and in choosing the adult diaper that has been proven in independent lab tests to be more absorbent.

Their jobs are probably the ones being saved by that ad.

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The treasury embarrassment


A candidate for Treasury secretary who "forgot" to pay all his taxes? That's like saying Al "Carbon Footprint" Gore quietly pays a huge electric bill on his big fat house in Tenne--oh, wait a minute.

The cheeses were opining that Geithner's confirmation was "too big to fail." The country desperately needs his matchless talents to steer us safely through the economic maelstrom. Nobody else will do, not even Larry Summers, who's supposed to be the true economic brain in the Obama Administration.

Especially Larry Summers, because as president of Harvard, he said some intemperate things about women that essentially blew his chances out of the water as far as the liberal base is concerned. Evidently, he wasn't too big to fail.

Neither are you or I, for that matter. Try pulling a stunt like Geithner's and see how long the IRS will let you get away with it.

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The shifting sands of public opinion


Not to rain on President Obama's parade, but the American people (at least the current crop) do not weather hardship well. The difference between us and our forebears from the 1930's is that they never had it all that good to start with, so the Great Depression represented, for them, a more severe degree of personal restraint, not a quantum contraction of lifestyle as our current situation demands.

Our history of living high on the credit hog, those big fat cars and houses we really couldn't afford, the flat-screen TVs, the travel, the dining out, are all too vivid in our recent memory. We got used to the taste of prosperity, even if it was just a chimera. We want it back, pronto. A few more months of denial, and we're going to forget that the crash happened on George W. Bush's watch. All we'll think about is that Obama seems to be spinning his wheels at a furious pace, but we're no closer to moving back into our mcmansions.

That'll be right around when things start heating up for the off-year Congressional elections, and the Republicans will be more than happy to point out how little progress we will have made under an all-Democrat government.

How did it all begin? Heck, who will be able to remember that far back?

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Crimes against the unborn


You've probably heard the epithet "Tax-and-Spend Liberals" bandied about, particularly by conservatives who no longer have Communists hiding under their beds to demonize.

Whatever your political stripe, at least there's a certain integrity to taxing and spending, because the pain is being inflicted on the payer at the moment that the public "servant" is making the expenditure. He who spends can then be held accountable on election day.

There's a moral bankruptcy (if you'll pardon the expression) about borrowing and spending, because those who distributed the largess will have gotten the credit for whatever the money did, but be long gone by the time the bill comes due.

Since conservatives refuse to increase taxes on anybody, it appears that borrowing is going to be the only way out of our current predicament. It's curious that these same conservatives who worry so much about the rights of the unborn are not afraid to saddle them with crippling debt that they had nothing to do with.

Of course, the unborn don't vote.

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Reduction in force at the North Pole


Nine years ago, back at the turn of the century, I did a cartoon montage for the op-ed page looking forward into the future. One of the drawings was of a typical 21st-Century ultra-couch potato, an inert organism with an electrode implanted in his brain. Through the implant, he was fed all the virtual experiences of a full, rewarding life as we knew it at the end of 1999.

Technology is moving even faster than anyone could have predicted. As we tighten our belts, "virtual" reality, which is cheap, is becoming more and more the norm. Look at all the fantasy computer games, the online dating services, Facebook and Myspace, which substitute for physical interaction.

My question is, at what point is "virtual" so commonplace that it becomes "actual" to those who have grown up never having experienced the things of which "virtual" is only an artful facsimile?

What happens to those genuine experiences safeguarded only by the old-timers and their failing memories? They become arid wisps, consigned to the history books and back copies of the newspapers. And nobody reads books and newspapers anymore.

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Joy to the world, 'cause I got mine.


Were you really naive enough, back when Treasury Secretary Paulson first made his pitch for the bank bailouts, to believe that this wasn't going to happen?

As soon as he said the 700 billion absolutely had to be appropriated posthaste or the republic would fail, the scheme had disaster written all over it. Not only are the banks paying their executives the compensation they think they deserve, they're paying dividends to their shareholders, and they're not even telling us exactly what they're doing, because nobody is there to tell them they have to.

The idea was for the financial institutions to sluice the money out to us in loans to get the economy moving, not to feather their own nests, but somebody forgot to include oversight into the legislation. Now, the only unlikely hero at the gates protecting us from a Visigothic sacking is a comical character who resembles a garden gnome, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. He's fighting a valiant rear-guard action, trying to shame the banks into doing the right thing by exposing their shenanigans to the public.

This also is destined to fail, because shame is not a word in their vocabulary. Who ends up with the bucks is the only credo they respect.

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The Madoff Ripoff


It would be easy for us working stiffs to indulge in a little schadenfreude over this Madoff investment Ponzi scheme uproar. The rich, trying to get even richer, ended up hoist on their own petard of greed.

Unfortunately, there were quite a few charities that placed their money and trust in the hands of this criminal as well, so a lot of innocent "little" people are being hurt.

Since Madoff's fifty-billion-dollar crime was white collar, he'll probably end up doing a few years at the Allenwood Federal Country Club, if he does any time at all. Meanwhile, a small-time crook who rolls a Seven-Eleven with a pistol will probably do twenty years or more, even though his crime affects far fewer people far less drastically. But that's the way the system works.

Meanwhile, where were the Feds while all this was happening? According to recent stories, they were probably sitting around with their thumbs up their derivatives, giving each other inside stock tips instead of doing due diligence.

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The decline and fall of the airlines

The old-timers allow as how, back in the day, folks would dress up in their Sunday-best duds to go up in aeroplanes.

Why, shucks...they used to gussy up to go on the train, or to the doctor's, even. Those were the days when people showed respect.

But flying really was something special. Pilots were like gods with Apollo's wings attached to their shiny brogans. They say the first stewardesses, (yep, that's what they called 'em back then--none of this mealy-mouthed "flight attendant" claptrap) were required to be registered nurses.

They served real food, too. Not just peanuts and crackers, but gourmet stuff, and they gave you little printed menus with names on 'em you couldn't even pronounce.

Course, in those days before deregulation and all, a plane ticket would set you back about six months' pay. But that didn't matter, 'cuz back then the dime-store science fiction magazines were telling us that by 2008, we'd all be traveling effortlessly by tele-transporter to points across the globe.

With no surcharges for blankets and pillows.

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Deck the halls with signs of discord


Remember the fat years, when we could afford to sit back and get voluntarily offended that our own religious symbol was omitted from some public gathering place, or that one representing a creed we didn't like was included along with ours?

That's a luxury for people who aren't worried about their livelihoods, or whether they'll ever get to retire, or whether their kids will ever get to go to college. It all seems so trivial now.

It's a shame, because the annual mall protests were one of the things that gave South Florida its pizzazz. Is it possible that this recession will forge us into one big, disgusting cesspool of brotherly love?

Naah. We're stronger than that.

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Holiday stampede of bargains!


Our national motto, "E Pluribus Unum," isn't just a bunch of Latin. It embodies what we stand for as a nation: "Out of many, one."

"One," as in, "me," as in, "me first." Let's face it--it's our rugged individualism that made this country what many of its citizens call "the greatest civilization on Earth."

Rugged individualism, for a lot of people, is interchangeable with the term "social Darwinism," which means that the strongest survive, while the weak perish.

So if you are feckless enough to find yourself between a ravening crowd of shoppers and a store full of Black Friday bargains, be prepared not only to get trampled, but to have your body treated like a speed bump.

When asked to clear out of the store because somebody had died, the shoppers protested, saying they had been waiting all night to be first.

Fairness. Another principle that makes us a great nation.

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An innovative suggestion


There's a valid argument that allowing any of the Big Three automakers to go under would have catastrophic repercussions throughout the economy, since so many hundreds of thousands of jobs depend upon their survival.

As they sink beneath the waves, the titans of free enterprise are turning to us taxpayers for a lifeline. Yes, the same folks who, I'm sure, have done everything they can to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.

If we are really going to do this, at the very least we should demand that the execs who drove the companies into the ground take a hike, without the usual obscene compensation that CEOs snag regardless of profit or loss.

It would make the bitter medicine of rewarding incompetence a little easier for us to swallow, if nothing else.

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It's a happy Thanksgiving for somebody


There are quite a few Americans this year who don't feel they have a whole lot to be thankful about as they lace into their Spam turkey.

Well, take heart. Uncle Sam is looking out for the fat cats. Remember, the ones who made all the mistakes that got us into this mess? Seems they're too big and too valuable to the economy to be allowed to fail.

Guess what? We're not.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Reindeer on the unemployment line


We've had the stock market scare, the banking scare, the insurance company scare, and now we're in the middle of the car manufacturer scare. Your latest assignment is to be terrified about the holiday non-spending scare, although you can wait until the day after Thanksgiving to start hiding in the closet.

The experts keep telling us that the pillars of our economy rest upon a base of consumer spending. So, as George W. Bush told us back in 2001, it's your patriotic duty to go out there and shop.

Buy lots of stuff for your friends and relatives. Even for people you don't like.

Not me, I'm terrified. I'm hanging on to my money. But I expect you to spend yours, as unwisely as you have in the past. Our future depends on it. Good luck, God bless you, and God bless America.

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Horror stories


The inspiration for this cartoon came to me this morning when I considered handling my paper's business front with barbecue tongs. The bad news- DHL, Circuit City, the auto companies, AIG- to mention just a few, continues day after day.

No wonder John McCain gave such a gracious concession speech. On Election Day, he stared into the abyss and said to himself, "What was I thinking? Maybe being just one of 535 legislators isn't so bad, after all. The job's still got great perks and bennies. The only thing I don't get is my own plane. Good luck with everything, Fella."

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An ebbing tide sinks all boats


Not since 9/11 have Americans felt so connected and vulnerable as they do in this economic meltdown. Like smacking a mule with a two-by-four, it has really gotten our attention.

With the exception of a few hedge-fund types who probably immediately invested in gold to hoard their ill-gotten gains, the rest of us don't know if we'll ever retire, much less manage to feed ourselves. We really are all in this together. Remember when Congress stood on the steps of the Capitol seven years ago to sing, "God Bless America?" I suggest the rump parliament do the same when it reconvenes after election day.

Artistic note: As a cartoonist, I deal in visual shorthand. While sketching the character on the left, I realized that one of the most enduring stereotypes is that of the goateed, pince nez-wearing, tweedy psychoanalyst, probably based on the Sigmund Freud prototype. A hundred years from now, cartoonists will be still characterizing them as nineteenth-century bourgeois Viennese.

It's like the universally-held misconception of librarians: invariably ancient, eccentric types who fasten their hair up with chopsticks. This is unfair. I knew one in Oklahoma who used a couple of forks.

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Alan Greenspan: "Oops."


Alan Greenspan says he may have been somewhat wrong all along about financial institutions' self-interest ensuring that they would never do anything as reckless as giving out loans to people that couldn't be repaid. He says maybe a little regulation might not have been such a bad idea after all. He is "shocked, shocked."

This is like St. Matthew coming down and saying, "You know that Gospel I wrote a while back? Never mind. My ideology was flawed."

The only thing more stomach-turning than following our 401(K)s down the drain is the spectacle of congressmen and senators, who a few short years ago were lining up to lick Greenspan's Guccis, now falling all over each other to get a few seconds in the spotlight to scold him. "Election's in a week and a half. Make sure you show my good side while I look stern and condemnatory."

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The inmates are running the asylum


This economic meltdown is child's play compared to what's in store for us now. The Feds, not exactly known for their crackerjack efficiency, will now own a piece of America's largest banks. Does this mean they'll be run with the same well-oiled precision as the U.S. Postal Service, another partially-owned subsidiary?

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