Saturday, January 28, 2006

The Big Two

No, I'm not talking about James Westfall and Dr. Kenneth Noisewater, I'm talking about Ford and GM. Ford announced last week that they're cutting 30,000 jobs. Chapter 11 talk has been floating around GM for some time, and they're poised to lose their long-held position as the world's #1 automaker to Toyota sometime this year.

So, uh, what happened?

I hear a lot of people say "well, American automakers don't know how to make a good small to mid-sized car." Preposterous. While it's certainly true that both GM and Ford have failed to find an acceptable American alternative to the Camry and Accord, I personally believe this stems not from ignorance, but a half-baked business plan. Does it REALLY make sense to say that American engineers are somehow less capable than their Japanese counterparts? The thought that this falls on American auto workers is false, since most Camrys sold in the US are made in Georgetown, KY and most Accords are made in Ohio (Sandusky, I think, but maybe I'm just thinking of the movie "Tommy Boy").

Nope, the fault here falls squarely on management. Bill Ford himself admitted as much when he said, "for years, we've essentially said 'if we make it, the public will buy it.'" I give the man credit for publicly admitting the shortcomings of his company's business plan, when most CEOs would have blamed Congress, rising costs, the Japanese, Hurricane Katrina or some other set of calamities. Of course, then he shitcanned 30,000 people, so I'm probably giving him a little too much credit.

Ford and GM have long had a business plan that assumes that Americans don't want to own the same car for more than a few years. As such, it made business sense to them to consciously avoid building a car that would run great for a decade. It made sense to save costs up front since they don't care about the resale market for those cars and neither would the initial consumer, who simply wanted to move on to a newer model. Given their understanding of the market, this was a perfectly sensible choice. Of course, that understanding proved to be flawed. Honda and Toyota came in, showed people a car that could run great for a really long time and allow them to blow their money elsewhere (perhaps as an indirect result we can blame Honda and Toyota for rising home costs everywhere). And as a result, they kept grabbing market share here in the US.

How did The Big Two respond? High profit vehicles like SUVs kept the bottom line attractive until that market was flooded, and then rendered less attractive by rising gas prices. Snazzy concept cars were pushed onto the public. Then they tried slashing prices and offering cash back deals and all sorts of other things to make buying their products attractive, essentially sacrificing profits to try and hold onto market share. That's a winning proposition when you're trying to gain a foothold in a market, but not so much when you're trying to RETAIN your market share. Essentially, they did everything BUT try to build something to counter what the Japanese automakers were doing. Unfortunately, this is precisely what American consumers wanted, and GM and Ford had become so hung up on their "if we build it, they will buy it" mentality that they simply refused to do this.

Now, a whole bunch of auto workers are paying for that mistake, and more will pay in the future. Ford's probably done laying off people for awhile, but GM's problems are just beginning. Chapter 11 talk has centered around the costs associated with GM's ultra-generous (and therefore ultra-expensive) pension and medical plans, coupled with the mounting debt associated with high expenses and a drop in sales. GM can't even borrow money at a reasonable rate anymore. The various bond rating agencies have progressively downgraded their credit rating from "bad" to "worse" to "they might as well pay you back in Confederate currency". The last I saw, GM was paying 12% on their bonds. That's junk bond territory at this point.

At some point, some pinhead from UAW is going to start demanding increased tariffs on foreign autos. Frankly, I'm surprised it hasn't happened already. I like to think it's because someone intelligent runs the auto union and realized that every single time that's been tried, it's failed horribly. On the upside, that strategy helped kick the Great Depression into high gear.

Is it too late for The Big Two? Maybe, maybe not. I think that there's enough latent affection for our corporate behemoths that if they came up with a reasonable alternative to the Accord and Camry, people would buy it, but that alone isn't going to solve their problems. If they'd done it in 1994, it would have, but not now. Ford, I think, is going to simply accept life as a smaller automaker and continue to shift their focus to trucks. They've been doing that for awhile anyway. They'll probably finally pull the plug on Ford's retarded, braindead little brother, Mercury Schaivo, and recast Ford as a truck company that sells a couple cars, and Lincoln as their luxury brand (there will always be a demand for this). As I noted, the worst is probably over for Ford, who doesn't have the massive debt problem GM does.

GM is in deeper sewage. They seem so hung up on retaining that title of "world's biggest automaker" that I wonder if they've got the guts to slim down before it's too late. They killed off Oldsmobile a couple years ago, and I would assume that Pontiac or Buick is next. Maybe both. They seem to be phasing out Saturn as well, their initial, somewhat feeble attempt to "give the public what they want." They could recast their lineup like this: Chevrolet for the everyman, GMC for trucks and SUVs (why they simply run trucks down an assembly line slapping "GMC" on one and a bowtie on the next is beyond me), Cadillac for the luxury cars, Hummer (the one brand that's actually been profitable) for the anti-environmentalist, cow-butchering, Red State soccer mom.

But even if they scale back operations appropriately, their financial problems are far worse than Ford's. The combination of problems they've got (massive employee costs, lousy credit and humungous debt) simply won't be solved easily. If they go Chapter 11, one wonders if they'd ever recover at all. It would almost certainly be the most disastrous bankruptcy in US history; the impact on the financial markets would be hard. That's a LOT of commercial paper that would be paid back at 40 cents on the dollar (or whatever).

American automakers have faced major problems before. Chrysler was d-u-n DONE in the early 80s, and they came back from the dead. One hopes the spirit of Lee Iaccoca lives on within Bill Ford and Rick Wagoner.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Democracy and Terror

This cannot possibly end well.

I love Canada, one of the two nations that I can credibly call an ancestral homeland (the other, somewhat more prominent one, is Ireland), and I am thrilled that the Conservative Party there has emerged from the dead. But in the big scheme of things, I think I'd happily trade Prime Minister-Elect Hunter's victory for a government of the Palestinian Authority that isn't openly committed to the destruction of Israel by means of terror. It's not like Fatah has been a particularly angelic group, but in the big scheme of things, they were certainly preferable to a Hamas-run government.

I think the difference in reaction from world leaders is somewhat interesting:

"I've made it very clear that the United States does not support political parties that want to destroy our ally Israel, and that people must renounce that part of their platform." - George Bush

"We are prepared to work with any Palestinian government, if this government seeks peace, using peaceful means." - EU External Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner

The two statements certainly aren't incompatible, but one gets the feeling from Ms. Ferrero's statement that the Western Europeans aren't horribly broken up over this. That sort of concerns me. If Ms. Ferrero thinks that dealing reasonably with Hamas is the way to peace, fine and well, but recent history would suggest she's horribly mistaken.

The bigger concern is whether our long-standing tradition of encouraging democracy in the Middle East is such a great idea. It's generally been accepted on faith that a republican form of government breeds the sort of liberal ideas that make a country compatible with our way of life. So far, with a few notable exceptions (like, say the government elected by Germany in 1933), that's held true. But democracy is still a relatively new concept in the Middle East. It's worked pretty well in Egypt and (so far) Afghanistan and Iraq, but apart from that, there's some question as to whether the region at large will be amenable to the concept. And by "amenable", I mean things like "not electing terrorist organizations". It's a popular axiom among political scientists that "two committed democracies have never gone to war with each other". That might be put to the test.

It looks (so far) like these elections were run clean as a sheet. That means that a majority of Palestinian voters are either: a. committed to the destruction of Israel, or b. gullible enough to elect people that are. Neither is a particularly good sign. And it sort of casts a spectre over future elections in the Middle East. Would, a few years from now, Iraq elect an extremist group into power? One could scarcely imagine the problems inherent in electing someone like al-Zarqawi, to pick a particularly extreme scenario.

I believe that a lot of these problems can be traced back to Iran. Iran's pushing forward with their nuclear program, and their oft-stated desire to rid the world of Israel, have, I believe, helped to embolden organizations like Hamas, and their supporters. Even if one believes that those organizations scarcely needed emboldening (a fair point) then, at minimum, they have heightened the possibility that Hamas or others could make good on their goal.

And as usual, I blame Jimmy Carter. Carter's failure to back Shah Poleri in Iran cost us a crucial ally in a region where we have few. Historically speaking, Iran has been the most important state in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia's control over OPEC is nice, but in the great scheme of things, I'll opt for the Persian Empire. Had Carter backed the Shah, he likely would have held onto power and kept a lid on the extremist elements. The Shah wasn't the nicest guy, of course; his human rights record would make the Chinese proud. But he was a loyal ally unlike, say, the Saudi royal family. Heads would have rolled, which isn't pleasant, but then, the first head to roll would have been Khomeni's, which wouldn't have been such a bad thing. Instead, Iran became a violent theocracy bitterly opposed to the United States. Today it is a violent quasi-theocracy, quasi-democracy bitterly opposed to the United States, and nearly capable of the nuclear weapons that could back up many of their desires and those of like-minded organizations like Hamas.

One wonders if the particularly violent and extreme nature of the Middle East doesn't call for a few more Shah Poleris, and perhaps less of an emphasis on democracy. The Egyptian government, while democratically elected, certainly has been no stranger to cracking down on extreme elements in the most violent manner possible.

As much as we want an open and liberal democracy, it may be that a firmer hand is needed if we're going to avoid rather undesirable outcomes like the destruction of Israel.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Hitting the Links

Lots of links for you today, you lucky reader, you...

I'm going to be appearing here from now on, as well as my work here, at finheaven.com and drstats.com, as my media empire continues to grow. It's going to be good. Kinda like Crossfire, only entertaining, and I won't be wearing a Tucker Carlson-style bowtie.

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Speaking of which, if anyone likes to keep track of my writing at Finheaven.com, here are the most recent links...
A Tale of Two Mikes
Upgrading at QB Won't Be As Easy As You Think
An Open Letter To The New England Patriots

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This might be the best thing to happen to the Knicks since drawing the #1 overall pick in 1985.

For a long time, I considered the Knicks and Pistons kind of a 1 and 1A grouping as my favorite hoops team. As time went on, and it became readily apparent that the Pistons knew what they were doing, and the Knicks didn't, I gravitated toward the team from the Motor City, to the point that I've more or less become indifferent to the Knicks.

"Geez Phil, that's kinda disloyal, don'tcha think?"
"Shut up, inner voice."

Anyway, my latent affection for the Knicks makes me mourn the non-stop stream of incompetence they've had to endure from, arguably, the two worst GMs in the NBA over the last two decades. The Layden-Thomas Era has been an absolute unmitigated disaster to the point where a promising situation (the cap room brought on by the end of Patrick Ewing's contract) turned into a calamity that can ONLY be fixed with patience and a committment to fiscal sanity. Zeke, who remains my all-time favorite NBA player, is utterly incapable of this. On behalf of Knicks fans everywhere, I hope and pray this is enough to run him out of MSG.

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I think this is a fantastic idea (thanks Stacy). Personally, I'm trying to decide what celebrity I'd most want giving me driving directions. I'm leaning towards Kelsey Grammer or Billy Joel.

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Finally, I am amazed that today's Dilbert got by the censors.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Not A Good Saturday

It hasn't been the best Saturday for ol' Phunwin.

Friday, my sore throat morphed into a full-blown yucky-stuffy-runny nose-dammit-where's -my-NyQuil cold. The upshot was that I was at work all day, litigating and spreading disease and contagion among a class of people that are generally already very sick or injured and susceptible to germs. So it wasn't a total loss.

Understand, I am very rarely sick. I have allergies, which means that, in a technical sense, I'm a little bit sick all the time. But, it's been theorized that allergies are often the product of an overactive immune system. This theory may explain why I'm sick maybe once a year. I may someday put that theory to the ultimate test by taking a two-month trip to Bangkok and having as much unprotected sex as possible.

In any event, I'd like to think that my recent illness explains the dumb things I did today, but frankly, it doesn't. My wife and I just had a bunch of new phone jacks installed in our home. For some reason, the house had exactly two functioning phone jacks, which is pretty odd for a two story house with a finished basement. We resolved to buy some new phones today; nothing fancy, just simple, cheap cordless phones. I said, "Chase Pitkin's having their going-out-of-business sale; they'll surely have the best prices."
She responded, "well, we're going to Wal-Mart anyway, why not just get it there? It's probably cheaper and they'll likely have the best selection."
"Foolish woman! What do you know about technology?"
"Pig-headed man! What do you know about bargain shopping?"

Okay, that last part didn't really happen, but you get the idea. Since I was driving, we went to Chase-Pitkin first, and I found a pair of decent looking cordless phones for $15 each, which seemed like a pretty nice deal. They were black, which went against my wife's wishes, but I insisted "your desire for a white phone does not override my desire to save money." And so it was that the pig-headed man won out.

Then we went to Wal-Mart. And there, I saw some perfectly good cordless phones, with roughly the same features for $10.

And they were white.

You're never going to believe this, but I haven't told her that yet, and I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't either, dear reader.

After this, my task for the day, before I could plop my ass down and watch college basketball, was to hang the new mirror she purchased for the bedroom.

Understand this: I like to think I am pretty good at a lot of things. I like to think I'm fairly intelligent, and the fact that I managed to graduate law school and pass the New York Bar Exam on the first try seems to back this up. Most people think I'm a good writer, or at least an entertaining one. I'm a competent attorney, a very good cook and I play a mean game of Trivial Pursuit. One thing I am not is a handyman. I cannot draw a straight line on a wall with a level, a tape measure, a straight-edge and the assistance of two architects. If, some number of years from now, my child successfully convinces me to build him or her a treehouse, they will almost certainly begin crying uncontrollably at the results and spend many of their formative years in therapy.

Ah, but you would think that the simple task of hanging a mirror on the wall would not be beyond even my meager abilities, would you? Well then, dear reader, you would be horribly wrong. Fifteen minutes after I started, the wall was riddled with pencil marks, needless nail holes and futile measurements. But the mirror was up, and I considered it a job well done.

"Phil, it's crooked."
"No way."

A measurement confirmed that I was a solid 1/4" off the mark on one side. "It's not that big a deal," I said, trying to salvage my fragile sense of manhood.
My wife responded, "a quarter-inch is a big deal when you're hanging something like that. Next time, I'll do the measurements and you can do the idiot work."
I took the mirror down, moved one of the hangers up a quarter-inch, nailed it back in place, re-hung the mirror and sat down on the couch with the shattered remains of my manhood, where we shared a beer and watched the Duke-Georgetown game.

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My early entrant in the "Dumbest Quote of The Year" competition:

Clarence Ray Allen, as you probably know, was executed this week. There was a legal fight over this, since Allen was a really old man. Having suffered a heart attack back in September, Allen had asked prison authorities to let him die if he went into cardiac arrest before his execution, a request prison officials said they would not honor.

"At no point are we not going to value the sanctity of life," said prison spokesman Vernell Crittendon. "We would resuscitate him," then execute him.

Dammit, we've got to destroy this village to save it!

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On a somewhat related note, this may surprise you, but I'm actually very much against the death penalty, which is one of the few stances I take in which I agree with liberals. Understand, I don't oppose it out of some misguided belief that the state has no business killing people. Nonsense. The military and our various secret police agencies (CIA, NSA, DIA, etc.) do this all the time and I've no problem whatsoever with it. Nor, for that matter, do I believe the age-old argument that it runs counter to the 8th Amendment. In fact, I happen to believe that life on death row, followed by death, is probably far less cruel and unusual than life in the general prison population, what with the daily routine of beatings and anal rape.

No, it's been repeatedly proven that a death penalty costs the taxpayers some 6 times more than life without parole. Moreover, there's no proof that the death penalty actually operates as a deterrent. Some people theorize that it's because the death penalty isn't used enough, and I happen to agree with that. But with the legal system the way it is, it won't be, and given the fact that a tremendous number of death row inmates have the disadvantage of not being able to afford a lawyer with more than a dozen functioning brain cells, it probably shouldn't be. So essentially, we use the death penalty for revenge. That's it. So while I sympathize with the victims of violent crime like that which puts people on death row, they can get their revenge on their own dime. If they want to hire a hitman to take out the scumbag that murdered their loved one, I'm all for it, but I pay enough in taxes as it is.

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As for picks for tomorrow, gimme both home teams by a touchdown apiece. I'm sensing WAY too many people piled on the Carolina and Pittsburgh bandwagons.

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I apologize for the lengthy time between posts. Hopefully today's uber-lengthy post will make up for it. Enjoy the Championship games, all!

Friday, January 13, 2006

Screw You, Bennigans

Either I have a problem with Bennigan's, or Bennigan's has a problem with me. I've never been sure which. When I was a law student in Buffalo, my friend and I got booted out because we were at the bar too long. (We postulate that the bartender thought we weren't tipping him, when in fact there was a sizeable pile of cash that he, for reasons all his own, simply left on the bar, despite the fact that we kept adding to it. In the end, he probably cost himself about $25 in tips, and yet I digress.) Meanwhile, the redneck next to me was falling off his stool and singing "Sweet Home Alabama" at the top of his lungs. I'll note that the band at the time was playing "Hotel California", if I recall correctly.

So, the other day, I ate lunch at Bennigan's, and found that they took my favorite dish, the Southwest Sampler, off the menu. Dammit. I thought, "I'll have the blue cheese burger. They can't possibly screw that up, right?" Now, understand, I'm a big fan of the blue cheese burger, in general. When I go to Outback, I will frequently order a burger with bacon, blue cheese and mushrooms. It's fantastic, I highly recommend you try it if you're inclined to take a few months off your life. Anyway, the picture showed a juicy burger with blue cheese and crispy onion straws. I received, instead, a patty of meat closer to a hockey puck than a burger, with some blue cheese, a soggy bun, a few stray straws and a substance that appeared to be, of all things, gravy. After three bites, I surrendered, subsisting instead on fries and half my mom's mediocre sandwich (which she may or may not have actually wanted, but probably offered half to me in that maternal fear that her child might somehow starve, despite my somewhat ample waistline). Complaints were lodged, the burger (which was almost certainly the worst I have ever had the displeasure to taste; no mean feat considering some of the Mickey D's I have stopped at over the years) was taken off the bill, but the damage was done.

They kicked me out, they took my favorite dish off the menu and they served me what had to be the first ever combination of blue cheese and gravy that wasn't consumed on a dare. I don't think I'll be going back.

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Good news: the alarm system my wife and I had installed recently works just fine. We set the alarm to go off when the motion detector is tripped. We also set the door alarm inside the sun room, since there are two doors on the sun room (one of which is a sliding glass door), no valuables, several windows, and thus many different points of access that would pretty much moot the point of putting a door alarm on the exterior door on the sun room. Well, I came home the other day, and not thinking, I came in through the door to the sun room.

Ever play the game "Metal Gear" for the PlayStation? You know those scenes where Snake trips an alarm, and they show a close up of his face, and he says "oh shit", or words to that effect? Then the guards come out and start shooting? That's kind of how I felt, only minus the shooting.

I watched in horror as the light on the motion detector went from a happy, content green to a "get out of my house, asshole!" red and started blaring an alarm loud enough to wake the dead. I know this because Leon Trotsky called my cell phone and said "turn that damn alarm off!" I took his advice, entered my access code and turned it off. The alarm company called in good time, at least, I'm pretty sure it was good time, since my heart rate was roughly 200 at the time and everything was kind of a blur.

So yeah, that should be sufficient to discourage a would-be burglar.

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So, is anyone else a little concerned about Arliss Michaels apparently getting named to the Supreme Court?



Arliss Michaels & Co. ^
Soon-to-be Justice Alito ->
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Finally, here's who I like this weekend:
Seawhawks over Redskins, Broncos over Patriots, Bears over Panthers, Colts over Steelers.

Yup, really going out on a limb there.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Single Most Important Op-Ed Piece of the New Year

Stop reading my blog and read this piece if you haven't yet (don't worry, I'll be here when you get back): It's the Demography, Stupid

I think Mark Steyn somewhat guilty of the long-term scaremongering that he accuses others of (I don't, for example, believe that Islam is entirely incompatible with a liberal democracy), but the larger points are very good, and very sobering.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

So Much for the "Greatest College Team Ever"

Step 1: make a fist.
Step 2: extend index finger.
Step 3: extend small finger.
Step 4: yell "Hook 'em Horns!"

Understand, I can't stand the U of Texas. I actually pay some attention to Texas A&M, just in the hopes that they'll beat UT in their annual post-Thanksgiving showdown.

But even more than I hate UT, I hate knee-jerk journalism. ESPN's non-stop bowing and scraping before the Men of Troy drove me nuts, to the point that I almost wanted to see USC lose to UT, even though I have nothing against the Trojans. "Almost", I emphasized to my buddy Kev. But all those features on how Gale Sayers pales in comparison to Reggie Bush, how Matt Leinart is the greatest field general since George S. Patton, and how USC stacks up against the greatest teams of the last 50 years...all before they even won a national title, really take a toll.

Well, as I was watching last night's national title game, and seeing how Texas clearly wanted the game more, I found myself pulling for the Longhorns, despite my best efforts. If ever a team has listened to their own hype, it was USC. I can't remember the last time I saw a defense do a worse job of tackling than the Trojans. The Trojans played (and Pete Carroll coached) like they had already been enshrined in the halls of history.

I'd like to think that the sports media would take this as a time to mend its ways, but I know better. Everything must immediately be declared the greatest, fastest, or strongest without delay. And, amazingly (or perhaps not so amazingly, as I'll note below), this is the third time in the last 4 years that this has happened. In 2002, there was a stampede to declare Miami the national champs before they even took the field against Ohio State (of course, the refs did as much as anyone to take that game away, but results are results). In 2003, Oklahoma was declared the national champs before the regular season even ended! The Sooners then lost the Big 12 championship and lost a chance to share the national title. And of course this year, with USC.

This really isn't surprising. Two of the biggest differences between college sports and pro sports is the level of emotion and the level of concentration. In college sports, athletes aren't nearly as disciplined, and so it's easier for someone to get fattened up on their press clippings. That happens in the pros, too, but not as much, I think. But there's also much more emotion in college sports. Of the biggest reasons to watch the NCAA Tournament, the shot of the three scrubs at the end of the bench for a #14 seed linking arms and then jumping up and down with every big shot is pretty high on the list. Well, it works like that for college football, too. Remember how, at Mack Brown's press conference, he thanked the media for their non-stop coverage of USC and said he didn't even have to give a pep talk? It works that way, too.

As usual, though, there will be a few sports columnists that stand up and say "wow, we screwed up!" and the rest will rush to proclaim something else the greatest, ever, without delay. In fact, it's already happening with Vince Young.

But hey, at least Young earned those accolades before getting them. Can't say the same for USC.