Archive for March, 2009

Restructural Recidivists


There are two starkly different opinion pieces on GM in today’s New York Times – one written by William Holstein the other by David Brooks.  The former criticizes the Obama administration for removing Rick Wagoner as Chairman of General Motors, just when GM reaches the “high-water mark of revitalized American car design.”  I couldn’t help laughing out loud when I read those words, they were so absurd.  When Wagoner took the helm at GM in 1994, they had 50% of the US market.  Today they have 18% and continuing the erosion in the first two months of 2009, GM sales have fallen 51% while the industry declined 39%.

Brooks takes a more reasonable perspective and notes that GM has been “restructuring” since he took over.  Restructuing, he writes, is for GM “like what dieting is for many of us: You think about it every day. You believe it’s about to work. Nothing really changes.”  

This morning, GM’s stock is trading at 2.37 giving it a market cap of $1.45 billion.  How can anyone defend Rick Wagoner when this colossal failure is clearly at his doorstep?


End of an Error, But An Historical Pivot?


One of my favorite bumper stickers from the campaign last fall was: “1.20.09: End of an Error.” Because it was not only the end of W. but really the end of the conservative era that began with Reagan.  But, isn’t there a better descriptor for the last 25 years than “conservative era”?  Isn’t there a book or other work of art that defines the seismic shift in American spirit today?

To that end, our fair Fight Club recently read “Promised Land: 13 Books That Changed America” by Jay Parini.  Parini skillfully makes the case that these 13 books each captured (in some cases precipitated) an historic pivot point in American history.  Parini takes a chronological approach beginning with “Of Plymouth Plantation: 1620-1647” by William Bradford and ending with “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan first published in 1963.  This begs the question: what book (or other medium for that matter) captures or defines the American zeitgeist since 1963? 

For once, Fight Club was speechless.  No one could think of a book that describes the many pivot points we’ve had since 1963.  Finally, Rich H. threw out Google, the search engine.  Though Google does not provide any commentary on our current times, it provides a means to an end and certainly represents the disruptive nature of the Internet.  Everyone seemed to agree that was a good choice.  Then, Matt H. threw out Star Wars, the pop culture phenomenon created by George Lucas.  Given that we’re all men in our 30s, the Star Wars demographic, we all agreed.  I thought this was an interesting choice because, although the first movie came out in 1977, it nicely sums up the 80s for me.  Reagan was elected, we were fighting a good war (if by proxy) against the “evil empire,” and the “force” (recently deregulated and unfettered capitalism) was on our side.  There was an optimism and bullishness about our future, especially after the dissolution of the USSR.  

But, it seems to me to be a sad commentary that, in the company of Walden, Huckleberry Finn, and On The Road, the best we could come up with is Google and Star Wars.  Is there no work of art that broadly captures the huge changes in our lifetime?  In the 46 years since “Feminine Mystique” is there no book that resonates broadly on the pivots of Vietnam, AIDs, end of the Cold War, ever-growing income gap, 9/11, Iraq, Barack Obama?  Perhaps there have been too many pivot points and we’re just disoriented?  Maybe the great American road story has run out of pavement and our Great Expansion is over?  Maybe we lit out for the territory in search of the promised land and, like Sal, simply found that the road ends at the Pacific.

In any case, we find ourselves a year into this Great Recession and, upon looking around at the flotsam and jetsam, are disgusted with the 25 years of binge-consumption, greed and avarice it represents.  We were too tolerant and permissive with men like Bernie Madoff, Rod Blagojevich, Mark Foley, Ken Lay, Bernie Ebbers, and Charles Keating.

In spite of our transgressions with these scoundrels, they do not define us. We call out to the better angels of our nature – to the grown-ups, The Greatest Generation.  What do our grandfathers say about our current situation?  Well, they’re wringing theirs hands – some saying I told you so, others like Arthur Levitt and Alan Greenspan are actually apologizing.   But, mostly they’re implicated, swept up in the “New Economy” and “New World Order” – guys like George H.W. Bush, Warren Buffet, Jack Welch, and Dick Cheney.

The American character is both Ben Franklin and Sal Paradise.  Some of the time we embody the Yankee ethic ofsobriety, practical ingenuity, common sense and fair play.  At other times, it’s all sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.  But, it’s not to say that we’ve experienced some moral decline (see Dr. Spock).  This dual nature of the American character was there from the beginning.  William Bradford chronicles the virtuous and God-fearing Plymouth Plantation while scolding his fellow colonist  Thomas Morton who had the nerve to…

… set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women, for their consorts, dancing and frisking together (like so many fairies, or furies rather) and worse practices. As if they had anew revived & celebrated the feasts of ye Roman Goddess Flora, or ye beastly practices of ye mad Bacchanalians.

Fair reader, what say you?  Does the Campbell’s soup painting by Andy Warhol, “Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe, or “An Inconvenient Truth” with Al Gore, capture the zeitgeist?  Or, maybe that’s what makes Parini’s 13 books that much more remarkable – they only come around once in a great while.


Clean Coal Unrealistic?

Now I know there are some with a vested in clean coal, but this is a pretty scathing article from the Economist.  True?

“Despite all this enthusiasm, however, there is not a single big power plant using CCS (carbon capture and storage) anywhere in the world.”

“CCS particularly appeals to politicians reluctant to limit the use of coal. Coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels…Yet burning coal is one of the cheapest ways to generate power. In America, Australia, China, Germany and India coal provides half or more of the power supply and lots of jobs. Rejecting cheap, indigenous fuel for job cuts and international energy markets is seen, naturally enough, as political suicide. CCS offers a way out of this impasse.”

“The problem with CCS is the cost. The chemical steps in the capture consume energy, as do the compression and transport of the carbon dioxide. That will use up a quarter or more of the output of a power station fitted with CCS, according to most estimates.”

Jon Stewart goes “mad” on Jim Cramer?

For those who missed The Daily Show last night it was awesome… Jon Stewart took it to Jim Cramer and CNBC on the lack of “financial reporting” on their supposed “financial news” cable network.  Not to be a spoiler… but there are some great video clips of Cramer off air.  Take 20 minutes of your day and watch this episode!

Bobby Jindal is Kenneth the Page


What’s the frequency Kenneth?

Bobby Jindal, Louisianna’s governor, delivered the Republican “response” to President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress.  It was poorly delivered and thin on content – and I’m being generous.  But, the real question is why is there a need for a “response” in the first place?  Resorting the old “government is the problem” argument, the Republicans signaled how irrelevant they are.

All this brings to mind how similar Gov. Jindal’s delivery was to Kenneth the Page from 30 Rock.  In this clip, Kenneth responds to the Internet response, to the Republican response, to the President’s address to Congress.

“He sounds like a real Goober…natorial representative.”  Hilarious.


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