Thursday, October 22, 2009

How to Control Executive Compensation

To return to a previous sore point:

I'm sorry to say that I think Mr Obama's "Pay Czar" is making a hash of a response to the controversy over executive compensation. He has come up with a complicated scheme that will reduce pay for a few overpaid and probably undeserving executives (after all, they were the ones who caused the whole economic meltdown, they and their ilk). The scheme will end up in court, and after a long and costly series of trials and appeals, it'll be voided by the Supremes. It will cost us all a lot of wasted time and money, and accomplish nothing.

The problem -- the real problem -- is not that a couple of hundred honchos in bailed-out companies have exorbitant pay packages. The real problem is that large-company executives in general have exorbitant pay packages, while the rank and file people are stagnating economically, causing the gap between the rich and the rest of us to grow wider and wider, which in turn undermines the working and middle classes, who are the guarantors of the success of our democratic system of government.

The stress point in the popular media appears to be that our constitutional system of limited government prevents the government from regulating executive compensation.

Oh, pooh. Congress is perfectly capable of regulating executive compensation, and of doing it in a way that's in keeping with our present concept of "limited" government.  And it can do it in a way that is manifestly fair, in that it treats everyone the same, regardless of how much bail-out money their companies get.

Executive compensation is deductible as a business expense; there are some minor and essentially meaningless limitations on that, but basically every dollar the company pays out to every employee, executive or otherwise, is a dollar it doesn't get taxed on.

So all the Congress has to do is limit the tax deduction for compensation. I'm pretty sure Congress doesn't want to discourage companies from paying all those millions of middle- and upper-middle-class managers and union workers who are the foundation of their constituencies; nor would I. But it's a simple matter to take a self-adjusting figure, like the poverty line or the national median income or the national average income, and change the tax law so that any compensation to any individual (in whatever form) that exceeds a stated percentage of the chosen self-adjusting figure -- in my mind, 250% of the national median income seems about right -- would not be deductible from the company's taxable income.

So AIG and Goldman, Sachs are still perfectly free to pay their worthless executives exorbitant figures for ruining the entire economy of the country; they just don't get the rest of us to pay for part of it, in the form of lower corporate taxes.

It's really that simple.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Those Crafty Europeans

The surprising gift of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama last week raises certain concerns about what our friends across the pond are up to. Since, as he modestly acknowledged in his response to the announcement, the Big O has done nothing yet to deserve the award, three possibilities come to mind to explain just what those Norsemen are up to.

First, there is the possibility that the award is meant as a slap at the previous administration. Personally, I think somebody should've slapped W in the face while he was in office, along about 2002, and woken him up to the vile and festering corruption of all the principles he purports to hold dear: freedom, equality, the rule of law, and so on. His administration, which began in an atmosphere of promise, of a refreshed sense of responsibility and decency, went, in eight years, from tragedy to embarrassment to disaster: political, diplomatic, fiscal, moral, and finally economic. Maybe his daddy should've taken him to one side and delivered a Gibbs-slap to the back of the head. Well, too late now. Thank God and George Washington.

The sort of inimical creeping corruption of the Bush years seems always to result whenever licentious greed or overweening pride dresses in Vestal robes. The doors to the temple are shut, for public consumption, while the corruptors enter through the privy, and foul deeds are done in the name of whatever Noble Principle seems most at risk at the time. In Bush's time, it was Security. The 9/11 attack was one of the few vile acts of that era for which W cannot be blamed; but his administration's excessive response to that attack distracted, and continues to distract, the American public from miners digging under the foundations of our liberties. When a scratching in the earth is heard, Public Safety is trotted out, shown round the village, and taken back to the castle.

The Europeans, I have to admit, were less hornswoggled during the W era than we Americans, myself included. Less threatened by the attack on the Twin Towers, they, rightly it turns out, were not as taken in by his administration's pose as Defenders of Liberty. And so now that he is gone, the gift of the prize to his successor, for no reason other than that he is not W, may be intended as a slap at Bush and his late, unlamented regime.


Second, it may be nothing more than a grand gesture intended to encourage the sort of traditional diplomacy Mr Obama seems to have initiated. Barely nine months after his inauguration, the diplomatic climate around the world seems to be recovering nicely from the frothiness generated by W's my-way-or-the-highway approach. Peace has not come, to be sure, but we seem now to be approaching a time when progress might be made by consensus. A Nobel Peace Prize seems a somewhat extravagant attaboy, but given the turmoil Bush caused among Europe's chattering class, one can see how it might be viewed as the least they can do.


The third possibility, and the one I put the most credence in, is that the Nobel committee just wants to book Obama to speak. Can't blame 'em for that; he's the best orator we've had in our rent-house on Pennsylvania Avenue since Jack and Jackie. Considering the calibre of people we've gone for in the dozen intervening elections, that's damning with faint praise, but you've got to admit: it's nice having a guy who can speak with an elegant cadence while using three-syllable words, and convey the impression that he actually knows what they mean.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

New York, New York

I think we should re-introduce wolves into Central Park. This will give many of those northeastern liberal types, who long to dream of wolves howling in the wild, a wonderful object lesson on the value of local control over political issues.

Plus, as everyone knows, if the wolves can make it there, they can make it anywhere.

Friday, October 9, 2009

And now, the rest of the story...

I know, I know, I haven't posted anything about the end of the San Diego trip. Well, I've been busy.

We got up Thursday morning, packed and loaded and checked out. We only managed to squeeze everything into the car, including Jeff, by putting a couple of suitcases in the back seat. It's amazing how much stuff we had to have for ten days' travel: on the way back I spoke with a couple from Illinois at a rest area in New Mexico. They had been in California for two weeks. They were driving a Saturn Sky. It has almost no trunk. They had three tiny duffel bags and two pairs of tennis shoes. (They also said it was a very comfortable car to ride in. Amazing.) And here we were, with a suitcase I could barely lift into the trunk, a second suitcase of the maximum carry-on dimensions, an ice chest, a computer, a camera bag, a tripod, seven audiobooks, half a dozen plastic bags containing purchases and dirty laundry, plus all the bags Nancy & Jeff took -- four, I think, plus computers and backpack. I don't really remember, but they had about as much as we did. Anyway, it was a lot. Almost too much. But we got it all in.

We went first to the Air & Space museum at Balboa Park. I found it disappointing. A not-very-extensive collection, and almost all of it reproductions, because a fire in 1988 destroyed almost their entire collection. They've spent millions reproducing as much of it as they could, probably enough to feed all the starving children in at least one third world country from 1988 to today, and they've ended up with an inventory of copies. I will file this away, along with the Teddy Roosevelt National Historic Site in Buffalo (see the July 3 entry in the September post, "The Trip to Maine"), for a future reflection on our unbridled willingness to preserve, regardless of cost, every trivial reminder of our glorious past. (I also thought the museum was not very well organized, and that their efforts at "interactive" exhibits was unimaginative and hackneyed. Maybe that's just another consequence of their spending all their money to reproduce a dozen burnt World War I airplanes. I don't know.)

That two-hour visit completed our planned whirlwind tour of San Diego, and we hopped back in the car ... well, okay, we crammed ourselves back in the car and headed up the road toward the Mouse Kingdom. We made one stop, for a tour of Mission San Juan de Capistrano. It seems much larger than the earlier Mission San Diego, and except for the great church, destroyed by a combination of earthquake and restoration efforts (involving gunpowder), this mission compound is in as good a state of (restored) repair.

Notice that I don't carp about the cost of it; I don't know how much it took to bring the old place back into presentable condition. It may have been worth the cost, and lacking evidence to the contrary, I will give the Mission the benefit of the doubt. Plus, they have not tried to completely restore the place to its original condition, which would undoubtedly have been a frightful expense. Instead, they have left parts in a state of decay, preserved to prevent further delapidation, and used models and descriptions to convey how it would have looked in the day. And frankly, the dramatic ruins of the great stone church, which rival anything I saw in Rome, convey a sense of grandeur beyond what a duplicate could achieve.

We checked into our hotel in Costa Mesa and spent a couple of hours decompressing before heading out to look for dinner. We thought we'd just head up Harbor Boulevard and pick a nice place for a margarita and a good meal, out of the many hundreds of such places that Orange County has to offer. After about ten miles of nothing but fast food and industrial wasteland, we finally called on Nancy's hand-held electronic device. Ah, technology! The first place it sent us to was closed; the next was out of business. We finally located a Coco's (sort of a West-Coast Shoney's) and had a thorougly mediocre meal, before crashing for the night. I was too tired, at that point, to write anything.

The next morning we were off to Disneyland. It had been well-established, by then, that Jeff and I were only along because Nancy and Sherry consider Disneyland to be the ultima thule of amusement parks, a sort of paradise: there is but one god, Disney, and Mickey is his prophet. Or profit. Their attitude toward the place is as inflexibly devout as that of any Waco mother of six Southern Baptists toward the literal Bible. I've never seen Nancy so animated, and while Sherry was a little more reserved, she was no less eager to attend the shrine. Jeff and I, by contrast, talked about the things we weren't seeing. Hollywood. Movie studios. Museums.

All the things that are so enjoyable at Disneyland are there. The Indiana Jones ride is still the best, though the Pirates of the Caribbean ride has been upgraded a lot to conform to the hit movies. Captain Jack Sparrow appears throughout, and there's a story loosely told that sort of makes sense in the context of the films. I guess I've finally outgrown the little cars ("Autopia"), especially now that you can't ram the car in front of you anymore. It's just no fun to ride anymore. And the Haunted Mansion -- what a disappointment that is, all revised to hawk the Tim Burton movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas. I never thought I wanted to see it; now I know that for sure. The big round exhibition in Tomorrowland is a joke: all the futuristic technology it shows is so Last-Century. But the Star Wars ride is as good as ever, and, surprisingly, Michael Jackson no longer appears in the Magic Kingdom ... I wonder why?

There was never any doubt that we would be at the park until the last Roman candle popped and sputtered away. I was done long before that, and spent the last two hours or so getting back to, and waiting in, the car. I came this close to not going back on Saturday for the California Adventure.

Buuuuuuut ... well, the next morning I was thinking, if I dropped them off at Disneyland and went off on my own, I know what'll happen: I'll spend all day in traffic, looking for someplace that'll turn out to be a bore, or I'll go around taking photographs that turn out overexposed or underexposed or blurry or just plain boring. So I went along to California Adventure.

I shouldn't have to tell anyone who knows me that I was prepared to hate the place. We Texans, let's be honest, are jealous of California, which is the only state that can really compare with our own. Every state has beautiful spots, even Nebraska -- I know, I saw one there once, about 20 years ago. Maybe it was Kansas; hard to tell the difference. And some individual places are drop-dead gorgeous, like Yellowstone and Grand Tetons and the Shenendoah and the Adirondacks and Katahdin. And of course the most beautiful countryside in the entire nation, probably in the entire world, is that largely-empty slab of ground between I-40 and I-70, in Arizona and Utah: Escalante-Grand Staircase, Zion, Monument Valley, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches National Monument, the Petrified Forest, the Painted Desert, Wupatki ... and that other place, what's it called? Oh, yeah, the Grand Canyon. But on a state-wide scale, only California can really best Texas for scenic beauty and variety. The drawback in each case is, that California is full of Californians, and Texas is full of Texans. I know my own preference in the matter, but not all will agree. So be it.

To return to my point, I was prepared to dislike a place that celebrated California unabashedly. I was pleasantly surprised, and yes, relieved, to find that I actually enjoyed it. First of all, there's this ride called Soarin', where you get strapped into a gigantic row of seats that mimics a hang-glider, and you're treated to a seven- or eight-minute-long film, with music and scents added, that appears to have been filmed from an actual hang-glider. You're close enough to the ground to see the kayaker flip you the bird as you whoosh by overhead. You get to see fabulous views of Napa Valley and the northern coast and the Golden Gate and Palm Springs and all kinds of other beautiful places, mountains and desert and forest and fields and waters, and you pretty much feel like you're actually there. (Try to sit in the front row; otherwise the dangling feet of other park-goers can be a distraction). It actually made me want to try hang-gliding. A moment's reflection at the appropriate juncture about my fear of heights should prevent that actually happening.

But that set the stage for the day, and put me in an infinitely lighter mood. Plus, California Adventure wasn't nearly as crowded as Disneyland, and the weather was a little nicer that day than the day before. We went to see the Alladin show -- a live-action version of the movie, but well done in a large, comfortable theater, and every bit as enjoyable, especially since they just summarized all that dreary part near the end when the evil Vizier has the lamp.
I won't go through all the details; sufficient to say that we did everything there was to do, and I enjoyed every minute of it, especially since the lines weren't very long and I didn't puke after the roller coaster. (Not that I've ever puked after a roller coaster, but I've wanted to.)

We shut the place down, even enjoying the fireworks show from across the plaza in Disneyland, without having to put up with the crowds in there.
But, now, having said how much I enjoyed California Adventure, I will also say -- listen to this, Sherry -- that was my last trip to Disneyland. I've done it twice now, and that's enough for me. I'm not going back. Ever.

Up next morning, pack and load and zip down to San Diego to drop people off at the airport. I'd intended to drop off Nancy & Jeff, then have lunch with Sherry before she flew out a couple of hours later; but she wanted to spend that time with her sister -- I don't know why, she sees her at least once a year -- so I dropped her off too and headed up to Las Vegas. (Turns out that, once they got into the airport, they were in different "pods" and couldn't sit with each other, so Sherry felt that she had not chosen wisely.)

Meanwhile, I drove up and had dinner with my former law partner Curtis and his wife at one of those all-you-can-eat uberbuffets on the Strip in Las Vegas, then crashed for the night in a disappointingly ordinary room at one of those over-the-top hotels where you have to walk like a mile from the parking lot, or pay some pimply-faced valet twenty bucks. Me, I don't like paying twenty bucks for a hotel room. Up early and off for my Lincoln County diversion, thinking how useless this County Quest of mine is, and quelle surprise, Lincoln County is in the Great Basin, which, it turns out, is not an empty arid desert devoid of beauty, but an empty arid desert throbbing with beauty.

But it's nothing, compared to the beauty of southern Utah, from Zion to Glen Canyon and beyond. It just killed me to be driving a well-paved winding mountain road through some of the most stunning scenery in the land, in a sedan, but it was better than not driving it at all. I suppose. I stopped a half a dozen times to take pictures, at a small stream crossing, a cliff face, Zion Overlook, Glen Canyon, and across the Little Colorado River as you come down out of the mountains, and to linger, enjoying the sights and sounds.

After three days in Paradise (well, okay, Disneyland and Las Vegas) I was entitled to one night in Hell, so I checked into the Days Inn Flagstaff West in Flagstaff, Arizona. The next night, in Plainview, Texas, I couldn't wait to write a review of that experience for Travelocity. I had planned to link to that review, but it's not posted yet. Anyway, the place sucked: couldn't get on line, lousy service, no lights, the toilet seat wouldn't stay up, everything was unplugged (and I wasn't about to move the furniture), the heater didn't heat, the electronic door lock was finicky... the place sucked.

From there it was out across New Mexico and down through Texas, listening to a couple of really good audiobooks (Jeffrey Archer's latest, Paths of Glory, and an amusing little murder mystery called Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon, by Donna Anderson).
I call the picture above "unintended irony."

And so, I am home.

A selection from the pictures for this last part of the trip is here.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Speaking of county matters...

I used to have a 10-key adding machine with a printout. I no longer have that, and the only calculators I have readily available are tiny and at least a little tempermental. So when I say that there are 3,097 counties in the country, that number may be off. (If anyone wants to supply me with a more accurate count, I'd be grateful, but be forewarned: I have found a number of different figures on the internet, so apparently I'm not the only person who is electromathematically challenged.)

As I've probably told everyone I know, at some point or another, I intend to visit every county in the country before I die. Most people seem to take this as some sort of Quest, when in fact it's nothing more than an excuse for wandering around in places I've never been and have no real reason to go to. This is what my life has become. Sad, maybe even a little pathetic, but there it is. I try to present it as a vaguely romantic journey of discovery, but even I don't buy that. And let's face it, I don't really expect to get to all of them. The two remaining counties in Massachusetts, for example, are islands that are reached only by expensive ferries. The counties in Alaska will require an airplane, and the counties in Hawaii a boat or helicopter. I doubt I'll go to that much trouble, unless of course some enterprising travel-service company decides to sponsor my travel. No sign of that on the horizon.

Anyway, yesterday morning, I took a detour on leaving Las Vegas, and drove through Lincoln County, Nevada, thereby visiting the last remaining county in that state. I have now been to every county in Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Texas was a big deal -- that's 254 counties and most of them aren't all that big. Arizona was easy: even though it's a large state, the counties are also huge, and I go there a lot. Nevada is also is a very large state, with large counties, but I knew that the only way I'd ever get to Lincoln County was with a long, long diversion, since there's nothing to speak of within hundreds of miles of there (except Las Vegas ... come to think of it, there's nothing to speak of within hundreds of miles of there). New Jersey has a surprisingly large number of counties, but my trip to Maine last summer gave me the chance to fill in that map with one drive up the coast from Cape May to Newark. Louisiana was the second state filled in, with a wander around some reservoir on the Sabine River back in 2005 or 2006. (That wander, incidentally, took me by the only international boundary marker in the United States: the old stone that once marked the border between the United States and the Republic of Texas.) Delaware, which only has 3 counties and one road, was the first state filled in, way back in 1997 on a trip with my son to visit colleges he was considering up north. That trip is also memorable for providing me with an introduction to scrapple, a popular local dish best described as baked fat. I filled in Connecticut and Rhode Island on that trip as well: Rhode Island on purpose, Connecticut accidentally, because I was sitting around with Steve in New York, having changed my plans on a whim. If you want to know more about that, see my long post entitled "The Trip to Maine." It's down around the 4th week of the trip.

But I digress. That diversion to visit Lincoln County, Nevada also required that I go through two more counties in southern Utah -- beautiful, beautiful country that I will likely go back to -- so as this latest trip winds down, I have now been to 1,945 of those 3,097 counties.

I doubt any of you care, and neither do I, really, but somebody asked. They were probably just being polite.