Friday, June 12, 2009

On Political Hate

On Wednesday, a gunman with a rifle opened fire on people at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. A security guard was killed and the suspect, 88-year-old James von Brunn, a white supremacist previously sent to prison for trying to kidnap the Federal Reserve’s board of governors, was shot and is now hospitalized. Assuming he recovers, Brunn will be charged with murder. By any decent person’s understanding, the crime was senseless and hateful, ‘hate’ being the apparent prime motive.

A predictable flood of left-wing media has used this crime to claim that Brunn represents a valid and significant threat, that conservative political opinions lead to extremism and hate.

Dan Gainor wrote a pretty comprehensive summary of just how hypocritical the left-leaning media and blogs are being about Brunn.

Some conservative pundits have been claiming that the crime demonstrates that leftist politics are the source of Brunn’s hate, or at least a major reason why he returned to violence.

AJ Strata posted a very intelligent article on Wednesday, noting that this not an ordinary Left-wing or Right-wing supporter, or even a fanatic, but a flat-out evil man whose politics are frankly irrelevant to the matter, except that political dialogue in the U.S. has become even more polarized and hysterical.

It turns out that von Brunn was not merely a white supremacist and anti-Semite, he also despised President Bush and Senator McCain, and considered 9-11 to be a government conspiracy. He is no conservative, and he is no liberal. Anyone claiming such is ignorant, a liar, or worse.

In short, Brunn appears to be both insane and violent, no more a valid example of considered political opinion than Charles Manson or Ted Bundy. James von Brunn is solitary example of corrosive hatred, and while I must agree that there are others out there who hold similar beliefs or who consider murder a reasonable response to conditions or leaders they dislike.

This brings me to the murder of Dr. George Tiller. The man accused of that crime is Scott Roeder, who allegedly justifies the murder of Tiller on Dr. Tiller’s abortion of unborn babies. A similar cacophony of anger has occurred between Left and Right on this incident as well, some on the left claiming that Tiller’s murder demonstrates that abortion opponents do not really value life and do not condemn violence against abortion providers whose actions are legal and, to the mind of the Left, important and necessary. Some on the right claim that the outrage over the death of a man who made a fortune through the deaths of countless innocents proves the hypocrisy of the Left’s claim to compassion. Both extremes insult the majority of Americans, who would not condone killing either babies or doctors, whatever their politics.

I am not about to pretend that Democrats and Republicans have similar opinions on the major issues, let alone the same ones. But neither am I willing to agree to the broad brush condemnation of millions of intelligent, mature individuals, simply because they have a different perspective and want to pursue different policies than I do. Also, in my experience I have seldom found any large group that was a proper fit for me in all respects. I am a republican and a conservative (small 'r', small ‘c’) yes, though that is partly in default to the fact that the democrats have abandoned all of those principles that – before 1964 – would have attracted me. I also know from personal experience that it can be painful to take exception to certain expected positions – I was once cut from a prominent national blog for not agreeing to promote the site owner’s specific positions on every political issue. I have strong opinions, but respect the law and the Constitution, as written. It seems to me that the leadership in our political parties, like the political factions which chase contributions and viewers/readers/voters, seeks only to provoke and outrage, counting on strong negative attacks rather than offering real solutions. And what solutions are proposed, far too often are merely demands and political payback to cronies, cynically couched as leadership or crisis response. Consensus exists in the dictionary, but never in the Congress.

Stephen Johns did not die for a political cause. He died defending innocent people, doing his job. What happened at the Holocaust Memorial Museum should outrage both Republicans and Democrats, because a good and decent man died because of the hatred in an indecent man’s heart. Dr. Tiller’s murder should outrage both Republicans and Democrats alike, not because of Dr. Tiller’s beliefs or actions, but because the law was ignored and a man took it upon himself to kill another man because of the hatred he had against him. William Long did not die because of his political beliefs, or anything that could rationally be construed as a crime or moral offense. He died because another man acted in hatred, hatred against America and hatred against her defenders.

There are real and important differences between differing political parties and there are many political viewpoints and opinions. These differences should be discussed candidly and civilly, using the blessing of a free and functioning democratic republic to decide the nation’s course and actions. But all decent people should all be able to agree that hatred and violence against other citizens is abhorrent, and is not the result of any mainstream political party. These crimes were not born from either Democrat or Republican policies or candidates, and it is petty and false to pretend they were. The spirit which moves a man to murder someone is not concerned with how they voted or who is in office. Even political assassins are often unconcerned with the politics of their victims. John Hinckley shot President Reagan for reasons that made sense only to him, and which had nothing to do with his politics. Lee Harvey Oswald is on record as saying he liked and admired the Kennedies. There simply comes a point where it is necessary to realize that insanity does not operate in ways that rational people can explain, and it serves no one to try to attack the beliefs of tens of millions of people for the actions of one or a few madmen. It insults the victims to do so, as well.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

When Morons Have Power

This week’s edition of BusinessWeek warned that casinos are losing money. Well, duh. It’s not hard to figure that when you have no disposable income, you will be even less inclined than usual to do things that are wasteful and expensive. Or at least that’s how normal people think. For some reason, some people with a lot of power make incredibly stupid decisions. Today’s example is Drayton McLane, owner of the Houston Astros Major League Baseball club.

The Houston Chronicle released a study which showed that MLB has been trying to protect fan interest and attendance during the recession, and one of the steps taken by almost every club is to allow fans to bring in their own food and drink. While certain conditions apply (no glass bottles for example), every Major League club but one allows folks to bring in their own food and drink. That exception is the Houston Astros club.

The Astros actually set up sentries at the gate to catch anyone trying to sneak in food. Ahhh, but it gets better. An NBC reporter noted “inane stadium policies seem to be Houston's stock in trade. From personal experience, you should know that if you should purchase a beer on one level of Minute Maid Park you are not permitted to bring said beer with you to your seat on a different level. Attempts to figure out why that's the case via conversation with the guard stopping you from the stairwell will result in splitting headaches.”

Nice to know that the ‘Stros are building a national rep in that category, huh?

The Astros first tried to claim that they are bull-headed about food price because they have low ticket prices, but that turns out to be a lie as well: 19 of the other 29 teams offer lower average ticket prices than the Astros.

The team also tried to suggest that we are paying for a quality team. Problem there is that the Astros are in last place in the NL Central, and playing like they mean to stay there.

McLane then tried to claim that banning outside food at Astros games has been kind of a tradition in Houston, said Astros owner Drayton McLane, who purchased the team in 1992. Spoken like a descendant of Louis XVI, not a guy who knows baseball or gives a fart about anyone but himself. Even Steinbrenner would know better than to toss out that kind of arrogance to the public.

So all that establishes that the Astros club doesn’t care a fig about its fans, and is just a business based on greed. That proves poor morals, not bad business, right?

To answer that, let’s consider the business model of MLB club. There are four sources of revenue for a ball club; ticket sales, shares of broadcast revenue, marketing and souvenir sales, and concession sales. McLane is not about to open his books to the public – that kind of honesty has never been how Baseball clubs work – but we can figure out some general numbers from public data. USA Today says that the Astros have a payroll of $103 million, which happens to be the highest in the NL Central. The average ticket price for an Astros game is $28.73, and average attendance for Astros home games so far this season is 29,932, lowest in more than a decade.

That’s down 13.9% from last year’s average at this time, which was also no record-setter. But the revenue from attendance, using the year-to-date pace, would produce $69.6 million for the Astros, more than $33 million short of the payroll even if it cost nothing to operate the stadium, equip the team or pay anyone else. The drop in attendance from last year means at least $11 million lost in lower ticket revenue, unless the Astros do something to attract more fans.

The same effect happens in broadcast games, in fact it’s amplified. The networks only run games that they believe have significant fan interest. While the Astros would receive a minimal amount of attention, their poor performance and low fan attendance would reduce their network profile, meaning fewer televised games and lower revenue from broadcast. Specific numbers are closely protected, but it’s just common sense to conclude that empty seats mean lower broadcast share revenue.

Then there’s souvenir and marketing sales, like jerseys and bobbleheads and so on. How hard is it to understand that if folks don’t buy tickets and go to the games, they won’t buy anything from the gift shops? And even though many stores sell Astros merchandise, last-place teams are not known for strong team product sales. Combine the lousy performance this year, the recession, and management’s jerkwad attitude towards the fans, and it’s very reasonable to guess that product sales are sharply down, by even more than attendance.

Then there’s that concession revenue. Just how stupid McLane is being, becomes evident when you think about the fact that absolutely no one will buy food at Minute Maid Park unless they actually go to a game there, meaning that Drayton’s ridiculous attitude is punishing the people he should be bending over backward to make happy – the fans who are still coming to games. As attendance goes down, concession revenues will also necessarily decline, and given the nature of concession inventory, profit margins will also fail. I used to run movie theaters, and I know that when attendance falls below certain levels, your losses from unsold food increase, no matter how well you try to plan ahead. That is, a 14 percent drop in attendance will necessarily mean about a 16 percent drop in concession profits, unless you lose even more.

Forbes says that the Astros' operating income is only 8.76% of their total revenue, meaning that unless the Astros had a 5.1% profit margin or better in 2008, they are going to lose money this year. This is because so much of the Astros’ costs are fixed, like payroll and leases; they are not going to be able to reduce costs to any great degree, because their variable costs are below 10 percent of their total costs. The short version of MLB clubs’ model is that they are profitable only when their home games have high attendance; low attendance produces business losses. Accordingly, the only sane strategy for a team owner is to attract the maximum number of fans, and this is why 29 of 30 clubs have relaxed their rules on outside food and drink – it’s much better to lose a bit of concessions revenue but protect the fan base, than to lose money in all four categories through sheer stupidity.

It’s curious that Drayton McLane could fail to understand this rule of business. McLane is very wealthy, and became so through running his father’s grocery business, spending 14 years as a general manager of operations. The key seems to be that from 1964 on, McLane moved out of operations and into distribution planning. That is, McLane has not had real contact with regular people for decades and has increasingly come to believe not only that he is competent at whatever he chooses to do, but also that only he understands the situation and the best plan of action. Not so long ago, Sports Illustrated wrote that McLane is obsessed with control, unwilling to allow anyone else to make adjustments, even when those people know far more than he does about what needs to be done.

It appears that this is another such situation.

In the 2005 season, the Astros started off horribly but rallied and frankly got a lot of luck on their way to the World Series, where reality set in and they were swept by the Chicago White Sox. The Astros have not even made it to the playoffs since then, something McLane seems to miss every time he raises prices or does something else to show his contempt for Houston and the people who live there. The bottom line is that McLane does not understand the bottom line, strange as that may sound. He has the power to do what’s needed, but would rather ram the iceberg at full speed in order to prove he has control.

Sadly, there are many people like McLane around right now, in all sorts of positions of power.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Job Schemes

For all the talk – and dear Lord there’s been so much noise from the politicians – the economy basically comes down to people working and making money. If folks are not working, you can forget about companies making profits, about cities, states or even the federal government having any way to provide for the public welfare, not to mention all those things politicians promise every election. In the end, everything – and I mean everything is paid for by people who work. That’s why President Obama is starting to show stress in his speeches; he knows that “blame Bush” can only work so long, and as unemployment nationally creeps up to ten percent he’s headed for trouble. I’m sure he thought his “create or save” caveat for jobs was a clever way to make promises he could never be called on, but the fact is Obama’s plans don’t work, mostly because he does not understand the forces at work, and so he cannot hope to direct them to better results.

There are basically three kinds of jobs – necessary permanent jobs that need to be done by someone all the time, like firefighters, police, doctors and accountants; temporary needs that may or may not be filled long-term, like construction, retail, or manufacturing; and make-work assignments to fill one-time needs or give individuals something to do, like hiring an intern or paying your kid to wash your car. Government can create jobs, but only to a point, whether in number or duration. The most significant jobs, it must be understood, are not created by government or artifice, but by the economy’s needs and the community. The rise in unemployment happening now is the combination of hard-hit sectors shedding non-essential jobs (like real estate and automakers) and the large-scale reduction in unskilled labor. People get angry because they want their seniority to matter, but in the end the key question is whether your work is essential to your employer. Government cannot change that critical value.

The history of employment has always included changing times, as demographics and industries changed. After the Civil War in the United States, for example, many people moved to cities for work because they had lost too many young men to be able to work their farms effectively. Railroad workers, farmhands, cattlemen, surveyors, and even the Pony Express came to their end as they became obsolete. Those who could do so learned new skills and found new work in emerging industries, like automobile manufacturing and power generation in the early 20th Century. Other changes were more gradual and subtle, but no less significant, like the outsourcing of most customer service work and the use of contract labor for low-level clerical tasks. In every case, the change was in reaction to changing realities of life and business. While better-run businesses learned better how to adapt and anticipate change, in no case was the change directed or controlled by the government; strategic change is organic in nature and human actions are influenced by that change, not the other way around.

In the short term, government can create jobs, but that creation is limited by the degree of public support. The military, for example, is popular and large in wartime, but when the war ends (or public support for it) then the military contracts whether it wants to or not. Even FDR’s vaunted Civilian Conservation Corps had a relatively short life, due to its non-essential character. Job creation for the sake of job creation is by definition a failed effort even before it begins.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Turf War?

One of the odd things about the Supreme Court, is that the justices don’t always rule the way they are expected to rule. I hear a lot that the Presidents who appoint the justices don’t always look deep enough to know what they are getting, but sometimes they just do something surprising. Like today. It’s one thing that SCOTUS wants to take a look at the Chrysler deal, but how odd is it that it’s Justice Ginsburg who threw out that pitch?

Think about it. You might expect that from the Chief Justice, maybe Scalia or one of the more constructionist justices. But Ginsberg, an Obama fan if there is one on the SCOTUS? That’s sending a message, and that message is turf. The boundaries have been there for a long time. Theoretically, the Legislature makes law, the White House sets policy and direction, and the Supreme Court interprets law and policy by the Constitution. But in reality, there are areas where each wants to increase its power, and in politics that means at the expense of the other.

Bankruptcies are handled by the courts. Period. That’s how it works, only President All-About-Me wasn’t about the trust Chrysler’s fate to the courts, so he took a page out of the Godfather movies and went thuggy on everyone involved. Turns out that stepped on some toes belonging to people in the black robes. And today’s halt could be a shot across the bow to warn Obama off, or it could be targeting for a salvo if he tries to force the issue.

This could get very interesting.