CHRIS CHRISTIE'S BRIDGE TO OBLIVION?
In 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie singlehandedly killed a planned $8.7 billion commuter train tunnel under the Hudson River that virtually everyone else believed would ensure the future health of the New York region's economy. Christie argued that it was just too damned expensive for the frugal times in which he governed, an argument that held little water then and has now sprung a ginormous leak.
This is because it turns out that Christie planned all along to use New Jersey's share of tunnel construction dough to bail out the state's highway and bridge system, which under his "leadership" had been driven deeply into debt.
This "chop shop option," as one columnist aptly termed it, is paying for, among other things, the $1 billion reconstruction of the Pulaski Skyway, the heavily traveled main connector for the Holland Tunnel and an 82-year-old bucket of rust in such bad shape that nets have been installed to catch falling debris.
There was just one problem with Christie's secret scheme: The unspent tunnel money is under the control of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, much in the news these days because the governor with a huge waistline and even bigger Republican presidential ambitions has used it as a patronage trough and personal piggy bank. (Then there are the infamous George Washington Bridge lane closures ordered by his administration -- with the blessing of the man himself, in my view -- as political retribution. This government-sponsored public safety crisis, when examined close up, was nothing less than a case of domestic terrorism, as shocking as that may seem.)
But I digress. By law, the authority can only fund roads leading to the GW Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel, but Christie got around that inconvenience by browbeating the authority's lawyers into asserting that the Pulaski Skyway is an "access road" to the Lincoln Tunnel, which is about as far from the truth as Trenton is from Kiev.
This is not to say that the governor had other options.
The logical one would have been to raise New Jersey’s gas tax, which is the second lowest in the nation. Even a one-penny increase would raise about $50 million. You can do the rest of the math -- and repair a lot of broken bridges and roads.
But Christie, a bully without peer, knows only one way to get things done. No, make that two: By lying and being underhanded. Come to think of it, he would make a perfect Republican presidential nominee, but on top of all the other problems he has foisted on himself, the Pulaski Skyway deception will make his nomination a bridge too far.
HOW CAN SOMETHING BE SO BAD THAT'S SO GOOD?
I continue to have trouble getting my head around the notion that the Affordable Care Act, which has thus far enabled eight million or so uninsured Americans, as well as their loved ones, to get coverage, in most instances at reasonable rates, will spell electoral doom for Democrats in the November elections. But that, of course, is what many members of the punditocracy are blabbing.
Actually, the real number when you factor in those loved ones is closer to 14 or 15 million, while a healthy (pun intended) percentage of enrollees are younger people, who will keep premiums down. Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the cost of the law will be $100 billion lower than expected and that will significantly shrink the deficit.
If doom it will be, and I continue to remain skeptical that Republicans will recapture the Senate, let alone substantially enhance their comfy cushion in the House, and the Affordable Care Act is indeed seen as the villain, it is because of the GOP's relentless lie-filled portrayal of the best thing to happen to Americans, especially our shrinking middle class, since Medicare.
Beyond reducing the obscene number of uninsured, the reason I know the ACA is a success is . . . because Wall Street loves it.
This is because hospitals, generic-drug makers, pharmacy-benefit managers and electronic medical record companies stand to gain handsomely from the ACA's emphasis on cost controls and its guaranteed payments. About the only folks who won't gain are medical device manufacturers who, poor dears, have been slapped with a 2.3 percent excise tax, and assisted-living and home health-care providers because of reduced Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements.
Just don't tell the Republicans. Or for that matter, scaredy-cat Democrats.
THINK BEFORE YOU GIVE, OKAY?
The American Red Cross has done many, many good works over its long history, but before you give it another cent, consider the following: Except in the most general terms, it refuses to say how it uses the hundreds of millions of dollars of your money that roll into its coffers.
This refusal, most recently in the wake of the $317 million that the Red Cross collected for Superstorm Sandy relief efforts, is nothing new. It stonewalled after the 9/11 terror attacks and again after Hurricane Katrina, making only the most feeble of efforts to push back against criticism that it performed poorly and mismanaged funds.
The Red Cross has bled CEOs, one after 9/11 in 2001, another after Katrina in 2005, and a third in 2007 following an affair with a subordinate. In fact, the stink grew so bad that Congress, of all people, imposed a set of governance reforms on the organization.
"The Red Cross is too big and too important to be allowed to be this secretive," says Doug White, a charity expert who tells ProPublica, the online investigative journalism organization, that such a lack of transparency is common among charities and, like other non-profits, the Red Cross is required to disclose only top-line numbers on its fundraising and spending.
But, as ProPublica notes in an unflattering report, the Red Cross stands out both for the scale of its operations and the unique role it plays in disasters.
"It is the first call for many people moved by images of a tornado, flood, or fire ravaging a community," ProPublica notes. "[But] the organization is also a strange hybrid: a nonprofit charity . . . with a congressional charter." It gets little money from the federal government but has an official disaster-relief partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and President Obama is its honorary chairman.
In contrast, there is substantial information available about where federal relief money went after Sandy rearranged beachfronts in the mid-Atlantic and trashed parts of lower Manhattan and Staten Island in October 2012. But the Red Cross -- which was criticized for being missing in action in many communities ravaged by the superstorm -- has provided a dollar-figure breakdown in only the broadest of categories while giving only raw numbers for services provided.
"Because the spending isn’t categorized in the same way as the numbers of services provided, one can't calculate, for example, how much it cost for the Red Cross to provide overnight shelter stays or what exactly it purchased for the millions it spent on individual casework," ProPublica found.
My own parting of the ways with the Red Cross came way back in 1988 when a reporter friend broke a story that the organization mistakenly released more than 2,400 units of tainted blood that should have been destroyed because of the possibility the blood was contaminated with AIDS or hepatitis.
The organization collects about half of the blood used annually in the U.S., and has been involved in other contaminated blood scandals since then, including one that drew congressional scrutiny when Elizabeth Dole was Red Cross CEO in the 1990s. Dole drew criticism for being more interested in her own image and political ambitions than reforming the organization, and the scandal on her watch was resolved only after the feds sued the organization to force serious top-to-bottom changes.
My charitable dollars go elsewhere -- woefully underfunded public radio stations at the left end of the FM dial and the American Friends Service Committee are favorites -- because of the blood scandals and the the organization's continued and determined squirreliness about how it spends your money.
SEARS -- WHERE AMERICA USED TO SHOP
In an internal merchandising plan written in the late 1970s, a Sears executive identified the company’s core audience and its identity: "Sears is a family store for middle-class, home-owning America. We are not a fashion store. We are not a store for the whimsical, nor the affluent. We are not a discounter, nor an avant-garde department store . . . We reflect the world of Middle America, and all of its desires and concerns and problems and faults."
As noted in the ACA post above, that middle class is shrinking and, if all the pre-mortems on Sears' eventual demise are to be believed, it is because that core audience is in dire economic straits and increasingly would rather shop at Walmart, which has brilliantly marketed itself to the so-called underclass, shop online or at specialty stores, or in the case of some city dwellers, haggle with street corner vendors for that new sweater or pair of socks.
Well, the pre-mortems (and this one in particular) have it wrong, or at least are missing a key factor that goes a long way to explaining why Sears stores, including its flagship store on State Street in downtown Chicago, one of 300 to close since 2010, are blowing away like so many autumn leaves: Service at Sears has ranged from bad to atrocious for many years, and so when all is said and done, its eventual demise will be very much its own fault.
It's almost as if Sears' strategy has been to drive shoppers away. In my case, it has succeeded.
Beyond the fact that its stores have become depressing to walk through (gotta love those Nancy Reagan era women's fashions), it's salespeople as a group are deeply dysfunctional.
This was our last big-ticket experience: My love and I decided one recent January to buy a compact, high-efficiency, energy-saving Bosch washer and dryer tandem. We marched off to our local Sears store where she was able to twist the arm of a taciturn salesman and locked into a deal at a pretty good price -- but only if she applied for and bought the units with a Sears charge card.
The salesman, while obviously unfamiliar with the units, nevertheless tried to foist accessories on us at additional expense that we didn't need or want, recalling to mind the Jerry Lundegaard character in Fargo (the movie, not the FX knockoff), who tells customers at the dealership where he works that for only a few bucks more he can get his manage to throw in undercoating on their new car.
Charge card applied for and approved, the washer and dryer were supposedly ordered and were to be delivered to a warehouse for pickup in early February. Early February came and went and it turned out the salesman was not only taciturn, but was disinterested in closing a nearly $2,000 deal and collecting the commission during a crushing recession.
Long story short, after innumerable phone calls and cajoling salespeople who would never be mistaken for the Blue Crew members in Sears' hapless TV commercials, the washer and dryer finally were available for pickup in mid-March.
Alas, there were further complications.
The units were in the warehouse, but no one could find them. No matter, I was entertained by two saleswomen on a smoke break discussing paternity tests while the search went on. The washer and dryer eventually were found.
And in a perfect coda to this epic retail fail, when we unpacked the dryer the power cord was hard wired and incompatible with the standard dryer wall outlet -- something that none of the salespeople had a clue and/or cared about even though they wanted to sell us useless stuff -- so a professional had to be called in at additional expense to rewire the unit.
Die Sears die!