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January, 2002:

Don’t throw me in the briar patch!

Glenn Reynolds says:

15 KIDS AND ADULTS WERE INJURED, SOME CRITICALLY, AT A SCHOOL in Los Angeles, as a car veered into a crowd. It was a Mercedes. Will we hear calls for “car control,” and explanations that “no one needs” a car with “that much power”?

I have to say, it baffles me when gun-freedom advocates invoke cars as a metaphor for guns. Consider that in order to drive, one must have passed a driver’s-education class, be licensed by the state, and carry liability insurance for any damage you may cause while operating your vehicle. In addition, your car must be registered by the state and must pass an annual inspection to ensure that it is in safe driving condition. You must prove that you are licensed and insured in order to buy a car. Finally, the state can revoke your license to drive if you demonstrate that you are sufficiently irresponsible or dangerous when behind the wheel.

So, you know, if you really want guns and gun ownership to be treated in the same fashion as cars and car ownership, I can’t say that the gun-control lobby will be unhappy with you.

Oh, and one last thing: You do need specialized education and a special license to operate nonstandard vehicles like motorcycles and large trucks. And I daresay that Mercedes drivers tend to pay more for liability insurance than, say, Geo drivers.

Bike lane battle

One of the things Houston has been doing in an effort to comply with the Federal Clean Air Act has been to install bike lanes on various city streets. This has had the unfortunate effect of increasing traffic congestion on some of these streets.

I certainly favor all reasonable ideas to make Houston more accessible to non-drivers. Encouraging bike riding, even in our frequently sweltering climate, is a good idea and worth the trouble. However, I have a lot of sympathy for the people who do drive on this stretch of West Alabama. Any time you reduce a street from two lanes each way to one lane each way, you’re going to cause bottlenecks. Houston’s notoriously out-of-sync traffic lights, with their annoyingly long red cycles, make this problem even worse. Throw in a bus route and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Part of the problem is that the city, which is a bit more than halfway through completion of its planned master bikeway program, has done a poor job of publicizing these alternatives. Thus, drivers who sit steaming through three or four red lights at a given intersection wonder why they suffer but see so few bicycles actually use those lanes. I’ve certainly cursed the bike lanes a few times myself, and I seldom drive this part of West Alabama, partly because of the squeeze on auto lanes.

I’d like to see this succeed, if only for the selfish reason that more bikes means less traffic to bother me while I drive. There are of course many more pieces to this puzzle – rail, sidewalks, city centers – but each piece is important and deserves to be treated properly.

Another local connection

Got a note from another local blogger today. Take a moment and check out The People’s Republic of Seabrook. Thanks to him, I found this amusing piece about the Mormon Church’s attempts to upgrade its image as the world comes to their Mecca for the Olympics. I’m a better man for having read it, for now I know of The Utah Bikini Team. This being Utah, one of their more recent engagements was at the 2002 Utah Bridal Expo. And to think that some people think Texas is a strange place.

Linda Lay followup

I don’t know what Linda Lay hoped to accomplish with her bid for sympathy on the Today Show recently, but judging by these letters to the editor, she failed pretty miserably.

Big time for a small school

Nice article today in USA Today about the men’s basketball program at Gonzaga. As a Rice fan, I have a lot of respect for the success that they’ve acheived. It’s also good to know that they haven’t lost sight of who they are and what they stand for. Here’s to another visit to the Sweet Sixteen, guys.

Crime and punishment

Oliver Willis has his say about what jail should be about. In a word, says Willis, it’s about punishment. I think this position, while emotionally satisfying, is wrong on several levels.

First, I’ll stipulate that certain crimes and certain criminals deserve harsh punishment and nothing more. It is for this reason that I do not oppose the death penalty. I have problems with how cavalierly we issue it, with the restrictions on appeals, and with the overly skewed number of non-whites on death row, but at the end of the day I believe that death is sometimes the only appropriate response.

Similarly, I have no qualms with long sentences for violent crimes. Nor do I quibble with making violent and hardened criminals serve the full extent of their sentences, or with throwing away the key on habitual reoffenders. Parole is a privilege, and it belongs to those who earn it.

Finally, I’d be perfectly happy if we got serious about white collar criminals. You know, the kind who merely wipe out people’s life savings instead of bashing them over the head. If someday Jeff Skilling does a ten-spot in Huntsville, you won’t see me crying for him.

The problem is that there are plenty of people in jail who don’t fit any of the descriptions above. Most people who enter jail are going to get out before they’re eligible for Social Security. It seems to me that it’s in society’s best interests to do something to convince these people that they’re better off joining the ranks of the productive citizens rather than go back to the old habits that got them sent up the river in the first place. Lots of prisoners are illiterate. Libraries and literacy programs help some of them overcome that, which in turn makes them more likely to find a job when they get out. Isn’t this a win-win situation?

Well, maybe we should just lock ’em all up and throw away the key. One strike and you’re out. I hope you’re prepared to pay for that. States are already running out of money for prisons. Would you like to drain resources from education, road-building or law enforcement to keep the prison building industry humming? Don’t forget that most people start their criminal careers when they’re young. Locking them up for good means not only are we removing a potential contributor to the economy just as he’s entering his wage-earning years, it means we have to pay for that person’s upkeep for decades. That just doesn’t sound like good economic policy to me.

If it costs so much to feed and shelter them, why not just kill them all? Well, that’s what they used to do in Afghanistan. Do we really wanna go there?

I believe that criminal justice has three goals: Deterrence, rehabilitation, and punishment. Jail should be bad enough that people don’t want to risk going there, but not so bad that it regularly spits out worse people than it takes in. In an ideal world, the justice system would take those who are merely young and foolish and show them the error of their ways, thus not only setting them back on the right path but providing a good example for those around them. (Yeah, I know, but I’m idealizing here. Work with me.) Rehabilitation and deterrence work hand in hand. By deterring crime and reforming criminals, we can spend less on jails and more on things that actually enhance our lives. And let’s not overlook the idea that some crimes really don’t deserve prison sentences. Think “mandatory sentencing for drug offenses” here. If we stop locking up pot smokers for thirty years, there will be plenty of room in prison for those who really need it.

The funny thing is that throwing more people in jail for longer periods does not necessarily correlate with a drop in crime. I cite the Justice Policy Institute report on the 1990’s, which says

The connection between incarceration and crime rates appears as elusive at the end of the 90s as it has been in previous decades. There is little correlation between states with skyrocketing incarceration rates and the recent crime declines witnessed across the country. The “New York Miracle” – the sharp drops in homicides and violent crime rates experienced by America’s largest city between 1992 and 1997 – have occurred at the same time that New York State had the second slowest growing prison system in the country, and at a time when the city’s jail system downsized.

New York’s modest prison growth provides a solid contrast to the explosive use of incarceration in other states. During the same 1992-97 period, California’s prison population grew by 30%, or about 270 inmates per week, compared to New York State’s more modest 30 inmates a week. Between 1992 and 1997, New York State’s violent crime rate fell by 38.6%, and its murder rate by 54.5%. By contrast, California’s violent crime rate fell by a more modest 23%, and its murder rate fell by 28%. Put another way, New York experienced a percentage drop in homicides which was half again as great as the percentage drop in California’s homicide rate, despite the fact that California added 9 times as many inmates per week to its prisons as New York.

All I’m saying is that we should use some common sense in dealing with crime and punishment. Not all crimes are equal, nor are all criminals. To quote this Nevada Journal article:

It was an appeals court judge in New York who pointed out in a magazine article that a penniless mother who steals powdered milk for her baby and a thug who steals powdered milk to cut heroin have committed the same crime. Does anyone really want to see them given identical, “mandatory” prison sentences?

Let’s lock up the right folks for the right reasons. That’s the best approach.

Left Turn

According to this annual survey, incoming college freshmen are more liberal than any time since 1975. As a college student from the Reagan years, in which the joke on campus was that our boomer-era profs were more liberal than the students, I am generally heartened by this. Of course, if this really means that more students are on the anti-globalization, blame-the-US-for-everything fringe, then it’s not so good. The numbers mentioned in this article are too vague to draw any firm conclusions. Besides, nowadays “liberal” and “conservative” are too broad. I’m a liberal who’s for free trade, against hate crime and hate speech laws, and in favor of the death penalty with certain reservations. Does this make me a moderate, a traitor to the cause, or just confused? I don’t know, but I bet I wouldn’t be considered “liberal” by this survey.

If I could read your mind…

There’s a woman right here in the Houston area who claims to be a “pet psychic”. You can see her do her thing tonight on Animal Planet. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t need to pay some poofter $300 an hour to tell me what my dog is thinking. I know exactly what he’s thinking at all times: “Feed me! Pet me! Worship me! Take me for walkies! Let me on the couch! Did I mention feed me?”

I saw an ad for this bizarre show last night while watching Blue Planet: Seas of Life, all four hours of which will be rerun on Friday night. Make time to watch it, it’s excellent and fascinating. And let your pets sit on the couch with you while you watch. I have a feeling they’d like that.

Who not to read

Duncan Fitzgerald confesses that he doesn’t read Tom Clancy any more. Says he

I got about 2/3 of the way through The Sum of All Fears. It was at that point I realized Clancy was just another poser in the mold of Zane Grey and Danielle Steele. A sell-out. A fake, a fraud, a user of template-based-MadLib-fill-in-the-blanks-book-writing.

Well, I haven’t read Clancy in years either. I loved The Hunt for Red October – but don’t get my Russian-born friend Galina started on how unrealistic it was from her perspective – and I made it through Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. The realization I came to at that point was that Clancy was basically writing technical manuals, with a lot of fawning for Reaganesque politics. He can’t write characters to save his life. Forget about writing female characters – you could come away from reading the Clancy portfolio and honestly believe he’s never met a real woman in his life. I mean, in Patriot Games, Jack Ryan’s buddy Robbie at one point refers to their wives as “the womenfolk”. The man is clearly not from this planet.

I haven’t read John Grisham in years, either. Once you come to the realization that all Darby Shaw had to do was tell someone else about the “Pelican Brief”, it becomes hard to take his plots seriously. Then there’s Patricia Cornwell, whose first couple of books were outstanding. Unfortunately, her plots got more contrived and her characters got less interesting. I vowed to quit after reading Cause of Death, easily my all-time candidate for Book By A Big-Name Author In Greatest Need Of An Editor, but I came across a used copy of the first book in her other series, Hornet’s Nest, and gave it a try. Wrong!

I think all three of these authors started out doing good books (Clancy’s Red October, Grisham’s The Firm, Cornwell’s Postmortem, which is still the gold standard for medical examiner thrillers). I don’t know if they simply ran out of original ideas, or if their success meant that no one was able to tell them that they had turned into hacks. Take my advice, people – go read Michael Connelly, Jill McGown, Robert Crais, Jan Burke, Harlan Coben, Peter Robinson, Rick Riordan, John Sandford, Aaron Elkins, Kathy Reichs, or Elizabeth George. You can thank me later.

Big Ol’ Can Of Worms Dept.

A New Jersey man is charged as an accomplice in a DUI fatality even though he wasn’t in the car. Kenneth Powell was called to pick up his friend Michael Prangle, who’d been busted after blowing a 0.21 on the breathalyzer, from jail. Powell took Prangle back to his car, where Prangle proceeded to crash headon into a car driven by Navy Ensign John Elliott, killing Elliott and himself, and injuring Elliott’s girlfriend.

Powell maintains that he wasn’t fully informed of Prangle’s condition. The state police says that Powell was fully informed, was told that Prangle shouldn’t drive, and that Prangle was visibly intoxicated besides.

Complicating matters is that state law at the time of this incident was unclear. A new law was passed last year in response to this that would allow police to impound drunk drivers’ cars for 12 hours, and also spells out what to tell someone who comes to bail out a drunk driver, including what penalties they may face if they let the driver get back behind a wheel too soon.

I’m inclined to think that Kenneth Powell bears some responsibility for John Elliott’s death (and Michael Prangles’, for that matter). I don’t know that his level of culpability rises to manslaughter charges, though. It’s the same problem I have with laws that make party hosts and bartenders partially responsible for DUI accidents – ultimately, the fault lies with the person who gets behind the wheel. Some people don’t look as drunk as they are, some people will sneak off when you’re busy elsewhere – it’s a lot to ask to make a third party their keeper.

It will be interesting to see what a jury (and most likely an appeals court) makes of this.

Are you sick of the whole Enron thing yet?

Vice President Dick Cheney is refusing to turn over documents connected to President Bush’s energy plan. The GAO may file a lawsuit against the White House to force them to give it up.

I don’t know what Cheney is hiding, but I doubt that it’s as bad as the negative press they’re gonna get for all this stonewalling. The latest polls say that 67 percent of Americans think the President is lying in part or in whole over Enron. I know you guys read the polls, Dick. What were you thinking?

In other news, Ken Lay’s wife Linda says they’re trying to avoid personal bankruptcy. That sound you hear is my heart breaking for them. Here’s some free advice, Linda: Get a job. And don’t put all of your 401(k) in company stock.

What he said

This op-ed piece by Bart Busker in today’s Chron says exactly what I think about the Katy Freeway expansion. Busker highlights an issue that I didn’t, which is that the I-10 expansion is several times as expensive as the current light rail project. The light rail project had to fend off lawsuits, ballot challenges, City Council shenanigans, and Tom De Lay, while all of the so-called champions of fiscal responsibility make no mention of the billion dollars that will be spent here. Nice to have friends in high places, isn’t it?

A place for my stuff

So Tiffany and I have started to look for a new house. There’s nothing wrong with our current house, but if we ever want to have kids, we’re gonna need more room. Plus, we’ve done all the renovating and remodeling that this house can take, so Tiffany needs a new challenge.

There’s a house we have our eye on in the same neighborhood. This is good, because we want to stay in this neighborhood. We really like it here. There’s a long road to travel before we get to the point of completing any transactions, but we know where we want to be going.

Tiffany and I have looked at a lot of houses in the four-plus years we’ve been at this address. Early on, before we performed major surgery on the kitchen and master bedroom/bathroom, we looked at other houses to get ideas about what we could do and what we shouldn’t do. Later on it was just plain old curiosity on our part. Going to realtor open houses around here is somewhat of a spectator sport. Most of the agents know us on sight by now.

We’ve seen a lot of new houses, and a lot of old houses that have been refurbished and added on to. I’m always amazed at some of the things that builders do. Since this is a desireable neighborhood, all the new and refurb construction is aimed at the high end. Builders like to put a lot of money into flashy things like countertops, moldings, and light fixtures. They clearly hope to impress young couples with more money than sense and older couples who’ve sent the last of their kids out into the world and want to return to civilization from the wilds of the suburbs.

The thing is that while they spend all this money and attention to frou-frou things like that, they often don’t give a lot of thought to how real people will actually live in these dwellings. I see houses with very little useable wall space because of odd placings of windows and light switches. Houses with 3000 or more square feet will have only three bedrooms, all of which are way larger than most people need.

Today we saw a house that was a refurb. It used to be a smallish bungalow, but it’s on a big lot and has since been expanded on the ground and had a second story put on. It has a large kitchen, which is nice, but was one of the poorest designs I’ve ever seen. The sink is a long way from the stove and refrigerator, with a countertop in the way. The fridge is crammed into a tiny space because it’s underneath the stairway, but to the left of the fridge is a pantry with a normal height ceiling. Instead of swapping the place for the fridge and the pantry, this arrangement would force you to have a smaller fridge than you would want. If they’d consulted someone who actually uses the kitchen to cook, they’d have changed the peninsula countertop into a center island with a gas cooktop and moved the space for the fridge closer to the sink.

Another time I saw a brand new house that had a little enclave on the second floor that was intended to be a computer area. It had a built in desk on one wall. Problem was, the phone jack was on the other wall, so if you wanted to hook your computer up to the Net you’d have to run the wire across the floor. Not very bright.

The house we’re looking at has a few problems – no large closets, a small master bath, one odd light-switch placement – but for the most part you can imagine someone living there. Most of what’s wrong should be fixable or at least livable. The ironic thing is that it’s been on the market for several months. The builder didn’t splurge on doorknobs and fixtures, which perhaps made the house less attractive to those who notice that sort of thing. Perhaps their loss will be our gain. We’ll see.

Adventures in Capitalism, part 2

The Houston City Council recently announced that it was considering selling naming rights to city buildings as a source of revenue. This has drawn predictable derision, but this article in the Chron explores the ways that other cities, notably San Diego, have formed partnerships with business for goods and services. In tough economic times, it makes sense to see what can be done to stretch limted municipal budgets.

I’m ambivalent about this. Put aside issues of good taste – one can certainly hope that we never have the Dynegy City Hall building or some such – it’s hard to argue against finding innovative ways to increase municipal services without increasing taxes and fees. For example

In perhaps the most unusual marketing marriage, San Diego is partnered with a defibrillator company. Cardiac Science will pay that city $225,000 over three years to be San Diego’s official partner.

The city also will get a cut of the company’s defibrillator sales in San Diego during the contract term.

The deal came after the city bought defibrillators for its municipal buildings. Teaming up on a public-safety campaign for defibrillator training seemed a natural, said Mary Braunwarth, director of San Diego’s Corporate Partnership Program.

“It’s not just designed as a revenue (generator),” Braunwarth said. “It was tied with the city’s desire to provide a new level of service that we did not have the money for in our regular budget.”

In addition to getting free publicity, Cardiac Science gets its brochures distributed by city fire officials during commercial building inspections. The fire department also provides defibrillator training.

I have no quibble with that, and I applaud San Diego for the initiative.

The problem, of course, is that there’s a nontrivial potential for corruption when you start throwing around millions of free dollars. It’s just a matter of time before some city official is accused of taking kickbacks in return for steering a deal to a particular company. Any city that pursues this line of revenue needs to keep its eyes wide open for that possibility.

Adventures in Capitalism, part 1

A former Enron employee is making money by selling T-shirts which bear anti-Enron slogans. Head over to his site if you’d like to buy a shirt that says “My boss got a retention bonus, all I got was this T-shirt.”

What kind of scandal is this supposed to be again?

Conventional wisdom (scroll to “The Gating Factor”), even in Blogland, appears to be settling on the idea that the Enron mess is a business scandal, not a political scandal. That may be true, but with all of the money that Kenny Boy and Company poured into politics and the access to the high and mighty that they had, it’s way too early to discount the possibility of political laws being skirted or broken. For example, there’s this story, which says that top Bush political advisor Karl Rove helped Republican strategist Ralph Reed land a consulting contract at Enron while Dubya was deciding whether or not to run.

The Rove associates say the recommendation, which Enron accepted, was intended to keep Reed’s allegiance to the Bush campaign without putting him on the Bush payroll. Bush, they say, was then developing his “compassionate conservatism” message and did not want to be linked too closely to Reed, who had just stepped down as executive director of the Christian Coalition, an organization of committed religious conservatives.

At the same time, they say, the contract discouraged Reed, a prominent operative who was being courted by several other campaigns, from backing anyone other than Bush.

Enron paid Reed $10,000 to $20,000 a month, the amount varying by year and the particular work, people familiar with the arrangement say. He was hired in September 1997 and worked intermittently for Enron until the company collapsed.

If this is true – Rove predictably denies it – then what this looks like to me is political accounting Enron-style: Team Bush acquired an asset and hid the debt for it in an off-book partnership. You don’t have to be a Democrat to think that this would be a Bad Thing:

“If Karl Rove was partly responsible for [Reed] getting the job at Enron, it illustrates the close relations between the Bush political world and Enron,” said Trevor Potter, a Republican, who is a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. “If it was done for the avowed reason to keep Reed satisfied and out of someone else’s political camp, it illustrates what everyone in the Republican world has known for years: Enron has been an important source of political power in the party.”

Potter said Reed’s hiring could have been a violation of federal election law if it turned out that “it was a backdoor way of getting him extra compensation for the time he was spending on Bush activity.”

This may indeed turn out to be nothing. All I’m saying is that it’s too early to dismiss the idea that there’s no potential for a political scandal.

Maybe there is justice

Looks like perhaps Ken Lay won’t walk away from all this with his spoils intact. Pretty much all of the income he got from Enron is apparently fair game in the multitude of civil lawsuits that have been filed by those who lost retirement accounts. This is as it should be. CEOs are bountifully compensated for the greater exposure to risk that they supposedly have, but in real life they tend to all have golden parachute clauses that make them impervious to any damage they cause to their companies. Ken Lay was ultimately responsible for Enron, and if Enron has turned to dust, then that’s what he should get.

Ballpark at Union Station update

The Ballpark at Union Station is shopping for a new name. That’s what Enron Field was called before it hitched up with Enron and changed its name. The Astros are in the market for a new suitor, and there’s no lack of choices.

Erica on NPR

If you’re not completely Enroned out by now, listen to this interview from NPR (you need Real Audio) with Erica Bess Duncan. Erica is a friend of mine who is still with Enron. Her unit, Enron Online, has been bought by UBS Warburg, though the deal is not finalized. As you might imagine, things are a bit different now for those who are still there.

UPDATE: Alas, UBS Warburg has pulled out of Houston, and Erica is now unemployed. She wasn’t too unhappy about it when I last spoke to her, though. She was glad to be out of the energy trading business.

Movin’ right along

Two interesting transportation stories in today’s Chron. The Katy Freeway will roughly double in width now that the feds have approved a a $1 billion plan which is slated to begin in May, 2003. Also on the west side but further south, Metro has taken the first tentative step towards expanding the light rail line outwards by funding a study of the feasibility of running a line out US 90. This route would go through Sugar Land and Missouri City into Richmond and Rosenberg. One possibility would be to share tracks that run along US 90 and are currently in use by Union Pacific.

I can’t argue that the Katy Freeway (that’s I-10 from the west side of Loop 610 out about 20-25 miles into Katy for you non-locals) doesn’t need expanding. Traffic is congested on that stretch of road pretty much whenever you drive on it. What saddens me about this project is this blip from the article:

Most of the widening will occur along the former railroad right of way north of the freeway, but some will be on the south side, [Texas Department of Transportation spokewoman Janelle] Gbur said.

If we were ever gonna build rail out this way, that was the place for it. Since there was no mention of rail as being part of this project, I guess we can kiss it goodbye. The track is already there. You don’t have to tear up streets, though you would have to figure out how and where to put the stations and platforms. Still, with so much infrastructure already in place, it seems a shame to me to never at least look at using it instead of ripping it out for more highway lanes.

I sure hope this is the panacea that westside residents want it to be, because the next time our options won’t be so nice and easy. I salute the people of Fort Bend County who are considering ideas other than more asphalt.

Nice Work If You Can Get It Dept.

Record label EMI is buying out Mariah Carey’s $80 million four-album contract for $28 million. Now the two sides are fighting over who dumped whom. Sheesh. Y’know, I remember the old days when people took their millions and shut up about it.

By the way, Carey recorded exactly one album, “Glitter”, for EMI. It sold about 500,000 copies, which is to say it was a massive failure. Adding the $28 million buyout to the $21 million Carey had already been paid, this venture cost EMI $98 per copy sold, and that’s before marketing and the cost of Carey’s flopola of a film, also called “Glitter”. In case you were wondering why CDs cost so damn much.

New frontiers in American theater

It’s a sweet story about a young girl who is following her dream. When she finally reaches it, her parents disapprove. So, she had to raise the money for the trip on her own. Her friends, sympathizing with their pal’s plight, decide to pitch in and lend a helping hand.

The story is that of the Texas Cowgirl Cheerleader wanna-be in Debbie Does Dallas, which made its way from the curtained section of video rental stores to the New York stage as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. The highly anticipated adaptation received mixed reviews but sold out its run at downtown Manhattan’s Kraine Theatre Aug. 10-19.

Here’s the full story. Link courtesy of Oliver Willis.

How long until the election?

Thanks in part to an increase in Democratic candidates as well as a general increase in partisan nastiness, there’s been a sharp increase in challenges to ballot applications.

This isn’t right. A technicality shouldn’t abrogate the voters’ right to pick who they want. Fortunately, the Texas Supreme Court appears to see it that way. Good on them.

This being Texas, there had to be at least one case with a weird twist. Here it is, scroll down to the “Heidi Ho! Ho! Ho!” subhead to read it.

Doesn’t feel that way to me

This article in Salon claims that the Enron collapse has been a September 11-like shock to Houston.

“Whereas Sept. 11 was a shock for the nation and indeed the world, this is a second shock for Houston, certainly not of equal magnitude, but up there on the Richter scale,” says Peter Bishop, chair of the studies of the future department at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. “Ken Lay. You couldn’t find a fairer person, a person who did more for the community, and just like the World Trade Center, that doesn’t exist anymore.”

It’s a sign of how shocked Houstonians are about Enron’s ignominious demise that Sept. 11 can be invoked — and is frequently — to explain the shock of the company’s collapse.

Umm, maybe I’m just out of touch, but I can’t honestly say that I’ve seen any September 11 references in the local Enron coverage. I certainly hadn’t thought of it that way myself. Yes, this has been a shock, but there’s still a fundamental difference between people losing jobs and money and people being vaporized by flaming jet fuel. Frankly, I think the comparison is overwrought to the point of being further evidence of an excessive sense of self-importance on the part of some folks connected to Enron, to wit:

“They had rock-star status here,” says Carlos Hernandez, a native Houstonian and business consultant of the Enron top dogs. Last year, before Enron’s downfall, when Jeff Skilling was still CEO, he’d be approached in local bars like a celebrity. “Out of nowhere people would come up to him and tell him how great he was. A friend of mine saw him at Volcano unshaven, wearing a leather bomber jacket, a white T-shirt and jeans,” says Hernandez. “He was a god, and Lay was king.”

You’ve got to be kidding me. Even today I wouldn’t know Jeff Skilling if he wiped my windshield for beer money. Don’t ask me what the T-shirt and jeans comment is supposed to mean. Maybe it was laundry day and that’s what was still clean.

I really have no idea where this story came from. Any Houstonians reading this, did I miss something? Do you feel this way? Please let me know.

UPDATE: Ginger beat me to the publishing punch. Her take is a bit different, but we agree that the article didn’t resonate for us.

As goes Texas, so goes the nation

I’ve already mentioned that Texas is looking at a shortfall in its unemployment insurance fund. Well, today we find that as things stand right now, the well runs dry in March. This will force the state to borrow money from the Feds (at 6.27% interest) as well as to hike taxes on businesses by $1.6 billion in 2003.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office has lowered its surplus projections from $5.6 trillion over ten years to $1.6 trillion. The CBO had once projected that most of the national debt would be retired by 2008, but now “the loss of surpluses means the debt is expected to remain high, at $2.8 trillion, and continue to cost hundreds of billions of dollars each year in interest payments.”

Note to Senator Daschle: I’m waiting for you to make the honest and straightforward case that much of the $1.35 trillion tax cut that was passed last year was wrong and should be rolled back. You’re going to be pilloried by the ideologues no matter what you do, so you may as well do the right thing. Blaming the president for the current mess without taking the argument to its logical conclusion is disingenuous at best. You know what to do, so do it.

The company you keep

Brian Linse makes the case that President Bush is tainted by his association with the Enron crowd. Says Brian

Regardless of what illegal shenanigans the Enron boys may or may not have gotten up to in the past, Bush will and should be judged for having such a miserable scumbag as a close friend and supporter.

I’m no fan of Bush or “Kenny Boy” Lay, but I must respectfully disagree with this position. I got into an argument many moons ago with a rabid Clinton-hater who made the same claim. I said then and I’ll say now that it is not a crime to be friends with a shady character. One is rightfully judged by one’s actions, not by one’s company. Or, to put it another way:

[15] And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him.
[16] And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?
[17] When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

I’m not attempting to draw any parallels here – $deity knows that Dubya gets enough worship from Andrew Sullivan, and I seriously doubt that Bush would have ever tried to get Lay to repent his evil bookkeeping ways. That’s not the point. It’s certainly true that his past actions in regard to Enron and Ken Lay are in many ways objectionable. I won’t be at all surprised if at least some of his future actions regarding them are the same. However, standing by Ken Lay the man, his friend, is not something I will object to. In fact, I consider his attempts to distance himself from Lay to be craven. To be Ken Lay’s friend in the good times but not the bad doesn’t speak well for our president as a human being. It reinforces the notion that he only cared about the money, which is precisely what he should want to dispel.

In short, if I refused to judge Bill Clinton by his disreputable friends, I cannot judge George Bush by his.

UPDATE: Apparently, Brian drew a fair bit of disagreement. I’m never comfortable aligning myself with Clinton-bashers, but I gotta call ’em as I see ’em.

For the record, I quoted the same Bible verses to the Clinton hater I sparred with back then. I suppose that’s a stronger rhetorical device when dueling with Republicans, but oh well. My point in making that citation was that I believe the tactic of attacking a person by attacking that person’s associates can be used against anyone, regardless of their degree of actual guilt.

I do understand the point Brian is making, and perhaps I’m just splitting hairs, since there’s no question that Dubya’s friendship with Lay is closely entwined with their business and political dealings. I still believe that we should be examining Bush’s actions, and that anything else is misdirection.

Best news I’ve heard this week

The Federal Trade Commission is considering a national no-call registry that would appear to put some real restrictions on telemarketers. The Direct Marketing Association hates it, so this must be good. Says their spokesbeing:

“The government may be overstepping its boundaries by spending taxpayer dollars to limit communication that is protected by the first amendment,” said H. Robert Wientzen, president of the Direct Marketing Association. He said the proposals could cost the telemarketing industry money and jobs by having companies relocate to other countries to avoid the regulations.

Wientzen said people who do not want to be called can request that their names be added his group’s list, which now has 4.1 million names. The bulk of telemarketers voluntarily participate in this service and abide by the list, he said.

First of all, advertising (which these sales calls are) has less First Amendment protection than, say, a weblog. Marketers are held to certain standards of truthfulness and accuracy that us just plain folks aren’t.

Second, the DMA’s no-call list is inherently flawed precisely because it’s voluntary. There’s nothing to compel a telemarketer to live by those rules. The fact that some do just makes them marginally less slimy.

Finally, why should the burden be on the private citizen to prevent these intrusions into their homes? The DMA’s assumtion is that unless you specifically say you don’t want to hear from them, you must want to hear from them. Why isn’t it the other way around? In other words, don’t call me, I’ll call you.

There’s nothing original about this opt-in versus opt-out argument – it’s the same tack the anti-spam crowd has taken all along. That’s the kind of law I’d really like to see pass. It’ll never happen, and maybe that is taking regulation too far. What’s being proposed here is realistically the best we’ll ever do. I’m OK with that.

The things you learn in obituaries

Legendary retailer Stanley Marcus, longtime chairman of Neiman-Marcus, passed away at the age of 96 yesterday. Contained within his obit was the following:

Known as “Mr. Dallas” for his devotion to the city where he was born and lived for much of his life, Marcus nevertheless infuriated the conservative establishment in the 1950s and 1960s. He championed civil rights and free speech.

During the height of the “red scare” in the 1950s, he publicly defended the Dallas Museum of Art, accused of showing “communist art” in showcasing works by Picasso and other artists.

He was among the first Dallas merchants to hire blacks as salespeople and welcome blacks to shop at his stores.

Despite threats of boycotts, picket lines and canceling of charge accounts, Marcus’ business never suffered much, because the wives of the most conservative Dallas leaders couldn’t bear to live without shopping at Neiman’s.

RIP, Mister Stanley.

The Summerall-Madden split

One guy who won’t be sorry to see the Summerall-Madden team split up is Sports Illustrated’s Dr. Z, who rated that pairing as the worst in football this year. I guess I can see his point, and I should note that others, including Slate’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback, have criticized Pat and John for being slipshod. Maybe I don’t pay very close attention to broadcasters any more, or maybe I’m still listening to their reputation, I don’t know. But I’ll miss this partnership anyway.

Like son, like father

Like son, like father I’m somewhat amazed to say that I just walked my father through setting up a blog. Mom and Dad have been on email (with just a bit of help from their slightly more technical son) for two years now, since they left the ancestral home in New York and moved out west to Oregon. It’s been an adventure in a number of ways. Dad has found a groove sending out anecdotes and reminiscenses via email. I’m grateful that there’s such a thing now as blogging to give his words a bit more permanence. There’s just a test post there now as I write this, but do check back to The Dudstoevsky and see for yourself where I get it from.

UPDATE: Sadly, this blog didn’t last very long. Dad was never very comfortable with the interface, and one day ran into a weird bug where he could sign into Blogger but never saw a link to edit his blog. Blogger support was even less useful than it is now, and we never got any help on this, so it went the way of all flesh. Too bad.

Books v. movies

Got into a bit of a debate with Karin today about the Harry Potter movie. Karin has written that while she liked the movie, she felt it lacked by being a straightforward recapitulation of the book. Why do such an adaptation in the first place, she asks?

I can understand this criticism, but frankly it doesn’t bother me. I saw the movie and enjoyed it, and never felt that it needed to have some director’s vision imposed on it. I certainly respect and admire those who can cover someone else’s work and turn it into something new and wonderful while remaining faithful to the original artist’s intent, but it’s no sin to me to merely reproduce another’s work in one’s own style. (Insert Stephen Ambrose joke here.)

I’m a big fan of a Grateful Dead cover album called “Deadicated”. It features a diverse group of artists, all of whom have run their number through their own filter. Several of the songs, such as the Indigo Girls’ version of “Uncle John’s Band” and Dwight Yoakum’s “Truckin'”, are better than the originals. On the other hand, I’ve got a CD called “A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughn”, which features faithful covers of his best-known songs by a variety of blues legends. There’s nothing new to discover there, but good material performed by skilled artists is valuable in its own right. I file the Potter movie in the same general bin.

By the way, did anyone happen to catch the A&E Biography of JK Rowling last night? She’s obviously very protective of her creation, which lends another reason for Chris Columbus’ choice of a stick-to-it narrative. Interestingly, the bio we saw last night was pretty much all Rowling speaking, rather than the usual panorama of interviews with friends and associates. The description on the page I linked, which describes a standard Bio formula show, is not what we saw last night. Curious.

Splistville in the broadcast booth

Larry pointed me to the story of Pat Summerall and John Madden splitting up as broadcast partners after the Super Bowl. I had at first thought it meant Summerall was retiring, but apparently not. So, I’m not sure what to make of this. Time for a change, I guess.

Whoever Fox gets to pair with Madden (assuming Madden wants to go on with a new partner), that person should be as brief and succint as Summerall to complement Madden’s bluster. The article mentions Joe Buck, and I think that would be a good choice. Tough act to follow, though.

Not dead yet

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has upheld an injunction that requires the Twins to play in the Metrodome this season.

Look, anyone not related by blood or money to Bud Selig knew that the whole contraction idea was about as smart as the CIA’s plan to humiliate Fidel Castro by making his beard fall out, though not quite as likely to acheive its ultimate aims. Can we just move on here and address baseball’s real problems? Sheesh.

It was just a matter of time

The Wall Street Journal blames the fall of Enron on Bill Clinton. Well, more specifically, they attempt to blame Enron’s sharp practices on “the moral climate” of the Clinton years:

We’d say it’s also impossible to understand Enron outside of the moral climate in which it flourished. Those were the roaring ’90s, when all of America reveled in the economic boom. They were also the Clinton years, when we learned that “everybody does it.” The culture wanted to believe in Enron’s promises, which helps explain why 16 of 17 Wall Street analysts rated Enron a “buy” as recently as last October.

So what you’re saying is that 94% of Wall Street analysts were so bamboozled by the thought of the president getting a hummer that they lost all critical thinking skills? Wow. Really makes you wanna run out and play the market, doesn’t it? Did these analysts not have mothers who said to them “If everybody jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?” Maybe lax parenting is also to blame for Enron. Did any of these analysts go to school with John Walker Lindh?