Quite the World, Isn't It?


A CEO excessive-pay solution that will go nowhere

October 23, 2009

Tags: politics, culture, history, economy

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera has a column today looking at "executive pay czar" Kenneth R. Feinberg's decision to curtail executive compensation at firms that received massive government bailouts. He could do that because of the public investment in the businesses, but the problem extends far beyond a few troubled banks and GM. It is endemic in the private sector, with executives receiving millions of dollars for, in effect, screwing up.

Nocera suggests that the ultimate power needs to be held by the shareholders in the companies, and there's some merit to that. They are, after all, the ones immediately shouldering the weight for those obscene pay packages. But getting corporations to change their governance structure to let that happen isn't going to be easy. As good revolutionaries know, those who hold power aren't likely to let it go without a fight.

It would be easier, and more effective, to do it through the tax code. Congress could set up an agency, or use Treasury, to develop formulas for acceptable executive pay ratios. It could tie the pay package to the size of the company and to the average wage of the workers, making it some reasonable multiple of what the lowest rung gets paid. And for every dollar over that level the executive is paid, the company is taxed dollar for dollar. So if the level under the formula is $10 million, and the executive receives $15 million, the company pays another $5 million in taxes.

In the short term, the taxpayers get some benefit. In the long term, the brakes are put on this obscene practice.


Me and my fellow unemployed - more of us than you think

July 15, 2009

Tags: economy

Interesting step-back analysis piece by David Leonhardt on the cover of the New York Times today (and online here).

While the official unemployment rate in California is around 11%, the real proportion of workers who can't find full-time jobs is more like 20%. Yes, that's one in five workers off the job or working part-time, giving California the third-highest rate behind Oregon (23%) and Michigan (22%). The interactive map is here.

As Leonhardt points out, those numbers only reflect folks who have been looking for work. In places like Detroit, Buffalo and other economically smacked urban centers, the percentage of work-age people without jobs is much higher.

"The Great Recession," Leonhardt calls it. Seems about right.


Of fish, farms, elusive water and pricey tomatoes

July 8, 2009

Tags: politics, culture, history, economy

We're in San Francisco for a few days to give a book talk and signing copies tonight of Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West at the Modern Times Bookstore (and working on a travel piece). On the drive up the 5 -- Interstate 5 for you Easterners -- Margaret and I saw thousands of acres of usually green farmland sitting fallow and marked by hard-to-miss signs.

This is a regional issue pitting the Central Valley farmers against those who want to preserve endangered aquatic species such as the delta smelt in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River basins. But the regional issue taps into broader national debates over the balance between nature and human development, and it falls within that long arc of human settlement and the myth of the West as the redoubt of rugged individuals taming the land.

The Central Valley is, in essence, a desert. It is also the nation's agricultural heart, due mainly to the federal government's harnessing and diversion of water. Now, with recent years' winter snows and rains in the West running about half of the usual pace, the fight over water is getting close to the "have/have not divide." With a court ruling curtailing the water flow to farmers in favor of preserving natural habitats, the friction point has been hit. Farmers aren't planting crops they can't water and raise, and thus aren't hiring the already obscenely low-paid farm workers to work the crops. The yellow signs, obviously part of a coordinated campaign, seek to link the present with the era of the Okies, and the Dust Bowl that sent them heading West.

The problem is the Dust Bowl arouse in large part from bad agricultural practices based on greed, which ultimately led to the regional agricultural collapse (catalyzed by drought). The difference between then and now is that California's growers rely on water that doesn't exist locally. The diversion of water has allowed the agri-businesses to flourish, much to the benefit of the nation. But now we're seeing the downside of basing such a crucial component of human development -- ready access to food supplies -- in such a tenuous environment.

And that is one of the reasons tomatoes, now in season here, are running $3 a pound at the chin grocery stores. Call it the trickle down of the drought, and of overdevelopment of terrain that can't support it. And get used to it. Water fights are the future.


So much for a 'post-racial' America

June 21, 2009

Tags: politics, culture, history, economy

I missed the first part of this story when it rumbled through earlier this month, and only caught up with it when the second yahoo bared a rather disgusting soul.

Absolutely appalling.

CrooksandLiars.com has a piece (thanks to friend Anthony DeStefanis for the steer) about two state level political figures -- one in South Carolina, the other in Tennessee -- who recently choked on their own racism. One referred to an escaped gorilla as an ancestor of Michele Obama, and the other emailed around -- on an official government account -- a racist cartoon (portraits of the presidents, with Obama as just a set of eyes against a black backdrop).

Both seem to have apologized, but not for being stone racists. The "gorilla" joker apologized to anyone who was offended. The "portraits" moron said she sent it out via the wrong email. Which, by extension, means she didn't see a problem with the inherent racism of the item.

So much for the post-racial America...


Obama, the polls, and the Left

June 18, 2009

Tags: politics, culture, history, economy

A new poll out today from the New York Times shows an interesting disconnect that should be worrisome for the Democrats. While President Obama still enjoys high personal approval ratings, the public is losing patience with his prescriptions for fixing the economy and health care.

There also is a general lack of enthusiasm for his approaches to Guantanamo Bay, and his attempts to help the auto industry.

Add to that Obama's problems with gay supporters, and the administration's persistence in maintaining secrecy despite promises of transparency -- well, there's a political collision looming out there as the aspirations of the Left, which helped put Obama in office, get short-circuited.

It's too early for this to have much effect on Obama's re-election prospects -- how these problems play out over the next couple of years will be crucial -- but this is when people begin lining up for the off-year Congressional elections. And if the public remains this skeptical of Obama's policies, the Democrats will face some serious challenges keeping controlling of the House.


Penske Automotive picking up Saturn

June 6, 2009

Tags: economy, Detroit

If there are any good news items coming out of the GM meltdown and bankruptcy filing, it could be that GM-owned Saturn, recently touted as likely to close, will survive. We bought a Saturn the second year, I think, that they were available, and were very pleased with the car (we finally traded it in for a Ford Windstar, with less success, though we still have it).

Roger Penske's Penske Automotive Group Inc. is in line to buy the Saturn brand, which strikes me as a deal with a lot of upside. Both have solid reputations and are known brands, and this could be the kind of deal that ten years from now will look like a stroke of opportunistic genius.
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About me


A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.

After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.

An active freelancer, my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I teach or have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.

I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.



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