What’s ginormous to you may be gaudy to me

January Concert
Have you seen the poster? It’s everywhere, everywhen!   (Partly because they have postered over every other goshdarn poster in town, but still) … IT SHOUTS AT YOU! LOOK AT ME! I’M EXCITING! I’M COLORFUL! YOU NEED ME TO MAKE YOUR LIFE BETTER!

You’d think by the color scheme and the energetic graphic design that they are selling something like cheese (New! Improved!), the latest superhero film (Biff! Pow!), or a chance to win a trip to somewhere sunny and warm (The Happiest Place on Earth, perhaps?)

But, no it is the most recent marketing for the Missoula Symphony. That’s right … MUSIC GETS GINORMOUS! MASSIVE MELODIES! COLLASAL CHORDS! THE BIGGEST EVER!

I enjoy a bit of classical music. I do. I applaud their attempts to attract a younger crowd. For sure. And I do find the music of Strauss, Beethoven, Debussy, Smetana, Bach, and Rossini to be dramatic. But, where’s the dignity? Where is the respect due to the composers, the performers, and all the good people who have supported the Symphony through thick and thin?

The drive for bigger audiences, more attention, and greater financial success all signals a step or three down the road to commercialization. Next will be Darko Butorac bobbleheads and maybe 3D glasses. Then you will have giveaways to Dollyworld and free fish to the first 20 families. It can’t be long before the orchestra has corporate logos (Blackfoot Communications and Washington Corp are sponsoring this concert) embroided on their tuxedos or projected onto the tympani drum!

And did you know that tickets for this one-hour funfest on Friday, January 30th, 7pm in the University Theatre are only $6 for all ages? No, you’d have missed that. But, don’t miss the performance – it sells out most years!

Quote of the Decade

“The hallmarks of this presidency will be transparency and the rule of law.” – Barack Obama

Sorting through the mess

Like most folks, I don’t completely understand the financial crisis our nation is in. But, my lack of full comprehension doesn’t make the questions less compelling. No matter what you call it – a fiscal disaster, a banking crisis, a liquidity issue, or a banking bailout, the questions remain.

These days it seems like the solution is to “purge bad assets that are paralyzing the financial system“. Why is that? What is it about those assets that make them so toxic? Can the banks sell them, much as they bought them in the first place? Sure they are risky, but there’s always an investor willing to take that gamble providing the payoff is sufficient. Instead, the banks want our government to overpay for the loans, right?

As I see it, the plan is to establish a government fund (call it a bank if you like, though it is nothing like anything you’d recognize as a bank) to buy up all the bad investments and loans. It’s those bad calls that are causing banks to be losing money. But, isn’t that what banks are supposed to be best at (and far better than the government’s ability to pick winners and losers) – to judge the loanworthiness of a particular project and to calculate the reserves needed to cover the likely outcome of those loans? Why, then, when they got it wrong do they expect us, the taxpayers, to take responsibility for their bad calls?

Why are banks any different from any other entrepreneurial enterprise that takes a risk, backs their judgment, and goes into business the most efficient way they know how in order to provide the goods and services we demand. Because let us not forget that customers are still wanting to give banks money and that someone else is out there wanting to borrow that same money back. We are saving more than ever before (creating liquidity, right?) and we’re still taking out car loads, credit-card debt and refinancing our homes. We may not be doing that at quite the same rate as we once did, but today’s levels aren’t that far different from what they were five years ago. So, if banks were profitable five years ago, they should be able to profitable today. Lots of smaller banks and credit unions prove that as they are facing a good year of profits they can plow back into reserves, net worth, and available capital.

The smart folks at the Treasury, the Fed, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation are worried that the only people left to invest in bailing out the banks is the government. Lender of last resort, right? But, don’t the big investment companies see the same systemic hazard that the regulators see? That is, don’t they see that a frozen market for capital is going to be their worst nightmare? If investors don’t bailout the banks, then those same investors are going to be a whole world of hurt. Maybe it is time for them to step up and take responsibility for the health of the financial system? After all they probably did as much, if not more, to create the mess in the first place.

Is the government going to pick winners and losers? Will the administration be deciding which companies survive (Bank of America, the new owner of Merrill Lynch) and which fail (the late Lehman Brothers)? Me, I don’t think they’re doing a very good job of it. Instead of rewarding the conservative, well capitalized regional banks and credit unions, it seems they are rewarding the aggressive, merger-hungry, behemoth banks.

Even if that is a strategy, which of course it isn’t, then it’s not being consistently applied. On the one hand we are giving Bank of America $20 billion to complete the purchase of Merrill Lynch investment company at the same time we are giving Citibank $10 billion to sell of its Smith Barney brokerage. Given that the government is now part owner of both B. of A. and of Citi, then we either want to own a bunch of investment gurus or we don’t. Or is there something about Merrill Lynch (which has lost $39.1 billion in the last year and a half) that makes it such a better deal than Smith Barney?

I’m beginning to see why the government makes such a terrible investor on our behalf. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that taxpayers could lose $64 billion on investments made just last year under the first third of the $700 billion financial rescue package we know as TARP. Maybe we should just leave government to do what government does best … spend money, not invest it!

No, none of this makes sense to me. And I think that that may be part of the problem – no-one completely knows what is going on. The banks won’t own up to how much they stand to lose on their bad investments. The economists keep changing their predictions, as they are want to do. And the politicians are afraid to admit that they don’t really know what they are doing, just making ad-hoc decisions as they bumble along.

It is the last group, our politicians, that we can hold accountable. The public needs to have faith in their elected officials, and so we deserve answers to our questions. We need to demand that the decision makers fully understand the consequences of their actions. Otherwise, we’ll be letting them off the hook. And when things get worse, we would only have ourselves to blame. Hmm, somehow I think it’s going to get messier!

Did you get yours?

The federal government recently pocketed nearly $20 billion by selling off something you owned. Your share of the auction of the analog TV spectrum should be roughly $175. So, if you called up to get a coupon for a converter box and they told you that there’s already 1.35 million people ahead of you on the waiting list, ask them for the cash instead!

There’s a bunch of reasons why the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) wanted to shift broadcast TV signals over to a different set of frequencies. Broadband wireless communications wanted the old 700 MHz frequencies since they are real good for large volumes of data. And public safety organizations (police, ambulance, and fire) all wanted in. Their calls were being crowded out by all the folks that had previously been licensed to use pretty much the same frequencies as the cops did. Just ask anyone with a scanner – they’ll tell you how much distortion there is!

But, let’s face it, the real reason is that the Feds could smell the money. They could carve out a new chunk of the public’s airwaves and sell it to the highest bidder. Ka-ching! If only they could convince the broadcasters that it was in their best interests.

Ta-da! Along came digital. Current broadcasters got the two-for-one special: for every signal they currently are licensed they would get two digital signals, and since digital is more compressed than analog those two signals could be carried in the space of one! Of course, all the broadcaster were itching to go digital, anyway, promising CD-quality sound and less interference.

And our friends at RadioSchak, Vann-ities, Circuited-City, and BuyBuyBuy.com are more than happy to show you a new TV should you stop by looking for a converter box. Even Comcast, TimeWarner, DirectTV and the other cable or satellite companies are more than happy to sign you up for their signals that don’t require a new TV OR a converter box.

Ah, but then there’s the recalcitrant public. The deal is going to have to toss a bone or two to the ungrateful swine owners to get them to sell up. And so was born the great converter box coupon swindle! Now, I gotta admit, I went online and ordered a coupon. Problem was it expired before Best Boy had a converter box to sell me. So, I ordered another in the name of my next door neighbor’s dog. And then we both went shopping! After a pretty painless installation, I now get a couple more PBS channels than before as well as one of the networks that didn’t come through before. So, for the grand sum of about $30 (once the coupon for $40 was subtracted from the price) I’m a pretty happy camper.

But, of the 112,275,000 households who have a TV, it is estimated that about 8 million (6.8%) aren’t ready for the digital changeover. That’s 8 million old and other folks who don’t quite understand what all the fuss is about. They haven’t done anything wrong. Their TV still works fine today. Why shouldn’t it work fine in 36 days, 1 hour and 37 minutes? And no-one I’ve met has yet figured out how to cash the government’s coupons or buy a warm pair of socks with them. But, maybe they will and then they’ll get theirs, too.

Just because its cheap, doesn’t make it clean ..

Toxic Coal Ash Spill in Tennessee

That’s the toxic coal ash spill from last month in Tennessee (photo courtesy of The Knoxville News Sentinel). It is a typical hazard of the burning of coal for electricity. All that fly ash has to go somewhere. All around the nation, more than 124 million pounds of toxic heavy metals is typically stored wet in similar empoundments. Those surface empoundments (also known as “wet dumps”) contain heavy metals like arsenic, chromium, lead, nickel, selenium, mercury and thallium. Coal ash has poisoned surface water and groundwater supplies in at least 23 states. Coming soon to a drinking water supply near you?!

Coal-fired power plants produce approximately 129 million tons of waste per year, making the waste from coal combustion the second largest industrial waste source in the US. The EPA has been studying what to do about the storage of coal combustion waste for 28 years. Apparently, it was considered too expensive to regulate as a hazardous waste!

Which suggests to us a bigger question about clean coal. Can we afford it?

This is not a trivial question as we take seriously efforts to reform our energy infrastructure. The cry is for clean, green technologies and even bona-fide climate change experts such as James Hansen suggests that this will have to include nuclear power and coal-fired power plants. But, the technology is expensive and following a long seen pattern of the nuclear industry, the coal industry is looking for a handout. Clean coal is never likely to provide power as cheaply as dirty coal plants.

So, the question has to be if clean coal is the best infrastructure investment that this country could make. Let’s put aside nuclear power for another time, and focus on the other alternatives – wind and solar. Both are well established and well studied technologies. We know the patterns by which the wind and the sun wax and wane, and so we know that we will have to store the power from the windy, sunny times for nighttime and cloudy days. That’s means storage – and that’s where an awful lot of R & D could usefully be put. Let’s figure out affordable solar thermal storage and let’s get to work on adiabatic compressed air storage. The Europeans are on to it. Why aren’t we?

Could it be that the wind and solar power industries don’t have as good a public relations operation as the coal power industry and the nuclear industry does? Maybe, then the recent illustration of the overall expense associated with coal and nuclear, particularly with their disposal of the waste products, will factor into the question of where the infrastructure investments should be made. Just because its clean doesn’t make it cheap.

Proper behavior

The students at Sentinel High School are, apparently, learning an important civics lesson. Unfortunately, they may be learning the wrong one. Instead of valuing good public process, they may be learning how to whine about government and its inevitable mountain of paperwork.

In order to tell the world about their oh-so-important high school activities, Sentinel wants to make our city a little more ugly. They already have a sign attached to the school, but instead they want a new one that is 56 square feet in size and 15 feet tall. Nevermind that community standards are 10 square feet and six feet high. Because the school is state property, the students and school administrators feel it is OK to do whatever they want. In effect, shouting to their neighbors and anyone else driving by that they don’t give a darn because they don’t have to. Great lesson in civics, eh?

And I’m not even sure that Sentinel High School should be spending thirty thousand dollars on a flashing, blinking sign full of advertisements. Don’t they have some textbooks or new computers they should be spending that money on? I’m sure the next time that the High School wants the Missoula community to support another bond issue that they’ll then be crying poor. Many of us, however, will be remembering the respect that they showed the community in proposing this sign. That stick in the eye might hurt a little bit more next time at the ballot box.

Maybe there are more lessons here for the students. Firstly, as any good marketer will tell you – is your product or service the right one? I suspect there are many other effective ways of letting students know about the events and goings on at the High School. I thought this was the internet generation, full of Facebook, Twitter, and instant messaging. Why, then, are they insisting on the old technology of a sign?

Secondly, the students should probably do a full accounting of the costs of the project including the costs born by the community at large. I wonder how they will account for the commercialization of their education? I wonder how they will price the loss of scenic beauty as the valley is marred by one more loud sign. And I wonder how they will figure the cost of accidents caused by drivers distracted by their sign. Maybe they just assume those costs away since they don’t have to pay them directly. But, they are real costs. And, I for one don’t particularly care to pay.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the students should learn that any operation or project in the public arena survives only on the goodwill of their fellow citizens. Once the school has lost the trust of the community it may find it very hard to regain that trust. And when their local council person, Jon Wilkins, questions the wisdom of their actions then perhaps the students should learn a little respect for our elected officials and their sense of the body politic. The community may not have the ability to vote down the school’s plans, but we certainly will have many more chances to remind Sentinel High School how to behave in public.