Friday, May 29, 2009

Chrysler to Iacocca--Return Your Demo! Can Detroit Come Back?

This morning, Reuters is reporting that former Chrysler CEO and icon Lee Iacocca will be losing both his pension and lifetime company vehicle as Chrysler proceeds through bankruptcy.

Now, I don’t think that Iacocca losing his company car is any huge deal to him. He can probably afford to buy any vehicle he wants. But, the article did remind us that it was Iacocca who became a visible spokesperson for Chrysler appearing in numerous commercials proclaiming “If you can find a better car—buy it.”

This was back in the early 80’s and had more to do with the resurgence of Chrysler Corporation than did Ricardo Montalban’s pitch for the Chrysler Cordoba with its’ “fine Corinthian leather” in his inimitable accent.

Montalban, like Billy Mays, was a paid pitchman. It was entertaining though. But when Iacocca extolled the virtues of his products, we believed him. He was Lee Iacocca—the CEO, a giant in the auto industry. He was just talking to us on the TV and being honest and upfront (at least in our perceptions). Iacocca was talking about the value of the vehicles made by his company. And that’s where I’m heading with this.

The Detroit 3 are all in trouble. The only one which seems to be steadily working its way out of it is Ford. As we all know both GM and Chrysler are in bankruptcy. Very simplistically the way they’re going to survive and emerge from bankruptcy is through careful re-organization and a commitment to doing things right. A commitment which, quite frankly, just hasn’t been there for a while.

Let’s get back to that value idea for a bit. As an automotive sales trainer, the absolute foundation of sales is this from Zig Ziglar: “Buying occurs when value exceeds price.” It’s that simple. Except that too many sales staff, sales managers, dealerships and manufacturers have bastardized their approach to getting value to exceed price by discounting and rebating first and building value either not at all or as a secondary strategy (i.e. “lookit all you’re getting for a dirt cheap price”).

Back in the day, someone at Chrysler (or their advertising agency) knew this and enlisted Iacocca’s active participation. He was the first of the CEO’s to pitch his own product and no one did it better than him until Chrysler tried to reprise the approach in 2006 with “Dr. Z”—Dieter Zetsche, the Chairman of DaimlerChrysler.

Domestic manufacturers have to first engineer and build value into the products that they’re going to offer to the public. This basic rule is one which hasn’t been done well enough or often enough over the course of the last 3 decades or more by the Detroit 3. Even then it will be hard to get customers to return to their products.

“We build value when we talk to customers about what’s relevant to them,” is the next maxim that I work to impress upon sales staff as a trainer. And, the only way to find out what is relevant is to ask questions. The manufacturers are going to have to ask potential customers some questions about the products they want to own and drive and then work like hell to engineer it, make it and market it.

And finally (bear in mind that this is all in the 1st 10 or 15 minutes of the basic sales training class) as I trainer I cover the ways in which value is built with customers: “We build value when we talk to the customer in terms of what we do more of, better than and differently than anyone else when it comes to ourselves, our dealership and our product.”

Here’s my point. Most organizations don’t train their staff to approach sales in this way and yet it’s the optimal way to do it. Most organizations put the emphasis on sales at the end of the line—after the product is made and delivered to the retailer (remember that’s when the sale is counted by the manufacturer).

Chrysler and GM have an onerous task ahead when it comes to the financial and legal ramifications of their bankruptcy filings. But when all is said and done they are companies which design, build and market vehicles. Ultimately they have to do that and do it well.

What if the Detroit 3 reversed the process? Take a page out of Tom Peters. Put the focus on determining what is relevant to customers about the vehicles they wish to own and drive. Be “more, better and different” than any of the competing automakers when it comes to focusing on and responding to the needs and wants of consumers. And then deliver it to the dealer-body ready to be sold to the American consumer.

As these companies work to emerge from bankruptcy, they are going to have to do things to re-instill faith and confidence from the buying public. Maybe this is the way to go about doing it. And then maybe Lee Iacocca can get his car back.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Car Buying 101: What to do with a Trade-In

Note: See my post from April 20 "Is Now a Good Time to Buy a Car" for the 1st 2 Rules of car buying. Rule #1 Start your shopping at home and Rule #2 Shop for your money before you go to a dealership. This post starts with Rule #3.

In car sales, over 80% of transactions involve a trade. Chances are that you’re already driving a car when you want to buy a different one and you’re thinking of “trading it in”.

As a profitability and sales training consultant in the auto industry I have encountered various ways this is handled at hundreds of dealerships. And, in a lot of them it’s not handled very well. The vast majority of customers don’t know how to handle it either.

Rule Number 3: Be realistic about your trade
A few simple steps will help you as you’re getting ready to buy a new vehicle and trade your old vehicle.

Step 1— know the pay-off amount if you still owe a loan balance on your trade-in. This is easy to do either online or by phone. Most loans now have a website where you can access the pay-off amount. You can usually find it by looking at your loan documents. And most lenders have a phone number where you can find out the pay-off. It’s usually automated and all you typically need is either your loan number or your social security number or both.

Know the pay-off amount! It will be critical in finding out whether or not you owe more than the vehicle is worth. And the pay-off is NOT the same as the sum of the remaining payments.

Step 2—get an idea of how much your trade is worth. This is easy enough to do as well and you need to go back to Rule #3—be realistic about your trade. The simplest way is to go online to (that’s Kelly Blue Book). This site will open and 2 boxes will be on you screen, one for new cars and one for used cars. Click “go” in the used car box and it will walk you through the process. You’re going to ask for Trade value not for “sell it yourself” or “retail”.

You want to get an idea of what you might expect a dealer to offer you for the vehicle and this will get you reasonably close. If you look up “sell it yourself” or “retail” the difference between the results you get and what a dealer tells you will send you through the roof. Now, whatever the trade-value shows on, subtract about $1000 from that amount. This should get you reasonably close to what a dealer will offer you. Why the discrepancy? Here’s why:

“Trade-in Value is what consumers can expect to receive from a dealer for a trade-in vehicle assuming an accurate appraisal of condition. This value will likely be less than the Private Party Value because the reselling dealer incurs the cost of safety inspections, reconditioning and other costs of doing business.”

That’s right off the website. Look at the bold phrase. That’s why you will be offered less than what the KBB amount shows. I can’t think of anyone who has ever had their vehicle inspected and reconditioned prior to taking it to a dealer for trade-in. It’s things like 4 matching tires each with a minimum of 40% of their tread or 50% of brake pad remaining. That’s just for starters.

Yes, if the dealership keeps your trade and re-sells it at retail, they will be marking it up several thousand dollars. They may have to spend $1000 or so for it to be ready for retail. But that’s how dealerships make money.

Plus, the dealership has to pay for its facility, advertising, etc. This is part of being realistic about the value of your trade. If the number you come up with is unsatisfactory to you, be prepared to sell your vehicle on your own—and you can put however much or little money into reconditioning and merchandising it as you want. But if you do that, be patient and it’ll be up to you whether you want to wait to buy your new car until after you’ve sold your “trade” or not.

So, if you’re going to proceed with trying to trade your vehicle, have these 2 key pieces of information (pay-off and estimated value) with you. Hold these 2 cards close to your vest because they’ll come in handy later in the process.

We’ll jump ahead just a bit in the process here. Let’s assume that you’ve selected a vehicle to buy and that now you’re going to go inside the dealership with the sales person. You’ve established that you’re interested in trading.

Let me put it slightly differently. In sales training, I would suggest to sales staff that they introduce the “trade” with this “wordtrack”: “Sir/ma’am were you going to continue to drive your current vehicle or were you thinking of selling it to us?” Think about those words. When you’re trading a vehicle you ARE SELLING it to the dealer. They’re not “trading” with you; they’re buying it from you.

One of the things I have trained sales staff to do is to do a silent walkaround of your trade-in, with you present. It’s a technique to “de-value” your vehicle and to get you more realistic about its value. If you’ve done your homework (pay-off and estimated value) you’ll already be realistic. At that point they will need to see your vehicle registration which is also a good time for you to provide your insurance slip as well.

Step 3—Expect disclosure. Once you’re inside with the sales person, at some point he or she will take a bunch of papers to “the desk” or to the manager. Ideally the manager will get up and go outside and “put his hands on” the car, even drive it. Then he will come back in to do some “mumbo jumbo” which will yield a “trade value” or “allowance”. The “mumbo jumbo” involves going to or another source to “book” the vehicle. Sometimes if you’re trading another manufacturer’s car it will involve a phone call to a used vehicle manager at a dealership that sells that make to get a value.

Then the manager will come up with a “book” value from which he/she will subtract reconditioning and other costs which should then yield what is known as ACV or “actual cash value”. Quite frankly, this is the true trade value of your vehicle. A scrupulous dealer will show you how they arrived at that figure.

What the dealer of course wants to do is to provide you with one figure (usually a monthly payment amount) for a proposal to buy the car. Often they will also include the “trade allowance”. If that isn’t provided, send the sales person back to the “desk” to get it. If it’s at great variance with what you came up with, ask for the “form” or documentation on HOW they arrived at that figure. You can also request an MMR or Manheim Market Report.

This is a document available to subscribing dealers which shows how much automobile wholesalers have recently actually paid for vehicles similar to yours in your market area. It is arguably the most accurate source for the value of a trade in vehicle because it shows the “real” money that wholesale buyers have paid for vehicles that they intend to recondition and retail.

Quite frankly, if a dealership is unwilling to share with you HOW they arrived at the ACV/trade valuation or to provide an MMR what you might wish to do is leave. There are hundreds of dealerships out there with thousands of vehicles for you to buy. Expect and require disclosure. And, odds are that the dealership will disclose the information once you are insistent that the whole “deal” depends on it.

This doesn’t happen very often anymore, but when the trade appraisal is provided to you, make sure that your keys are returned. Yeah, some dealers still play the game of “hi-jacking” your keys so just make sure that you get them back now. This will also send the message that you are still not committed to “buying and driving today” which is fine. If that question comes up, your answer is simple: “If I buy this car and trade you mine, you’ll get the keys. But let’s concentrate on this other stuff first.” And then just leave your keys sitting conspicuously on the table or desk top.

You want to be satisfied with your trade value, and you also want to be satisfied that if you owe more than what it’s worth that the difference will be accommodated in whatever final deal is negotiated. We’ll talk about that in a future post.

And lastly for today, a little information can be a dangerous thing. It’s as counterproductive for you to take this information to a dealership and act like a know-it-all butthead as it is for dealership personnel to act the part of fast talking, bsing, conniving jerks. However, one of my consistent messages to dealer sales personnel has always been that their success depends on the “Golden Rule”: “Them with the gold, make the rules.” The customer has the gold and dealership staff are trying to earn the privilege of getting you—the customer—to part with some of it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Excerpts from Cali Prop 8 Court Ruling (Strauss v Horton)

It’s interesting that there is so much flying around the media, online and in blogs about the just issued ruling on California Proposition 8 Case. The decision in Strauss v. Horton (the Prop 8 Case) was 136 pages long with 40 pages of concurring opinions and 1 dissenting opinion.

So what exactly did California’s Supreme Court say? As is so often the case, the actual opinion isn’t as horrific as those on either side of the issue might suspect. The Court was pretty narrow in its opinion.

According to the Court:
“the principal issue before us concerns the scope of the right of the people, under the provisions of the California Constitution, to change or alter the state Constitution itself through the initiative process so as to incorporate such a limitation as an explicit section of the state Constitution.”

The argument which was presented to the California Supreme Court was whether the issue in Proposition 8 (that a marriage as defined in California is between a man and a woman) was an amendment to the Constitution or a revision of the Constitution.

It was a narrow case as such cases by their nature tend to be. It was the best chance that the appellants believed they had to challenge the restrictions of the successful Prop. 8 election.

According to the Court’s decision:
“At the same time, as numerous decisions of this court have explained, although the initiative process may be used to propose and adopt amendments to the California Constitution, under its governing provisions that process may not be used to revise the state Constitution”

“Petitioners’ principal argument rests on the claim that Proposition 8 should be viewed as a constitutional revision rather than as a constitutional amendment, and that this change in the state Constitution therefore could not lawfully be adopted through the initiative process.”

“…in resolving the amendment/revision question, a court carefully must assess (1) the meaning and scope of the constitutional change at issue, and (2) the effect — both quantitative and qualitative — that the constitutional change will have on the basic governmental plan or framework embodied in the preexisting provisions of the California Constitution.”

“Proposition 8 does not entirely repeal or abrogate the aspect of a same-sex couple’s state constitutional right of privacy and due process that was analyzed in the majority opinion in the Marriage Cases — that is, the constitutional right of same-sex couples to “choose one’s life partner and enter with that person into a committed, officially recognized, and protected family relationship that enjoys all of the constitutionally based incidents of marriage”

“Nor does Proposition 8 fundamentally alter the meaning and substance of state constitutional equal protection principles as articulated in that opinion. Instead, the measure carves out a narrow and limited exception to these state constitutional rights, reserving the official designation of the term “marriage” for the union of opposite-sex couples as a matter of state constitutional law, but leaving undisturbed all of the other extremely significant substantive aspects of a same-sex couple’s state constitutional right to establish an officially recognized and protected family relationship and the guarantee of equal protection of the laws.”

Ultimately the Court has concluded the following:
“… we conclude Proposition 8 constitutes a constitutional amendment rather than a constitutional revision. As a quantitative matter, petitioners concede that Proposition 8 — which adds but a single, simple section to the Constitution — does not constitute a revision. As a qualitative matter, the act of limiting access to the designation of marriage to opposite-sex couples does not have a substantial or, indeed, even a minimal effect on the governmental plan or framework of California that existed prior to the amendment. Contrary to petitioners’ claim in this regard…”
“We agree with petitioners that the state constitutional right to equal protection of the laws unquestionably represents a long-standing and fundamental constitutional principle (a constitutional principle that, as we already have explained, has not generally been repealed or eliminated by Proposition 8)”.

OK, so now we have the benefit of the Court’s rationale on this issue. By ruling that Prop 8 was an amendment rather than a revision, there is almost no way the Court could have agreed with the appellant because that was the crux of the argument made against Prop 8 in the Court filing.

However, the rationale that the strictures of Prop 8 does not entirely repeal or abrogate a same-sex couple’s state constitutional right of privacy and due process strikes me as a stretch and potentially grounds for future appeal. In my limited knowledge, this strikes me as somewhat akin to “separate but equal” which Brown v Board of Education long ago found to be anything but equal.

For now, I would think that, based upon the wording of this ruling, advocates for benefits for same-sex couples can and should use it to make sure that all of the rights held by “married” couples are assured and guaranteed to same-sex couples. That seems to me to be a clearly worded element of this decision.

I haven't spent much time actually analyzing this ruling or doing a cross reference back to what the Court called the "Marriage Cases". It's also too bad that the media hasn't yet gone through the decision and reported on what indeed the Court said rather than just to say that Prop 8 was upheld. Maybe the media actually wanted all hell to break loose because it makes for better cable news and front page fodder than does a careful reporting of the actual decision.

Hopefully, we can use these actual words of California’s Supreme Court for more informed discussion and debate upon this important ruling and issue.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Memorial Day Meanderings

It’s the Saturday before Memorial Day and I’m kicking back, reading Jeff Shaara’s “Steel Wave”, his new novel about the Normandy Invasion and I’m also watching “Band of Brothers” on the History Channel (about the 4th or 5th time). And it gets me to thinking about Memorial Day.

My father spent 31 years in the military, first as a draftee in WWII--where he served on the ground in Europe from D-Day until after V-E Day—then, after a year or so hiatus back on the family farm, in the Air Force finally retiring as an E-8. After that he worked for the state of Florida until he passed away. He never spent a day fully “retired”.

He always described his military career as “being in the service”. That’s what he would tell people he would meet and how he would describe himself even at home. I’m sure that he would have described his 20 years as a food products inspector for the Florida Dept. of Agriculture as being in the service too.

Dad described himself as “poor white-trash from the hills of Kentucky”. He was a man who eventually earned a GED and, like so many of his generation, was articulate, knowledgeable and self-educated. This man with a GED trained people with MAs in science in how to do their jobs. Not bad for “poor white trash”. Except he overcame all that; worked hard and raised a family and ended up with a pretty good life.

When we take our 3 day weekend for Memorial Day we’re supposed to remember those who have served. Most of us don’t. We’re too busy grilling and sipping beer and watching sports on the tube. Relaxing with our paid days off.

And there’s that word again. Service. That always seemed to be important. To be OF service as well as IN the service. Not enough of us do that. And not enough of us appreciate it. And Dad did it back when the pay was far less compared to other occupations than what it is today (in other words when it really was a sacrifice to be a public servant).

Appreciate those who serve, no matter in what capacity. If you’re young and just starting out in your career, give serious consideration to being of service by engaging in an occupation where you actively serve others, the community and the nation. It’s one of the most noble callings on earth.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Obama vs Cheney--Back to Basics

Bear with me just a bit while I mentally journey all the way back to the mid-70s. Forget the wide bell-bottom jeans and fitted polyester double-knit shirts and harness boots.

I’m trying to recall lessons learned from lectures and readings—as well as all the introspection over the intervening years. But it starts here with Dr. Poochigian’s classes on political thought. With his emphasis on “linguistic analysis”. Yep, my Master’s degree is in Political Science emphasizing political philosophy and constitutional law. And, as I’ve maintained ever since, my MA in political philosophy and $2.50 will buy me a cup of coffee at any Denny’s. I used to be able to do that for half a buck but that’s the wages of inflation for you.

So, if you’re still reading, what I’m trying to do is to make some sense of the Cheney/Obama “debate” that is see-sawing back and forth in the media concerning Guantanamo Bay and “detainees”. The way I have typically done this in my life is to try to break things down to the most basic concept that I can.

Cheney has always bothered me and scared me. Because of that I have tried not to think too much about him. However, he seems to want to be the face and voice of conservatism within the Republican party during the Obama administration when Republicans are regathering themselves. Unfortunately, back in my own Republican days there seemed to be a strong “moderate branch” with which I identified which all but disappeared starting with the Gingrich years in the 90’s—which is when I abandoned the Republicans for good.

Cheney takes the classic approach that the ultimate aim of government is order—that everything flows from there. No rights can be assured; no benefits can accrue to the public until and unless order is assured. Rights are articulated and then whittled away all in the quest for maintaining order. This is the more cynical view of people as purely self-interested and ready and willing to resort to anarchy at any time.

Obama on the other hand believes in the aim of government as one which assumes the basic goodness and worthiness of people. This is the more optimistic view which passionately protects and expands upon the rights of individuals and works to assure the common good. More importantly, government protects the weakest of its citizens in order to assure protection for all of its citizens.

The Cheney view is one which could come up with a hollow rationale which claimed that because detainees were in Guantanamo Bay that they were outside the U.S. and consequently not subject to the protections of the Constitution. This was one of the flimsiest fabrications I’ve ever encountered. Everyone else at that installation is subject to the Constitution. The Cheney view justified torture of “detainees” because they weren’t really POWs, merely “enemy combatants”.

The Obama view is that the “Gitmo” environment, torture, etc. are just not right. If someone is in our custody, that person is the beneficiary of at least minimum assurances to treatment and due process. Now this sounds simplistic and it is. It’s either fundamentally right or it’s fundamentally wrong. Make that determination and go from there.

This is all such a hydra-headed monster that efforts to reduce it to what in elementary school arithmetic is known as the “least common denominator” is an essential exercise. It is this exercise that allows for issues to be exposed on a bare-bones level. It seeks the foundation of who we are and what we are.

Quite frankly the Cheney view is little different from a fascist view. It is a view that has justified totalitarianism in its various forms over the centuries. Obama’s view can be seen in a more egalitarian fashion—perhaps somewhat naïve. But give me naiveté anytime over the cynicism which led us through the debacle of the first 8 years of the 21st century and which Mr. Cheney would like to perpetuate.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Food for Thought -- The GFW Equation

In the early 80’s, I had a friend named Lew Giesking who was the City Engineer in the small city in northern Iowa where I was the Chamber of Commerce Executive. Lew and I worked closely on a number of projects in the community, from planning a new swimming pool to the extension of infrastructure to a new Industrial Park that the Economic Development Corporation I also headed had purchased on the edge of town.

Our oldest sons were the same age and played on the same Parks and Recreation Baseball team. Occasionally, we’d schedule a meeting and would get together at the baseball field where our boys were playing. We’d have plans and documents spread on the hood of one of our vehicles and would be discussing the project at the same time that we were hollering out encouragement to our kids.

One particular day, as we were talking, I asked him a question. “Lew, I notice that your van has GFW Construction painted on the side of it. Now your name is Giesking, so that’s the ‘G’, but what does the F and W mean? Are those your partners?”

“No,” he responded with a smile, “They’re not. What GFW stands for is my priorities in life, God, Family and Work, in that order.”

Over the years, I’ve remembered that short conversation many times. What a wonderful way to try to live your life. As I think about it, at the time we were engaged in the “FW” part of it. We’d slipped away from our respective offices and ventured into the hot, muggy Iowa summer sun to share something with someone in our family while at the same time get a little work done.

But more importantly, we all sometimes tend to get our priorities a little bit lopsided. Today’s world tries to put an inordinate demand on us for work. We forget about why we work and all too often let what we do become who we are.

We can’t all paint “GFW” on the side of our vehicles. Maybe we need to make up a bunch of those bracelets that were popular a while back that said “WWJD” or “LiveStrong” but this time in big letters have them say “GFW” as a constant reminder of what our true priorities ought to be.

Because, maybe—just maybe--if we honored God and Family more by remembering what our priorities should be, then the Work part would go a lot better too.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Obama Court Pick: "You Gotta Have Heart"

I must be dating myself badly because I have this image of the characters from the movie “Damn Yankees” going through my head—the locker room scene where the players are singing “You Gotta Have Heart” with that incredible high descant harmony.

The reason is that yesterday, an AP article stated that President Obama wants the successor to Supreme Court Justice Souter to be someone “who is not only schooled in the law, but passionate about how it affects people’s lives, a scholar willing to decide a case from the heart when the constitutional answer is elusive.”

Unfortunately there wasn’t a whole lot of depth to the article. (I wonder whether my paper did some pretty heavy editing). The only person quoted in the article was White House Press secretary Robert Gibbs. “You have a president who understands and has studied many of these issues—even taught them,” said Gibbs.

Now I don’t have much of a problem with these criteria. But I think that has a lot to do with how I perceive President Obama and his philosophical and constitutional orientation. If Obama’s predecessor had said the same thing in the context of his choice for a Supreme Court justice it would have scared the hell out of me.

So, unfortunately what it seems to come down to is our basic sense of agreement with the person who will be doing the nominating. A good justice is in the eye of the beholder. It just depends on which side of the teeter-totter you’re sitting.

Yeah, I think that Souter’s successor will likely be pretty liberal in his or her view of the U.S. Constitution. I also think that the successor will have some pretty well established credentials as a Constitutional scholar (especially knowing that Obama has those same credentials). As for someone who is passionate about how the law affects people’s lives—to me that’s a pre-requisite. The law and the constitution do affect people’s lives. Every day. In numerous ways.

And I guess I think that a liberal successor to David Souter (who was more “liberal” than Pres. Bush would have ever supposed) is just fine. There will be those who will revile that more liberal orientation. There will be those who are scathing over ever opinion. Personally I think they’re wrong.

Maybe it’s like my Dad always used to say (especially when I was just about to lose a teen-ager’s argument with him) “Opinions are like asses. Everybody has one.”

Supreme Court justices are kind of like the father of a teenager—when push comes to shove their opinion is going to be the one which counts. Hopefully when whoever is ultimately confirmed as the next justice decides from the heart it will be reasoned, tempered by knowledge and passion for the constitution and empathy for the people who will be affected. And, “You Gotta Have Heart” is a good way of putting it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

They Call Me "Mister Gravy"

I have this certain reputation in my extended family, and if I do say so it’s well deserved. I love to make gravy. Turkey gravy, beef gravy, sausage gravy, pork chop gravy, red-eye gravy, chicken-fried anything gravy. I love ‘em all.

I can take the drippings of just about anything, make a roux and create a creamy, tasty gravy just right for mashed potatoes or, even better, just plain old “gravy soppin’”. So, that’s why they call me Mr. Gravy. OK, actually I got that sobriquet by loudly proclaiming over and over “they call me Mr. Gravy” one Sunday afternoon and insisting that everyone call me that and it stuck.

I’ve made some memorable gravies in my day. My sausage gravy is so tasty that the South just oozes out of it. The difference of course is pan drippings. Restaurants just aren’t able to put the pan drippings with the bits of hard cooked sausage still in it in their gravy. But that’s the secret. You can’t just make a white sauce. It’s got to be pan drippings. And roux.

I’m just as well known for spectacular failures though. I’m thinking about Christmas a couple of years ago. My brother-in-law was doing a full dinner—turkey with all the fixings. When we got over to my mother-in-law’s house, Dan had every pot and pan dirty and lying out plus a turkey which had been in the oven for an hour and a half and it looked like it was poached.

I was desperately trying to keep my big mouth shut and my hands out of the kitchen in order to avoid my wife’s wrath for interfering. Dan finally asked us for a bit of help to finish getting things ready. Carolyn started to do some clean-up so we could work. The turkey was finally browning; potatoes coming to a boil. It’s time for Mr. Gravy to get started.

Lots of drippings. No space on the stove to start a roux. Damn. I’ll do it with a slurry. So I strained drippings into a pan and started it heating. I mixed a flour and water slurry, hoping that I could avoid lumps. The drippings were hot, the slurry went in. Instant lumps. So I grabbed a rubber spatula and started stirring. And stirring. And stirring.

The gravy was smoothing out but I kept getting white swirls in it. I kept stirring and then pulled the spatula out to take a sample taste. The spatula looked weird. It turns out that the white swirls in the gravy were from the spatula which was melting into the gravy. I grabbed a spoon and dipped some of the swirly stuff out and then did a taste test. By now Dan and Carolyn were laughing at Mr. Gravy. But what the hell. It looked good. It tasted good. Even though about an inch worth of spatula was now mixed into the gravy. So we used it anyway.

And I suppose that’s why when they call me Mr. Gravy it’s not with the awesome respect that my gravy making prowess should command but rather with just a note of familial derision. Until the next time they’re hungry for sausage gravy and biscuits that is.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Is California "Too Big to Fail"?

I think I’ve got it figured out finally. I’ve been worrying on the California special election like a hungry dog on a steak bone, just gnawing away looking for a solution.

You see, I just don’t like the 6 questions which are being put before the voters. It seems to me that the so-called “solution” is a cop-out by the Governor and Legislators who have now tossed it to the voters to validate. Unfortunately, if the voters validate the smoke and mirrors put forth by the 6 measures then the voters will take ownership of a pitiful excuse for solutions which will allow elected officials to wash their hands in the best Pontius Pilate fashion.

Of course, it’s California’s government by referred measure which has had more than a little to do with the budgetary debacle that the state is experiencing.

So, what to do about it? Well, the first thing is to do what I’ve been thinking about for several months. Defeat measures 1A through 1F. Just vote No! Turn down every one of them. Then, as the budget gets worse, as the economy of California tanks further, have Governor Schwarzenegger make a call to President Obama.

The Governor can tell the President that the world’s 5th largest economy is tanking. The state with almost 1/8th of the nation’s population is broke. He can then tell the President that, like AIG, California is “too big to fail”.

AIG got something like $85 billion and that’s a lot of money. According to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s budget, California only needs a little less than half that--$41 billion—a bargain. And for a whole state. If the Federal Government would just write California a check, from TARP funds or wherever, the state’s books would be balanced and we could maybe, just maybe, manage to make ends meet until we have to engage in a budget debacle again for next year when we might, or might not, be able to generate enough money. Oh, and by the way, no executives in California will be paid 7 or 8 figure bonuses. There are already enough 6 figure State employees and retirees as it is.

Let’s see, last week Pres. Obama suggested that we cut $17 billion from the Federal budget. He was criticized because that’s only about ½ of 1%. So $41 billion would be what—about 1 ¼%? That ain’t bad for the world’s 5th largest economy with 1/8th of the nation’s population. Of course, we won’t tell Pres. Obama that California’s budget is 37% in the red; that might tend to tick him off just a bit.

And who knows, maybe the President will put some things in motion to bail us out just like AIG or GM. Although he may say that, like GM, the first thing is that top management has to go and a re-structuring plan has to be presented within 6 weeks or California will have to go the route of Vallejo and declare bankruptcy.

That being the case, I was wondering who would come on board as new CEO/Governor. Robert Nardelli is going to be available in a couple of months when Fiat finishes its acquisition of Chrysler. Rob Blagojevich is looking for work, has run a large state and knows how to solicit funds. I don’t think either of those would do. How about Clint Eastwood? Also an actor, but he was mayor of Carmel. And he would call the situation what it is (to use the edited version)—a clusterflub.

Too big to fail? We’ve already failed. Can it be fixed? Not by continuing to put a bandaid on a hemorrhage. But nobody’s going to bail out California but Californians. Let’s start by putting the politicians on notice that we expect them to do it right—for a change.

Now, I’ve been trying to be sarcastic in an Art Buchwald kind of way (I knew I couldn’t get to Dave Barry). Governing California is like trying to herd cats. But we’ve done it to ourselves. So maybe sarcasm won’t work but it definitely helps to keep you sane

Friday, May 8, 2009

1000 Hours Labor Will Pay University of California Tuition

The San Diego Union Tribune reports today that the University of California Regents approved a 9.3% tuition increase for next Fall’s school year. That 9.3% represents a tuition bill of $8,720 for the year.

I wonder what that does to the dream of a college education for high school and community college students as well as their families throughout California? That’s an incredible amount of money.

Let’s put it into just a bit of context. At the California minimum wage of $8.00 per hour it will take 1087 hours to earn the money to pay for tuition. That’s working full time for 6 months, and it’s before taxes. Plus, that doesn’t even touch other education expenses like books or room and board.

How do kids do it? Loans? Work part-time and go to college part-time? Family help? Actually, it’s all of the above.

A little more context. I started college in fall 1969 at the University of North Dakota. Tuition for the year was right at $450. Working at $1.50 an hour (minimum wage was $1.30) I could earn my tuition working a total of 300 hours. That amounts to 7 ½ weeks full time. So I worked full time all summer (about 12 weeks), had a pretty enjoyable summer and managed to save about $600.

This is absolutely mind boggling to me. We are pricing college beyond the means of most families and most kids. And yet, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot that we can do about it. Especially now with the economy and budgets in the mess that they’re in.

California students get a huge break by going to community college first where tuition is set at $15 per credit. Two years in that system really lessens the burden. The basic math is $15 per credit at community college vs. $360 per credit for the same Freshman English or Algebra class in the University of California system. That math is pretty obvious.

We run the risk of pricing college degrees out of the range of many if not most of our young people. The current economic morass will just make it worse—fees continuing to escalate while income for many families declines.

My generation (baby boomers) were often the first generation of our family to enjoy the opportunity of pursuing a college education. The risk is that current and future generations may find that dream fading.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Methodist Church, Newsweek and Ban on Same Sex Marriage

I grew up a Methodist. From the time I was a kid at the Palma Ceia Methodist Church in Tampa to 1st Methodist in Grand Forks, North Dakota to Ocean Beach United Methodist in San Diego, I seem to default to that denomination. I was confirmed in the Methodist church. I was an acolyte as a kid. I’ve sung in several different Methodist choirs.

Over the years I spent some time in Presbyterian and Congregational churches (in fact I even chaired the Diaconate at one UCC church) but I guess I’ve always basically considered myself a Methodist. But I’m not so sure anymore. Unfortunately, the word hypocrisy is revolving through my head within the context of this Protestant denomination.

I just got this week’s copy of Newsweek in the mail. It has an ad on page 13 that features a simple photo of a footbridge crossing a small stream with copy reading “What if church could bring sides together?” followed by “Rethink Church at”. Then at the bottom it shows the logo of the Methodist church and the copy “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors. The people of the United Methodist Church”.

Pretty innocuous isn’t it. And it’s a good message. One that would normally make me somewhat proud and interested. But not when I consider the article that was in my newspaper’s weekly Faith and Religion section last Friday morning.

The article was from the Associated Press. The head read “Methodist top court affirms ban on clergy presiding at gay marriage, union ceremonies”. You can probably see where I’m heading with this now.

The article cites the Judicial Council of the church as deciding that “United Methodist clergy cannot perform same-sex marriages or gay civil unions, even if their regional church district supports the idea.” This California-Pacific Conference of the Methodist Church had recognized “the pastoral need and prophetic authority of our clergy and congregations to offer the ministry of marriage ceremonies for same-gender couples.” The Judicial Council’s decision negated that recognition.

In one sense, you have to go along with the main body of the denomination being able to exert its influence and power over the “conference”. The Judicial Council is the top body of this church. They ultimately run the show with the conferences being semi-autonomous.

So here’s where the hypocrisy comes in. How on God’s green earth can a church ask the rhetorical question “What if a church could bring sides together” while at the same time “pull sides apart”? There’s no two ways about it. This is a divisive issue. Same sex relationships have always been part of virtually every human culture and while not the “natural order of things” (if by that we mean the vast majority of relationships and the capacity of procreation) they exist.

But to my way of thinking, denying the blessing of a union between 2 people based on gender just isn’t right in today’s world. We were proud of the California-Pacific Conference’s position when I was a member of the Ocean Beach Methodist Church because that was reflective of a significant number of people in our community. If only the Judicial Council had left it to the conferences to decide.

Is the couple going to love one another to the exclusion of all others? Are they going to love honor and cherish, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health? If so, then what’s the problem?

The bottom line here is that the Methodist church is free to make whatever decision it believes that it must. But, to advertise in a national magazine “What if church could bring sides together” is hypocritical. And, I’m sorry to say that I can no longer consider myself a Methodist.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

California Special Election & Budget--Shut it Down!

My first “real” job was with the State of North Dakota as a community development specialist. One of the things I loved about it was how intimate the government was.

The state had a “bi-ennial” budget and the legislature met for 100 days every 2 years. True citizen law-makers. The standing joke in government circles was that the state constitutional provision calling for a 100 day session every 2 years was really a misprint. The punchline was it was supposed to read a 2 day session every 100 years.

But, there was a true emphasis on governance. Not government. We had one of those. The issue is how government will govern—governance. As a state employee (and I had more than a little to do with putting together my department’s budget) we were engrained with a keen awareness that we were spending “the people’s money” and there was an expectation that we would spend it as frugally and efficiently as possible on behalf of the taxpayer.

Anyway I have lived in California for the last 11 years. In that time I have witnessed one budget debacle after another crowned by the recall of a sitting governor because of his inability to achieve a consensus to resolve budget conflict.

It’s May, 2009. The state’s economy and budget are both in tatters. The current state budget was “balanced” (as is required by the state’s constitution) using smoke and mirrors. Now we are coming up on a special election later this month to make it official and to extend some of the “band-aid” fixes so that the precarious house of cards might be able to teeter like the world’s biggest game of Jenga for a little longer.

But like all games of Jenga, the pieces will eventually tumble to a pile. That’s guaranteed. That’s how the winner is determined in Jenga. But for the people of the State of California, that will be the symbol that we’ve all just lost.

I have tried to make sense of the 6 proposed measures on which we are being asked to vote May 19. Basically, the way I read them is that they are gobbledegook, smoke and mirrors and short term solutions with long-term financial repercussions. About the closest I can come to an analogy is that they’re like trading off a car on which thousands are still owed and taking a loan for a new car where you are paying off both the new car and the old car you just got rid of. A lot of people have done that and have found out that they just dug themselves a big hole.

Public radio had a story yesterday that suggested that the reason many voters are undecided are that many people are waiting for their favorite organization to come out with a position, or that they’re waiting for their least favorite organization to come out with a position and will vote the opposite way. Why is it that it seems as though the “organizations” who make endorsement tend to be organizations who have the most to gain or lose financially (i.e. public employee unions)?

All this is being done to balance a budget. Little or no thought has been given to governance. There is an increasing call for a constitutional convention to address some of these issues. Some are saying solve this current crisis and then address some of the issues via a “con-con”. Nope.

Let’s do this. Defeat all the measures on the ballot. Shut down everything but essential services (and don’t let unions try to define what is essential and what isn’t). Turn them down and then shut it down. Shut it down until the politicians come up with a solution which isn’t couched in platitudes, legerdemain and electoral blackmail.

Shut it down. Look at the governance of the State of California from top to bottom and come up with some solutions. There have to be some people of good intentions out there, people who have no axes to grind, who can and will look into how we presently govern and how we ought to govern.

It couldn’t hurt. Not any worse than it already does.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Al Lindner as Curly

“One thing,” Curly (Jack Palance) rasped out to Mitch holding up his index finger. “That’s the secret of life.”
And, of course Mitch (Billy Crystal), like the clueless “city slicker” that he was asked, “What’s the one thing?”
“You’ll know,” was Curly’s reply.

I’ve always liked that piece of dialogue in “City Slickers”. Because, no matter how trite it may have actually been, it’s pretty much true. It doesn’t take someone else to tell us what the “one thing” is but it may take a while to reveal itself to us. Especially when we finally figure out that it’s not money or property or anything else that fits the category of “stuff”. It’s usually our family or just a sense of inner peace and contentment which can come from any number of sources—but pretty much never from stuff.

While I’m at it, maybe I should remind you of another pretty good line from another not really good movie. This one’s from 1977 in “Oh God”. During the trial to “prove” whether or not George Burns was God, he was asked by the smarmy evangelist, “Does God answer all prayers?” To which George Burns/God responded, “Yes, but sometimes the answer is No.” And that’s pretty much true too, isn’t it? Too many of us ask God for stuff. You ask Santa Claus for stuff, not God.

So, that brings me to Al Lindner. For the uninitiated, Al’s a fishing guy. He started out in the 70’s in Brainerd, Minnesota with In-Fisherman. He brought science and technique to fishing magazines and television (as opposed to the old “whooooooo boy, lookit that hog bass” type of fishing show). And, he also managed to bring a lot greater entertainment factor to fishing because of it. His first passion was walleye but over the years that passion has expanded to a number of other fresh-water species.

His new venture is called “Angling Edge” and it’s a TV fishing show on Versus (what used to be Outdoor Life Network). Al has always been a bearded, straight forward kind of guy who still carries an accent from his earlier years in northern Wisconsin—although the “dis” and “dat” and “dese” and “dose” in his speech aren’t as noticeable anymore.

Bear with me folks; I’m getting to my point here.

Al Lindner is an unabashed Christian. Evangelical even. But he doesn’t beat you up about it—never has. One of things I really like about watching his new show though is the last few minutes of each episode. These 2 or 3 minutes feature Al talking just a bit about his faith in an unassuming, sharing kind of way—just the right tone, quite frankly, to get me to listen to his brief message.

So the connection to Curly and Mitch and the “one thing” is this: Today Al said that each night when he goes to bed he spends a few minutes thanking God for “just one thing”. Just one good thing from today. Some days, he said, it’s hard to identify that one thing and other days it’s hard to narrow it down to one. But he always manages to do it.

And you know, I liked that. I think I’m going to try to start doing that each night when I crawl into bed next to my wife. Give thanks for just one thing each and every day.

Long ago, I started, and try to make a habit, of each and every morning before I get up of offering a short prayer for “just one thing”—although it’s always the same thing—and that’s help and guidance to get through today. That’s it. Just one thing.

But, maybe giving thanks each night for “just one thing” is one of the best things we can do too.